By Tracy Potter
With his latest book, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011), Vincent Carretta, a 2008-2009 MHS-NEH long-term research fellow and professor at the University of Maryland, provides the first full-length biography of the elusive African American poet Phillis Wheatley. Besides her own literary work, Wheatley left behind very little evidence about her life. Rising to the challenge, Carretta scoured archives around the world and examined Wheatley’s entire body of work, allowing him to delve deeper into Wheatley’s world than any previous biographer.
Brought by a slave ship, Phillis Wheatley arrived in Boston in 1761. John Wheatley, a successful merchant tailor, purchased Phillis to be a personal servant. Soon the family found themselves forming an unconventional relationship with Phillis treating her more as a daughter than as a slave. Phillis excelled at writing and began composing poetry at an early age. Understanding Phillis’ talent, the Wheatley’s found a publisher in England to publish a volume of Phillis’ poems. In 1773 Phillis followed her work to England and was welcomed and praised for her talent by the British. Upon her return to Boston in 1774, the Wheatley’s freed Phillis. By 1778, Phillis’ writing of poetry slowed down to a trickle and she married John Peters, a man that would fall in and out of her life until her death in 1784.
Carretta’s critically acclaimed Phillis Wheatley presents fresh theories about the life of the poet including how Phillis arrived in America, her earliest written poem, her involvement in her rise as a literary star, and her large network of friends both in America and England. Carretta also reveals new findings on Wheatley and her husband John Peters including details of their married life, Peters’s personal character, and his life after Wheatley’s death in 1784. These new findings introduce provocative ideas regarding Wheatley and her family that will likely spark debate among historians for years to come.
As part of the MHS Author Talk Lecture Series, Vincent Carretta returned to the MHS in early November to celebrate the release of his book Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. During the lecture, Carretta spoke about researching his book, several of his discoveries, and answered questions regarding Wheatley and his research. To view a video of the event click here.
If you would like to view Wheatley manuscripts owned by the MHS, visit our Phillis Wheatley page, which is part of our larger African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts web presentation. If you would like to read more about Vincent Carretta’s Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, check out Publisher’s Weekly star review here.