Online: Object of the Month
Phillis Wheatley's Earliest Poem
Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.
In Vincent Carretta’s recently-published Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, he argues that a strong candidate for Wheatley’s earliest surviving poetry is a verse that he discovered while doing research at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The Rev. Jeremy Belknap copied “Phillis Wheatley’s first Effort—AD 1765. AE 11 [Age 11]” onto the final page of his 1773 diary. Belknap transcribed the lines twice:
“Mrs Thacher’s Son is gone Unto Salvation her Daughter too
so I conclude
They are both gone to be renewed”
And then corrected his transcription and re-wrote it as a four-line stanza:
“Mr[s] Thacher’s Son is gone
Her daughter too, so I conclude
They are both gone to be renewed”
This brief verse would be completely unremarkable if it had not been written by a slave child who had arrived in Boston from Africa only four years before, in 1761. Phillis Wheatley (her name is taken from the slave ship, the Phillis, and “Wheatley,” the name of the family who purchased her), was only about seven years old when she was sold in Boston; in four years she not only learned to speak, read, and write in English, but to write poetry. By the time that Jeremy Belknap recorded this scrap of her earliest surviving verse, Wheatley, although still a teenager, was a celebrated poet who had traveled to London where her collected verse, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773.
The “Mrs. Thacher” of Phillis Wheatley’s verse was Bathsheba Doggett Kent Thacher (d. 1776), a widow who was the second wife of Oxenbridge Thacher (1681-1772). Mrs. Thacher’s daughter from her first marriage, Sarah, married her stepbrother, Oxenbridge Thacher, Jr., in 1741, making him the elder Mrs. Thacher’s son-in-law as well as her stepson. Sarah died of smallpox in 1764; her husband of the effects of inoculation against the disease—and heartbreak—the following year. Oxenbridge Thacher, Jr., a Boston attorney who was the mentor for a generation of young Boston lawyers including John Adams and Josiah Quincy, Jr., was a rising star in the patriot movement whose early death cut him off from the events leading up to the American Revolution.
Phillis Wheatley (1753?-1784), a pioneer of American and African American literature, was recognized as a prodigy when she was still an enslaved child and she became a celebrated author as a teenager. Her upbringing in the fashionable Boston home of John and Susanna Wheatley and her relationship to them was unusual. As Vincent Carretta notes, she appears to have been treated more like a member of the family than a servant, let alone a slave, and after the death of Susanna Wheatley in 1774, she wrote: “I was a poor little outcast & a stranger when she took me in: not only into her house but I presently became a sharer in her most tender affections.” Nevertheless, it was only at the instigation of abolitionist friends that Phillis Wheatley made in England that John and Susanna Wheatley’s son Nathaniel emancipated Phillis upon her return to Boston in 1773.
The Rev. Jeremy Belknap, who transcribed Phillis Wheatley’s “first Effort” in his diary, was born in Boston in 1744, and educated at Harvard College. In 1765 when Belknap reported the Phillis Wheatley verse had been written, he was a young school teacher in New Hampshire, undecided upon a permanent career. In 1773, when he copied the verse onto the last page of his journal, he had been the minister of the Congregational Church in Dover, New Hampshire, since 1767. During nineteen years of service in Dover he also found time to write a three-volume History of New Hampshire. In 1787, Belknap returned to Boston to take the pulpit of the Church in Long Lane (later the Federal Street Church), where he ministered until his death in 1798.
While Belknap was an energetic antiquarian researcher and the principal founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society (see the September 2011 Object of the Month for Belknap’s description of the purpose of the Historical Society), he had many varied interests including biography, literature, and music. He also compiled information on the history of slavery in Massachusetts, published as Queries Respecting the Introduction, Progress and Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts by the Historical Society in 1795.
A New Biography of Phillis Wheatley
The story of Phillis Wheatley’s extraordinary life has been captured in a new biography by Vincent Carretta. Dr. Carretta, a professor of English at the University of Maryland, is the author of anthologies, biographies, and scholarly editions of the writings of other eighteenth-century black authors of the English-speaking world, including Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, and Philip Quaque. The publication of Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage by the University of Georgia Press coincides with the 250th anniversary of her arrival as a slave in America. Professor Carretta conducted research for his new biography as a 2009 NEH fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Also available at the Massachusetts Historical Society website
Images and transcriptions of thirteen manuscript letters by and about Phillis Wheatley, and nine published and manuscript copies of her poems are available under “Phillis Wheatley” at the Historical Society’s “African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts” website.
More biographical information and sources for further reading about Phillis Wheatley are listed in the September 2001 Object of the Month.
An image and description of a writing desk where, by family tradition, Phillis Wheatley wrote her poems was the MHS April 2005 Object of the Month.
Carretta, Vincent. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2011.
Wheatley, Phillis. Complete Writings. Edited by Vincent Carretta. New York: Penguin, 2001.
Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: Archibald Bell, 1773.