Biography of Phillis Wheatley

Born around 1753 in West Africa, the young girl who would later be named Phillis Wheatley was seized from her home in West Africa on July 11, 1761. Forced to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in a slave ship named the Phillis, she was bought by John Wheatley, a wealthy Boston merchant, for his wife, Susanna. Named after her owners and the ship which brought her to Boston, Phillis Wheatley was taken to the Wheatley home.

Through the tutelage of Mary Wheatley, Phillis gained an extraordinary grasp of English language, and within sixteen months she was able to read even "the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings" according to John Wheatley. Phillis began composing poetry as early as 1765, and gained international recognition for her funeral elegy for George Whitefield, the chaplain of Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, in 1770. Phillis Wheatley's elegy was published in London and Boston in 1771, and her poem "Recollection" was initially published in 1772.

That same year, Susanna Wheatley began to solicit subscriptions for a book of Phillis's verse, but failed to gain sufficient support for the project in Boston. Despite this lack of support in Boston, Susanna was able to secure a publisher in London—a relatively small publishing house run by Archibald Bell. Bell agreed to publish Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, and the volume received a forward signed by John Hancock and included a portrait of Phillis to prove the poems were written by a black woman.

Subsequently, Phillis Wheatley moved to London and became perhaps the first American creative artist whose route to recognition was dependent upon first becoming the toast of England. Wheatley was freed shortly thereafter and became a literary sensation, mingling with members of Parliament and establishing a friendship with another American then calling London home: Benjamin Franklin.

While roughly a third of her published poems are elegies to famous figures, her poetry also covers themes related to the slave experience, spirituality and religion, ancient myth and the celebration of America. Notably absent from her subjects are the lives of other individual slaves with whom she came in contact, and a seeming indifference toward her African heritage.

Phillis returned to America and was manumitted on March 3, 1774. She continued to live with the Wheatleys until the deaths of John, Susanna and their daughter Mary. In the coming years, Phillis continued to submit proposals to have a second volume of poetry and letters published, but could not gain sufficient support. Phillis later married John Peters, a freed black man, on April 1, 1778. Phillis and John had three children, all of whom died very young, and Wheatley was buried with her youngest daughter on December 5, 1784. After her death, John sold his wife's writings to cover his debts, and the American edition of her Poems would not be published until 1786.

Study Guides on Works by Phillis Wheatley