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Phillis Wheatley, 1753-1784 and Margaretta Matilda Odell
Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave. Dedicated to the Friends of the Africans
Boston: Published by Geo. W. Light, 1834.

Summary

Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784) was the first African American poet to write for a transatlantic audience, and her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) served as a sparkplug for debates about race. Thomas Jefferson and other detractors labeled her poetry imitative and derivative, while abolitionists cited her work as proof that African Americans were human beings capable of imaginative and creative thought.

Margaretta Matilda Odell's 1834 Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley provides the only substantive early documentation of Wheatley's life; even modern biographers rely almost entirely on Odell's work. Odell was born in 1810, but little else is known about her life. Odell notes in the Memoir only that she "is a collateral descendant of Mrs. Wheatley, and has been familiar with the name and fame of Phillis from her childhood" (p. 29). Most scholars assume that Odell herself is a great-grandniece of John and Susanna Wheatley, the Boston slaveholders who purchased Phillis Wheatley.

Odell's Memoir had gone through three editions by 1838. In addition to Odell's biography and Wheatley's poetry (for a summary of Wheatley's poetry, click here), the 1838 third edition also includes Poems by a Slave, by George Moses Horton (1798?-ca. 1880). By combining the work of Wheatley and Horton, Odell brings together two of the three African American authors who published literature while still enslaved (Jupiter Hammon [1711-1806] is the third) and implicitly highlights the shared circumstances of Horton and Wheatley as important influences on the content and style of their poetry.

In her biography, Odell emphasizes that Wheatley endured the grueling Middle Passage, arriving in Boston on July 11, 1761 aboard the Phillis (from which Wheatley derives her first name), a slaver recently returned from gathering slaves in Senegal, Sierra Leone, and the Isles de Los. Citing Wheatley's inability to remember her country of origin, Odell speculates that the horrors of that voyage obliterated her "recollection of earlier and happier days" (p. 11). Modern scholars such as John C. Shields see traces of Fulani facial features in Wheatley's portrait and conjecture that she was a native Wolof speaker from the Senegambian coast (Shields p. 1251).

Though no one knows how old Wheatley was when she arrived in Massachusetts Bay, Odell writes that she was presumed to be "seven years old, at this time, from the circumstance of shedding her front teeth" (p. 10). But even at this early age, suggests Odell, Wheatley demonstrates an active intelligence. Before Susanna Wheatley's daughter teaches her to read, Phillis Wheatley attempts to write, frequently imitating "letters upon the wall with a piece of chalk or charcoal" (p. 10). Susanna requires no manual labor from the young girl and offers her other privileges in addition to her education. On one occasion, Susanna sends a chaise to save her the trouble of walking home and chastises the slave who fetches her for having "the impudence to sit upon the same seat with my Phillis!" (p. 13). Odell, herself a distant relative of Susanna Wheatley, takes care to emphasize that Phillis is always treated more like a daughter than a slave, although she admits that she can find no record of "any formal manumission" (p. 12).

Odell writes that Susanna Wheatley buys "the poor naked child" in lieu of "several robust, healthy females" because of her "humble and modest demeanor," an attribute for which Phillis is praised all her life (p. 9). When she first attains some notoriety, the celebrities of Boston society invite her to dinner parties, but Wheatley refuses to sit with her white hosts, instead "requesting that a side-table might be laid for her" where she could dine "modestly apart from the rest of the company" (p. 12). For Odell, Wheatley's behavior is not a reaction to racism and segregation but a conscious decision to follow the mandate that Christ delivers in Luke 14:10: "When thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee" (pp. 12-13). Odell praises Wheatley's familiarity with the Bible throughout and notes that she was received as a member of Joseph Sewall's Old South Church in 1770 at age sixteen.

In 1773, after falling ill, Phillis Wheatley travels to England for her health. While there, she publishes her Poems but never attempts to escape and even forgoes an audience with King George III in order to return to Boston to comfort the dying Susanna Wheatley. When the rest of the Wheatley family dies shortly thereafter, Phillis Wheatley lives off the proceeds from her poetry until marrying John Peters, an African American grocer with aspirations of practicing law. Odell vilifies Peters for his vanity and blames him for Wheatley's death. Apparently Peters "was too much of a gentleman" even to chop the wood that would have kept Wheatley and her children from freezing in winter, and Odell is glad that Wheatley never assumes his last name (p. 23).

Peters buries Wheatley without informing her friends, and no one knows where she is laid to rest. The fact that any unmarked eighteenth-century grave might contain Wheatley's remains supports Odell's insistence that her readers view Wheatley as a representative of all African American slaves—and not just an exceptional individual. Odell suggests that Wheatley is more than "a solitary instance of African genius" and that others slaves of her intelligence and talent could have published similar poetry if only they had fallen into more "generous and affectionate hands" and avoided the "privations and exertions of common servitude" (p. 25). For Odell, Phillis Wheatley's life deserves to be celebrated because it represents the lost potential of the millions who never enjoyed her opportunity. She presents Wheatley as "an encouragement and a gratification to those gifted spirits, unto whom the lines have fallen in the shade-places of life, but who aspire to pitch their tent in the sunshine" (p. 6).

Boston lawyer B. B. Thatcher (1809-1840) published his own Memoir of Phyllis Wheatley in 1834, just months after Odell's biography left the presses, but Thatcher's work relies wholly on Odell's account and plagiarizes from it consistently.

Works Consulted: Bennett, Paula, "Phillis Wheatley's Vocation and the Paradox of the 'Afric Muse,'" PMLA 133.1 (1998): 64-76; Gates, Henry Louis Jr., The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003; O'Neale, Sondra, "A Slave's Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley's Use of Biblical Myth and Symbol," Early American Literature, 21.2 (1986): 144-65; Shields, John C., "Wheatley, Phillis (Peters)," Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Darlene Clark Hine, Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1993; United States Census Office, Population Schedules of the Eighth Census of the United States, Washington: National Archives, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, 196-, Series M653, Roll 511, p. 207;

Zachary Hutchins

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