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Wheatley, Phyllis) Thatcher, B.B.

Memoir of Phillis Wheatley, Anative African and a Slave.

Book

Rare First Edition
Biography of Phillis Wheatley
[Wheatley, Phillis]. Memoir of Phillis Wheatley. A Native African and a Slave. By B.B. Thatcher. Boston: Published by Geo. W. Light, 1834.
12mo.; foxed; green cloth, printed label on upper panel; lightly rubbed. In a specially made quarter-morocco slipcase.
First American edition of this ground-breaking volume first published in England-in two editions-in 1773. When the American edition came out, Wheatley became the first African American to publish a book of any nature. With a tipped-in frontispiece portrait of Wheatley, based on the original by Scipio Moorhead for the first edition of her Poems on Various Subjects, 1773. This copy is docketed on the front pastedown, in ink: "Congregational Library No. 243."
Wheatley holds the double distinction of being the first African American to publish a book in America and the first female African American poet. The publication of Poems on Various Subjects was historic - and libelous - enough to require an appended affidavit signed by 18 prominent Bostonian gentlemen, which appears in some volumes as a certificate of authenticity of Wheatley's book. The royal governor and future state governor of Massachusetts, as well as John Hancock and Phillis's master John Wheatley "assure[d] the World, that the…young Negro Girl, who was but a few years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa…has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them."
Wheatley was kidnapped from Senegal, West Africa, and sold to the Boston merchant John Wheatley in 1761, who intended her to be his wife's personal servant. Her innate charm and intelligence proved to be valuable to her; she was educated by the members of her master's family. She mastered English, and had some knowledge of Greek and Latin as well. While treated kindly by the Wheatley family, she - and her literary gifts - were still "displayed" as though she were a curiosity, thus putting her in a position of not being totally accepted by whites and, at the same time, discouraged from associating with other slaves. She began to write poetry at around the age of thirteen, dedicating her work to famous contemporaries, many of whom she met in her travels through the most liberal social circles in Boston and London. She was heavily influenced by the pervasive atmosphere of New England Puritanism, and, because of this, was devoutly religious.
Four books of Wheatley's were published during her life: An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield (1771); Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. By Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston (1773); An Elegy, Sacred to the Memory of that Great Divine, The Reverend and Learned Dr. Samuel Cooper (1784); Liberty and Peace, A Poem (1784). A 300-page volume of collected poems was planned, but due to the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, little time or money was available in Boston to see this work to publication.
While scholars are not sure of the exact date of her liberation, Wheatley was definitely free by 1778, around the time of the death of her mistress, Susanna Wheatley. She married John Peters, a free black in Boston, with whom she had three children; two of whom died in infancy; the third died only a few hours after Wheatley did, in 1784. Not much is known about Peters, but it is widely believed that he did not hold a regular job and was not attentive to his wife's poor health. The last years of her life were spent in loneliness and poverty - most of the Wheatley family, who had been her greatest supporters, had died by this time - and at the time of her death, Wheatley worked as a scullery maid. Her achievement, however, as the first published African American women poet, will not be forgotten.
(Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: Colonization to the American Renaissance, 1640-1865. Gale Research, 1988. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2006. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC; Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2006. http://galennet. galegroup.com/ servlet/BioRC)
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