Phillis Wheatley
Biography of a Genius in Bondage

Vincent Carretta

Revealing a founding figure of American and African American literature


“This is a satisfying study of the ‘elusive’ Wheatley, fleshed out with succinct, discerning readings of the body of her work. . . . Especially noteworthy is the book’s attentiveness to Wheatley’s involvement in the production and promotion of her book, the contemporary responses to her work, and an unprecedented account of her marriage to the debt-ridden John Peters, whose death forced her into domestic service.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Surprisingly the first full biography . . . Carretta presents his significant research in this comprehensive study of Wheatley. He uncovered her previously unknown earliest writings in the personal papers of a contemporary. Using court documents about her husband, John Peters, Carretta found new information about Wheatley’s postemancipation life in Boston and London, years about which scholars still know very little. He also provides fresh analysis of Wheatley’s poetry and gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of both free and enslaved blacks in Colonial New England.”
Library Journal

"[Carretta's] well-researched narrative succeeds in bringing the 'genius in bondage' out of history's shadows. . . . Wheatley emerges from the pages of Carretta's biography as a resourceful poet who played an active role in the production and distribution of her own writing on both sides of the Atlantic."
Douglas Field, Times Literary Supplement

"Phillis Wheatley is one of the very few women writers to have invented a literary tradition. Lavishly praised and viciously maligned, the enormity of Wheatley's artistic achievements has long been obscured by the political uses to which she and her poetry have been put. Even more obscured have been the details of Wheatley's life. At last, Vincent Carretta has written a biography of this great writer as complex and as nuanced as Wheatley and her work themselves. This book resurrects the 'mother' of the African American literary tradition, vividly, scrupulously, and without sentimentality, as no other biography of her has done."
—Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University, and author of The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers

"An extraordinary achievement. Carretta's ground-breaking research and sensitive readings greatly enrich our understanding of Wheatley's life and work."
—John Wood Sweet, author of Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830

"Phillis Wheatley for a generation has been a vehicle for ideological warfare. Was this first internationally recognized African-American poet a race traitor or the spiritual foremother of anti-materialism, post-racial amity, and gracious community? In the heat of the argument Phillis Wheatley herself melted into near insignificance. Vincent Carretta’s biography brings the person—her life—career—literary context—marriage—illness—religious life—death—back into startling view. With his characteristic depth of new research and scrupulously even-handed assessment of evidence, Carretta makes us understand the milestones of her transit from slavery to freedom, from a local curiosity to an international celebrity. We see for the first time her earliest attempts at verse. We finally grasp the drama and negotiation surrounding her return to America from the virtual freedom of post-Mansfield decision England. We understand the dynamics of the transatlantic abolition movement and its support of her efforts. We encounter her husband John Peters as a complex entrepreneurial man, not a one-dimensional exploiter and cad. We grasp why the advertised second volume of poems—one of the great lost books of American literature—never came to press. In short, we come to know Phillis and her world in a way we were never able to before."
—David S. Shields, McClintock Professor, University of South Carolina

"Such scholars as Vincent Carretta, in Phillis Wheatley, find her poetry more nuanced than her modern black critics have allowed. . . . Phillis Wheatley is a reminder that African-American literature began not as autobiography or protest but religious poetry, the literature of yearning. Phillis Wheatley was special, but her poetry was not. It earned her a place among the white contregants of her church precisely because it behaved, conformed. There is a speed and rhythm in her letters that is personal, whereas a poem by her can sound like the eighteenth-century poem next to it by someone else. We leave her, thirsting for the upper courts of the Lord."
—Darryl Pinckney, Harper's Magazine

"In all, this is a graceful story about a talented woman whose poetry and prose have, for the most part, survived for over 200 years. Mr. Carretta certainly does justice to Phillis Wheatley's story."
—Judith Reveal, New York Journal of Books

“Phillis Wheatley is a much too little-known figure, but at last she has found the right biographer. Those who have admired the clear, informed and judicious light that Vincent Carretta has already shed on the life and work of Olaudah Equiano will find the same qualities in this book. His deep knowledge of both shores of the eighteenth-century Atlantic make him the perfect person to bring alive this remarkable woman and the world of bondage and wary freedom in which she lived.”
—Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves

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With Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), Phillis Wheatley (1753?–1784) became the first English-speaking person of African descent to publish a book and only the second woman—of any race or background— to do so in America. Written in Boston while she was just a teenager, and when she was still a slave, Wheatley’s work was an international sensation. In Phillis Wheatley, Vincent Carretta offers the first full-length biography of a figure whose origins and later life have remained shadowy despite her iconic status.

A scholar with extensive knowledge of transatlantic literature and history, Carretta uncovers new details about Wheatley’s origins, her upbringing, and how she gained freedom. Carretta solves the mystery of John Peters, correcting the record of when he and Wheatley married and revealing what became of him after her death. Assessing Wheatley’s entire body of work, Carretta discusses the likely role she played in the production, market­ing, and distribution of her writing. Wheatley developed a remarkable transatlantic network that transcended racial, class, political, religious, and geographical boundaries. Carretta reconstructs that network and sheds new light on her religious and political identities. In the course of his research he discovered the earliest poem attributable to Wheatley and has included it and other unpublished poems in the biography.

Carretta relocates Wheatley from the margins to the center of her eighteenth-century transatlantic world, revealing the fascinating life of a woman who rose from the indignity of enslavement to earn wide recognition, only to die in obscurity a few years later.

A Sarah Mills Hodge Fund Publication

Page count: 312 pp.
34 b&w photos, 1 map
Trim size: 6 x 9


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Vincent Carretta is a professor of English at the University of Maryland. He is the author or editor of more than ten books, including scholarly editions of the writings of Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, Ignatius Sancho, and Ottobah Cugoano. His most recent books are Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man, winner of the Annibel Jenkins Prize, and The Life and Letters of Philip Quaque, the First African Anglican Missionary, coedited with Ty M. Reese (both Georgia).