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PHILLIS WHEATLEY

Poet (1753-1784)

Phillis Wheatley was one of the most well known poets in America during her day.  Wheatley was born on the western coast of Africa and kidnapped from the Senegal-Gambia region when she was about seven years old.  Not being of suitable age to be sold as a slave in the West Indies or the southern colonies, she was transported to Boston, where she was purchased in 1761, by John Wheatley, a prominent tailor, as an attendant to his wife.  Phillis learned English quickly and was taught to read and write, and within sixteen months of her arrival in America she was reading passages from the Bible, Greek and Latin classics, astronomy, geography, history and British literature.  Phillis published her first poem in Newport, Rhode Island, "Mercury" on December 21, 1767.  Unable to get her poems published in Boston, Phillis and the Wheatleys turned to London for a publisher, with the result that in 1773 thirty-nine of Phillis' poems were published as Poems on Various Subjects, religious and moral.  This collection of which a first edition is shown is Phillis Wheatley's only book and the first volume of poetry to be published by an Afro-American.  The poems reflect the religious and classical background of her New England education.  Over one-third consists of elegies, the remainder being on religious, classical and abstract themes.

Revised: July 18, 2013.