Vincent Carretta

Phillis Wheatley

Biography of a Genius in Bondage

University of Georgia Press 2011

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Few people can claim to have created a literary genre… Phillis Wheatley did. By the time she was twenty, her name- taken from the...

Few people can claim to have created a literary genre… Phillis Wheatley did. By the time she was twenty, her name- taken from the slave ship that carried her to America and the family that bought her upon arrival- would be known throughout the world.

Extraordinarily well-educated for a woman of her time and place- much less a slave- Wheatley began writing poetry at a young age. The 1773 publication of her first book, entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, brought her fame and, ultimately, freedom.

Though she’s celebrated as the mother of African American literature and her poems are taught in schools to this day, Wheatley remains a shadowy figure. In Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (University of Georgia Press, 2011), Vincent Carretta lets the light in.

It’s a daunting task. When one is writing about 18th people of African descent, sources are often scarce. But Carretta, a professor of English at the University of Maryland, rises to the challenge and painstakingly pieces together what is known about Wheatley’s life. In particular, Carretta illuminates how Wheatley’s evangelical Christianity was a subtle rebellion against slavery and also the means by which she got her words into print.

The Phillis Wheatley that emerges in Biography of a Genius in Bondage is an alarmingly modern character- canny, innovative and determined to get her poems into print. That she was able to do so as a woman in the 18th century is impressive. That she was able to do so as a slave is extraordinary.

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