David Waldstreicher

Aug 28, 2023

The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley

A Poet's Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence

Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2023

Thy Power, O Liberty, make strong the weak,

And (wond’rous instinct) Ethiopians speak.

At the age of 19, Phillis Wheatley published the first book in English by a person of African descent and the third book of poetry by a North American Woman. She was a poet but also a political actor and celebrity – the most famous African in North America and Europe during the era of the American Revolution. George Washington wrote to her. Thomas Jefferson ridiculed her. 

In The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet's Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence (FSG, 2023) – a joint exercise in history and literary criticism, Dr. David Waldstreicher writes that Wheatley is “Homer and Odysseus and the slaves and the women they knew or imagined. She aimed for the universal without forgetting who was suffering most and why.” Reading Wheatley’s poetry in historical context reveals the extent to which the American Revolution both strengthened and limited black slavery – and also how Wheatley herself affected the debates about American slavery and independence.

Mastering the Bible, Greek and Latin translations, and the works of Pope and Milton, Wheatley composed elegies for local elites, celebrated political events, and praised warriors. Despite her skill, knowledge, and fame, she often had to write indirectly about subjects that mattered deeply to her – race, slavery, and discontent with British rule. During a period in which writing was central to political conversation, she used her verse to lampoon, question, and assert the injustice of her enslaved condition. As Waldstreicher demonstrates, Wheatley wrote about events and people – turning what was available and acceptable for a person in her position into poetry that could be read for its art – but also subversively for its political ideas. He concludes that her work proves that the story of the American revolution and Phillis Wheatley are inextricably joined – and that story is one of “resilience and creativity, of antislavery and antiracist possibilities, and of backlash and loss, dreams dashed and deferred.” 

Dr. David Waldstreicher is distinguished professor of history, American Studies, and Africana Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include U.S. cultural and political history, colonial and early US, African American history, slaver, and antislavery. He is the author of Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (Hill and Wang) and Runaway American: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux). His public facing writing includes contributions to The New York Times Book Review, the Boston Review, and The Atlantic.

Susan Liebell is a Professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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