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Author: Wheatley, Phillis


WHEATLEY, Phillis, later PETERS (c.1753-84: ODNB)

Born in Africa, she was abducted by slavers and taken to Boston in 1761. Her name, given by her American owners John and Susanna Wheatley, combines their surname with the name of the vessel she travelled by. Unusually for the time, they gave her a good education in the family: she was quick to learn and to make the most of what they offered. By 1767 she was contributing poems to newspapers; she made a splash with an elegy for George Whitefield published as a broadside in 1770. She was baptised in 1771. In 1772 John Wheatley attempted but failed to find subscribers for an edition of her poetry, but the family encouraged her and Susanna Wheatley found support in England through the Countess of Huntingdon, to whom Phillis Wheatley dedicated the collection that appeared in London in 1773. Besides the dedication and a note by the author, the book contains a statement by the author's "Master" testifying to her education (including her interest in learning Latin) and an "attestation" about her qualifications signed by over a dozen prominent Boston politicians and clergymen. The author made a six-week visit to London in June and July to prepare the volume for publication and in August returned to America a celebrity. In Oct. 1773 she announced her manumission "at the desire of my friends in England." Susanna Wheatley died in 1774. Phillis stayed on as a servant in the household until her marriage in 1778 to John Peters, a free Black man. But the couple struggled to make a living; Peters was jailed for debt. Appeals for subscribers for a second volume of poetry in 1779 were unsuccessful. All three of their children died in infancy. Phillis Peters died in poverty shortly after the birth of the third child: they were buried together, but the place of their burial is not known. Her Foulis edition of Paradise Lost (1770), the gift of Brook Watson during her visit to London, was sold to meet her husband's debts and is now in the Houghton Library at Harvard. (ODNB 28 Jan. 2021; Orlando; ANBO 28 Jan. 2021)


Other Names:

  • Phillis
  • Phillis Wheatly

Books written (15):

London/ Boston: A. Bell/ Cox and Berry, 1773
Philadelphia: Joseph Crukshank, 1786
2nd edn. London: J. French, [1787?]
Philadelphia: printed by Joseph James, 1787
Philadelphia: Joseph Crukshank, 1789
Albany [NY]: Thomas Spencer, 1793
Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1801
Hartford [CT]: printed by Oliver Steele, 1804
New England [Boston? "London . . . printed. Reprinted in New England"]: 1816
Boston: Geo. W. Light, 1834