Everyone around Boston knew about the storm at the end of August 1767. They knew what could happen in gales “on the back of Cape Cod.” Still, even after years in the coastal trade, the Nantucket merchants Hussey and Coffin had rarely felt such winds. By the grace of God, their schooner and their whale oil had made it safely to a Boston wharf, and they had returned to the fine house of their fellow trader John Wheatley.

The girl came with bowls, with bread. She did not sit at the table, but she listened.

The Wheatleys already knew about her ear. The girl had some sort of gift. John’s wife, Susanna and their daughter, eighteen-year-old Mary, who had a twin brother but no living sisters, had taught her to read English. It wasn’t hard. Soon after they purchased her off the slave ship Phillis in 1761, they had noticed her “endeavouring to make letters upon the wall with a piece of chalk or charcoal.” Four years later the twelve-year-old penned an impressive letter to a Mohegan missionary who had stayed in their home. She had also written elegies about the deaths of respected men and verse appeals to lapsed Christians that the Wheatleys showed to their friends and neighbors. The poem Phillis began to write soon after that dinner, the first she published, addressed the near wreck and the Nantucket merchants. The occasion was standard stuff, especially in Massachusetts. Almost half a century earlier an even younger Bostonian, the twelve-year-old apprentice named Benjamin Franklin, had published a ballad broadside about a capsized rowboat and the drowning of a family and their enslaved man. Less conventionally, Phillis addressed Hussey and Coffin directly in her poem. She asked rhetorical questions about their peril: “Did Fear and Danger so perplex your Mind, / As made you fearful of the Whistling Wind?” It’s not a dialogue: she doesn’t quote their answers. She speaks of them, about them, to some larger purpose. They may be the subjects, along with the awesome elements, but the voice is clearly hers. 

It isn’t hard to imagine why the survivor of a slave ship could identify with another terrifying voyage, with voyagers who wondered whether the punishing winds were themselves alive (“Was it not Boreas knit his angry Brow / Against you?”) and whether the stormy emotions of gods would doom or deliver, save or destroy. But enslaved girls were not encouraged to speak of those voyages. She begins riskily, then, as well as suddenly, in the gales and the waves, throwing us into the action aboard the boat: How did these older men, these merchants, feel? She invokes fear twice. Did they fear so much that even the wind seemed alive? Or, as experienced shippers, did their “Consideration,” a double entendre meaning both thought and money, enable them to stay calm, to rationalize how the winds, like God, give as well as take?

Apparently not. Or it isn’t for her to speculate on merchantmen’s considerations. She returns to the trope of threatening deities: another wind god, Aeolus, was angry, haughty, frowning. She backs off: she depersonalizes, in a classical idiom that to modern readers has seemed so off-putting, so scholastic, so white. She reaches back to maritime cultures of the Greeks and Romans and the most popular of the neoclassical texts translated by the most ambitious English poets of the previous two generations.  

Her first readers in print, in The Newport Mercury of December 21, 1767, and The Boston Post-Boy three weeks later, would have understood instantly. These lines are literally evocative of Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid in their popular English versions. The Odyssey begins with a call to the muses to sing of Odysseus’s “unnumber’d toils” on “stormy seas.” In Alexander Pope’s translation, the ghost of Agamemnon asks similar questions to the ghost of Amphimedon, one of the suitors slain by Odysseus: “What cause compell’d so many, and so gay, / To tread the downward, melancholy way? … did the rage of stormy Neptune sweep / Your lives at once, and whelm beneath the deep?” The storm-tossed voyages in Homer are also accompanied by questions about the gods’ intentions. 

Greeks, Romans, Britons, Africans. Can they be similar? What might this mean? Did she mean it literally—did she believe in these gods of the sea, like a pagan, an ancient? Phillis Wheatley could be talking about herself, imagining herself into the world of the poem—as storm-tossed victim or hero, as voice of the dead, as vessel of the gods. More important, she takes control of the references, the presence of the ancient, for the reader of the newspaper who could not have missed that the poem had been written by a “Negro Girl.” The preface stresses her race. The poem itself places Africa, and her, in a shared ancient world that is at once past and present, a place where even she can speak with authority.

The boldness of address, the claim to share the ancient world on equal terms is hidden by the seeming imitation, the classical references. But not enough—not nearly. Having established her classical propers, Phillis switches registers. The pagan deities are a metaphor: “Regard them not.” A Christian salvation is at stake. If Hussey and Coffin had perished in the sea, “where wou’d they go? where would be their Abode? / With the supreme and independent God, / Or made their Beds down in the Shades below”? Christians and Africans, like ancient Mediterraneans, believed in another world where the dead reside. They also equally believed in revelations. The poetic narrative returns to another tradition, at once classical and Christian, and especially important in early modern Western Christendom: the good death, to be preferred to he godless life full of fear. Are they saved? Are they going down—or up? 

All depends on their faith, and who does the asking and the telling. Presented as the pious effort of a precocious slave and published in a newspaper, it’s a Christian exhortation that demonstrates spiritual equality. Yet the salvation project presumes a Greek, Roman, and African world of shipwrecks, slaving, and women, a set of experiences analogous to the world she had known, the stories she couldn’t tell to the enslavers who provided the pen and the paper on which she wrote. The classical revival provided her with a way of talking about her experience as an enslaved woman without talking about it directly. In Homer, the traffic in women is perfectly ordinary and yet akin to the original sin: a rupture that makes and unmakes the world. It is the job of the poet to knit the world back together, and maybe free herself in the process, like the singer at the end of The Odyssey who receives a pardon, perhaps because, in the end, he is as indispensable as the hero. 


This story of Phillis Wheatley’s odyssey takes its cues from what she brought to the table, including the books and newspapers she rewrote into overt and controversial arguments for freedom. It traces her remarkable journey from West Africa to Boston to London and back to America on the eve of the American Revolution. She published the first book in English by a person of African descent and the third book of poetry by a North American woman. The book’s existence became an antislavery argument, and so did some of her poems. Despite being only nineteen years old at the time, Wheatley shaped her book’s publication and reception. She gained her freedom as a direct result of that project. She was the only black person to elicit personal responses from the likes of Lord Dartmouth, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Their public responses mattered because of how the problem of slavery had already come to be part of the imperial controversy. She became, in other words, a political actor as well as an artist and a celebrity. She was an inspired participant in the new movement against slavery and the most famous African in North America and Europe during the era of the American Revolution. 

This book started to take shape when I began to wonder what it might mean to take Wheatley’s interest in classical poets like Homer and Horace and their descendants in the neoclassical literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries seriously. First I had to get past some of my own preconceptions and be able to read those old books, to see them as oddly familiar stories and as poems—to experience them as both wild and formulaic. Despite (or because of) my background in the study of U.S. history and culture, for me this was something like a conversion experience. 

But the fundamental leap that has guided my writing of her story happened years before, when I asked my skeptical, urban students to consider the possibility that she was one of them: a product of profound, complex historical forces who did not give in to an oppressive culture merely to win prizes as a poster child for literacy. In the classroom, sometimes this can be done just with a shift of tone, of presumption: When we read the lines “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join the angelic train” in a mocking or satirical instead of a beseeching voice, Wheatley can suddenly become the organic intellectual of the enslaved—at least a “distant relative” if not a “soul sister.” To sustain that perspective, though, it helps to know more about what she had to work with as well as what she was up against. We have to recover the drama of her life and times so that her poems can appear as what they were: actions in that drama. 

The epic poets Wheatley loved, like John Milton and Alexander Pope, sometimes prefaced chapters of their book-length verses with statements of “The Argument,” by which they meant, fascinatingly, not a theological or political disquisition but rather nothing more or less than the main, broadest lines of the story that might otherwise get lost in all the characters and allusions and subplots. So here’s mine. Wheatley used what was available and gave (what seemed to later generations to be) rather unpromising materials subversive and productive meanings. In the process she became a political actor and an artist of quality and note. She channeled and redirected as well as created. To put it another way: she’s 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: a message surely for our times as well as for all times. 

She’s also, distinctively, of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world and its obsessions, of a culture and politics shaped by profound neoclassical, Christian, and wartime British nationalist revivals. Literate people in Phillis Wheatley’s world—the vast majority of the New Englanders she knew, and some if not most of the Africans—knew that the battles of the present, including the political struggles over Britain’s empire that eventually turned some Britons into Americans, were undertaken in the idioms of the secular (Mediterranean and Anglo) and sacred (Jewish and Christian) pasts. All three revivals—Greco-Roman, Protestant, British American—could, and did, challenge, and also justify, African slavery. All three subcultures—religious, political, and literary—could welcome her or shut her out. And indeed, all three did both, before and after her emancipation. That’s what cultures do in the harsh but clarifying light of politics. The arc of this history bends both toward and away from justice.

Like the American Revolution, which led in both proslavery and antislavery directions, her story has tragic dimensions. Patrons solicited and failed her. She didn’t earn a living and she died young. Politics and war victimized Phillis Wheatley, and may have disillusioned her. But there is little reason to imagine that she had illusions of lasting fame, glory, long life, or wealth. Both representative and one of a kind—like any life, but especially the lives of artists and activists who fascinate and become lightning rods—her story tells us much about slavery, about race, and about how both were made and remade with the American Revolution. Her own history demonstrates that the American Revolution both strengthened and limited black slavery: she helped make it so.

The subtlety and the magnitude of her poetic interventions require a contextual approach. Her biography must be literary, but because she lived in revolutionary times and did not avoid controversy, it can only make sense if it is broadly cultural and political. She didn’t leave the volume of documents that biographers of American revolutionaries usually rely upon. But her fame is the historian’s untapped opportunity. She left not only words that were chosen with special care—clues hiding in plain sight, as poets do—but also faint footprints in the recorded lives of others. These clues require interpretation. All biographers interpret, even speculate; some admit it along the way, as I will, I hope not to the point of vitiating the magnitude of what we can learn about—and, just as important, from—the facts of Wheatley’s odyssey. Modern scholarship about slaveries (ancient and modern, African and American), and studies of the books she read, the places she lived, and the history of the imperial controversy, have helped me explain what she made, and remade, of her journeys “from African to America” and from freedom to slavery to freedom. To that extent, this is a joint exercise in history and literary criticism. Recent criticism especially has illuminated her artistry and suggested the liberatory political agenda buried in some of her poems—not just manifest, as it used to be thought, in her firstness as a black female author who regrettably chose stultifying neoclassical forms that make modern readers run from the library stacks. 

But biography and history demand that we ask what she felt and experienced. Since the 1930s, writers of plays and of books for children and young adults have imagined the drama of her short life. So have, more recently, black American poets who claim her, rightly, as an amazing and inspiring forebear and a fellow sufferer from the sins of racism. Like the poets, I ask many questions in the pages that follow while trying to signal the evidentiary grounds on which my answers rely. We need to be open to questions we may not be able to answer with accustomed biographical certainty. We need to listen sympathetically and comparatively to several entangled cultural traditions in order to understand the life, the art, and the politics of this central, generative figure of the African diaspora and the American Revolution. 

Wheatley asked, and forced others to ask, a key question of an age that thought of itself as modern and consistently measured itself against the ancient. Should hereditary, racial slavery exist in an era of enlightenment, salvation, and revolution? What could justify it? If Americans called for their British freedoms or their natural rights, what did that mean for their own slaves? 

Each chapter here is about an encounter: a place or event, its facts, its personae, and her response. In each chapter memory does battle with harsh realities, especially those of war and enslavement. Each chapter is titled with a noun or nouns that eighteenth-century people modified. Wherever possible, I recur to her poetic or other written responses, because that’s the best evidence we have and it’s where she did her critical and fabulous work. This is a biography, and I wish it to be one that will last by being true to its quite distinctive subject. But I also write as a historian with half a lifetime’s questions about the American Revolution, about slavery, and about how both have informed politics and culture in the United States. Part of Wheatley’s attraction for me is in the questions she asked—even more than the answers she gave.

Wheatley’s first published poem beings with five questions. These queries move from the merchants’ experience to the mythical gods: they combine the practical, the spiritual, and the mysteriously allusive. A question can be a veiled statement. It can also be an invitation to begin a conversation. Given the right questions, in the right places in a revolutionary America, poems could be actions. As she wrote in an unfinished epic titled America, “Sometimes by Simile, a victory’s won.”

She tells us to begin at sea…


Excerpted from THE ODYSSEY OF PHILLIS WHEATLEY: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence by David Waldstreicher. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2023 by David Waldstreicher. All rights reserved.