Phillis Wheatley and the Romantics
Phillis Wheatley was the first African American to publish a book. Born in Gambia in 1753, she came to America aboard a slave ship, the Phillis. From an early age, Wheatley exhibited a profound gift for verse, publishing her first poem in 1767. Her tribute to a famed pastor, “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield,” followed in 1770, catapulting her into the international spotlight, and publication of her 1773 Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral in London created her an international star.
Despite the attention she received at the time, history has not been kind to Wheatley. Her work has long been neglected or denigrated by literary critics and historians. John C. Shields, a scholar of early American literature, has tried to help change this perception, and Wheatley has begun to take her place among the elite of American writers.
In Phillis Wheatley and the Romantic Age, Shields contends that Wheatley was not only a brilliant writer but one whose work made a significant impression on renowned Europeans of the Romantic age, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who borrowed liberally from her works, particularly in his famous distinction between fancy and imagination. Shields shows how certain Wheatley texts, particularly her “Long Poem,” consisting of “On Recollection,” “Thoughts on the Works of Providence,” and “On Imagination,” helped shape the face of Romanticism in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Phillis Wheatley and the Romantic Age helps demolish the long-held notion that literary culture flowed in only one direction: from Europe to the Americas. Thanks to Wheatley’s influence, Shields argues, the New World was influencing European literary masters far sooner than has been generally understood.