Phillis Wheatley's Poetics of Liberation

Backgrounds and Contexts

  • Author(s): Shields, John C.
  • Series:
  • Imprint: Univ Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2008-06-15
  • Status: Active
  • Available in Hardcover - Cloth: Price $37.95 | Buy Now

Phillis Wheatley’s Poetics of Liberation is a groundbreaking scholarly study of one of America’s most important and most controversial writers.  Wheatley (1753-1784) was the first African American to publish a book on any subject in the new country, and America’s second woman to do so. There is probably no other American writer who has produced such critical controversy as Phillis Wheatley.

In this new volume, John C. Shields–one of the foremost scholars of Wheatley–demonstrates that much of the negative response to her writings has been based on false assumptions and myths about her and her work.  Much of this criticism began more than a century ago and has been passed on without dissent by generations of readers. Here, Shields sets a course for Wheatley scholars that will redefine the direction of future writing about her.

Shields begins this volume with an incisive analysis of more than two hundred years of complicated and often misinformed scholarship and commentary about Wheatley.  In following chapters, he explores Wheatley’s background and the cultural context in which she wrote.

Shields provides new and subtle readings for a great many of her poems.  He shows that Wheatley’s writing was deeply imbedded in several literary traditions, demonstrating that her work is the result of an African inheritance, a complex relationship with a Congregationalist religious heritage, and an intense involvement with classical literature.  Read closely, Wheatley’s works show she deserves credit for creating a liberationist aesthetic-the full implications of which are still to be worked out.

This important new study is certain to become the standard in the field. Phillis Wheatley’s Poetics of Liberation is essential for all students and scholars of American literature, African American literature, women_s literature, and multicultural literature.

John C. Shields is the editor of The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley and the author of The American Aeneas: Classical Origins of the American Self, which won a Choice Outstanding Academic Book award and an honorable mention in the Harry Levin Prize competition, sponsored by the American Comparative Literature Association.  He is Distinguished Professor of English and Director of the Center for Classicism in American Culture at Illinois State University.