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Phillis Wheatley Peters: Historical Context

This guide is part of a project celebrating the anniversary year -- 2023 -- of Phillis Wheatley Peters's Poems. It is a joint project of TCU and the University of Georgia.

Historical Context of Phillis Wheatley Peters

Cross-and interdisciplinary studies of Phillis Wheatley Peters’ in cultural context are increasingly spotlighting elements of her life and era that have sometimes been deemphasized when a particular subfield’s focus guided scholarship or teaching. For instance, Wheatley’s early life in Boston, her first individual publications (such as her celebrity-building elegy for Rev. George Whitefield) and her 1773 book of Poems all occurred in pre-Revolutionary North America. Further, in preparing the book itself for publication in London, she revised a number of the individual poems with an English audience in mind. Indeed, she was a British subject for most of her life. Thus, foregrounding both individual events in the larger British Empire, as well as the complex transatlantic cultural exchanges going on during those years, can illuminate a poem like “To The Right Honourable WILLIAM, Early of Dartmouth” or “To the KING’s Most Excellent Majesty.” 

On the US side, the historical context for studying Phillis Wheatley Peters has been multi-layered, with varying emphases in different time periods. African American intellectuals of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries pressed to secure the stature of Phillis Wheatley Peters in American literature, letters, and social history. Mrs. N. F. Mossell's The Work of the Afro-American Woman (1894) exemplifies how Wheatley's creativity and intelligence routinely merited pages of biography and analysis in turn-of-the-century collective biographies and school texts. Such portrayals of Phillis Wheatley Peters invoked her to stress Black achievements that subverted racial stereotyping and narratives of oppression. Later in the twentieth century, the history of Wheatley Peters’s authorship would draw extensively on analysis in Henry Lewis Gates’s 2002 Jefferson lecture and follow-up publications. Gates sought to counter two intense critiques of the author, one during her lifetime and another in the twentieth century. Thus, Gates refuted Thomas Jefferson’s scathing assessment of Wheatley’s poetry. Gates also resisted twentieth-century rejections by a number of Black leaders, who cast her as a sell-out. 

More recently, Vincent Carretta’s newly updated biography provides a broader understanding of Wheatley Peters in her time. Additional inquiries into the historical context of her writing are emphasizing vital themes like women’s interpersonal networks of textual exchange—e.g., in letters and commonplace books (Roberts, Bynum). Similarly, recent studies of the poet in American and transatlantic context also highlight challenges and joys that she, her husband John Peters, and children encountered in the period after her emancipation by the Wheatleys (Jeffers, Dayton). 

Read More

Caretta, Vincent. Phillis Wheatley Peters: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. University of Georgia Press, 2023.

Dayton, Cornelia H. “Lost Years Recovered: John Peters and Phillis Wheatley Peters in Middleton." The New England Quarterly vol. 94, no. 3, 2021, pp. 309-51.

Roberts, Wendy Raphael. “‘On the Death of Love Rotch,’ a New Poem Attributed to Phillis Wheatley (Peters): And a Speculative Attribution. Early American Literature vol. 58, no. 1, 2023, pp. 155-84.


Learn more about Wheatley Peter's influence in her time in this video from the History Channel.

In this clip, Professor David Diamond (University of Georgia) discusses Phillis Wheatley Peters's poetry in historical context.

Primary Sources

Additional Sources