Telling Her Glories with a Faithful Tongue

The Afterlife of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

Robin Davis, Fall 2009. Written for Jim Egan's “Lives of a Text” course at Brown University

Note: hover over (This is a note!) to see a note.


In the Lownes Science collection in the Hay Library, a box lined with fine Italian paper contains a falling-apart book called, according to its spine, Notes sur la Virginie. Upon opening the book, one finds it’s written in English, that it was published in London in 1787, and that it concerns the geography of a former colony in North America. A large, colored map has been accordion-folded and tipped into the first page. This volume is Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, a 382-page description of the state that catalogues everything from its boundaries, rivers, and climate to its weights, measurements, aborigines, and “Proceedings as to Tories”, according to the table of contents. Its preface states that the majority of the text was written in 1781 and “corrected and enlarged” in 1782. Overall, it is as straightforward as a long encyclopedia entry. But upon closer reading, Jefferson’s own opinions become more visible, for example in the sections pertaining to the state constitution, the different religions represented within the state, and — most notoriously — the chapter entitled simply “Laws.” On page 227 in the Laws chapter, Jefferson begins to list some amendments to Virginia law as proposed in the state assembly. The first six sound somewhat unremarkable (“To define with precision the rules whereby aliens should become citizens”, e.g.) and only average six lines of text each. But the seventh takes up 13 full pages. Here, Jefferson outlines a plan to “emancipate all slaves born after passing the act [...] They should be colonized to such a place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper.” In sum, Jefferson strongly supports the emancipation of all slaves — as long as they are relegated to an entirely different colony, separate from white people, because political and moral issues would “never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” He goes on to list offensive reasons why blacks are inferior, including but not limited to intolerance to cold, recklessness, body odor, and lesser intellect and culture. Remarking upon poetry, Jefferson writes:

Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar œstrum of the poet. Their [blacks’] love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.

After hypothesizing that Roman slaves could write intelligently because they were white, he moves on to a table of general crimes and punishments and then to the Virginia school system, with no further mention of slavery. (It should be noted that although Jefferson campaigned for the early abolitionist movement, he never freed his own slaves.)

A decade later, a man named Gilbert Imlay took umbrage at Jefferson’s remarks. In 1792, he published A topographical description of the western territory of North America, containing a succinct account of its climate, natural history, population, agriculture, manners and customs, with an ample description of the several divisions into which that country is partitioned. It was published again in 1793, and again in 1797. It is presented as a collection of letters home from a frontiersman in Kentucky; in its encyclopedic style, it is remarkably similar to Jefferson’s Notes. It too contains a foldout map on the front page, and like Jefferson, Imlay punctuates dry lists of the Linnaean names of birds with sharp, opinionated commentary. In Letter IX (page 219 of the 1797 edition), Imlay lays aside his charts of average autumnal temperatures to launch a volatile attack on Jefferson. “I have been ashamed,” he begins on page 222, “in reading Mr. Jefferson’s book, to see, from one of the most enlightened and benevolent of my countrymen, the disgraceful prejudices he entertains against the unfortunate negroes.” True, Jefferson advocated emancipation, but his separate colony idea offended Imlay. Practically, he writes, the disappearance of 250,000 inhabitants would debilitate the state. Instead, Virginia ought to free its slaves and incorporate them into its society. Imlay even mentions “marriages between the whites and blacks” on page 224, an idea quite shocking for its time. He goes on to address every point Jefferson has made, even countering the odor claim by explaining in scientific detail how sweating cools down the body. And for his grand finale, he contradicts Jefferson’s views on black intellect by reprinting lines 13–32 of Phillis Wheatley’s poem “On Imagination” on page 229 (One could surmise that his use of “On Imagination” might have been chosen in reference to Jefferson’s remark that blacks’ love “kindles the senses only, not the imagination.” Also, out of bibliographic curiosity, I have compared the reprinting in the second and third editions of Imlay’s book against the 1773 edition of Poems; regrettably, I have not yet gotten a hold of a first edition of A topographical description. Nevertheless, the textual discrepancies between the original poem and the two reprints are numerous enough to be interesting, whether or not they are the result of drunken printers’ carelessness.) under this invitation to the reader:

It will afford you an opportunity, if you have never met with it, of estimating her genius and Mr. Jefferson’s judgment; and I think, without any disparagement to him, that, by comparison, Phyllis appears much the superior. Indeed, I should be glad to be informed what white upon this continent has written more beautiful lines.

Imlay makes a few more grandiose comments, ending the letter with “...the object of using my feeble powers in attempting to alleviate the oppressions of the miserable in every part of the world, shall not be forgotten.” The following chapter is a meditation on “leguminous plants.”

One of the more interesting or at least perplexing publications of Wheatley’s Poems was in The Negro Equalled by Few Europeans, translated from the French, to which are added, Poems on Various Subjects, Moral and Entertaining (That Religious has been replaced by Entertaining must mean something, especially since page 167 faithfully reprints the original title, but I’m not sure what.), by Phillis Wheatley, published in 1801 in Philadelphia. The Negro Equalled by Few Europeans was written by Joseph Lavallée (I’ve tried in vain to track down Lavallée’s biographical information, but haven’t yet found anything except that he was the Marquis de Bois-Robert and wrote several other books, both historical and fictional.), although in examining both volumes owned by the Hay Library, one would never know, as his name does not appear anywhere (at least anywhere one would think to look). The translator’s name is also unknown. Lavallée’s novel features a black man named Itanko and his various adventures; it is a typical example of 18th century political propaganda in the form of fiction that advocated equal rights (Cooke, 221). The story ends halfway through the second volume, and on page 167 begins a reprinting of Wheatley’s Poems. The text, even John Wheatley’s letter and Phillis Wheatley’s dedication, is faithfully reproduced, and every poem in the original printing appears here, too — except for “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty”, eliminated perhaps because the colonies had declared independence 25 years earlier. Interestingly, though, there is no explanation behind the inclusion of Poems in The Negro Equalled by Few Europeans. The reader is left to infer why they have been juxtaposed. In fact, the only new information or commentary on Wheatley we are given is scribbled on the back of the page containing John Wheatley’s letter; it is a note by Margaretta Brown, one of the book’s previous owners. In brown ink, she wrote:

Phillis acquired a correct knowledge of the latin (& I believe) of the greek language — She was emancipated by her Master, and allowed to take his name —

As it is the only annotation in the book, it would seem that Margaretta Brown’s primary interest in these volumes lay in Wheatley’s Poems. Why would she feel compelled to pen in more biographical information about the author?


Jefferson and Imlay have been quoted many, many times as standard examples of opposing 18th century criticism of Wheatley’s poetry, and often enough their remarks are coupled to demonstrate opposite extremes. The repeated use of these snippets regarding Wheatley’s Poems is reminiscent of the repeated use of Wheatley’s Poems within the study of colonial-era black literature. Her name has been invoked as a stock example of quality black writing since before Poems was even published.

What does it mean to tie a work of literature so closely with its context? It is rare to find Wheatley’s name or poetry without some version of the text in the frontispiece of her book (“Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston”), whether in an anthology or elsewhere. William H. Robinson, who has compiled a long list of books, letters, and publications in which Wheatley is mentioned or excerpted, observes the effect of using her as a poster girl for black women’s writing:

There are several reasons that might explain why genuine familiarity with Wheatley’s life and poetry is lacking, but one obvious reason is that many of her critics and commentators have been all too anxious to use her life and/or works to prove something racial — that blacks were or were not intellectually inferior to other peoples; thus many of her observers have been entirely too freehanded in concocting biographical data, or they have been utterly indifferent to bibliographical information.

Wheatley probably wore her laurel wreath proudly, but I can’t help but imagine she must have gotten tired of being chained to the epithet “Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston.” Jefferson singles her out because she was regarded as the pinnacle of black American literary accomplishment in his day; by dismissing her summarily, he synecdochally rejects all black American writing. Imlay has nothing but praise for her, but, again, he uses Wheatley as supporting evidence. After the last words of her excerpted poem — “blooming rose” — he never mentions her again.

It might be unfair of me to claim that Wheatley was and is exploited by writers like Imlay, whose goals of racial equality are so admirable. And, granted, to not identify her as a slave in an 18th or 19th century piece of writing would be to lack a critical piece of information in that historical context. But for Jefferson, Imlay, Lavallée, and many scholars of today to consider her not as a writer, but as a black writer, or a woman writer, or a black woman writer, seems to chain her to a weighty label that she doesn’t need to be considered an exceptional writer.

When she gained her manumission from the Wheatley family, she finally shed the mantle of enslavement. She continued to write, but could not get enough support to publish a second volume of poems. She died in poverty. If we extend the metaphor of the label of “slave author” as rhetorical enslavement itself, we could speculate that had her writing also dropped the distinction of slave authorship, it, too, would have withered out of literature’s collective memory. The issue is, of course, a complex one. If she hadn’t been touted as the slave poet, maybe her writing would have been lost to the ages. Maybe there were other black poetesses whose writing, lacking the fanfare of Wheatley’s published work, was lost. And perhaps every author has their own inescapable epithet, a scrap of identity attached to them as closely as a shadow.

Is it possible to consider Wheatley as a writer without immediately characterizing her as “Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston”?

Is it worth it?


My jumping-off point was William H. Robinson’s Phillis Wheatley: A Bio-Bibliography, which I found by searching the subject of Phillis Wheatley on Josiah. The bio-bibliography is a wonderfully detailed compilation of publications and letters that mention or study Wheatley or reprint her poetry. Robinson orders the entries by year and often includes a helpful summary and/or commentary. I browsed the earlier entries and thought Robinson’s comment on Imlay’s A topographical description was intriguing. The Hay’s copy of it is a third edition, and I found a nice scanned version of the second edition online at Open Library, a partner site of the Internet Archive. I was surprised to find an incredibly detailed index in the back of the hard copy, which led me to the mention of Wheatley in Letter IX.

Imlay, of course, steered me toward Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, which I read online on the University of Virginia’s Electronic Text Center and subsequently requested at the Hay. It must be said that reading old texts online is nothing like handling the actual books (and this is from someone who has read most of her books this semester on a Kindle). Even just thumbing through Notes enriched my understanding of it, as it placed the “Laws” section in context. Comparing Notes to A topographical description was also fruitful; it’s funny that two dry accounts of two different states can each contain one strongly worded argument about slavery.

I also marked Lavallée’s The Negro Equalled by Few Europeans in Robinson’s bio-bibliography and asked for it out of curiosity at the Hay. It was helpful to copy down its title pages because there were no scans or copies of it online.

The Hay also has a 1773 printing of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which I compared with Imlay’s reprinting of “On Imagination” as well as the entire book’s reprinting in The Negro Equalled by Few Europeans.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is also a good resource for background research. Although it is limited to British people, early Americans can also be found in it, since they were British for a while, after all. The DNB articles on Gilbert Imlay and Phillis Wheatley offered concise background information, which helped me place their writing in context.


What I have written about in my paper on the afterlife of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is only about half of what I found fascinating. On a whim, I decided to look up Imlay, who I had assumed was an obscure Kentucky pioneer. As it turns out, he was an old lover of Mary Wollstonecraft. A decade or so after publishing A topographical description, he wooed her, impregnated her, used her to straighten out his debts, and abandoned her and their child in Europe. Wollstonecraft was staying in Paris at this time, during the French Revolution. In an odd personal twist, she was living in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb outside of Paris where I lived not four months ago! One description of her time there (written, I believe, by William Godwin) mentions her predilection for walking in a “neighboring wood” in the evening, though her host tried to warn her of robberies and murders that happened there at night. Over two hundred years later, the Bois de Bologne is just as scary in the dark.

Wollstonecraft met William Godwin a few months after Imlay’s desertion, and a year later, she died giving birth to their child, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley. It was quite thrilling to “discover” and follow this trail of literary connections, though I later found articles written by other scholars who had known about all this for quite some time. They had become as skeptical of Imlay’s character as I. He had seemed so reasonable and righteous in A topographical description, and yet he was quite a philanderer.

I read some of Wollstonecraft’s letters to Imlay and to Godwin out of curiosity, and then ravaged the indexes of every book about her in the Rock, searching for some mention of Phillis Wheatley. If she met Imlay after he published A topographical description, and she was part of a literary circle during Wheatley’s rise to fame, isn’t it plausible that she read some of Wheatley’s work? And since she is so prolific, wouldn’t she have written something about it? For a feminist writer and philosopher, it would probably be important that a woman author had gained such international fame. Alas, I have found nothing so far, even when searching online databases like JSTOR. The search, however, is not over.


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