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This review is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

Cover of The Age of Phillis
Andrew HadfieldThe Age of Phillis, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Wesleyan UP) £19.95
There are few more important enigmas in the history of English poetry than Phillis Wheatley. The first African-American author of a book of poetry, Phillis Wheatley (1753–84) was the name given to her by the slave-owning couple who bought her, John and Susannah Wheatley. The real name of the poet, who was probably born in Gambia or Senegal, is not known. She arrived in Boston in 1761 when she was about eight, on the slave ship, Phillis, which the Wheatleys used to provide her slave name. Accordingly, convention now is to refer to her as Phillis Wheatley Peters, her married name, as that was one of the few choices she was able to make in her life in colonial America (and a married name has at least as much dignity as that of a ship).

Wheatley Peters was a precocious talent: under the Wheatleys’ tutelage she learned Latin and Greek and started to write poetry as a teenager. She travelled to London in 1773 and her volume, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published later that year. The Wheatleys emancipated her and she married John Peters, a free black grocer. According to some testimony (not necessarily reliable) the couple had three children, all of whom died young, and descended into poverty, either the result of John’s improvidence (like Ann Hathaway, John Peters is frequently blamed without reliable evidence, for the unhappiness of his brilliant spouse) or, more plausibly, the economic effects of the Revolutionary War through which the couple lived. Phillis, never a healthy ...

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