Wheatley, Phillis, 1753?–1784, American poet, considered the first important black writer in the United States. Brought from Africa in 1761, she became a house slave for the Boston merchant John Wheatley and his wife Susanna, who, recognizing her intelligence and wit, educated her and encouraged her talent. Her work, which was derivative, was published in the collection Poems on Various Subjects (1773) and in various magazines. A second volume existed in manuscript, but it was not published and was subsequently lost. Although Wheatley traveled to England, where she was much admired, and soon thereafter obtained her freedom, she eventually died in poverty.
See her Life and Works (1916, repr. 1969); biography by V. Carretta (2011); H. L. Gates, Jr., The Trials of Phillis Wheatley (2003).
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Wheatley, Phillis(c. 1753–84) poet; born in Africa, possibly Senegal. She was sold in slavery to the John Wheatley family in Boston (1761), was educated by them—even learning Latin and Greek—and by the age of 13 was composing poems so sophisticated that many people charged she could not have written them. Sent to London with the Wheatley's son (1778), she was received in society, published her first volume of poems, then returned to Boston. She was freed, married, and had three children, none of whom survived her. A collection of her poetry and prose, Memoirs and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, was printed in 1834. Although her poems are now regarded as generally derivative in their neoclassical manner, they were often cited in the 19th century by those pointing out that African-Americans needed only to be educated in order to become the equal of their fellow Americans.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.