Episode 14: Phillis Wheatley’s Poems, ft. Dr. “Josh” Doty

Transcript

Carrie: All right. Well, welcome back, lit nerds, to the newest edition of the Modcast. Today we are going to be getting a little poetry. Um, I am your fabulous host, uh, Carrie Villarreal. Today with me I have the, um, lovely and incomparable Modcast hosts and a special guest: Dr. Benjamin Doty. I’m going to let them introduce themselves, starting with Leigh Ann. 

Leigh Ann: Hey, everyone! I’m Leigh Ann, as usual your favorite. Back at it again with the white vans. Not really. Um, I’m really happy to be here with Dr. Doty and with the rest of the Modcasters. We’re back with the original team tonight, actually, so that’s fun. And I actually have never heard of Phillis Wheatley, so I’m excited to get, um, to discuss her tonight and really dive deep into this. 

[Pause.]

Forest: Hi, I’m Forest. Sorry there was a very awkward pause; we did not discuss who was gonna go next. But that’s neither here nor there. Um, I’m excited about tonight’s podcast because I don’t enjoy poetry at all, but with Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, I found that I was actually finding bits and pieces of it that I, I quite enjoyed and understood. So I’m very excited about that. 

Lane: And I’m Lane. I’m very happy to be with the core four again tonight. And of course, on St. Patrick’s Day, so it’s a great time all around. And I’m excited to learn more about Phillis Wheatley because until our meeting tonight I hadn’t heard of her or read about any of her poems. So I’m excited to learn more and get into her poetry. All right, and now on to our guest Dr. Doty. 

Dr. Doty: Hey. Hi all, and uh, thank you for having me. I am Dr. Josh Doty, I’m a professor of English at St. Mary’s University, specializing in American literature. So I teach Phillis Wheatley pretty much every semester, uh, in core American Literature classes. And when I teach Early American Literature, she finds her way in there as well. And so I’m excited to, uh, discuss her work, uh, uh, with you tonight. And so, uh…Would it be helpful if I sort of gave a brief overview of, of her story? Yes? Okay. 

Carrie: Yes, very much!  

Dr. Doty: So, Phillis Wheatley–Her claim to fame is really being, uh, the first published African-American. Uh, she is the first African-American, uh, to publish a book of poetry. Uh, what’s uh, really fascinating about her is, uh, she was an enslaved person for most of her life. Uh, she was originally from, uh, West Africa, from a region that, um, is now broken into like, Senegal and Gambia, but in her time was just called Senegal. 

And so, at the age of about seven or eight, she was captured and brought over on a slave ship and pur–and quote-unquote purchased (I say quote-unquote because I don’t believe you could truly purchase a human being, right?) by, uh, this wealthy Boston tailor and merchant, John Wheatley. Now, he wanted her to be a companion for his wife, Susanna, and uh, he thought that his wife would enjoy having this little girl around at the house to help her out and to essentially be a friend. And so she gets the name Phillis because–Can y’all guess why? That was the name of the ship she came on. And so–It’s such a peculiar and, and um, I think quite sad, uh, uh, way of giving her a name. 

So, so, she doesn’t speak a word of English. A fascinating thing happens at the age of 14. So just seven or so years after she comes to this country, she, uh, publishes her first, her first poem. A few years after that, she publishes a poem, an elegy, in, uh, the memory of this itinerant preacher–really famous guy, George Whitefield, who uh, was internationally famous himself. And so the idea that, uh, this African-American enslaved woman wrote such a fabulous poem, a fabulous elegy, in his, in his memory, propelled her to international fame, to some degree. 

And so what a lot of people don’t know about Phillis Wheatley is, in a lot of ways, she was a child star. And so what ended up happening is, uh, uh, Nathaniel Wheatley, the Wheatleys’ son, traveled with her to London in order to publish her book of poems. Uh, “Poems Upon Various Subjects”–religious and moral. The reason why they had to go to London is because hardly anyone in the U.S. believed that she actually wrote the poems that she wrote. 

Carrie: That was something I noticed when I was reading the introductory information to her book, is there was this, like, huge to-do about the attestation that Phillis Wheatley was the one who wrote these poems. And I was, in my mind, I’m like, “Oh my goodness, the brilliance of this woman–a child, no less–and she has to get approval for that from white people!” 

Dr. Doty: Yes. Did y’all look at the list of signatories to the attestation? Particular names pop out to you? 

Carrie: Oh, I have to go back and look. Because there were several. Um, let me, uh… 

Dr. Doty: The, the reason why I ask is a certain signer of the Declaration of Independence attested to this. 

Carrie: Which one? Maybe, I don’t know. 

Dr. Doty: John Hancock. 

Carrie: Wait, really? 

Dr. Doty: John Hancock himself. 

Carrie: [Gasps.] There it is! Oh my gosh, yeah! Wow. Okay, Mr. John Hancock. 

Dr. Doty: So, John Hancock, and the guy who was at the time the governor of Massachusetts, had to say, “Yes, she actually wrote this stuff.”

Carrie: We’re silent over here because we’re absolutely mind-blown by this. Like, I have read some of Phillis Wheatley before, but I did not know this about her background. 

Dr. Doty: It’s, it’s really stunning. A lot of a lot of white people at the time believed that people of African descent did not have what it takes, essentially, to write poetry. 

Uh, and indeed, uh, Thomas Jefferson, who, uh, you may know, uh, as the third president of this country, uh, wrote in his, you know, quote-unquote masterpiece um, Notes on the State of Virginia, uh, he’s…He said that the compositions published under her name are below, uh, criticism. And so, note the turn of phrase um, the “compositions published under her name.” It’s kind of implying, right, that she didn’t really write them at all. 

Carrie: Yeah. And then to say they’re below criticism. Like that’s, like…double a slap in the face. [Sighs deeply.] 

Dr. Doty: Yeah. So she publishes this book of poems, uh, people people love it. Um, she uh, ends up writing, um, uh, a poem, uh, and uh, singing the praises of George Washington. He reads it. He invites her to his, uh, headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’s fighting the Revolutionary War and he’s still, he–And he still meets her. So he’s very impressed by her. And so yeah. She’s this woman who is at the very center of so much that is going on in U.S. history, but still so very few people know about her. Which is why I’m so glad that y’all had me on tonight. 

Carrie: Why do you think it is that so few people know about her, if she is such a center point of our burgeoning country, if you will? 

Dr. Doty: I think that’s a terrific question. Um, I think…I think a lot of people, uh–For one, I think a lot of people value African-American literature insofar as it is a chronicle of suffering. I think sometimes, uh, uh, readers, uh, only want the pain. And they, they only want uh, uh, uh, to see the gore, and and the violence, and the suffering. 

What we find in Phillis Wheatley is a much more complicated situation where, um. Keep in mind that the only way she’s able to publish the poems is in the company of her quote unquote master’s son, and so if you read her poems, you–It–A lot of, a lot of people read, like, ambiguity about her being enslaved because slavery brought her to Christianity.

It’s a lot of people think, well, you know…What’s wrong right there? Why isn’t she angry? But they need to keep in mind that the only way that she’s able to publish this stuff was in the company of this guy. And it’s not as if she was going to be able to speak strongly against the institution of slavery with this guy here taking her to London. And so I think there’s a certain entire–There’s a certain ambiguity there that is, I think, hard to teach in the K-12 context. I’d be interested to hear what you all think about, about that particular claim. I thought that. That’s what I’ve always thought, at least, she–that she doesn’t fit well, necessarily in a K-12 class–classroom. 

Carrie: I have actually…So I am a K-12 teacher. Um, and I actually teach high school English. I have taught Phillis Wheatley before, but it–never as in an in-depth study of her as a, as a poet, as a woman, as a slave. And always in teaching her, it was looking at the structure of her poems, the language used. Um, where I noticed a lot of her poems–and reading through more of them because I’d only read like one or two–there is this…It’s almost like, song. And I always–

We, we talk about how, um, in looking at how you know she’s placed, um, in like, the 1760s, 1770s, and how there is this…You can start to see a shift, um, in the literature, where you do have this, um, neoclassical style, almost. Um, and I don’t know if I’m using the right words or not. Uh, but this is almost like, neoclassical style, where with Phillis Wheatley she’s like, you have her invoking muses and calling on that history inside of her poetry, but also then, um, moving into this almost, like, realism a bit in capturing the momentum of the events that are happening in her everyday life and the life of the country and all of these things. So always in that context, but never in the, this is a, a woman who was a slave, um, and this is what she was dealing with. 

So maybe that’s a disservice on my part for my students by not introducing them more to that aspect of her poetry. 

Forest: Yeah, I thought it was, uh, almost–particularly interesting, um, now hearing some of her background, um, how much she talked about religion. Um, especially Christianity. And I do think it’s almost hymn-like, some of her, um, her longer ones. Um, and especially the ones that, that we read in preparation for this Modcast. When she talks about coming from Africa to, you know, the Christian land, basically, and how she, um, brought in the paganism and the Christianity, uh, almost simul–simultaneously. I just–I’ve found it–I find it now astonishing that she did that, knowing more of her background information. 

Dr. Doty: So a lot of people are surprised by that, right, because you’re really expecting, I think–Readers often want a more overtly political–in the way that we would understand that word, political–thrust, in her work which, I think, is why it’s so important to understand the circumstances under which this book of poems was published. And so, if you need John Hancock himself and the governor of Massachusetts standing up for you just to get what you wrote published, she’s never going to be able to to be a political radical, right. There’s just not a world in which that’s going to happen. And so I think that context is so important for, for discussing that. 

And I think, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s a big conversation right. And so uh, you know, I think a lot of people don’t feel equipped for that, you know what I mean? And so um, I think that’s part of why she’s, she’s not as widely read as she, um, definitely deserves to be. 

Carrie: Yeah. I absolutely agree. Um, I, um, noticed something as I was reading, and maybe I missed it, like a direct like, reference to it, or the connection to it–In several of her poems, she references “the nine.” What, what is that? Because I, I couldn’t place it. 

Dr. Doty: [Pause.] She’s referencing the nine muses.  

Carrie: Okay. 

Dr. Doty: So, it’s. So, so, uh, Carrie, I’m so pleased that you brought up neoclassical poetry because she is a uh, an Alexander Pope superfan, it says. Yeah. Were you picking up on that? 

Carrie: That is exactly what I was picking up on! Because I’ve read quite a bit of Alexander Pope and I was like, I, I didn’t quite make the like, connection. But now that you’ve said it, like, I can’t unknow it, if, if that makes sense. 

[Pause.]

Forest: [Sighs.] I think I just forgot what I was gonna say. And I was gonna say something and I felt like it was so important, too. Um…I was just–I think I was just wondering, kind of curious, like, did she ever earn her freedom? Like, what… Like, what does it be–What, what happened? 

Dr. Doty: So, so this is a really interesting story, and it’s, you know, eventually it’ll be a very sad one. So uh, in late 1773, she is emancipated. And so uh, you know, you come across the different explanations for this. So some scholars uh, note that uh, uh, Britain had uh, at the time that Nathaniel had traveled with her to London to get this book of poems published made it to where any enslaved person who set foot on English soil was immediately emancipated. And some people say that, that she only agreed to go back to the States under the condition that she would be emancipated. Um, other people’s–Other people disagree and say [coughs; sound mutes for a second]. Excuse me. And say something along the lines of, “Well, no, the, the Wheatleys did it out of the goodness of their own hearts.” And so, you know, there, there are differing opinions on this. 

The documentary record for her and her life is a little um, thin. But what ends up happening is she is emancipated in 1773. Um, Susanna Wheatley dies the, the year after. Um, uh, John Wheatley dies a few years after her. Uh, and Phillis Wheatley ends up marrying uh, this guy, uh, John Peters. Uh, if–I want to make sure that I absolutely remember this…Yeah, John Peters, who is a grocer. And uh, they have three kids, two of whom die very young. Uh, he–It’s not clear. So some people say that he drank away any money that they made. But uh, long story short, he was not able to really financially provide for the family, so she ended up having to take work as a maid. And um, as I said earlier, two of her children died, uh, really, really young, and uh, her third kid died shortly after she did in the uh, death–in the sickbed that they both shared. And she died at about the age of 31.

And so it’s–This is a tragic situation because at one point she was trying to pull together enough supporters to publish the second book of poetry. And uh, you know, it just never really cohered for her. That support never really cohered for her, and so she met the tragic end that she met. 

Carrie: That’s, that…I have to question then: Did she–I probably know the answer to this, but did she ever receive any recompense for the publication of her first book? 

Dr. Doty: Not that I’m aware of it. So, so the way that publishing worked back then is you would have a patron to support the, the cost of publishing. Um, or you would have uh, like, they would call them subscribers. It’s kind of like putting a Patreon together or something. Where uh, you’d have subscribers who would sign up and say, “I will get a free copy of this book if I contribute x amount of dollars to so and so.” I am not aware of her making any money. And so um, I could be–Like there could well be information about that, this subject, out there that I don’t know. But again, the documentary record is just thin. I mean, yeah. Some scholars who even suggest she wasn’t born in Africa at all. Some people say that she was born in South Carolina. I don’t, I don’t know there’s strong evidence for that, but I just bring it up as an example of how surprisingly mysterious a lot of her life still is. 

Carrie: Yeah. My goodness, she’s such a, she’s so fascinating. Like, I almost wish that she–No, I  do wish that she’d lived longer and we could have gotten a second book of poetry from her. Like, what would– ‘Cause she published the first one at 14–Or how old was she when the first one was published? 

Dr. Doty: She published this, uh, “Poems Upon Various Subjects” in 1773, so she would have been about 20.

Carrie: Okay. 

Dr. Doty: The first, the first poem she published was when she was 14, and she kept working and working and working. 

Carrie: Oh. I gotcha. Well, 11 years is still a long amount of time. Um, and in that time, you know, I would like to see if her subjects would have changed, um, now that she had, you know, um, had gotten married, and um, she’d had children, and, and how her subject might have shifted, um, and, and even how her subject might have shifted in light of her emancipation. That would be, have been…Are there any poems that exist from that um, possible second collection? 

Dr. Doty: Not…Not that I’m aware of. And it’s, I think her, her, her situation got very desperate. Um, and she, she was really, I think, too busy surviving. Um, especially, I mean, to think of her children dying young and then getting so sick herself at such a young age, it’s, it’s, it’s a, a genuinely really tragic story. Um, and, and uh, if she weren’t a child prodigy, which is, is what she was, I think, I mean…Can you imagine learning a second language well enough to write such great poetry in it in just seven years? Uh, if she wasn’t a child prodigy, we, we may have never seen any work of hers whatsoever. 

Carrie: Yeah, absolutely. And if she were white, it would be a completely different story. 

Dr. Doty: Absolutely. But yes, that goes without saying, yes. Yes, if, if she had been, um, white it would be, uh, highly different. But what’s even interesting is even in the 1770s, you still didn’t have very many women poets, you know. If you think of someone like Anne Bradstreet, uh–

Carrie: That’s exactly who I was thinking of. 

[Chuckles.]

Dr. Doty: Of course though Anne Bradstreet is like, a century before, right. But um, you know, Anne Bradstreet was writing in a time when people thought that women shouldn’t write poetry at all, that poetry was a man’s game. 

Leigh Ann: The whole time you were talking about, um, Phillis Wheatley’s, like, tragic story, like her biography, after she got married, after she was finally emancipated, she still struggled to eke out an existence. I was just thinking of Charlotte Smith. She was a contemporary of Wordsworth, and she lived in Britain. She was publishing poetry to support her and her children and her hus–She was having this huge battle with her husband over who actually earned that money and got to spend that money. Obviously, her husband wanted that money, but she wanted to take care of their, like, six or seven kids, right? He was like, “But I need it for my gambling!” 

But I’m just thinking of like, how Smith and Wheatley had such drastically different lives. And I–It’s like–And it’s not just because they lived in different countries; you know exactly what it is. Because one was Black the other was white, you know. And i just–

If Wheatley had been white, she could have been another Charlotte Smith. She could have had, she could have earned enough money from her poems to support her children. And maybe they wouldn’t have died. She would be able to afford to feed them, to clothe them, get some treatment–medical treatment if they needed it. And it’s just so infuriating to me that all these, like, prodigies and these amazing people, like. You know that thing we have: “Oh, maybe the cure for cancer is trapped inside the mind of a child from Africa who doesn’t have access to education!” That’s exactly what it is. It’s like there was really–

She wouldn’t have cured cancer, but she could have created so many poems about so many different subjects that didn’t have to, you know, focus on, um, basically speaking up to people to try to get them to see that on her own level, that. And it’s very saddening for me. 

Dr. Doty: I– Imagine trying to do all that when you have Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence, revolutionary hero, all this, who says that even if you wrote what you say that you wrote, which he’s not sure of, right, then what what you wrote is still beneath the dignity of criticism. And so that, that Wheatley so often invokes and uses, I think, writes in this neoclassical style, I think is a wonderful way of her saying, “Well, no, I am actually quite well-educated, and I do indeed know what I’m doing. And I know my Alexander Pope forward and back, by the way.” 

[Pause.] 

Carrie: Definitely! Do you have a favorite poem? 

Dr. Doty: I really love the uh, uh, her poem “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth.” 

Carrie: What about that one do you like the most? 

Dr. Doty: Uh, it’s, it’s for me one of the most uh, uh, assertively political pieces that she wrote, that she wrote. And so uh, if– Would you mind if I just like, read the bit that uh, really speaks to me? 

Carrie: Go for it, please, yes. Share that with us–our listeners. 

Dr. Doty: So uh, this is, uh, her poem, uh, “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North-America, etc.”

And so uh, this guy, the Earl of Dartmouth, is a uh, is a British colonial administrator. He was uh..If you’ve ever seen that great film The Patriot, with uh, Mel Gibson, uh, you know. He’s all, these bad guys, he’s one of these British guys. He’s lording it over, uh, Americans. And this is a poem in, uh, in celebration of freedom. Uh, and she, she writes–And I think this is really interesting. Um, she, she says, uh,

“Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,

Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,

Whence flow these wishes for the common good,

By feeling hearts alone best understood,

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:

What pangs excruciating must molest,

What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?

Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d

That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:

Such, such my case. And can I then but pray

Others may never feel tyrannic sway?”

And so it’s this wonderful set of lines where she, she does a few things. One, she says, “I was snatched by fate, by cruel fate.” It was just such a distinction from her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” where she says it was “divine providence” that, that put her on that ship, right. In this poem, it’s, it’s different. And she says, “I–It–This, this was cruel, what happened to me. My parents must miss me terribly and wonder what’s going on.” The other thing she does is she connects the tyrannical experience of being enslaved with the tyranny that she felt that the British were exercising over the colonies. It’s a very, very rich poem, and it’s a, it’s a, it’s a, a really complicated one. It’s really interesting. 

Carrie: Yeah, I, I, I was–Because I do remember the one where she said it was divine providence, right, that she was bought out of Africa. And I think it’s such an interesting shift here. Um, like, you know, here as lit majors and, you know, people who love literature, we can sit down and dig this apart. Do you think people of the time who read this recognized the almost, like, the criticism, like, the, the very sophisticated criticism of those lines and her connection to the fact that she was, um, ripped from her parents by the hands of fate (which we know, um, were the people who who took her)?

Dr. Doty: I’m sure many, many people did. I don’t…I would speculate that the, that her audience would be an audience that might be interested in hearing a message like that. Um, and, and thinking back to the question of what what would a second book of poems have looked like, I could see her having shifted into a more explicitly abolitionist model of poetry. That’s really, really easy for me to imagine. But just the material circumstances and the political circumstances and the social circumstances weren’t in place to allow her to be the poet that she’d already proven herself to be. 

Forest: I–I’m–Now I’m kind of thinking about, you know, what Carrie said about the neoclassicism of it all. And I’m, I’m wondering if you feel that her writing about the nine muses, was it maybe like her, her way of calling to a higher power, almost? Of some–of something that–of like, something to believe in where it wasn’t a man as god is, like, represented as? [Chuckles.] And the muses weren’t necessarily, um, purely Christian in any kind of way? And it kind of ties back into the paganistic roots of it all from her younger years? Does that make sense? 

Dr. Doty: It does. Some, some have speculated that her poetry contains, uh, subtle references to um, uh, West African, um, or like, spiritualities that are indigenous to West Africa, um, particularly concerning the sun. And so there’s a little bit of scholarship on that out there, which is highly, highly interesting. Um, of course, the sun is also a homophone for the Son as in Jesus Christ. And so um, a lot, a lot of, a lot of that can be read a couple of ways. 

And so I understand you as asking if, is she sort of appealing to a feminine divine? Uh, you know, I think what she’s really doing there is showing that she has the educational chops necessary to write the poetry she was writing. And so one interesting thing about her is she was unusually well-educated even for white women of her time. And so uh, she was learning Latin, uh, as well on top of everything else she was doing. And so, she um, you know, it’s, it’s a, it’s, it’s almost like, you know, when you’re in an English class and you bring up, “Well, you know, it’s like, uh, Jacques Derrida once wrote,” uh, you know, so on and so forth. Or it’s like, “Have you read, have you really read Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault?” Um, this, this form of uh, credentialing oneself that’s–That’s at least how I have always read it. 

Forest: So she’s name-dropping, basically. Keeping up with her, um, male counterparts. But I don’t want to call them counterparts because I, I don’t feel like they were on her level. [Pause.] Yeah.

Dr. Doty: I think that’s fair. I mean, you think of being being an enslaved person, being an African-American person, being a woman, uh, being, uh…This is something I always emphasize when I teach it: She is, she’s also someone who, uh, has learned English as a second language. Uh, so many barriers to her success, and she overcame them at an age when most of us are still trying to figure out what even to do with their lives, right? 

[Pause.]

Lane: I have a question. Um, Dr. Doty and Carrie, since you’ve read more Phillis Wheatley than I have. I’ve only read the three poems for tonight, that’s it. And I mean, just like this week, so I have no background on Phillis Wheatley other than what Dr. Doty has provided tonight. 

But I was wondering: the poems we read and the other poems that y’all have read, do you think any of them are postcolonial? The one that I thought was the most postcolonial was the poem to–[Laughs and responds to Carrie’s message in chat.] Yeah, only three, yeah! But um, the one I thought was the most postcolonial was the poem to the Earl, but even then she referred to him as
“my lord,” and so it was kind of murky for me. So I just wondered what y’all thought. And of course Forest and Leigh Ann, whatever you all think! 

Dr. Doty: Okay–

Forest: I’m, I’m, I’m too busy laughing at Carrie right now. Sorry! 

Carrie: I thought we were supposed to read the whole thing! And that’s what I did! I didn’t realize it was just three poems. Wow…

[Laughter.]

Forest: Carrie, you, you did like, the absolute most and I don’t know where you fit that in at because you have way too much to do all the time. 

Lane: I wish I had had enough time to read all of it, but no. 

[Laughter.]

Carrie: Oh man, I’m always dropping my Modcast game, but today I like, stepped it up a new level! Okay, Dr. Doty, I’m going to let you answer Lane’s question because I think you’ll have greater insight than I do. 

Dr. Doty: Well, the the short answer is he’s still in charge. So this is 1773, and so, you know, uh, George Washington and, and all the rest of the patriots don’t really bow up at the at the British until 1776, of course. And so, given her, her station in life, and uh, you know. It is interesting that the, the, the genre of the poem allows her to take this guy to task in fairly explicit terms. Like, “you are an oppressor, you are tyrannical.” But you know, she’s, she is still uh, locked into these, uh, polite forms of address where she can’t say “dear Earl,” you know, “Earl of Dartmouth, you S.O.B.,” you know, so on and so forth. Because that, I guess, that would interfere with the neoclassical mode of her poetry as well. 

Carrie: I agree. I do have a question, though, because I noticed on one of the poems–and it probably wasn’t one of the three–um, but the one where she is talking about, um, Niobe. Um there–it’s quite long in there, but there is a section at the end where there is a little footnote that says that these final lines were written by somebody else. I don’t really know…yeah. 

Dr. Doty: All right, which poem is that? I– [indistinct]. 

Carrie: That’s the one about Niobe, Niobe. Um, she’s talking about uh, “Niobe in Distress for her Children slain by Apollo, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book VI. and from a view of the Painting of Mr. Richard Wilson,” and um. She’s retelling the myth of Niobe and the slaying of her children and her husband. And then I would say it is in line–because this one is really long and you really do get to see her Alexander Pope come out in this, especially with the epic quality, um, that he sometimes uses…There is a footnote, and it starts in line 213. Um, it says, “this verse to the end is the work of another hand.” 

Dr. Doty: Now that is really interesting. [Clears throat.] And so the version that I’m looking at does not include that footnote. And so I would need to uh, uh, check this out. But that’s a very interesting find. Um let’s see here. You know, Carrie, I can’t really tell you what, what that is about, um–

Carrie: Oh hey! We gave you a new project. 

Dr. Doty: Yeah, that’s very, very interesting. Um, what’s interesting is every one of those lines is in quotations. 

Carrie: Yes, it is. 

Dr. Doty: And so my guess is that she is making reference to another poet or poem there, uh, kind of like a pastiche mode, perhaps. And uh, this is just pure speculation, but if she, if that’s true, the fact that she had to say, “this verse is in the, is to the end in the work of another hand,” it’s, it’s like she has to anticipate that people would accuse her of plagiarism. 

Carrie: Ohhh, I see, okay.

Dr. Doty: That’s just speculation. 

Carrie: Well, I’m gonna, I’m gonna have to dig into this a little bit, too, because I, I, I see here that the, this part that’s in quotations is a logical conclusion to the story that she’s telling. And so I wonder where she took it from and why she felt the need to add that into what she’d already written, because it, I mean…It’s, it’s long. It’s 212 lines of her original retelling, so. 

Leigh Ann: I’m also curious as to whether Phillis Wheatley added that in herself or if somebody else had edited it in. 

Carrie: That was a question that I had, too, as well, right. So, was it the editor that added in those last few lines to complete the poem because they felt it was left uncomplete, or, or was it like Dr. Doty said, something that she felt completed and she added that in herself? 

Dr. Doty: That I don’t know. That’s, that’s unclear to me, to be honest with you. And so that’s, that’s a very interesting find. But something I’ll definitely be looking into. 

Carrie: Awesome. Well, we might have to do a blog post to kind of wrap up this mystery of where these lines came from. Other thoughts about Phillis Wheatley? Any, any last minute things you noticed? Or–Forest, I saw you have some lines that you really particularly resonated with. 

Forest: Yeah. I just, I feel like it also kind of ties in with, with the bit that you guys are talking about, as well as…I feel like everything that she wrote was quite intentional. So I don’t know if it was like, you know, obviously I wasn’t there, so I don’t know if it was, um, added in by the editor, but I feel like if it was in there and it was her, her work, it was probably just her intention to make it that way. And I feel like now, as I know more background and have read some of her stuff, it makes me, um, read her poetry with a newfound kind of light because of how intentional she was without being intentional. So she, she wouldn’t necessarily like, get in trouble because she’s not talking about the things that she’s not supposed to be talking about, but she is. Does that make sense? My brain fog is, is setting in. 

Dr. Doty: The, the publication history of Phillis Wheatley’s work is highly complex, and, and so get–getting into these questions of intent and editorship and, and all this is, is highly fraught, uh, and, and, and will continue to be so. I really, I really really think that uh, someone might in the future make a stunning archival discovery uh, that will make uh, these circumstances more clear. Um, but, you know, uh. This, I, I always like to talk about the, uh, uh, enslaved, uh, writer, uh, Harriet Jacobs. Uh, have you ever heard of her? She, she. So she was a fugitive from slavery. Uh, but she published a slave narrative, uh, called uh, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” in 1861. People–

Forest: I remember you talking about her when you came to campus in your, um, in your writing. 

Dr. Doty: Thank you for remembering that. One uh, yeah, I, I’m just finishing up a project on her. But after she published this in 1861, people for a long time thought it was, uh, pretty much a novel. They thought it was all made up because it was too, too well-told, too fantastical, all this. And it wasn’t really until the 70s that, uh, a professor did the hard work of finding the archival evidence to prove that no, everything that Harriet Jacobs said is true. And so I hold up hope that a similar discovery might be made, uh, in the case of Phillis Wheatley, that maybe there’s something lying around somewhere in Boston, uh, that can be discovered, and we can learn a little bit more about this woman’s life. 

Carrie: I hope that that is discovered as well because I think that this world needs more Phillis Wheatley. I’m, I’m sold on that, so maybe this podcast will inspire somebody to be a Phillis Wheatley scholar. Um, and go and uncover that archival information. Fingers crossed! Um, well, um. Any, I mean, I feel like I need to go back and re-read all of the poems again, um, just so I can experience them more with some, um, new, new light, um, about who Phillis Wheatley is. And yeah, read all of them! That goes for you–not you, Dr. Doty, but you, Lane, Forest, and Leigh Ann: you all should go read all of them because they are very good. Um, but um, yeah. This was awesome and super informational, and I feel like I want to go and, and, and call on the muses and Alexander Pope and Phillis Wheatley and see if I can produce some moving beautiful poetry. But um, yeah, anybody–

Dr. Doty: If I could just make one plug? A, a book about her was, uh, published, um, last year by Wesleyan University Press titled “The Age of Phillis,” and it’s written by the, uh, poet Honorée Fannone Jeffers. Uh, it’s supposed to be fabulous. Uh, uh, because of uh, the events of the past year, uh, I’ve been too busy learning how to use Zoom and online teaching and all this, uh, to, to read it yet. But uh, it’s uh, at the moment that I can I’m gonna read this book. And uh, so I would recommend that anyone who wants to read this–and I’ll say it again: uh, the book’s title is “The Age of Phillis”–um, uh, who wants to learn more about Phillis Wheatley, uh, this book is gonna have the most up-to-date information. 

Carrie: Awesome! Thank you so much, Dr. Doty. And we will make sure we post that in a blog post about Phillis Wheatley once we uncover our mystery that we stumbled upon here in this, uh, podcast. Um, otherwise–Lane, I see you you have something you would like to say. 

Lane: Yes, we will post it in blog post, and we’ll post it on our Facebook and Instagram, so be sure to follow us on both Facebook and Instagram. 

Carrie: Yes, that’s another good plug! I totally forgot that we have that now because we’re moving on up in the world. Um, Forest, Leigh Ann, you have anything you’d like to plug here at the end? 

Forest: Just that we’re awesome. And thank you to Dr. Doty for, um, bearing with us as we’ve rescheduled and um, floundered our way through trying to get this done. Because we’ve been really excited for it and we really wanted to do it, but the time of the, the pandemic has been, uh, very stressful on everybody. So thank you. You know what? I’m glad we’re doing it this month because she was a Black woman. It’s women’s history month, so you know, good timing even though we missed our previous scheduled date for some time in February. 

Carrie: Yeah. And we can thank, uh, the, the what was it? “Snow-vid?” “Snowpocalypse?” The ice storm for, um, our first delay. 

Forest: Well, I didn’t…I didn’t have any of those issues. I’ve been in California, so I’ve got sunny weather all the time. 

Carrie: Awesome. Leigh Ann, you got anything you want to plug here at the end? 

Leigh Ann: I don’t really have anything yet to add that’s new to the discussion, but you know, I really enjoyed this Phillis–This is the first time I’ve heard of Phillis Wheatley, you know, as I said. And it’s just been a really fascinating conversation and I’m definitely gonna have to look more into her. 

Dr. Doty: Well, thank you all for having me, and, and I hope that more people look into early African-American literature, which is um, um, an incredibly rich uh, uh, field of literary expression, uh, that I think is surprising, uh, uh, in many many ways. And so um, um, uh, I hope that more people can start looking into, uh, this fabulous mode of literary production. 

Carrie: Yep! I hope so, too. 

All right. Well, lit nerds, thank you for sticking with us here through this absolutely fascinating look at Phillis Wheatley, her life, and her works. Check out the blog, our Instagram, and our Facebook page for links about where you can find “The Age of Phillis” to learn more about her, and we encourage you to read and explore more African-American literature, especially early African-American literature. And as always, we’ll see you later. 


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