Although the Romantic poets lived two hundred years ago, a remarkable number of their manuscripts, belongings, and other assorted ephemera still survive and are preserved in archives and collections across the globe. Most of the time, these artefacts are tucked away in museum collections, or specially stored in boxes to preserve the delicate paper or materials used to make them. Generally only a select few are allowed access to these items, predominantly the archivists, curators and custodians of these wonderful remnants and the researchers who are lucky enough to be working on them. Therefore, the aim of this exciting series on the K-SAA Blog is to bring to the fore the hidden and hidden-in-plain-sight artefacts of the Romantic poets, particularly those belonging to the Shelleys, Keats, Byron and their circles. We also aim to provide you, the reader, with behind-the-scenes access to these collections, along with insider knowledge from archivists, curators, and scholars.
For this edition of ‘Uncovering the Archive’, we turn to the collections of Emory University, Atlanta, GA. The Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at the University holds the Phillis Wheatley Collection, 1757-1773, which is made up of two eighteenth-century copybooks.
Born in Gambia, West Africa in around 1753, Phillis Wheatley Peters was sold into slavery as a child and transported to Boston, where she was purchased by the Wheatley family. John Wheatley was a wealthy merchant who bought Phillis as a servant for his wife, Susanna. They named the child after the slave ship ‘The Phillis’ on which she was bought to America. The Wheatleys’ children, Mary and Nathaniel taught Wheatley Peters to read and write, and reportedly by the age of 12 she could read the classics in Greek and Latin.
Her first poem ‘To the University of Cambridge, in New England’ was written when Wheatley Peters was just 14, and by the time she was 18, Wheatley Peters had 28 poems ready for publication. After running advertisements in Boston newspapers in February 1772, it appeared interest in her literature was low. Wheatley Peters instead left for London with Nathaniel Wheatley, both for her health as she suffered from asthma, but also to find a publisher for her poetry.
Abolitionists and dignitaries welcomed Wheatley Peters to London, and in 1773, her first and only book, and the first volume of poetry to be published by an African-American woman was published. Entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the poems demonstrated Wheatley Peters’s poetic skill, with over a third of her canon made up of elegies and containing a focus on classical themes and techniques. She also translated Ovid, and used biblical symbols to comment on slavery, as demonstrated in ‘On Bring Brought from Africa to America’.
In late 1773, Wheatley Peters was emancipated by Susanna Wheatley, who died in March 1774, shortly followed by John and Mary Wheatley, who both died in 1778. In April 1778, Wheatley Peters married John Peters, a free Black, who, despite his business acumen, soon found himself and his family impoverished. Recently, a case has been made by the scholar-poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, author of The Age of Phillis, that we should consistently refer to Phillis Wheatley as Phillis Wheatley Peters. This is due to the fact that she appears to have chosen to use her husband’s surname, whilst her first two names were given as part of her enslavement – hence my choice to refer to her as such for the entirety of this blog.
Although she continued to write poetry, Wheatley Peters found herself working as a charwoman to support her new family, before becoming seriously ill. In December 1784, whilst John Peters was imprisoned due to debt, Wheatley Peters died. She was buried with her last remaining child.
It is thought Wheatley Peters wrote around 145 poems, however many of the manuscripts are presumed lost after her death. Only around twenty of her letters remain in archives, the rest lost to time.
The Phillis Wheatley Collection at the Emory University is therefore of vital importance, as it contains a previously unpublished variant of Wheatley’s ‘A Hymn to Humanity’, which was first published in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
As stated, the collection consists of two copybooks, dated to the eighteenth century, from Boston MA. Copied in these two books are verses from magazines, alongside attributed poetry from John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, and William Shakespeare (all of whom influenced Wheatley Peters in her own work). The variant of Wheatley Peters’s ‘A Hymn to Humanity’ is particularly exciting, as it contains changes that are significant to the text of the poem, alongside confirming the poem’s dedication.
Head of Research Services, Courtney Chartier, passed on to the K-SAA the following quotes from Dr Randall Burkett, who was Curator for African American History and Culture until his retirement in 2019.
Dr Burkett recounted his memories of acquiring the copybooks: ‘I acquired these two copybooks from a dealer at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair. These were actually the first items I purchased for Emory, as the fair was held in the late fall of 1996, just a few months before I formally started work at Emory. I acquired them from the rare book dealer Dennis Melhouse [of First Folio, Paris, TN]. He said he acquired the documents from the estate of Guy Richards, Jr., a journalist from Fishkill, NY, whose mother was Elizabeth F. Ver Planck Richards. The Ver Plancks were an old New York family associated with the Newlins, a Boston family for whom Phillis Wheatley worked [although this was not the family that enslaved her]’.
Dr Burkett also gave us an insight into the copybooks themselves: ‘Although I am by no means an expert, it was my impression that there were several ‘hands,’ e.g., different persons who were writing in the copybook (not unusual, as paper was at a premium at the time). There are numerous textual variations from the version of ‘Hymn to Humanity’ in the manuscript version at Emory. Note that our manuscript poem is dated December 12, 1773, and her book Poems on Various Subjects was published that same year’.
‘I would add that in the published version, the Hymn to Humanity is dedicated “To S.P.G., Esp.” The manuscript version is our holdings is dedicated “To S.P. Galloway, who corrected some poetic essays of the authoress’.
Here is an image of the manuscript variant below:
Rising from the brutal institution of slavery, Wheatley Peters left behind a remarkable legacy as the first African-American woman to write a book of poetry. She demonstrated that education for all, no matter their colour or race was a basic right, and many abolitionists drew upon her achievements to further the cause. In the 2010 work, Phillis Wheatley and the Romantics by John C. Shields, Wheatley Peters is recognised to have also influenced many European Romantic figures, including in particular Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who is thought to have borrowed from her ideas. In the twentieth century, Wheatley Peters’s work experienced something of a revival, with her poems recognised as the start of Black literature in the USA. In the twenty-first century, her work continues to be studied and explored in even greater detail than ever before. With increasing interest in her life and work, more of Wheatley Peters’s manuscripts may come to light in the coming years.
For more information on the Phillis Wheatley Collection held at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, Emory University, please see here.
For more information on Phillis Wheatley Peters, please see the following list of resources:
– Phillis in London: Performance, Podcast and Poetry – Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.
– The Age of Phillis by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Wesleyan University Press, 2020).
– Phillis Wheatley and the Romantics by John C. Shields (The University of Tennessee Press, 2010).
– Phillis Wheatley: A Genius in Bondage by Vincent Caretta (The University of Georgia Press, 2011).
– Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley, ed. by Vincent Caretta (Penguin, 2001).
All images courtesy of Emory University.
With thanks to Courtney Chartier, Lolita Rowe, and Dr Randall Burkett, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University, for their insights into this collection, the permission to use images from the collection, and for all their assistance.
Many thanks also to Mariam Wassif for her insightful and sensitive edits to this blog.