Much of the scholarship on Phillis Wheatley has focused on synthesizing articles previously written about her, in order to highlight her historical importance in the early phase of American literature.
At about eight years of age, the young African girl had been carried away from her homeland in West Africa and brought to her new home in Boston, Massachusetts, after having been captured for slavery in 1761.
John Wheatley, a prominent Boston merchant, named the girl Phillis, after the ship that carried her across the Atlantic, and gave her as a gift to his wife Susanna.
However, she continued to live with the Wheatley family until she married a free African American man from Boston named John Peters in 1778.
Because many slaveholders did not have the opportunity to obtain the sort of education Wheatley had, it is likely they felt threatened by her knowledge of classical literature.
Thomas Jefferson, although well versed in the classics, did not agree that the ownership of an educated slave was a good idea—such education threatened the way he chose to view society.
Women during the revolutionary period did not have the privilege of attending Latin grammar school.
My paper goes further in that I will examine the literary roots of her poetry in the classics, and show the relationship between those roots questioning of slavery.
Throughout my research I will analyze the literary and mythical elements found within Wheatley’s “To Maecenas,” “On the Death of a Young Lady Five Years of Age,” “His Excellency George Washington,” and “Liberty and Peace.” I will further evaluate one of several letters between her and Reverend Samson Occom, as well as show how her allusions to Greek and Roman formatting display the way in which her knowledge of the classics is seen in the content of her work.
The Wheatley family impressed onto Phillis their deep roots in Christianity; Phillis, according to them, had lived in darkness in the pagan land of Africa.
As Susanna’s dying wish, John manumitted Phillis on October 18, 1773.