New Book | The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley

Posted in books by Editor on March 23, 2023

From Macmillan:

David Waldstreicher, The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys through American Slavery and Independence (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), 496 pages, ISBN: ‎ 978-0809098248, $30.

A paradigm-shattering biography of Phillis Wheatley, whose extraordinary poetry set African American literature at the heart of the American Revolution.

book coverAdmired by George Washington, ridiculed by Thomas Jefferson, published in London, and read far and wide, Phillis Wheatley led one of the most extraordinary American lives. Seized in West Africa and forced into slavery as a child, she was sold to a merchant family in Boston, where she became a noted poet at a young age. Mastering the Bible, Greek and Latin translations, and the works of Pope and Milton, she composed elegies for local elites, celebrated political events, praised warriors, and used her verse to variously lampoon, question, and assert the injustice of her enslaved condition. “Can I then but pray / Others may never feel tyrannic sway?” By doing so, she added her voice to a vibrant, multisided conversation about race, slavery, and discontent with British rule; before and after her emancipation, her verses shook up racial etiquette and used familiar forms to create bold new meanings. She demonstrated a complex but crucial fact of the times: that the American Revolution both strengthened and limited Black slavery. In this new biography, the historian David Waldstreicher offers the fullest account to date of Wheatley’s life and works, correcting myths, reconstructing intimate friendships, and deepening our understanding of her verse and the revolutionary era. Throughout The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley, he demonstrates the continued vitality and resonance of a woman who wrote, in a founding gesture of American literature, “Thy Power, O Liberty, makes strong the weak / And (wond’rous instinct) Ethiopians speak.”

David Waldstreicher teaches history at the City University of New York Graduate Center and is the author of Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification and Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution. He has written for The New York Times Book Review, Boston Review, and The Atlantic, among other publications.

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From Jennifer Schuessler’s review for The NY Times:

Jennifer Schuessler, “A Fresh Look at a Pioneering Black Voice of Revolutionary America,” The New York Times (2 March 2023). A new biography places the poet Phillis Wheatley in her own time — and in the middle of the current hot debate about the American Revolution and slavery.

. . . Waldstreicher, who teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is known for deeply researched, tightly written studies, which aim to complicate any comforting idealization of the founding. . . .

His books (which include a study of Ben Franklin and slavery) and his blunt intellectual style haven’t always made him popular. Some traditionalists in the field, he said tartly, prefer to “pretend I don’t exist.”

Waldstreicher is also a longtime scourge of “Founders’ Chic,” as historians refer to reverential best sellers extolling the character of the founders (often by exaggerating their opposition to slavery). But his new book, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is itself a founder biography of sorts, treating Wheatley not only as the progenitor of the African American literary tradition but an important political voice in the creation of the nation itself. . . .

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