Poems of Phillis Wheatley
Today marks the 250th anniversary of the first publication of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, the first book published by an African-American writer.
Wheatley was born in West Africa around 1753 and was sold into slavery as a child. She was taken to Boston, where she was purchased by a wealthy merchant family, the Wheatleys, and given the name Phillis. The Wheatley family gave Phillis an education in English, Greek and Latin, which was highly unusual for enslaved persons. They also and encouraged her to write, and arranged for her to travel to London in order to secure a publisher for her poetry when none could be arranged in Boston. Poems on Various Subjects was published in London on September 1, 1773, and gained notoriety in both England and the American colonies due to its author’s race. Wheatley was manumitted the following year, and while she continued to write and publish poems, she was unable to find a publisher for a second book before she died in 1784. Her work was revived by 19th century abolitionists and again in the 20th century by literary scholars, cementing her importance in the history of American literature.
The BYU library’s copy of Wheatley’s poems was acquired in 1976.