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The University of Michigan has acquired one of the most important American books of the late 18th century—widely regarded as the first book of poetry written by an African American woman.
The first American edition of Phillis Wheatley Peters’ “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” is currently on display at the William L. Clements Library as part of the exhibit “The Art of Resistance in Early America.”
Printed in Philadelphia in 1786 by Joseph Cruikshank, the publication was released two years after Peters’ death. Printed in much smaller numbers than its preceding London edition in 1773, the book is even more rare than its predecessor. This printing marks Wheatley Peters’ enduring significance as a writer, and signals the ongoing popularity of her poetry; the volume would appear in at least eight more editions in the next thirty years.
“Phillis Wheatley’s poems represent the origin point for Black American poetry in print,” said cultural historian Susan Scott Parrish, professor of English language and literature.
“For the Clements to have acquired this rare, first U.S. edition of ‘Poems on Various Subjects’ is momentous. Our students and our library visitors can now hold in their hands a book that showed Wheatley assuming the authority to sermonize, both boldly and subtly, on such colossal issues as earthly freedom and eternal salvation.”
Today, Wheatley Peters is considered one of the foundational figures of American literature. Stolen from her family in West Africa as a young girl and enslaved by the Wheatley family in Boston, she quickly learned to read and write. By age 12 she was reading Greek and Latin, having been tutored by the Wheatley children. She published her first poem at 14.
“Wheatley had originally hoped to publish her book of poems in Boston, by subscription,” said Paul Erickson, the Randolph G. Adams Director of the Clements Library. “But the Wheatley family was unable to find an American publisher, in large part because publishers did not believe that an enslaved Black girl was capable of writing these poems.”
The veracity of Wheatley Peters’ authorship was constantly questioned. The London edition includes an attestation by a group of prominent Bostonians—including Samuel Mather and John Hancock—that she was the author of the poems. Abolitionist sentiment was stronger in London than in Boston in the 1770s, and Wheatley Peters’ eulogy of the famous revivalist minister George Whitefield gained the attention of Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon.
In 1773, Hastings and other prominent British abolitionists supported a London publication of her poems. Wheatley Peters gained her freedom shortly after the publication of her book.
“As we celebrate Black History Month, Phillis Wheatley Peters’ achievement stands as an ideal reminder that Black history is American history, and that African American literature is American literature,” Erickson said.
At present, the Clements’ copy of the 1786 edition is the only copy held in an institution outside of the East Coast, and will be available for study by scholars and students visiting the library. “Poems on Various Subjects” received criticism for its excessive piety and formalism, yet critics today are reading the poems in new ways that call attention to their often pointed criticisms of slavery.
The Clements Library has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $42,000 for acquiring this book. Purchasing historic materials often requires decisions to be made quickly, and for fundraising efforts to take place after the item is procured.
“Through crowdfunding, we hope anyone in the world who is passionate about history can have a hand in supporting this exciting acquisition,” said Angela Oonk, director of development at the Clements Library.
Acquiring, preserving and sharing original primary sources for research and display is at the core of the Clements’ mission, Erickson says.
“The Clements Library has always relied on financial contributions from supporters to help us acquire materials for the collections,” he said. “This support is more important than ever as we continue to build holdings that will make U-M a worldwide destination for research in early American history and culture.”