Book details

The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley

A Poet's Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence

Author: David Waldstreicher

The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley

The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley


About This Book

One of Literary Hub's most anticipated books of 2023

A paradigm-shattering biography of Phillis Wheatley, whose extraordinary poetry set African American...

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Book Details

One of Literary Hub's most anticipated books of 2023

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

Admired 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.”

Imprint Publisher

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



In The News

"[An] expansive new biography . . . The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley is a rich and necessary book." —Farah Jasmine Griffin, O magazine

“Magisterial . . . Waldstreicher excels at teasing out the subtle political messages within Wheatley’s poetry . . . The historical scholarship dazzles and the incisive analysis of Wheatley’s poetry suggests she had a more ‘liberatory political agenda’ than she’s often credited for. The result is an indispensable take on an essential early American poet." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Intriguing . . . For those familiar only with Wheatley’s often anthologized 'On Being Brought From Africa to America,' the breadth and depth of her poetry will be a revelation." Kirkus Reviews

"David Waldstreicher has done something truly magical in this deeply historical, deeply literary biography of Phillis Wheatley. He has recovered her poetical voice (and a treasure trove of her long-forgotten anonymous poems) within the complex world of eighteenth-century slavery and revolution. Anyone who wishes to understand Wheatley and her unique insights into why slavery dominated America’s revolutionary thinking must read this thoughtful, incredibly smart, eye-opening book." —Nancy Isenberg, author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America and Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr

"In David Waldstreicher’s telling, the Greek and Roman classics—the pride of the American founders—never spoke more clearly than to the Black poet Phillis Wheatley. And why not? War, peril on the high seas, kidnappings: she had seen them all and lived them all. Here is Wheatley's dramatic life and subtle voice, richly rendered; As I read, I'd never felt closer to her." —Woody Holton, author of Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution

"This remarkable book connects the age of revolution and the worlds of Atlantic slavery not just through impressive historical research but through deft attention to Phillis Wheatley's oft-disdained poetry. Her ostensibly stiff Augustan verses make the connection. Heroic couplets indeed!" Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of A House Full of Females and A Midwife's Tale

“David Waldstreicher's biography of Phillis Wheatley is essential reading about a poet known so well by her name, and yet so little known by the facts, motivations, and nuances of her extraordinary life and her art. As Waldstreicher beautifully states in this turn-pager: ‘she's Homer and Odysseus and the slaves and the women they knew or imagined.’ The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley is a must-read about one of America's most remarkable and least understood poets. This is not only the story of a remarkable revolutionary poet; it is also—amid its triumphs and tragedies—an American saga.” Rowan Ricardo Phillips, author of Living Weapon and When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness

About the Creators

The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley

The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley