The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley
A Poet's Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence
Author: David Waldstreicher
A New York Times notable book of 2023
“[An] erudite, enlightening new biography . . . [Waldstreicher’s] interpretations equal Wheatley’s own intentional verse, making it a joy to follow along as he unpacks her words and their arrangement.” —Tiya Miles, The Atlantic
“Thoroughly researched, beautifully rendered and cogently argued . . . The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley is [. . .] historical biography at its best.” —Kerri Greenidge, The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)
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.”
Farrar, Straus and Giroux