The University of Michigan William L. Clements Library has acquired one of the most important American books of the late eighteenth century–the first American edition of the earliest book of poetry published by an African American author. Phillis Wheatley Peters’ publication, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is currently on display at the Clements Library as part of the exhibit “The Art of Resistance in Early America.”
Paul J. Erickson, the Randolph G. Adams Director of the Clements Library, was excited when the Clements Library was offered the opportunity to purchase the first American edition. Before making the decision to proceed, he reached out to Wendy Raphael Roberts, Associate Professor of English at The University at Albany, SUNY. Roberts is a current NEH Fellow working on the manuscript presence of Wheatley Peters and her research has led to the discovery of two previously unknown poems.
“The value of the 1786 Philadelphia edition of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, one of America’s most important poets, simply cannot be overstated,” said Roberts, “Not only was it the first American edition, it was printed in Philadelphia during the pivotal years after the Revolution when the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery reorganized. This particular edition, which is not widely available, is crucial to unfold Wheatley’s breathtaking influence and impact on America’s poetry and aesthetics, and on abolition and social justice.”
Printed in Philadelphia in 1786 by Joseph Cruikshank, this publication was released two years after Phillis Wheatley Peters’ death. Not only was it significantly less elaborate than the first London edition of 1773, it also lacked the famous frontispiece image of the poet. Cruikshank issued a smaller number of books than were produced in London, subsequently it is more rare today. The volume would appear in at least eight more editions in the next thirty years.
Erickson explains “Wheatley had originally hoped to publish her book of poems in Boston, by subscription. 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 Phillis 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 the Countess and other prominent British abolitionists supported a London publication of her poems. She was twenty years old. Wheatley Peters gained her freedom shortly after the publication of her book.
Phillis Wheatley Peters is broadly understood as one of the foundational figures of American literature. Stolen from her family in West Africa and enslaved by the Wheatleys in Boston at the age of eight or nine, she quickly learned to read and write, and by age twelve was reading Greek and Latin, having been tutored by the Wheatley children. She published her first poem at the age of fourteen.
Susan Scott Parrish, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English & Program in the Environment, had this to say about the importance of the acquisition for the University of Michigan community, “Phillis Wheatley’s poems represent the origin point for Black American poetry in print. For the Clements to have acquired this rare, first US 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.”
“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.”
– Paul J. Erickson
This copy of the 1786 edition is at present the only copy held in an institution not on the East Coast, and when its exhibition ends in April, it will be available for study by scholars and students visiting the Clements Library. Poems on Various Subjects was in the past criticized 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 the fundraising to happen after the item is at the Clements. “Through crowdfunding, we hope anyone in the world passionate about history can have a hand in supporting this exciting acquisition,” says Angela Oonk, director of development at the Clements Library.
“Acquiring, preserving, and sharing original primary sources for research and display is the core of the Clements’ mission. The Clements Library has always relied on financial contributions from supporters to help us acquire materials for the collections,” Erickson 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.”
Read the press release here.
Learn more about the crowdfunding campaign at https://myumi.ch/ezRX2.