To mark the beginning of Women’s History Month, which follows on the heels of African American History Month, From the Catbird Seat would like to recognize Phillis Wheatley’s major impact on both literary history and women’s history. In 1773, Wheatley became the first African American woman to publish a book. Wheatley’s book, a volume of poetry titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, has been digitized by the Library of Congress and made available through our exhibition The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship, which highlights many African American collections available through the Library.
A brief biographical feature on Wheatley appears in the Library’s Today in History Archive for September 1, the day her book was published. The feature links to several primary source materials related to Wheatley in our online collections, including a February 28, 1776 letter to Wheatley by George Washington thanking her for her celebratory poem “To His Excellency General Washington.” Washington quipped of the “elegant Lines”: “I would have published the Poem, had I not been apprehensive, that, while I only meant to give the World this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of Vanity.”
Wheatley’s literary abilities and the publication of her book were due in large part to the influence of women in her life. Purchased at a Boston slave market in 1761 by John and Susanna Wheatley when she was seven or eight years old, Phillis was taught to read and encouraged to write by Susanna and, in all likelihood, Susanna’s daughter Mary. Her book was financed by Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon and a friend of the Wheatleys, who was first drawn to Phillis’s elegy for the evangelical preacher George Whitefield, the Countess’s personal chaplain. Finally, Phillis likely received emotional support and advice during her years of writing from her friend Obour Tanner, a slave of the Tanner family in Newport, Rhode Island, with whom she maintained a correspondence for years.
Information about significant Library materials related to Phillis Wheatley and other women writers can be found through the online guide American Women: A Gateway to Library of Congress Resources for the Study of Women’s History and Culture in the United States. As Women’s History Month proceeds, we welcome your questions about women poets and writers.