Phillis Wheatley and the politics of textual hybridity
Phillis Wheatley famously became the first black woman to publish a book of poems when
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in London in 1773. For literary
scholars the publication ofthis book has made her a key figure of black vernacular
traditions and discussions of racial identity throughout the twentieth century.
This thesis examines a variety of Wheatley's texts published in England and New
England in the early to mid-1770s. It also considers the different historical contexts in
which these texts were published and how they have influenced their production.
In chapter two the publication history of Poems, the text upon which twentiethcentury
literary critics have primarily focused, is considered. It is argued that Poems was
primarily produced for the consumption of a London rather than a New England audience
and that the text is explicable only through the London context.
Chapter three provides a discussion of Wheatley's identity within the context of
New England religious debate in the early 1770s. It is argued that as a result of the growth
of heterogeneous religious styles, New Englanders were preoccupied with the issue of
identifying and displaying a converted identity. Wheatley's early broadsides were part of
the local printers' response to this need, and became a commercial vehicle through which
the conversion of the New England consumer could be displayed.
Chapter four goes on to discuss several of Wheatley's texts published in New
England newspapers and magazines during the war years with England. It is argued that
the representation of Wheatley in the early years of the Revolution reflected the
developments in slavery discourses as the rebellion against England progressed.
In chapter five it is concluded that there are in fact many different Phillis
Wheatleys, each having a distinct identity as a result of the myriad of influences in each
particular market. It is argued therefore that Wheatley's racial representation was formed
out of the social and economic contradictions within eighteenth-century society and a
variety of mediating factors. The implications of these [mdings for critical practices of
studying identity are discussed.