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THE FIRST BOOK BY AN AFRICAN AMERICAN (LITERATURE.) Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Frontispiece portrait. 124 pages. Small 8vo, contemporary calf, joints skillfully repaired, minor wear; minor foxing; armorial bookplate of John Waldie and numbered tag on front pastedown, signature of Jane Waldie on title page. London, 1773
Phillis Wheatley (circa 1753-1784) was born in Senegal and sold into American slavery when she was about eight years old. She was permitted an unusual degree of formal education by her owner, a Boston merchant named John Wheatley, who encouraged her literary efforts. On a visit to England in 1773, she arranged the publication of this volume of poems, and was given her manumission shortly afterward. Her poetry came to the attention of George Washington, Thomas Paine, John Paul Jones, and Thomas Jefferson, but she nonetheless worked as a scullery maid to pay her bills, and died in poverty at the age of 31. This volume includes, in addition to Wheatley's poems, a dedication to the Countess of Huntington who had sponsored the publication, Wheatley's two-page preface, and an endorsement by her owner John Wheatley. It also includes a remarkable endorsement by a board of 17 august Bostonians including Governor Thomas Hutchinson and future governor John Hancock, announcing that "we whose names are under-written, do assure the World, that the Poems . . . were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town." The iconic frontispiece portrait of Wheatley is present and well-preserved. It is often credited to Scipio Moorhead, who much like Wheatley practiced his craft while in a state of slavery in Boston. A poem in this volume is dedicated to him: "To S.M. a young African Painter, on seeing his works" (pages 114-5). In the annals of African-American literature, Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects was preceded only by poems in broadside or short pamphlet form (by Jupiter Hammon and Wheatley herself), and by the 1770 Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars by James Gronniosaw, who had spent many years as a slave and freedman in America, but published his narrative after settling in England. Afro-Americana 11111; Blockson, One Hundred and One, 68; Church 1101; Sabin 103136; Wegelin 434. In 2012, Roger Stoddard's "A Bibliographical Description of Books and Pamphlets of American Verse Printed from 1610 Through 1820" identified two separate 1773 editions of Wheatley's book. They have the same pagination, the same frontispiece, and almost identical text. However, his "Edition 2" is described as "a line-for-line resetting (with minor textual variants) of Edition 1." He traces 23 institutional copies of Edition 1, and 3 examples of Edition 2. The example offered here matches all of his issue points for the scarcer Edition 2, including "surprise" instead of "surprize" at the end of page 10, and vertical chain lines on gatherings B through N. The frontispiece is State B with diagonal crosshatching, as usual with Edition 2. Stoddard 237.