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Price Realized: $39,100 With Buyer's Premium Show Hammer Price
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Sale 2068 Lot 374
SIGNED BY PHILLIS WHEATLEY WHEATLEY, PHILLIS. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. By Phillis Wheatley, a Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston, New England. Portrait frontispiece by Scipio Morehead. Small 8vo, contemporary full calf with five gilt-highlighted raised bands, rubbed with one inch diagonal piece of the binding chipped from top of front board and some of the leather peeled away from the rear board, tips rubbed, binding slightly bowed with hinges started at top and bottom; small damp-stain to top corner of title-page and dedication page; contemporary ownership signature of Henry Pelham at top of title-page with another early signature of Eliza Pitman Nichols on the dedication; some early notes in pencil on rear end-paper regarding other noted 18th century Africans--Ignacio Sancho and others. London: A. Bell, 1773
a signed copy of the first edition of the first published book of poetry authored by an african-american, and the first published book authored by an african-american woman. Phillis Wheatley was captured as a child in Senegal and later sold to Susanna Wheatley, the wife of a prominent Boston merchant in 1761. Phillis was educated first by Wheatley's daughter Mary and then further tutored by Susanna herself. Phillis's first published effort was a broadside entitled "An Elegiac Poem Sacred to the Memory of that celebrated Divine, and eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the late Reverend, George Whitfield" [Boston, 1770].
By 1772 Phillis had written numerous poems, several having been printed in the Boston papers. Susanna Wheatley then decided to try and have a collection of them published. However, the deeply held belief that it was not possible for any African to be capable of learning---let alone creative writing was such that Phillis was taken before a jury-like panel and questioned by 17 of the "most respectful characters of Boston," among them John Hancock. (see Henry Louis Gates Jr. "The Trials of Phillis Wheatley," 2003). The result was an attestation signed by those 17 jurors that serves as a preface to this volume stating that she had, indeed, written the poems herself:
"WE whose Names are underwritten, do assure the World, that the POEMS specified in the following Page, 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. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them."
Despite the Attestation, Wheatley ran into difficulties in having a book of poetry by a Negro published in America. Finally, she turned to England and a family friend, the Countess of Huntingdon. The Countess had already financed the publication of the narrative of the slave James Gronniosaw in 1770 and agreed to be Phillis's patron. Wheatley commissioned Scipio Morehead, a Boston artist, also a slave to provide a portrait of Phillis for the frontispiece of the projected volume. Poems on Various Subjects is dedicated to the Countess who arranged for Phillis's reception before London society. While the specific number of signed copies of Poems on Various Subjects is not known, it is safe to speculate that at least a hundred might have been autographed by the poet at several "signings" arranged by the Duchess. Poems on Various Subjects ran through two London editions, the second edition of the same year to four printings totaling 1200 copies. Blockson, 101 Books by or about People of African Descent, #68, Sabin 102136; Heartman, viii.Price Realized (with Buyer's Premium) $39,100