Monday, August 7, 2023

Q&A with David Waldstreicher




David Waldstreicher is the author of the new biography The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet's Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence. His other books include Runaway America. He teaches history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.



Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of 18th century poet Phillis Wheatley?


A: I had written briefly about Wheatley in two previous books. When I was researching Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution, I found myself struck by how little had been done on her highly charged interaction with Franklin when she went to London to get her poems published in 1773.


Scholars who had written about this exchange seemed to me to take it at face value, reading Franklin’s letters (and Wheatley’s that refers to her visit) superficially and not in light of what else both Franklin and Wheatley were doing – with him as the foremost representative of the colonies, dealing with accusations of hypocrisy on the part of the Americans, and she looking for patronage and becoming even more and more aware of being a celebrity and a figure in the developing debate over slavery.


Later, teaching Wheatley’s poems in a course on “The Literature of Slavery” at Temple University, I was struck by the very different reactions that students had to her work, especially the poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” with some reading her as a sellout while others wondering if there was something antislavery in her work.


With my background in American Studies (which you know about!) as well as the history of the American Revolution and of slavery and antislavery, I felt I was in a good position to better understand and explain her politics, which I tried to do in several essays before attempting the biography.


It took longer to develop the book as a full biography, which I felt, in her case, needed to get at her experience despite what is relatively limited evidence, and to interpret her art. Ultimately, I think it worked to interpret her  poems and the few letters we have as actions, as the best evidence we have as to what she was doing and why, if we can understand the contexts in which she wrote.


There is one other reason I felt it was a good project for me. I have been a reader of poetry since I was a teenager; I took several poetry writing workshops while in college at the University of Virginia. My mother wrote poems, in later years mostly occasional, in rhyming couplets that had an obvious debt to the traditions in English that informed Wheatley.


So for me this project was a return to some of my own roots, even beyond a turn back toward literary topics.


Q: In a review of the book in The New York Times, Kerri Greenidge wrote, “The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley is at once historical biography at its best, literary analysis at its sharpest and a subversive indictment of current political discourse questioning the relevance of Black life in our country’s history.” What do you think of that description?


A: I like it – it’s very flattering! I certainly tried to wed history, biography, and literary analysis – trying to make them serve each other so that Wheatley could be seen and appreciated more fully.


I am not so sure about the subversive part. My fellow Franklin biographer Nick Bunker read the review and tweeted, “Ah yes, the moment I met @DWaldstreicher over lunch in Philadelphia I thought to myself, ‘this man is a subversive.’” Nick has been writing about the Cold War so maybe he was taking “subversive” differently than Greenidge meant it. I guess it shows that context is everything.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially intrigued or surprised you?


A: I’ll limit myself to two of my research strategies that were especially consequential. Early on I decided I needed to read anything and everything Phillis Wheatley read, especially anything she referred to or I could be sure made an impression on her.


That meant getting myself an education in Greek and Roman classics that I never had previously (and which I now think of as a gift that Phillis gave me).

At a certain point, listening to the Fagles translation of Homer’s The Odyssey on a cassette tape in my old car while commuting, I realized that this Mediterranean world, replete with a traffic in women, long dangerous voyages, shipwrecks, and poets who tell the tale, may have seemed to her not so much ancient and strange as familiar.


As I put it eventually, “the classical revival provided her with a way of talking about her experience as an enslaved woman without talking about it directly.”


I knew that an underrated part of Wheatley’s story was that she propelled herself, much like a Homeric bard, into interactions with leading men of her day: Lord Dartmouth, Franklin, George Washington, leaders in Boston, and others she wrote poems about, such as the evangelist George Whitefield (the elegy she wrote after his death made her famous outside Massachusetts).


But the book really came together when I began to read the Boston newspapers. Knowing when she wrote various poems, I began to be able to plot her responses to events in real time.


Also, it became apparent that she was part of a cohort of young Africans arriving after the Seven Years’ War who are visible in the newspapers (sometimes when put up for sale), many of whom also assimilated and gained skills quickly. She was not the only one seen and even described in print as having “a genius.”


Reading not only the political events and the arguments leading up to the Revolution, but also the annals of the streets and the marketplaces and workings of enslavement through the several competing Boston papers made it possible to put more flesh onto the bare bones accounts we have previously had of her life there, which have tended to work directly from the restricted number of documents that refer to her directly.


It also lent more and more drama, too, when I could show the relationship between what she chose to do and what others – young people, ministers, women, poets, patriots, tories --  were doing.


In the newspapers I also found 13 poems that I think it is highly likely that Wheatley wrote and published anonymously (a very common thing to do then). They are included in an Appendix to the book.


Q: What do you see as Phillis Wheatley’s legacy today?


A: It’s very exciting, since I started this project, to see so many more people realizing how much she achieved in recognition and in her art during her brief life. To some extent this is a return to an earlier period, when Black Americans kept her memory alive as a great “first” and as more than that, as I describe in the book’s last chapter, “The Afterlives.”


Recently, we have so many excellent Black poets and playwrights realizing the drama and significance and politics of her life, recognizing things similar to what they have experienced, recognizing the complexity as well as the drama of what she did as an artist who was, despite previous assumptions otherwise, both deeply self-expressive and political. I hope and expect my book will be useful to them.


As a prodigy, she has long been of interest to children, but I also I think she’s an inspiration, or should be, to anyone who creates art under difficulties.


I also find a winning universalism in her outlook. She knew she was a symbol of African potential, and in fact was becoming a one-woman argument against racial slavery, but she also insisted on human rights, on the possibility of universal salvation, and on holding the American revolutionaries to their words about liberty.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Following up on my two-volume edition of The Diaries of John Quincy Adams, 1779-1848 for Library of America, I am editing an edition of his writings that will focus on his speeches and writings that are about the United States.


I am also revising an article on one of the anonymous poems Wheatley may have written, in response to a satirical poem that had mocked the draft of the new Constitution of Massachusetts in 1778 for being too democratic, including a provision that would have allowed for free people of color to vote. I’m also thinking about possible book projects that would build on these.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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