America’s First Poet–Phillis Wheatley

What can we say about a woman who was welcomed as America’s first poet, published in both England and America, but who nonetheless died in poverty and obscurity before she reached the age of 40? Phillis Wheatley inspired some of America’s most honored leaders and demonstrated how much African Americans had to offer in the arts and culture. But despite her triumphs, she was finally defeated by the economic force of the slave trade.

Born in Africa about 1753, Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston by slave ship at age 7 or 8. She was bought by the Wheatley family who recognized that she was too frail (not to mention too young) for hard labor, so she was kept as a house slave. Mrs. Wheatley taught her English and how to read and write. The girl’s talents soon became apparent and she was encouraged to read widely and to write poetry.

Phyillis Wheatley

As a woman of her time, she read and admired the poems of John Milton and Alexander Pope and wrote in the fashionable heroic couplet style. Some of her poems were published as broadsides and circulated widely, but she had to go to England to find a publisher for her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral–the first book of poems published by an African American.

Some of Wheatley’s poems present a surprisingly benign view of the effects of slavery, which she appears to welcome as a way of discovering Christianity.

On Being Brought from Africa to America

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Taught my benighted soul to understand

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

As a devout Christian, Wheatley expressed her gratitude for having been introduced to the Christian religion in America. Some commentators have criticized her work because of this, but there is no reason to think that Wheatley approved of slavery or accepted her status. She was writing only about her own life in this poem. Because of her unusual experiences, she never observed the worst cruelty of the plantation culture nor suffered the hardships of most enslaved Africans, but she was aware of them.

Soon after her book was published, the Wheatley family emancipated Phillis. In 1778, or thereabouts, Phillis Wheatley married a free Black grocer and started a family. By this time, both Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley had died, so Phillis has no one left to help further her work. She and her husband struggled with poverty, while he tried to establish himself as a businessman. Although Wheatley did not give up writing poetry, she found it difficult to secure a publisher. She was never able to publish a second book of poems she had planned, and many of her later poems have been lost. She did, however, correspond with some well-known people, including George Washington, about ways of securing freedom for African Americans. Her death at the age of 31, ended her all-too-short career.   

Phillis Wheatley’s life leaves us with far more questions than answers. If she had lived into the nineteenth century and continued her work, would her early promise have been fulfilled? Perhaps her example would have convinced more people of the talents and possibilities of African Americans. Might Phillis Wheatley have become the poet laureate of the abolition movement?

We will never know the answers to those questions, but there is much to celebrate about the life and work of Phillis Wheatley. She was a pioneer whose work should not be forgotten. 

April and Poetry–Sara Teasdale

April is poetry month, a festival more honored by schools and publishers than by the general public. This year, our April is filled with fear of the coronavirus pandemic, and with questions about what the future holds. Poetry may seem like a frivolous escape, but if we ignore it, we may be missing one element of comfort that would help us get through these stressful days.

Poetry can help us see the world with fresh eyes and remember the sights that will be with us all our lives rather than the jangled thoughts of today. As we walk through today’s deserted streets, the words of Sara Teasdale, who wrote almost 100 years ago, can help us to see April with fresh eyes:

The roofs are shining from the rain,
     The sparrows twitter as they fly,
  And with a windy April grace
     The little clouds go by. (April)

Sara Teasdale was an American poet who had a gift for seeing the world through fresh eyes. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1884 and was home schooled for much of her childhood. She devoted herself to reading and started writing poetry as a teenager. After she went to high school, she became one of a group of women who published The Potter’s Wheel, a literary journal in St. Louis and contributed poems and essays to the journal.

Sara Teasdale as a child

During that time, she traveled frequently to Chicago where she met many writers and artists including Vachel Lindsay, a young poet famous for his attempt to revive the tradition of oral poetry. Lindsay and Teasdale apparently fell in love, but Lindsay did not have enough money to support a wife. Teasdale eventually married another admirer, Ernst Filsinger, a prosperous businessman.  

After her marriage in 1914 Teasdale continued to write and her third collection of poetry River to the Sea, published in 1916 became a bestseller and earned her a Pulitzer Prize. She and her husband moved to New York City where they became part of a circle of writers and artists.

Teasdale’s poetry is lyrical and filled with images of the world around us. Many of her poems have been published in children’s anthologies, but they have an enduring appeal for adults too. They are the kind of poems that often pop into your mind during walks in the country.

I stood beside a hill
Smooth with new-laid snow
A single star looked out
From the cold evening glow.   (February Twilight)

Sara Teasdale’s life did not continue as happily as her poetry did. She divorced her husband in 1929, her health deteriorated, and she became an invalid. She restarted her friendship with Vachel Lindsay, but he too had fallen on hard times and eventually killed himself.

Sara Teasdale herself committed suicide in 1933 at the age of 48. Her poetry collections live on in most libraries and much of her work can be found on the Gutenberg Project site. It is well worth reading and rereading. It is impossible to know why her life came to such a tragic end, but her poetry still brings joy to the reader. Many of her poems will linger in your mind for years, perhaps especially this one, which seems a fitting elegy for her short life.

WHEN I am dead and over me bright April
     Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
  Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
     I shall not care.

  I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
     When rain bends down the bough,
  And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
     Than you are now.

(All of the poems quoted above are available in many digital formats on the
Gutenberg Project website. http://www.gutenberg.org

Revisiting Past Horrors–Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter

These days it is difficult to hear any news or hold any conversation that doesn’t mention the coronavirus pandemic. Most of us are struggling to understand how this disaster moved into our lives and whether we will ever return to normal life. Americans haven’t seen anything like this for a hundred years when the country was struck by the flu epidemic of 1918-19. Now that schools and universities have shut their doors, libraries have closed, and classes have moved online, perhaps it’s time to talk about a writer who described the feeling of that early epidemic for generations of readers—Katherine Anne Porter. 

Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider captures perfectly the disoriented feeling of a woman facing the painful hazards of war-torn world being jolted by yet another attack from an unimaginable and unthinking enemy. The scene is set when Miranda, a young journalist as Porter herself was, first wakes up on an ordinary wartime morning: 

In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere. Her heart was a stone lying upon her breast outside of her; her pulses lagged and paused, and she knew that something strange was going to happen, even as the early morning winds were cool through the lattice, the streaks of light were dark blue and the whole house was snoring in its sleep. (Porter, Katherine Anne. Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels (p. 281). Library of America. Kindle Edition.) 

As the story moves on, Porter takes us through the vivid, chilling experience of suffering from the flu and having your life taken over by doctors and nurses. Once you’ve read this story, you won’t forget it. But who was Porter and how did she develop this gift of capturing the reality of an experience that many people live through, but few can describe? 

Katherine Anne Porter was born Callie Porter in Texas in 1890. Her mother died when Callie was two years old and her father took the children to live with their grandmother, who died when Callie was eleven. After losing so much, Callie left home at sixteen to marry an abusive husband—not a very good start in life. After a divorce in her mid-twenties and a long hospitalization with tuberculosis, Porter decided to become a writer.  

Porter started as a journalist and eventually moved to New York City where she met many other writers and artists. She continued to write journalism and short stories for the rest of her life, as well as working as a journalist in Mexico, Europe and the United States. During the years between 1930 and 1960, she wrote highly praised literary stories and essays, Her only novel, Ship of Foolsthe story of a long sea voyage in 1931, was published in 1962 and became a best-seller as well as being made into a movie.  

Some writers lead fascinating lives that are reflected in their works, but Katherine Anne Porter’s biography does not cast light on her stories. The power of her descriptions and the reality of her characters seem to spring from an inner knowledge that had little to do with the actual events of her life. We can know her best by reading her stories and her novel. They continue to be as vivid and alive as they were when first published and illuminate our own experiences as good fiction ought to do. All of her works are easily available in most libraries and many bookstores.  

Zora Neale Hurston—speaking for the unheard

What determines whether an artist’s work will be remembered? No one seems to have the answer to that. Some books drop from sight a few months after publication, others disappear for a while and then resurface when times change. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God did not make much of a splash when it was first published in 1937, but that was only the beginning of a long story. The fate of the book has become so mingled with the life and death of its author, that it is difficult to know which is the major cause of its longevity—the book or the intriguing life of its author.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891, but her family soon moved to Eatonville, Florida, where she grew up. Eatonville was one of the first African American communities in America and Hurston’s father became mayor. After Hurston’s mother died in 1904, her father quickly remarried, and family tensions led Hurston to leave home before she finished high school. She studied at Howard University, but later moved to New York where she attended Barnard College and began writing fiction. She also studied with the anthropologist Frans Boaz as well as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. The recent book Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King recounts how Hurston became interested in studying and recording the language and culture of African Americans.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, is enriched by Hurston’s background in both literature and anthropology. The narrator, Janie, tells the story her life in the rhythmic dialect of Southern Florida. She recounts how her grandmother pushed her into an early marriage with an older man, how she left that unsatisfactory marriage in order to find a better life only to discover that her new husband wanted her to be simply a passive ornament for his life. The book springs to life in its later sections after Janie is freed from her second marriage by the death of her husband. Hurston’s vivid prose make the final section of the book both dramatic and satisfying as Janie’s search for happiness reaches its conclusion.

Even though Their Eyes Were Watching God is now regarded as a classic novel of the 20th century, it did not receive an overwhelming success from critics when it was published.  In his review, Richard Wright wrote: Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears …  Other reviews were more appreciative, including this from the New York Times : …from first to last this is a well nigh perfect story–a little sententious at the start, but the rest is simple and beautiful and shining with humor. In case there are readers who have a chronic laziness about dialect, it should be added that the dialect here is very easy to follow, and the images it carries are irresistible. (Both of these reviews are available on the Bookmarks website.)

Like all important novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God, will give you plenty to think about. The story of how Nora Zeale Hurston and her books were rediscovered after years of obscurity is as fascinating as the book itself. My suggestion would be to read the novel first and then go on to investigate more about the author. Gods of the Upper Air is one good starting point, but there are other sources to explore. You will find yourself on a fascinating journey.