The items in this online exhibition evoke the stories of American women through the ages.
Click on any image to begin.

Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773

Photo by Kevin Grady/Radcliffe Institute

Photo by Kevin Grady/Radcliffe Institute


Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784) was the first African American to publish a book. She was born in West Africa, enslaved, and brought to the American Colonies at about seven years of age, becoming the property of a wealthy Boston family. In recognition of her precocious intellect, her owners, the Wheatleys, tutored her. Within 16 months, she could both speak and read English. By age 14, she had mastered Latin, probably knew Greek, and was familiar with astronomy and math. At the age of 20, she published her first book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, and became one of the most famous poets of the time in both America and England. Shortly after the publication of Poems, Wheatley was freed. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center at Harvard, has described Wheatley as “the mother of the African American literary tradition.”

This particular volume, with its simple contemporary binding, has an interesting provenance: It features the bookplate of Samuel May and two signatures of Abigail May, ancestors of Louisa May Alcott, and comes from the library of Sarah Wyman Whitman, who is also featured in the exhibition.

Wheatley, Phillis, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, London: printed for A. Bell, Bookseller, Aldgate, and sold by Messrs. Cox and Berry, King Street, Boston, 1773

Catalog record:


Heather Min