Example Of Argumentative Essay On Phillis Wheatley’s Place In American Literature
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Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American woman to be published as a poet. Her early history gives a clue as to her sheer brilliance at depicting the plight of slavery. Born in 1753, little Phillis was sold off to a wealthy American family. John Wheatley, a wealthy merchant, bought her for his wife Sussanna. They named her after the ship which brought her to America, the Phillis.She was also given the family surname, as per the conventions followed back then. Phillis was tutored and taught to read and write by Mary Wheatley, the Wheatley’s eldest daughter. Recognizing her talent, the Wheatley family further encouraged her to study. By her teens, Phillis was well accomplished in reading difficult Greek and Latin classics, as well as the Bible. Phillis was strongly motivated by the works of Jon Milton and Alexander Pope. It was by virtue of the persistent encouragement and inspiration that Phillis took up poetry. Her works majorly focused on the slavery and the artistic liberty that the Blacks were entitled to. She was a major influence on leading the society against antislavery, by the might of her pen and poetry. Though critics often claim that her work doesn’t take a strong stand, it is of no doubt that Phillis’ poignancy and subtleties truly make her stand out amongst several of her contemporaries. Her continuous strive to rise above the poor African economy, and publish her works internationally
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makes her an exemplary poet, and place her as a valuable gem in the history of American Literature.
Phillis wrote several poems, and was a prolific poet. Her poem “To a Clergyman on the death of his lady” shows that death can speak to life. Wheatley represented several selves in this poem. A dead lady is asking her husband to “no more with grief retire.”(Wheatley, Phillis) She wants him to come out of his sadness and move on with his life till it is time for him to join her in the afterworld. Wheatley, thus, personified beyond death. This style made her readers value the fact that souls speak out loud too, only if we pause and listen. This subtlety in representing death and the miseries it causes to the ones left behind, is sheer genius indeed. The poet knows that even when the slaves are sold off and torn away from their families, there is a lot of wretchedness and hurt. However, she urges these unfortunate families to move on with their lives, because ultimately, living is all that matters. The parallel between death and moving away from loved ones can be compared. Wheatley never gives her readers a direct answer. She leaves much to her readers’ imagination and interpretation. She is never loud, but always nuanced in her approach.
The relevance of her works still holds in today’s world. Many critics argue that her poems aren’t exact protests against slavery, due to their soft approach. She never takes a stand against slavery; sometimes she refers to her life as a slave a boon that introduced her to Christianity, and yet again, she claims slavery is a punishment to the millions. The critics say that her conflicting feelings never give a resolution to the stand that she claims to hold. The critics also claim that her lineage doesn’t provide any solution to the 21st-century problems, and don’t hold much significance in the contemporary scenario. They say that Wheatley didn’t want to be too vocal in
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her approach towards a protest against antislavery, as she didn’t want to appear as a “Barbarian.” (M’Baye,Babacar )She was supposedly, too fond of her British and American society and didn’t want to be shunned from her group of friends due to her lineage, as well as her work. (M’Baye,Babacar )But it is not really true. In her own distinctive style, Wheatley did all she could to give a voice to the Blacks. Yes, in a way, she often didn’t take a direct stand. She left much to interpretation. It was the British society that had given her a platform, and perhaps she feared that antagonizing them would deter her from writing further. She only wanted to write. Her love for writing is undeniable, and applause worthy. All her struggles and approaches were directed towards being a poet.
Thomas Jefferson dismissed her poetry very strongly. He said that “Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet.”(Gates, Henry Louis Jr) He said that Wheatley dramatized the plight of the blacks, and was artificial in her approach. Even Wilmot Blyden, who fathered the Black Nationalism, claimed that her work doesn’t represent the overall agony of the millions of deported Black slaves; instead it represents “a smug contentment at her own escape therefrom.”(Gates, Henry Louis Jr) However, these claims can be refuted. Phillis Wheatley went through an enormous personal and professional struggle to get her work published and reach out to people. With the Wheatleys setting her free from slavery, she had to gather money herself to get her poetry printed. This was an enormous struggle for a Black in the 19th-century. Yet, she kept on trying relentlessly. Be it asking her friends to contribute or working her way meagerly, she always wanted to write and be a voice for the slaves. If the critics don’t understand the importance of her struggle and her personal sacrifices, it is indeed unfortunate and shameful.( Gates, Henry Louis Jr)
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The poem “To the clergyman on the death of his lady” shows how poignantly heartbreaking Wheatley’s style of writing was. It is one of her best works. (Wheatley, Phillis)The lady is never at peace even in her heavenly abode. She is worried about her husband, and her children. She wants to meet her husband again soon, when he comes over to the other world. But she also wants him to live his life on Earth to happiness and completion. “"O come away," her longing spirit cries, And share with me the raptures of the skies.”(Wheatley, Phillis) Her beckoning is so beautiful, and heartbreaking at the same time. Her simple, lucid language and her effortless blending of words makes her poetry easy to grasp and enjoyable to interpret. While many argue that her works don’t hold any significance now, it is nothing but a false representation. Readers today, who aren’t as well versed with the history of the African-American slaves, can delve into Wheatley’s work. They will get a representation of the severity and cruelty of the past, and yet, never get the harsh realities directly. They will get a subtle picture, and that in many cases, would leave even more of an impact on their minds.
There are ample praises for her work too. “In her poetry, Wheatley developed her own form of black womanism by using the verbal skills of the African griottes and tricksters in order to negotiate her freedom within an eighteenth-century New England culture in which Puritanism and Methodism were predominant.”( M’Baye,Babacar) This is an excellent praise indeed. It proves that Wheatley had an individualistic style of writing, and her uniqueness stood out amongst her contemporaries. She was a major proponent of encouraging other Blacks to write and express freedom of speech, too. She regularly corresponded with other authors and encouraged them to bring forth their works out into the world for thousands of people to enjoy
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and learn from. She took painful struggles to keep writing, and in a way, was a leader for the other African-Americans to come out into their own as writers.
The most distinctive feature that makes Wheatley stand out is that she was never accepted as either fully White or as fully Black. She was always stuck in between. Thus, in spite of her best efforts, Wheatley could never make a profound effect as a poet, in the minds of some critics. Yet, it is this very stand that makes her an amazing poet. Her refusal to make a strong and decisive conclusion, and instead leave much to the readers’ interpretation makes this African –American lady a remarkable poet. She wants the readers to decide on the severity of slavery, and not impose her views on them. That is the mark of an excellent poet, indeed. She lets one decide for oneself.
Thus, Wheatley was a true propagator of new ideas, and new conventions. She showed that even a little Black slave girl could be a master in poetry; she could be accepted into the conventional society and get heaps of praise for her work. A Black had much of freedom in expressing their views like their White counterparts. Yet, it was never easy for slaves. Financially, they had to face a lot of problems. Wheatley was no exception. She worked hard to get her works published just to continue writing. This relentless strive till her death, and that too a miserable death, makes her one of the most special and distinctive poet in the history of American literature. No matter how harsh critics are, Phillis Wheatley was and is a gem in the world of American literature. (Gates, Henry Louis Jr)
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Wheatley,Phillis. “To the Clergyman on the death of his Lady”.genius.com.n.p.,n.d.Web.19th February,2015<http://www.genius.com>
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Phillis Wheatley on trial.” The New Yorker. 20 January, 2003.Print.
M’Baye,Babacar. “The Trickster comes West.” Mississipi:The University of Mississippi,2004.Print.
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