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B. B. Thatcher (Benjamin Bussey), 1809-1840
Memoir of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave
Boston: G. W. Light; New York, Moore and Payne, 1834.

Summary

Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784) was the first African American poet to write for a transatlantic audience, and her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) served as a sparkplug for racial debates. Thomas Jefferson and other detractors labeled her poetry imitative and derivative, while abolitionists cited her work as proof that African Americans were human beings capable of imaginative and creative thought.

B.B. Thatcher is one of two early biographers to record Wheatley's life. The fifth child of Maine Congressman Samuel Thatcher and Sarah Brown, Benjamin Bussey Thatcher was born in Warren, Maine, in 1809. Thatcher graduated from Bowdoin College in 1826 before opening a law office in Boston, Massachusetts, and embroiling himself in local politics. An outspoken abolitionist, Thatcher favored the colonization of emancipated slaves in Liberia and quarreled publicly over this scheme with William Lloyd Garrison. In addition to his Memoir of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave (1834), Thatcher later edited the Colonization and Journal of Freedom and published a Memoir of Rev. S. Osgood Wright: Late Missionary to Liberia (1834), all of which advocated the abolition of slavery. During the latter half of the 1830s, Thatcher became ill and traveled to Europe for his health. He returned after two years abroad and died in Boston on July 14, 1840. Thatcher is best known for his Tales of the Indians (1831) and Traits of the Tea Party (1835). Later editions of both these works remain in print today.

Thatcher published his biographical sketch of Phillis Wheatley in 1834, in the same year and with the same publishing house that Margaret Matilda Odell used to publish her Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave. Odell's biography preceded Thatcher's, and Thatcher appears in many cases to write with her work in mind—perhaps even in hand. He acknowledges his debt to a "writer, who has treated of the life of Phillis" whenever he quotes Odell, but even the descriptions of Wheatley's life that purport to be written in his own words closely paraphrase her Memoir (p. 13). In one passage, Odell writes that Wheatley "attracted the attention of the literati of the day, many of whom furnished her with books. These enabled her to make considerable progress in belles-lettres; but such gratification seems only to have increased her thirst after knowledge, as is the case with most gifted minds, not misled by vanity; and we soon find her endeavoring to master the Latin tongue" (Odell p. 11).

Thatcher's description of the same process borrows heavily from Odell. He takes few pains to conceal his source, content to substitute synonyms for "literati" and "thirst" and to alter the order of Odell's ideas: "[Wheatley] received favors from several of the literary characters of the day, in the shape of books and other aids to her education. Her own desire of knowledge increased, as such desire generally does, with every gratification. She made considerable progress in belle-lettres; and then she acquainted herself, in a good degree, with the Latin tongue" (Thatcher p. 15). Thatcher's Memoir appears to be wholly reliant on Odell for its biographical particulars, so readers interested in a brief synopsis of Phillis Wheatley's life should consult the summary of Odell's biography.

Though Thatcher's Memoir is highly derivative, it does incorporate Wheatley's poems into the text in ways that Odell's Memoir does not, providing a limited critique of Wheatley's verse and drawing moral lessons from her life. Thatcher provides extended excerpts from six of Wheatley's poems in order to highlight Wheatley's "propriety of sentiment and feeling" and her grasp of biblical narratives (p. 18). For Thatcher, the religious aspects of her poetry "are quite as illustrative of her own heart and mind, as the style is," and he suggests that Wheatley's transition from a "complete barbarian" who wrote on walls with burnt sticks to an accomplished poet provides a model of self-improvement for anyone willing to work with similar determination (p. 32). Having emphasized the autonomous nature of Wheatley's rise to prominence, Thatcher urges his readers never to "give way for a moment to a feeling of despondence, or of distrust of the goodness of an overruling Providence" and only to "think of the POOR BOSTON SLAVE, and murmur and doubt no more" (p. 36).

Works Consulted: Allibone, S. Austin, Allibone's Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors, Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1899; Duyckinck, Evert A. and George L. Duyckinck, Cyclopedia of American Literature, New York: Charles Scribner, 1855; Little, George Thomas. Genealogical and Family History of the State of Maine, New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1909; Perkins, George, Barbara Perkins and Phillip Leninger, Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature, New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Zachary Hutchins

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