A Case for Teaching the Penguin Phillis Wheatley

Recently Melissa Range championed the idea of teaching a collection of poetry as opposed to selections from an anthology. You can find those posts here and here. Following up on her post, I wanted to make the case for one of the collections of poetry that I have successfully used. I like to use the Penguin edition of Phillis Wheatley’s Complete Writings. There are several reasons that I like using this edition of Wheatley’s poems. I’ll be briefly highlighting the case for why I like to use it. My post focuses more on the collection itself, but Melissa’s suggestions about how to teach a collection of poetry dovetails nicely with this particular collection.

Brief note: Melissa champions the use of a collection of poetry by a living author that compiled her own writings into a unified work. The Wheatley collected poems are, of course, a mediated collection compiled by a living scholar/editor. The fact that the Penguin Wheatley is an edited collection, even though centered around Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, it provides a way to address scholarly editing with students in an easily accessible manner.

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I like using this edition of Wheatley’s poems because it contains the full-text of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The inclusion of Wheatley’s full text allow for discussions beyond just Wheatley’s poetry. In addition to Wheatley’s poetry, the Penguin edition also includes the book’s original dedication, the preface, John Wheatley’s letter to the publisher, and the notice to the “Publick.” I also like that the cover illustration features Wheatley’s portrait. By having students consider these elements of Wheatley’s book, they can move back and forth between considering poetry and the visual characteristics of the book. Such opportunities can be a nice break for students that don’t want to be all poetry all of the time. By focusing on these elements, students can have a low stakes introduction to book history and print culture. The interesting textual apparatus to Poems on Various Subjects also allows students the opportunity to think about issues of race, slavery, gender, and education. Such discussions on specific topics can be fruitful and easily paired with many of Wheatley’s individual poems.

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Wheatley’s work on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Another feature of the Penguin edition of Wheatley’s poems includes poems that exist in manuscript, were published in periodicals, or were included in broadsides. Many of these poems were not part of Poems on Various Subjects. These additional texts allow further consideration of manuscript culture, print culture, and the circulation of texts during Wheatley’s lifetime. As a further part of the manuscript culture of the time, the Penguin Wheatley also includes letters written by Wheatley to notable individuals. These letters provide an opportunity for students to consider letters, manuscript culture, circulation, and transatlantic exchange.

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Elegy on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

I am always thinking about costs when it comes to selecting books for my courses. The Penguin Wheatley is an inexpensive paperback. It features a wealth of useful materials for the price. The included apparatus of the Penguin Wheatley affords students the opportunity to see many interesting elements. The Wheatley Penguin is a pedagogically flexible book and a text that can achieve a great deal in the classroom.

One drawback of the Penguin Wheatley is that it does not include a great deal of glosses for students. The lack of contextual information, especially with Wheatley writing in a mode that relies heavily on classical allusions and references to contemporary figures, can be difficult for students. While there are some explanatory notes contained in the back of the book, they provide a start for students, but students will likely need more of a guided reading until they become familiar with Wheatley’s conventions as a poet. However, what the Penguin Wheatley lacks in glosses means there is an opportunity for low stakes activities where students can look up information about the people mentioned or the references made in Wheatley’s poems. Such assignments can be worthwhile and they illustrate also why Wheatley had to demonstrate such a deep manifestation of cultural knowledge.

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Wheatley’s desk. Maybe. At the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Lastly, this is not specific to the Penguin edition of Wheatley’s poems, but I  like to include Wheatley in classes because of the wonderful online resources that exist for teaching Wheatley. For instance, the University of South Carolina’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections includes an excellent digitized version of Wheatley’s Poem’s on Various Subjects. The user interface is great and the image reproductions are excellent. This digitized version of Wheatley’s poems provides a great way for students to see an electronic version of a text. The digitized version of Poems on Various Subjects also provides a way of thinking about how we get from an original work to a mass publication book like the Penguin Wheatley. There are also other digitized Wheatley sources online. For instance the Massachusetts Historical Society has a digitized letter by Wheatley. This serves as a great compliment to the mediated letters included in the Penguin edition of her writings.

The materials included–or not included–in the Penguin Wheatley provide ample opportunity for students to engage in a range of topics: authorship, gender, race, print culture, book history, transatlantic exchange, and on and on. Wheatley’s work as a poet provides students opportunities to engage with an important early American writer. The Penguin Wheatley is an affordable and compact package that allows for Wheatley’s work to shine as art and as a valuable text in the classroom.

Postscript (12/27/2015):

The writing course that I teach is part of a two class sequence that begins with a traditional compositions class in the fall and culminates in a writing about literature class. When I know students will go on to a writing class focused on literature, which is in many ways different than a composition class, I like to share with them some tools that help them get a jumpstart for the next semester. This previous semester I ended my classes with a poem by Wheatley and introduced the basics of annotating texts and close reading.

Students were immediately drawn to Wheatley’s use of language, specifically the elevated diction and her frequent use of irony. In “Mastering The Master’s Language,” Jared Hardesty considers the role of language in early African American writing and cites Wheatley as an example of a writer using the rhetorical moves of “Mastering The Master’s Language.” The piece is short and accessible to a variety of audiences. Given how taken my fall semester students were with Wheatley’s language, I look forward this semester to incorporating the ideas from Hardesty’s piece. I wanted to write a postscript to my original post because the main focus was on an easily accessible way to use Whatley to introduce students to print culture and book history. Hardesty’s approach is an equally accessible way of thinking about language in an historicized context.

The ways of reading Wheatley suggested by Hardesty can easily be introduced in a classroom setting. I highly recommend using some of these ideas when considering Wheatley and other African American writers. Hardesty’s piece appeared via the African American Intellectual History Society and can be found here. The post is part of a larger series and links are included to the previous posts.

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