Two historically important books, acquired by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, have been added to the library’s special collections.
Phillis Wheatley was an enslaved person in the household of a prosperous Boston family. Her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (published 1773) was the first published book by an African-American woman.
Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk* (published 1833) was transcribed and translated into English from the testimony of the Sauk chief who waged war on the United States in 1832. Black Hawk’s Life was one of the first Native American autobiographies published in the United States.
The UT Libraries recently purchased rare first editions of both works. The copy of Wheatley’s Poems is a particularly noteworthy specimen. It contains an extremely rare inscription by the poet herself.
Frontispiece to Phillis Wheatley’s Poems
Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was a child of approximately seven years old when she was captured by slavers in west Africa, transported to America, and sold at auction in the slave market of Boston, Massachusetts, to John and Susanna Wheatley. John Wheatley gave her the name of the slave ship, the Phillis, aboard which she had made the grueling Atlantic crossing.
The Wheatley family began tutoring Phillis in English, Latin, and the Bible, and the young slave quickly displayed a facility for learning.
The verses in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral are filled with classical allusions. Many are elegies to the great men of the day. Her elegy on the death of the popular preacher George Whitefield, published in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and London when Wheatley was just 17 years old, gained her considerable notoriety. Susanna Wheatley tried to capitalize on her servant’s success to publish the verses but was unable to secure sufficient subscriptions to underwrite the cost of publication in the American colonies.
In the eighteenth century, the intellectual and creative capabilities of Africans were a subject of debate, and the reading public was skeptical of a literary work attributed to a slave. In 1772 Phillis Wheatley was called before a group of Boston’s leading citizens to defend the authenticity of her work.
The august body was convinced of her authorship. The Poems were printed in London and widely acclaimed. Wheatley was feted on two continents and met many notables, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
Wheatley was emancipated from slavery in 1773, but her life as a free woman was brief and fraught. She died in childbirth in 1784 at the age of 31.
The 1773 edition of Phillis Wheatley’s poems purchased by the UT Libraries, sadly, is missing the original frontispiece, a rare depiction of an individual female slave — a pensive Wheatley at work on a poem.
Wheatley’s slender volume of poetry, a signal literary achievement by an enslaved African, influenced the discourse on slavery in America.
Black Hawk’s recounting of his life and the Sauk insurrection influenced another debate, over the rights of America’s indigenous peoples.
White settlers began encroaching upon the Sauk nation’s ancestral homelands in the early decades of the nineteenth century, challenging the Sauk’s sovereign right to their land. The Sauk and other tribes living east of the Mississippi River were pushed to lands west of the river.
Chief Black Hawk (1767-1838) and other members of the Sauk questioned the validity of the treaty ostensibly ceding their lands. In 1832, Black Hawk and a group of several hundred men, women, and children attempted to resettle on tribal lands.
Whatever Black Hawk’s intentions, United States officials were convinced that his band was hostile. When Black Hawk sent a peace delegation to meet the approaching army, the three warriors waving a white flag were fired upon. Thus began the brief encounter known as the Black Hawk War. During ensuing skirmishes, Black Hawk’s small band gained several successes before a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Bad Axe. Black Hawk escaped capture at Bad Axe but later surrendered.
Transferred to Fort Monroe in Virginia, Black Hawk and other imprisoned leaders of the uprising were paraded in public — not as reviled enemies but as celebrities. Along the eastern seaboard, far from frontier hostilities, the romanticizing of the “noble savage” was already underway. The prisoners posed for portraits, toured Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City, and even met briefly with President Andrew Jackson.
After a few months, Black Hawk and the other leaders were released. Black Hawk’s autobiography, dictated to a government interpreter, was published in 1833. It became an instant bestseller, going through five printings within a year.
The Black Hawk first edition also is a scarce treasure.
Katy Chiles, the UT professor who brought the item to the Libraries’ attention, appreciates the cultural significance and research value of both first editions. Her research on early American literatures and print culture studies involves looking at early editions of rare texts and analyzing how each different publication presented itself to readers in different and important ways. “In my work on Black Hawks’ Life, I am investigating how American publishers produced frontispieces, prefaces, and book bindings for the text’s earliest publications to influence the meaning of the War of 1812, the 1832 Black Hawk War, and, more broadly, British, U.S., and Indian relations,” Chiles told librarians when recommending the acquisition. “I also analyze the differences between texts, such as prefaces and frontispieces that play an important role in how ‘the Indian’ is represented. Access to first editions is key to enabling this kind of analysis. Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk is a crucially important book in understanding and appreciating what indigenous peoples have done with print.” Chiles teaches African-American, Native American, and early American literature in the UT Department of English.
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral and Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak or Black Hawk are now available to scholars of American history and literature in the UT Libraries’ Special Collections. The acquisitions complement the UT Libraries’ excellent holdings of early American imprints.
* Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak or Black Hawk, embracing the tradition of his nation — Indian wars in which he has been engaged — cause of joining the British in their late war with America, and its history — description of the Rock-River village — manners and customs — encroachments by the whites, contrary to treaty — removal from his village in 1831. With an account of the cause and general history of the late war, his surrender and confinement at Jefferson barracks, and travels through the United States.