Phillis Wheatley and Anne Bradstreet are known as the first American poets. They are both similar to one another, being that they are women. Both stepped away from the traditional writing seen in early American literature, instead creating American poetry. The similarities between the two writers are seen during the time period. Both published in a time when women did not have equal rights, they were unable to vote and it was unethical for women to hold jobs. Wheatley however, met a greater feat as she is the first African American writer as well as the first African American female writer. Considering distinctions between these two poets, the theme of their work and the message conveyed greatly differed from one another. Wheatley wrote poetry geared towards slavery, freedom, and injustices. Bradstreet, on the other hand, wrote poetry centered around women, including women’s challenges, motherhood, and marriage. Consequently, despite their many similarities as the first American poets, the theme and message of their writing greatly differed from male authors of the time.
During colonialism, many New Englanders, males specifically, wrote to provide information about the “New World”. They encouraged the English to make the voyage across the ocean and make a new beginning. These writers also provided information about the land and the Natives who lived there. This is seen particularly in the writings of Thomas Harriot and Cotton Mather. The writings of Cotton Mather were to provide greater information about America and life during early settlement. In his title, From the Wonders of the Invisible World, Mather described colonial life, “a people of God settled in those, which were once the devil’s territories”, (Mather 308). Here he describes the untamed land and wilderness found in America. Unlike, Wheatley and Bradstreet, Mather did not promote a message to encourage change in American society. Instead, he focused on providing descriptions of the territory to motivate other Englishmen to participate in colonization, provide them with knowledge, and create an idea of what America was like.
Bradstreet wrote poetry with a clear message about her lifestyle, religious beliefs, and family life. However, most importantly she wrote poetry about women’s rights and suffrage she experienced as a woman in a male dominated society. These feelings were greatly expressed in her poem, The Prologue. In the fifth stanza Bradstreet states, “I’m obnoxious to each carpy tongue, who says my hand a needle better fits”, (Bradstreet 188). Here, Bradstreet addresses her struggles as a female poet and how men perceived her and her writing. She goes on to describe her challenges as an artist when she states, “a poets pen all scorn I should thus wrong… they’ll say it was stol’n or else it was by chance”, (Bradstreet 188). In this poem, Bradstreet provides a clear message by defining the obstacles she had to overcome, obstacles that American women do not face today. This message distinctly differs from male American writers of her time. Not only did Bradstreet choose to express herself through poetry, versus writing essays, stories, and informational articles, she wrote with a message that could encourage change. Furthermore, this gives outsiders, and readers of today, a perspective of the challenges she faced, her feelings, and the culture of colonial America.
There were other early American writers who wrote informative books and stories. Unlike Wheatley and Bradstreet, they did not write poetry nor encourage change. This is seen in the writings of Bradford and Smith. Both men used their talent to provide information to Englishmen about settlement in the New World. Bradford in his piece, New Land His Time on the Plymouth Plantation, he wrote, “and the whole country full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue”, (Bradford 116). Instead of motivating others through poetry, he wrote informative pieces to demonstrate English life in the New World. Smith, another writer of American literature, displayed this as well. Smith wrote, “and that was half a pint of wheat and as much barley boiled with water for a man a day”, (Smith 57-58). Like Bradford, Smith describes the struggles and challenges the English faced during colonization and American exploration. This message too is informative. However, the message does not encourage a change in organization, society, or motivate others change cultural norms and customs.
Unlike the early American writers of her time, Wheatley conveyed a message and encouraged cultural change. She did this by addressing slavery and inspiring puritans and other Christians to work towards its abolishment. This message is seen throughout her many writings. In her poem, Love of Freedom, Wheatley acknowledges slavery and Whites who condone it. “My love for Freedom sprung, whence flow these wishes for the common good”, (Wheatley 752). Here, Wheatley makes a cry for “common good”. She encourages the idea that all people should be treated equally and have a fair chance at a good and satisfying life. She also opens the mind of her audience when she states, “what sorrows labor in my parents breast”, (Wheatley 752). This line is powerful for readers. Although the enslavers may understand the nature of slavery, Africans taken from their land and brought to America, they may never consider the family left behind. Wheatley mentioning her parents, she encourages the reader to recognize the family unit and the impact this has on the individual. During this time, many may not have considered this, the torment and heartache her parents must have faced when their daughter was stolen and enslaved.
Early American literature does convey a message. However, the message differs greatly from the poetry of Wheatley and Bradstreet. The Iroquois Creation Story is an example. The story was written or narrated to encourage change. This story, like the others, is an informative story. The message here, however, is a narrative that tells the creation of people and America. “When he had made the universe he was in doubt respecting some being to possess the Great Island”, (“Creation Story” 23). Unlike other early American writers, Wheatley and Bradstreet wrote American poetry and were the first to do so. These women wrote distinct poems that displays a clear message, encouraging change in American culture and society prevalent during colonization. “Men can do best, and women know it well, preeminence in all and each is yours, Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours”, (Bradstreet 188). Here, Bradstreet asks for and encourages simple for rights and privileges for women. She does not ask for much, just that women be acknowledged for their work and talents aside from homemaker. Bradstreet encourages general respect from men and ventures women may want to explore. Wheatley also encourages change. She ask for acknowledge of African intellect and intelligence. “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, Maybe refined, and join the angelic train”, (Wheatley 753). Wheatley wants the reader to acknowledge that African Americans can be civilized and taught. She advises the reader to understand Africans and accept that Africans can be “refined”, taught to be Christian and turn away from paganism and savagery. These lines suggest that teaching Africans to be Christian will help the English see Africans as people and discourage enslavement.
Although Bradstreet wrote poetry that encourages change, she maintained stereotypical ideologies about women and their work. In her poem, In Honor of That High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory, Bradstreet shows pride in the English matriarch. She argues that, “but time would fail me, so my tongue would too, to tell of half she did, or could do”, (Bradstreet 190). Bradstreet tells the great things the Queen did for the country, explaining that the Queen performed as well, or better, than a man could have. However, she goes on to states that the Queen “taught them better manners, to their cost”, (Bradstreet 190). This iterates the stereotypical role of women, placing women back in the role of homemaker. However, as a rebuttal, Bradstreet may be suggesting that the Queen is still a women and very much feminine. Despite putting women in the stereotypical role, Bradstreet shows admiration for the Queen and provides facts that will encourage any male audience salute the Queen and all her accomplishments.
Like Bradstreet, Wheatley too shows pride and boasts about leaders in authority. This is seen in the poem, To His Excellency General Washington. Although she speaks highly of the president and gives George Washington praise, she uses this poem to encourage social change. “See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan, And nations gaze at scenes before unknown”, (Wheatley 762). Wheatley hints to Washington about the state of slavery. She even backs up her beliefs and statements to Washington providing a statement of cause to abolish slavery and offering freedom Africans, “and so may you, whoever dares disgrace, The land of freedom’s heaven defended race”, (Wheatley 762).
Wheatley and Bradstreet are very distinct writers of poetry. Compared to other early American literature of the time, these women write poetry that convey a clear message and encourage change. Perhaps Wheatley and Bradstreet wrote with a message because of the obstacles and challenges they faced. Bradstreet was oppressed in early American society because she was a woman. Wheatley faced oppression because she was an African American slave. These challenges encouraged both writers to use their talent to move others, to create a better society the entails freedom and civil liberties for women and African Americans.
Bradford, William. “New Land this Time on the Plymouth Plantation” Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. A (or B). Ed. Nina Baym. New York: WW Norton and Company, 2007.
Bradstreet, Anne. “Anne Bradstreet.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. A (or B). Ed. Nina Baym. New York: WW Norton and Company, 2007.
Iroquois Creation Story. “A Tale of the Foundation of the Great Island now North America- The Two Infants Born, and the Creation of the Universe” Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. A (or B). Ed. Nina Baym. New York: WW Norton and Company, 2007.
Mather, Cotton. “From the Wonders of the Invisible World.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. A (or B). Ed. Nina Baym. New York: WW Norton and Company, 2007.
Smith, John. “The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Sumner Isles.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. A (or B). Ed. Nina Baym. New York: WW Norton and Company, 2007.
Wheatley, Phillis. “Phillis Wheatley” Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. A (or B). Ed. Nina Baym. New York: WW Norton and Company, 2007.