Douglas Field, "One of Three" [Review of Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Atlanta: U. Georgia P, 2012), in The Times Literary Supplement, 16 March 2012]

        Later poems show a range of sophisticated rhetorical devices. In a convincing reading of "An Address to the Deist," in which the speaker identifies as Ethiopian, Carretta observes that "By calling herself an Ethiopian rather than an African or a black in a religious poem, she claims an identity that grants her biblical authority to speak to her readers." The poem also highlights the difficulties that modern critics have faced when reading Wheatley's poetry. "An Address to the Deist" seems at first to challenge slavery: "Must Ethiopians be employ'd for you?," which is mitigated by the second line, where the speaker seems to accept her lot: "Much I rejoice if any good I do." For Carretta, the acceptance is ironic: what pleases the speaker is in fact her moral superiority over her readers, which gives her an authority to instruct them. This is a plausible reading but it points to wider challenges that readers face.

        Wheatley has been accused both of rejecting her African heritage and of justifying the transatlantic slave trade because it led to her salvation. For the African American writer James Weldon Johnson, her scant references to Africa are characterized by her "smug contentment at her own escape" from the continent of her birth. Her most famous poem, "On Being Brought from Africa to America," which Henry Louis Gates, Jr called "the most reviled poem in African American literature", begins with the lines, "'TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land, / Taught my benighted soul to understand / That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too."