ARTICLE | “I, Young in Life”: Phillis Wheatley and the Invention of American Childhood | Early American Literature | by Camille S. Owens

“I, Young in Life”: Phillis Wheatley and the Invention of American Childhood

by Camille S. Owens

Early American Literature

Volume 57, Issue 3, 2022, Pages 727-749


Although there is a rich, original archive of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry about children, Wheatley’s role in writing the culture of American childhood has not been widely noted. Conversely, while little can be archivally reconstructed about Wheatley’s young life, popular biographies of the poet have, since the nineteenth century, placed emphasis on her childhood precocity. This essay intervenes in the first problem and deconstructs the latter, arguing that Wheatley was a major architect of American childhood who carved political interventions in childhood’s pliant terms, and who pressed audaciously on its hardening racial boundaries. Placing Wheatley at the center of the early American epistemic, pedagogical, and political struggle over childhood’s meaning, this essay traces the dominant racial politics of childhood that came to diminish Wheatley—as either a childlike poet or an exceptional child—in dialogue with Wheatley’s own invocations of childhood, family, knowledge, and freedom in her personal writings and published work. Reading Wheatley’s elegies to deceased white children beside the poem in which she casts herself—”young in life”—this essay argues that Wheatley drafted early lines in modern American childhood’s recognizable form, while expanding beyond the American imagination of childhood’s cognitive, social, and racial limits.