UT Libraries has purchased first editions of two historically significant works—a book of poems by slave Phillis Wheatley and the autobiography of Black Hawk, a Sauk chief who waged war on the United States in 1832.
Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773, was the first published book by an African-American woman. UT’s copy of the book is particularly noteworthy because it contains a rare inscription by the poet herself.
Black Hawk’s Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk, published in 1833, was transcribed and translated into English from the testimony of the Sauk chief. It was one of the first Native American autobiographies published in the United States.
Both books have been added to the library’s special collections. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was purchased from a private collector and Black Hawk’s autobiography from an antiquarian book dealer.
“These rare editions are far more than prized artifacts to be placed on a shelf. They can help us understand our past,” said Chris Caldwell, humanities services librarian at UT, who works closely with humanities scholars and understands the types of materials that inform their research. “Researchers can, for instance, assess an author’s changing status by studying changes to printings of their works over time. Such studies are particularly important for these minority voices.”
Wheatley was seven years old when she was captured by slavers in West Africa, transported to America, and sold at auction in Boston’s slave market to John and Susanna Wheatley. John Wheatley gave her the name of the slave ship, the Phillis, aboard which she crossed the Atlantic. The Wheatley family began tutoring her 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 her day. Wheatley was emancipated in 1773, but her life as a free woman was brief. She died in childbirth in 1784 at age thirty-one. Her work, a literary achievement by an enslaved African, influenced the discourse on slavery in America.
Chief Black Hawk’s recounting of his life and the Sauk insurrection of 1832 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 nineteenth century, challenging the Sauk’s sovereign right to their land. The Sauk and other tribes living east of the Mississippi River were pushed west of the river.
The chief led a fight against approaching US armies, known as the Black Hawk War. Black Hawk’s small band had several successes before a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Bad Axe. Black Hawk escaped capture at Bad Axe but later surrendered. He and other imprisoned leaders were held for a few months before being released. Black Hawk’s autobiography, dictated to a government interpreter, was published in 1833. It became an instant best-seller, going through five printings within a year.
Katy Chiles, the UT English professor who brought Black Hawk’s work to the libraries’ attention, said she appreciates the cultural significance and research value of both first-edition books. 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.
“Access to first editions is key to enabling this kind of analysis,” said Chiles, who teaches African-American, Native American, and early American literature. 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.”
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’ holdings of early American imprints.
Learn more about the works online.
Chris Caldwell, UT Libraries (865-974-0019, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Katy Chiles, UT Department of English (865-974-6945, email@example.com)
Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, firstname.lastname@example.org)