2024 David Waldstreicher, The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys through American Slavery and Independence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

WALDSTREICHER

The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley richly merits special attention as both a literary achievement and an archival masterpiece, as Waldstreicher managed to achieve both feats in this wonderful book. Inspired by his students’ questions regarding how to read Wheatley’s tone in her poems, Waldstreicher aims to listen to Wheatley’s voice anew and to amplify it for readers today. By setting her poems within her surrounding social, cultural, and political soundscape—that of an enslaved young woman yearning and plotting for freedom, of a brilliant artist communing with philosophers across the ages, of a keen political observer in a Revolutionary moment—Waldstreicher allows us to hearken to Wheatley as we never have before. He successfully marshals a diverse and elusive archive to tell an urgent story about a writer who deserves this biography. 

While Waldstreicher has the humility to observe “how much we do not know” when we take up such projects, the breadth of his research and the persistence of his pursuit undercovers a life often overshadowed by other towering figures in 18th-century America. The committee noted that Waldstreicher met the unique challenge for a biographer who must capture the eloquence and creativity of Wheatley with imaginative prose of his own. Ultimately the artfulness of The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley compelled our committee to unanimously recommend this book.

David Waldstreicher is Distinguished Professor of History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York.