This Little Book of Poetry Made History
Good morning. We’ll look at the history and the mystery behind a book that’s being sold in New York. We’ll also find out why a new hospital in Brooklyn is like a fort.
There is a mystery about a little book of poetry that was published in the 1770s and is now being sold at an online auction in New York.
Where was it from the time it first went into print until the 1940s?
There is no mystery about the book itself, a first edition of “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” The copy being sold is in an auction at Bonhams that ends on Thursday. The poems were the work of Phillis Wheatley, a formerly enslaved teenager who has been enjoying renewed attention lately, thanks in part to a recent biography that said that “Poems on Various Subjects” was the first book in English by a person of African descent and only the third book of poetry by a woman in North America.
It also “became an antislavery argument,” according to the biography, “The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley,” by David Waldstreicher, who teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. As my colleague Jennifer Schuessler wrote in March, Waldstreicher put Wheatley “smack in the middle of the raging debate over the relationship between the American Revolution and slavery.”
Wheatley’s first name came from the ship that brought her to America when she was 7 years old. She disembarked with no clothes, swaddled in a dirty rug. She was so frail that during the voyage, the captain had worried that she would die before she could be sold, according to a descendant of the family whose surname she took after they had “procured her for a trifle.”
Remarkably, said Darren Sutherland, a senior specialist in fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams, the Wheatleys gave her an education, and by the time she was a teenager, her poems had been published in several New England newspapers. She had 28 more ready to go when she was 18, and a countess in Britain who supported abolitionist causes did what Susanna Wheatley had not been able to do in the colonies: find a publisher.
“The book is important as the nexus of American culture and identity,” Sutherland said. “It speaks to issues that are relevant to this day, from race to the idea of who control the narrative, who tells the story.”
Wheatley was freed in 1773, the same year in which “Poems on Various Subjects” was published in Britain.
The mystery is what happened for the next 170 or so years to the first-edition copy that Bonhams is selling. Sutherland said it was acquired in the 1940s by Raymond Adams, a founder and the first president of the Thoreau Society, which is headquartered at Henry David Thoreau’s birthplace in Concord, Mass. But Adams, who died in 1987 after a long tenure as a professor of English at the University of North Carolina, left no information about how or where he acquired the Wheatley book, Sutherland said.
He said an earlier owner had “Poems on Various Subjects” bound with another short book, “The Grave,” by the Scottish preacher and poet Robert Blair. He speculated that the binding was done in Britain. Was that copy of “Poems on Various Subjects” printed in London, shipped to Massachusetts, purchased there and sent back to Britain for binding with “The Grave”? That is also part of the mystery.
Wheatley had a wide audience. “She wrote in May 1774 that she had just received another 300 copies of her book for sale in the U.S., which is pretty astounding,” Sutherland said. “That suggests they had already been through the first part of the print run, and now they’re embarking on another 300 copies. That suggests very healthy sales.”
The book continued to sell after Wheatley’s death a decade later. By 1820, Sutherland said, “Poems on Various Subjects” had gone through 20 printings.
You know the saying about April showers and May flowers. Well, after a weekend of washed-out roads and flooded basements, the flowers had better be spectacular: 5.2 inches of rain fell in Central Park from 9 a.m. Friday through 9 a.m. Monday.
About 1.1 inches more rain fell in those three days than the average rainfall for the entire month. No wonder April 2023 will be remembered as the seventh-wettest April on record.
There’s more rain in today’s forecast. Expect showers, with temps near the mid-50s. At night, there’s a mere chance of showers. Temps will drop to around the mid-40s.
In effect until May 18 (Solemnity of the Ascension).
The latest New York news
The first Monday in May: The Met Gala (officially, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute benefit) returned with a homage to Karl Lagerfeld.
Trump case: The writer E. Jean Carroll’s case accusing Donald Trump of raping her is continuing in Manhattan. On Monday, the judge denied a defense motion for a mistrial. Here’s what to know about the trial so far.
Expanded dental coverage: A class-action lawsuit will expand the coverage of common but costly dental procedures for the five million adults in New York State who are on Medicaid.
Hochul adviser resigns: A top political adviser to Gov. Kathy Hochul abruptly informed colleagues that he would resign on Sunday, citing a New York Times report that called into question his political counsel and described a toxic work environment under him.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg Hospital is opening in Brooklyn
“We literally built a fort,” Svetlana Lipyanskaya said, even though the signs will say it’s a hospital.
Lipyanskaya, the chief executive of NYC Health + Hospitals/South Brooklyn Health, was talking about the $923 million building that is replacing Coney Island Hospital, which flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Some 370 patients had to be evacuated as seawater was surging into the emergency room, and marine life — a turtle — was washing up in the I.T. department
My colleague Sharon Otterman writes that city hospital leaders convinced the Federal Emergency Management Agency that constructing a new building would cost the same as repairing and retrofitting the old one. With nearly $1 billion from the agency, the city’s public hospital designed a structure to withstand even a once-in-a-century flood.
Most of the hospital’s campus is ringed by a four-foot-tall barrier wall, with other barriers at the entrances that can be moved into place to keep water out. The building’s mechanical systems, including a pair of generators as large as the engines on freight trains, sit out of reach of storm-driven water on the fifth floor. The emergency room, painted a calming shade of blue, is on the second floor, above the worst flood projections. It’s also twice as large as the old one.
The building is sheathed in a glass curtain wall that is resistant to hurricane damage and built to withstand “large and small missile impact,” meaning it will not break even if hit with large flying debris, said John Flanagan, an architect on the project from the firm NBBJ.
In the lobby is a bronze statue of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in 2020. Lipyanskaya said the building had been named for the Brooklyn-born Supreme Court justice to honor her commitment to equity and justice. It will open to patients on Sunday.
It was late September 2019. I was walking in East River Park on my way to the East Village. I had on a white and gold Kerala sari that I had worn for an event at my children’s school near Kips Bay.
Despite New Yorkers’ well-earned reputation for not batting an eye at other people’s outfits, I had gotten quite a few thumbs-ups and double takes for mine.
I smiled, acknowledged them all and walked on toward my destination, East 10th Street and Avenue A.
As I paused to cross at 10th Street and Avenue C, I heard a woman calling out to me.
I turned to see a South Asian woman in her late 40s or early 50s running toward me and waving for me to stop.
“Is that a Kerala sari?” she asked, panting a bit.
“Yes,” I replied, smiling.
“You must think I’m crazy,” she said, “but I’ve lived in this city for 35 years, and I’ve never seen someone in a Kerala sari just walking down the street.”
“I moved here from Kerala in ’84,” she continued. “My mom passed away last year, and now I own all her saris. I’ve never worn them but seeing you walk down the street is my mom giving me a sign. May I give you a hug?”
We hugged right there at the corner of 10th and C. With teary eyes, she wished me a good day, and we went our separate ways.
— Shweta Ganesh Kumar
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.
Melissa Guerrero, John Keeffe, Andy Newman and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].