A 1773 first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral sold at auction yesterday for $38,175. Three hundred copies were printed in London and crossed the Atlantic in a crate aboard the Dartmouth. Incredibly, on that same voyage the Dartmouth was also carrying 114 chests of the East India Company tea that would get tossed overboard that December. Thankfully the crate containing the books were not damaged in the Boston Tea Party. Above we see the Yale Beinecke Library’s copy from that first print run. The volume that sold yesterday had once belonged to Raymond Adams (1898-1987), a University of North Carolina English professor and co-founder in 1941 of the Thoreau Society.
It is a little unclear if the particular volume that sold yesterday was aboard the Dartmouth because a previous owner at some time had Wheatley’s poems bound with a collection of prose written by a Scottish poet. Though the three hundred copies of the Wheatley book had been printed in London specifically for sale in the colonies, could the original owner have purchased a lone volume in Great Britain before the Dartmouth sailed? That’s unlikely, but given the questions regarding its subsequent binding with the second item we’ll never know for certain. Whatever the provenance we are fortunate that this particular volume, and the one we see above from the Beinecke, have survived these past 250 years.