April 28, 2008

Library receives rare volume written by black poet

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — A rare and special book is now part of the collection at Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Morris Library.

John LaPine, SIUC alumnus and owner of Printers Row Fine and Rare Books in Chicago, presented to the library a first-edition printing of the first book of verse published by a black poet. Phillis Wheatley's "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral" appeared in print in 1773.

"We are delighted to add this exceedingly rare volume to our collection of black studies materials," David H. Carlson, dean of Library Affairs, said.

LaPine describes the volume as a "landmark" in world literature and in black history.

Phillis Wheatley was born in the Senegal-Gambia area of Africa and came to Boston in 1761 as a slave at the age of seven. Serving as an attendant for the wife of prominent tailor John Wheatley, Phillis reportedly possessed extraordinary language skills. She penned her first poem at the age of 13 and a Newport, R.I., newspaper first published her writing in 1767. However, no Boston printer would publish her poetry so, with the assistance of the Wheatleys, she contacted a London printer, resulting in this book's publication in 1773. Although publishers apparently planned subsequent volumes, none now exist. Phillis Wheatley died in 1784.

LaPine has collected books since the age of eight and been proprietor of Printer's Row Fine and Rare Books since 2003. He earned bachelor's degrees in political science and in German at SIUC in 1988. His experience also includes working as an attorney in Chicago and as a Polish/German/Russian interrogator for the U.S. military.