Elevate Difference

Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson's Life and Language

The popular image of Emily Dickinson is that of an almost ghostly woman in white, secluding herself in an upstairs bedroom alone, but Maid as Muse's innovative approach shows her frequently in the kitchen. There, she is found stirring puddings, baking her famous gingerbread, and living on familiar terms with the household help. She shared her dreams and gossiped with her favorite maid, the Irish-born Margaret Maher, who Dickinson referred to as her dear Maggie.

Murray uses a wide range of documents, including maps, advertisements, letters, photographs, and oral history interviews with descendants of the Dickinson's domestic staff to recreate the material and intellectual milieu in which the poet wrote her celebrated works. Murray demonstrates that the quantity and quality of Emily's writing output—in letters and poems—varies with the presence and absence of reliable servants in the household. Only when there are competent people to help with the heavy load of housework that a nineteenth-century homestead requires is Emily able to find the time, the energy, and, most significant, the concentration to write at her best.

Furthermore, Murray shows that the servants' vernacular speech—often quite different from the staid Yankee rhythms of the poet's family and neighbors—influenced Emily's compositions. The poet herself quotes sayings in her letters by the Irish immigrant Mrs. Mack, for example, and notes how differently her maids pronounce certain English words. Emily's famous slant rhymes and staccato lines of poetry also have startling parallels to the reported conversations and personal letters of her staff.

Murray traces the contributions of Black, American Indian, and British-born servants to the life and work of Emily Dickinson. She points out the places where Emily revealed the prejudices of her times, the classism and racism, yet she also acknowledges how Emily managed to rise above those prejudices and see poor people and other outcasts as sympathetic human beings. This is an enormously rich book, impossible to summarize briefly, well worth exploring, not only by the many fans of Emily Dickinson's poetry, but anyone interested in cultural history and the development of American society.

Written by: Kittye Delle Robbins-Herring, June 21st 2010

this is a much more interesting angle on Dickinson than the usual. if this information makes into high school classrooms, i foresee a lot more engagement with her poems. i may have to re-read them myself.