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Maid as Muse
How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language
Aífe Murray

Revisiting New England

New Hampshire
2010 • 324 pp. 50 B&W illus. 6 x 9"
Literary Criticism / Women's Studies

$35.00 Hardcover, 978-1-58465-674-6

“The daring of Murray’s quest and the even-handed generosity of her spirit are matched by the vitality of her own prose.”Adrienne Rich

A startlingly original work establishing the impact of domestic servants on the life and writings of Emily Dickinson

In Maid as Muse, Aífe Murray explodes the myth of the isolated genius and presents an intimate, densely realized story of joined lives between Emily Dickinson and her domestic servants. Part scholarly study, part detective story, part personal journey, Murray’s book uncovers a world previously unknown: an influential world of Irish immigrant servants and an ethnically rich one of Yankee, English-immigrant, Native American, and African American maids and laborers, seamstresses and stablemen. Murray reveals how Margaret Maher and the other servants influenced the cultural outlook, fashion, artistic subject, and even poetic style of Emily Dickinson. Irish immigrant Maher becomes the lens to a larger story about artistic reciprocities and culture-making that has meaning way beyond Dickinson. This below-stairs, bottom-up portrait of the artist and her family not only injects themes of class and ethnic difference into the story but also imparts subtle details and intimacies that make the study of Emily Dickinson urgent once again. In the kitchen pantry where she spent a good portion of each day, the outside world came to Dickinson. The “invisible” kitchen was headquarters for people mostly lost from the public record—and it was her interactions with them that changed and helped define who Emily Dickinson was as a person and a poet.

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Reviews / Endorsements

“Murray offers a treasure trove of information in this meticulously researched study. . . Offering an eclectic mix of scholarly and fictional narrative, photographs, genealogical charts, personal reflections, and even recipes, Murray transports the reader into the Dickinson home to witness the poet’s interactions with the staff, who not only kept the household running but also shaped her worldview. . . Recommended.”Choice

Maid as Muse is a landmark work of historical revelation that unearths truths so glaringly significant it seems improbable they could have been ignored—yet ignored they were. Generations of Emily Dickinson scholars and devoted admirers (myself included) reveled in every facet of her life, studied every nuance, and savored every detail. But somehow the web of domestic relationships that sustained the Dickinson household and was so integral to the poet’s achievement was barely noticed and rarely remarked on. Aife Murray’s book changes all that. More than a breathtakingly original investigation that alters our perception of Dickinson’s everyday existence, Maid as Muse restores to the historical record the lives of those most often forgotten or passed over”—immigrants, women, the working class. Murray opens our eyes (and our hearts and minds) to the complex interaction of gender, class, race, and ethnicity in the Dickinson home in Amherst as well as in the wider context of 19th-century New England. She gives voice to the voiceless, and enriches and deepens our understanding of Emily Dickinson and the world of which she was part. Maid as Muse is a rare, wonderful, and stunningly original book. I am in awe of what Aife Murray has done.”—Peter Quinn

“This is an important book, not just for Dickinson studies but also for understanding nineteenth-century American life and culture as well as the dynamic and multifaceted stories of a nation’s immigrants and native peoples. The book is also valuable in the way it examines some of the less obvious or tangible factors that shape a writer’s creative process.”The Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin

“From reams of letters, poems, archival records, photographs, maps, newspaper articles, and interviews with descendants of Irish immigrant and African American laborers and servants, Aífe Murray resurrects submerged lives and social realities in 19th century New England and beyond. Focusing on the Dickinson household through a new and revelatory lens, she makes a persuasive case that Dickinson's radical poetics were inflected by Irish and African American vernacular speech, even as she rejected standard literary and parlor diction. At center is not only the poet herself but Margaret Maher, alongside whom she worked as mistress and maid through her most productive years, and who actually preserved her poems. This is a work of re-visionary reading and hands-on research. The daring of Murray’s quest and the even-handed generosity of her spirit are matched by the vitality of her own prose.”—Adrienne Rich

“Imaginative, informative, and consistently lively. A deeply felt response to Dickinson’s domestic context that amplifies our understanding of nineteenth-century-American literary and social history.”Vivian Pollak

AÍFE MURRAY has been in residence at the Emily Dickinson Museum; she conceived and has led several public walking tours of Amherst from the perspective of the Dickinson servants; and she created Art of Service, an artists’ book collaboration with the present-day housecleaners and gardeners of the Dickinson Museum. She was an affiliated scholar with the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University and named the 2007 Scholar in Amherst by the Emily Dickinson International Society. She lives in San Francisco.

Mon, 18 Jun 2018 11:56:27 -0500