NEH Awards ED Museum

Posted in service on September 21st, 2019 by admin – Be the first to comment

One of the benefits of the second wave women’s movement was a reassessment, by poets and critics, of the work and life of Emily Dickinson.

That watershed can be marked in 1976 when Adrienne Rich published “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson” in Parnassus: poetry in review which, three years later, appeared  in her book On Lies, Secrets, and Silence.

Now the National Endowment for the Humanities is making it possible for the Emily Dickinson Museum to bring the fruits of more than 40 years of those re-imaginings — of the poet’s work and life — into a year-long interpretive planning process.

The aim of this NEH-funded iterative process is to unite the Museum’s historic spaces and collections in an effort to better serve its growing contemporary audience.

As one of 7 Scholar-Advisors to this planning process, I’ll be looking with keen attention at the family’s private areas of this, pictured, historic home and the kitchen wing that juts out to the left. These are some of the spaces the poet often occupied with, near to hand, gardeners, maids, stable hands, laundry workers, and general laborers.

Emily Dickinson could often be found writing in these private realms alongside those working in the kitchen. Or could overhear laborers in the garden as she composed in the pantry or consulted with these men in her garden.

In her word-shop, the poet wrote in a domestic sphere inhabited by African Americans, English and Irish immigrants, Yankees, and Native people.

Emily Dickinson was hardly alone and theirs were some of the voices that inflected her omnivorous ear and whose labor freed her from kitchen duties so she had the energy and time to write.

Mothering Day

Posted in service on May 13th, 2013 by admin – Be the first to comment

Mothers Day celebrates those who raised another. Many perform the task of mothering alongside the mother. Her name is nanny or baby sitter or grandmom or companion or housekeeper. At the Dickinson Homestead, Margaret Maher was one who mothered Emily Dickinson.

Shrewdly, Emily sensed Margaret would be the right right-hand person and pulled out all the stops to get her hired.

What a pair. Here they are pictured, both as women in their late twenties, before they began their long association together.

There is no one Emily leaned on quite like she did Margaret Maher. Margaret never bore children of her own but she ably performed the task of nurturing a poet. Happy Mothering Day.

In a class of their own

Posted in service on March 29th, 2012 by admin – Be the first to comment

Any foreigner living and working in Hong Kong  is entitled, after seven years, to become a permanent resident which is the closest thing Hong Kong has to citizenship.

Unless that is you are a foreign maid according to a new ruling by Hong Kong’s Supreme Court.

The lower court had earlier ruled that discriminating against foreign maids was unconstitutional and that they should be entitled to the same rights as anyone else living and working in this administrative region of China.

This issue has been fraught and has divided Hong Kong where most maids, who live-in and earn about $450 per month, are from other countries in Southeast Asia.

The primary reason cited by Hong Kong’s Supreme Court, for discriminating against maids, is that Hong Kong is too densely populated and it’s social services and educational institutions are already straining.

The expectation is that once granted permanent residency, the maids’ families would emigrate to Hong Kong and overburden the system. This Potential problem apparently justifies withholding permanent residency from these maids.

For now,  Hong Kong’s discriminatory policy against maids remains in place.

Thomas Jefferson & Emily D

Posted in service on March 11th, 2012 by admin – Be the first to comment

“Thomas Jefferson’s very existence was shaped and enabled by slavery. Slaves placed newborn Thomas in his cradle, and slaves comforted the former president on his deathbed” writes NPR for their March 11, 2012 program: “Life at Monticello, as his slaves saw it.”

One of these men and women, pictured left, is Monticello Blacksmith Isaac Granger.

“Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” is a new exhibition, created by the Museum of African American History and Culture and housed at the Museum of American History in Washington D.C. on the National Mall.

Rex Ellis, an associate director with the Museum, says “We are looking at Jefferson, but, more importantly to me, we are somehow acknowledging the 600 men, women and children who also were a part of Jefferson’s life.”

“Men, women and children who, in fact, made Jefferson’s life possible — which, in turn, gave them a part in shaping early American history.”

At Dickinson Homestead, I’ve identified the names of five dozen men and women who, through their labor inside and outside of the house, enabled the life of one of the world’s foremost poets.

They included Henry Hawkins,pictured to the left with his granddaughter Helen Pettijohn, who labored for the Dickinson family.

The men and women who made Emily Dickinson’s life possible were not owned. They were not slaves but hired hands as I’ve described in  Maid as Muse.*

They were African-American, Native American, white Yankee, and Irish and English immigrant maids, seamstresses, gardeners, stable hands, and general laborers.

As Mr. Ellis and his colleagues have created in the new exhibit, we learn more about these renowned figures when we learn about the other people who were an intimate part of their lives — and in doing so we learn something about ourselves.

* Maid as Muse is now on sale at 35% off. Details.

Art of Service part II

Posted in service on January 15th, 2012 by admin – Be the first to comment

As part of my investigation of Emily Dickinson’s “downstairs” world, I invited into that process the men and women who today clean the Emily Dickinson Museum, tend its gardens, and do necessary repairs.

I “interviewed” – long distance and via mail – landscape gardeners Judith Sherman Atwood and John R. Bator; house cleaners Richard Beauregard and Robin Dagenais; and carpenter Henry Paul Hebert.

I queried them about the nature of their work and how it resembled poetry or art.

They sent their responses which I used as the text for the hand-sewn artists books.

I sewed these books by hand as homage to Emily Dickinson’s own hand-made books of her poetry, the fascicles.

Unlike Emily’s hand made poem books, written out in pencil with a dozen or two of her own verses, Art of Service was run, in a limited edition, on Dale Going’s Vandercook press.

I then traveled 3,000 miles to Amherst to lead a public walking tour of the the Dickinson servants’ Amherst and meet in person Robin, Richard, Judy, John, and Henry.

Like Robin’s page, left, they each signed their pages of my copy of the book.

There were about 170 people in attendance at the first tour in 1997. We stopped traffic when we crossed North Pleasant Street, in downtown Amherst, enroute from St. Brigid’s to Emily Dickinson’s grave.

Richard, Robin, Judy, and John were key narrators along with a Dickinson servant descendant joined by over 40 members of her family – all descended from Emily’s chief pallbearer.

Next up: history goes live.

Cemetery Stalker

Posted in Uncategorized, service on October 10th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

We paused before a

House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground -

The Roof was scarcely

visible -

The Cornice – in the Ground -

Since then – ’tis Centuries -

and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the

Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity -

-Emily Dickinson, about late 1862 (with her original line breaks); last stanzas of “Because I could not / stop for death”

When I couldn’t find photographs or letters of the Dickinson servants – or other evidences of their having lived or breathed in the high ceiling interior of the Dickinson Homestead – I headed to the cemetery.

No more than fifty feet from the fenced plot, pictured below, where Emily is buried with her parents and sister in West Cemetery, I found the graves of housekeepers, stablemen, gardeners, and others who in some way worked for Emily’s family.

It was a February evening in 2008 and the sun was setting in Amherst when I found the grave of Betty Ann Brown Scott, an African American woman who had cooked for Emily’s famly in the early 1850s.

Not far away were the graves of the Jackson family. Patriarch Henry Jackson, a teamster by trade, made himself indispensable to three generations of Dickinson men.

And Charles Thompson who worked for the Dickinson men, college treasurers, keeping Amherst College boilers stoked and in any number of ways at the Homestead. His wife, also African American, served at Homestead parties.

Others, like laborer Tom Kelley, are buried not far away in a Catholic cemetery in Plainville (Hadley, Massachusetts) established by St. Brigid’s Church of Amherst.

Others still are buried in the Catholic cemetery in Northampton (St. Mary’s Cemetery) like gardener Horace Church’s family and maid-of-all-work Margaret Maher.

Somewhere on the grounds of St. Mary’s are the remains of Irish immigrant Margaret O Brien Lawler, the first long term Dickinson housekeeper.

Margaret O Brien arrived by 1856 when the newly renovated and expanded Homestead – or the Dickinson family’s rise in the world – necessitated help.

She stayed until she married her way out of service, to Stephen Lawler, in October 1865 – to the dismay of one extremely active poet:

Besides wiping the dishes for Margaret, I wash them now, while she becomes Mrs. Lawler, vicarious papa to four previous babes. Must she not be an adequate bride? I winced at her loss, because I was in the habit of her, and even a new rolling pin has an embarrassing element, but to all except anguish, the mind soon adjusts

It took three years but the motivated – and frustrated – writer found a replacement for Margaret O Brien.

Her name was Margaret Maher but Emily Dickinson called her “Maggie.

In fact once Margaret Maher was a fixture of the poet’s household, Emily professed wanting to change her own name, taking her maid’s:

“‘Maggie’ is a warm name. I shall like to take it.”


Posted in service on August 25th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

I’ll never forget watching the news the day that fire hoses were turned on school children in Birmingham, Alabama.

Children my age were using non-violence to desegregate that city and in turn our country.

100 pounds of pressure. Children swept down the street. Knocked to the ground trying to withstand the force. Some hiding behind trees.

Then the police turned the attack dogs on them.

I suppose that’s why I’m disappointed – like Nelson George of the NYT - that the film version of Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help gives a “rosy glow” to the conditions and struggles of Jim Crow Jackson.

The aspirations of the main African American characters Aibileen and Minny aren’t central to the screen. Nor their context.

Okay something has to get sacrificed when adapting a book. But isn’t all of that key to these characters? Aibileen – the budding writer herself. The threats to life.

Underplaying the era’s violence soft peddles the courage it took for these two women to participate in Skeeter Phelan’s book. That was a big miss.

But what Mr. George doesn’t address in his fine NYT piece is the film’s clumsy handling of class – which Stockett addresses head on. Again, the movie misstepped.

The book scene I’m referring to is where, much to the shock of Minny, a white woman literally goes to bat for her. Celia lays out cold a man coming after Minny in a moment of class solidarity not bounded by the binaries of race.

The film cuts that scene – losing the complexity of their relationship – which creates a pivotal turn for Minny and leaves Celia to languish in full buffoonery.

Instead, the film version of Celia – of Sugar Ditch who can’t find her “place” in Jackson (Mississippi) society due to class – shows her gratitude by making a meal for her cooking-tutor Minny. A puff pastry piece. Too bad.

Here’s where it gets personal.

Full disclosure: One of my grandfathers was a socialist and the other was a Republican. One man worshiped Eugene Victor Debs and the other was disappointed when FDR became president.

Yet neither of these Irish American men were blind to the commonality they shared with others – whether they were new immigrants just off the boat, not yet speakers of English, or long time Americans of Native or African slave descent.

In fact both of my grandfathers fought politically on behalf of those common workingman interests. My grandfathers – socialist and republican – knew that their economic interests lie with their immigrant, Native, and African American neighbors.

My father was son of the socialist. As a teenager he witnessed accelerating KKK attacks on his family because his widowed mother dared to build a Catholic church in their New Jersey town.

My grandmother was not intimidated – even when the Klan attempted to burn her house to the ground.

The church she was intent on seeing built, that stoked KKK ire, still thrives in Bergen County, New Jersey. (My current writing project is about this story; my grandmother pictured right and below.)

As a result of his father’s socialism and his mother’s defiance of Klan racism, my father’s long life was animated by civil rights. He became another white working class civil rights activist. (My grandmother, uncle, and father L-R pictured below.)

That’s why I have a personal stake in not losing the scene where Celia downs the intruder about to attack Minny.

We need to see that – we white people need reminding – while the racist right wing normalizes itself in US and European politics.

I don’t want to forget the civil rights struggle – extreme acts of courage – or the context to The Help.

Thanks to my thoughtful son, who culled them for me, I’m making my way through the 14 episode PBS documentary Their Eyes on the Prize.

That’s my antidote for the film’s oversights and the existence of Marine Le Pen, John Tanton, racist Norwegian massacres, and groups like American Coalition for Immigration Reform.

Like a tree that’s standing by the water . . .

Stood Up to be Counted against the Klan

From Denigration – To Celebration

Posted in service on May 19th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

The quickest way into West Cemetery, the bone yard where Emily Dickinson lies buried in Amherst, Massachusetts, is to walk up a short driveway between Ren’s Mobil gas station and a snug row of shops.

Then you scramble onto a retaining wall and duck under a chain loosely strung across an unmarked entrance. Around the corner, on a busy bypass road, lies the cemetery’s main entry point but this one, close to the center of town, is the gate that Emily, as a girl, lived beside.

During Emily’s most impressionable years, from age 10 until she turned 25, the budding poet could, and did, look up from her front stoop to watch many a “Gay, Ghastly, Holiday!,” as she put it, wander past the front door.

Tutored early and often in the ways her neighbors mourned and toted loved ones to the tomb, Emily’s death obsession appears, in that light, quite natural. While other Amherst girls dreamed of walking the aisle in wedding white, Emily was concocting her own “Dark Parade.” By the time the famous poet “heard a fly buzz when she died” – 125 years ago this month – Emily Dickinson had her entire funeral planned.

She surprised everyone when this prominent, wealthy Protestant Yankee chose six immigrant men to be her pallbearers. There was a big backlash against immigrants at the time so giving them star billing, well, her family wasn’t exactly overjoyed. Cousin Eudocia Flynt expressed the root cause of everyone’s shock and dismay: “taken to the cemetery – by Irishmen, out of the back door, across the fields!!  Her request -.”

What may be most surprising about this is that three decades earlier Emily Dickinson sounded a lot like John Tanton and Roy Beck in their national crusade against immigrants. Emily claimed immigrants ought to be “scientifically” destroyed in order to leave “more room for the Americans.”

How did Emily Dickinson go from trumpeting ethnic cleansing to giving immigrants star billing in her funeral? Why did she change (and is there hope for the Tantons, Becks, and members of the Georgia, Utah, and Arizona Legislatures)?

Strangely enough, for someone who has become famous as a recluse, it was daily and sustained proximity at home with immigrant domestic workers that improved her attitudes.

Over the decades, the former “Belle of Amherst” became a home-centered writer who withdrew from interaction with her social peers. There, in her kitchen headquarters, Emily Dickinson sought a social environment more comfortable and accepting.

She found literary sustenance through gardening, baking, and close relationships with her family’s maids, stable hands, and gardeners (not as close as CA’s former governor though) . In the course of Emily’s flour sifting, blending ingredients, tying up plants, pinching back, she often conversed with family laborers – including future pallbearers, Dennis Cashman, Tom Moynihan, Dennis Scannell, Stephen Sullivan, and Pat Ward. (There’s something to be said here for the edifying effects of live-in domestic service.)

In the case of laborer Tom Kelley, honored as her chief pallbearer, Emily even allowed herself to cry on his shoulder one distraught afternoon. More often than not she could found “making a loaf cake with Maggie” – her long term immigrant maid whom Emily Dickinson described as “warm and wild and mighty.” Fans of the PBS series Downton Abbey, or the revived Upstairs, Downstairs, have seen many examples of such warmly enmeshed and dependent associations.

If the natural world of gardening and the daily life routines – elbow to elbow with immigrant servants – inhabited Emily Dickinson’s language like a live root system, perhaps these conditions also freed her to go against norms – of poetic form and prevailing attitudes. Given these formations, Emily Dickinson’s pallbearer choice was an enlightened and, perhaps, inevitable revision.

If you ever find yourself hopping over the links of chain behind the Amherst Mobil station and adjacent brick storefronts, you might search out, within 20 or 50 feet of Emily’s family plot, the graves of Dickinson family retainers: Horace Church, Wells and Amos Newport, Henry Jackson to name a few.

Imagining a small funeral held 125 years ago – for the poet who “selected her own society – then – shut the door” – be sure to populate it with a handful of Dickinsons, several family friends, and a good number of present and former maids and laborers accompanied by their immigrant families.

On the day of Emily’s funeral, what struck the children of chief pallbearer, Tom Kelley, most strongly were the butterflies. Oblivious of what gulfs – of fiscal power or places of birth – divided the bearers from the borne, divided family grievers from servant mourners, the butterflies followed Emily Dickinson’s white coffin through barn, around gardens, and over meadows full of violets and innocents, notating drafts of air all the way to West Cemetery.

“Taken to the cemetery – by Irishmen…!!”

Posted in service on May 17th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

“The air was pinked with apple blossoms, long grass curved with dew when Stephen Sullivan and Dennis Cashman arrived with their shovels. Their pant legs and boots had turned wet-dark from the grassy approach. Shovels went in easy, up to the hilt. The deepest loam piled on top glistened with ruby worms. It had been 3 1/2 years since the last Dickinson was set down in this plot — the mother, an invalid. Had a stroke one year, almost to the day, after the Squire passed. Now the children — this the elder daughter no one saw much. Butterflies skittered among violets and plot markers by the time the two men squared out the grave, balanced shovels across their shoulder blades and headed from the cemetery. Then they went about the task of making openings in fences between the burial ground and Homestead.

Austin Dickinson, Emily’s brother, would’ve pointed out where he wanted them to dig that Wednesday morning, May 19, 1886. Even if it was another task of many for his laborers, in the place whence Stephen and Dennis’s people came, it was an honor to dig a grave. Plus, Miss Emily had given them a grander role in that afternoon’s funeral as her bearers. How awkward might this have been for Austin? The Dickinson superiority held momentarily in check. She was gone now. After years of muffled laughter, of the gossip that flares in a village of which she had an inkling but pretended not to, her brother could set some things right. Here was the moment to make clear her standing and thereby silence the town. Austin added four of this highly placed friends as honorary pallbearers.”

- Opening of Chapter Five from Maid as Muse

Pitch Perfect Demetrie

Posted in service on November 14th, 2010 by admin – Be the first to comment

It was like being a kid again – lying in bed with a flashlight to finish The Help (yes, I know Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller has been out for eons but I’ve been busy).

When I woke in the morning I started re-reading from the beginning. Why?

One reason is that I was thrilled by the way Kathryn Stockett inhabits African-American vernacular – for the characters of Minny and Aibileen. Emily Dickinson’s ear, like Kathryn Stockett’s, was authentically shaped by formative years with her maid. ED brought it to bear on her stunning language (Maid as Muse has a whole chapter on this).

Another reason I fell under the spell of The Help is simply that Ms. Stockett makes visible how unseen and undervalued people play instrumental roles in the creation of culture.

Now it will go big screen with a movie in the making. Good on you Kathryn Stockett – and her maid Demetrie.