Critical Acclaim

for Maid as Muse

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. Aífe 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 Aífe Murray has done.”

Peter Quinn

From reams of letters, poems, archival records, photographs, maps, newspaper articles, and interviews with descendants of Irish immigrant and African American laborers and servants, Aife 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

….Perhaps not since Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson has there emerged a book concerning Dickinson that so successfully presents a unique form of literary history, creative and discursive. Aficionados will want to read every appendix and footnote of this book that argues for the poet as a “home-centered” writer, her life shown in material, visceral moments. A lyricist of the material world, Murray allows us new access to nineteenth-century Amherst, and in so doing prompts an original and valuable way of thinking about Emily Dickinson.

Daneen Wardrop

Murray (independent scholar) offers a treasure trove of information in this meticulously researched study. As the title reveals, the volume delves into the influence that servants in the Dickinson household had on the poet’s artistry, cultural views, and relationships with other people. The author argues that servants’ influence was considerable, though their role has been ignored in most scholarly work on the poet. Dickinson’s personal maid, Margaret Maher, an Irish immigrant, garners most of Murray’s attention, but a host of other employees in the Dickinson household–housekeepers, stablemen, and seamstresses, some of whom were Native or African American–are also examined. Among the volume’s highlights is a charming and previously unpublished essay by Josephine Pollitt Pohl (Appendix A) titled “Emily Dickinson–Loaf Giver,” which follows Dickinson into the kitchen as she makes her father’s favorite bread. 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. Summing Up: Recommended. All readers. 

D. D. Knight

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

For The Early Project:

Absolutely original… electrifying!… this has importance way beyond Dickinson.

Tillie Olsen

I find this very exciting work.

Karen Sánchez-Eppler, author of Touching Liberty:
Abolition, Feminism and the Politics of the Body

[This] project is wonderful. It opens up the consideration of the extra-historic expression versus the sanctioned historic one… how sympathetic I am to the whole project, and how vivid and persuasive it is.

Eavan Boland, author of Object Lessons and Against Love Poems

First, the way [Aífe Murray] writes. Splendidly unacademic… Second, I think [she] is very much on the write (as Maggie would have it) track… What [she] is doing is exactly what I hoped would be done: exploring a topic… that I couldn’t get to in detail — I’m looking forward to [her] book.

Richard Sewall, author of The Life of Emily Dickinson

May [Aífe Murray’s writing] nourish… the world.

Alicia Ostriker, author of Stealing the Language:
The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America

Rigorously and perceptively Aífe Murray has been exploring an important and much neglected relationship in Emily Dickinson’s life, that with the family maid, Margaret Maher. Murray’s persistence in appreciating the interdependence between poet and servant, and especially exploring the kitchen environment where their worlds overlapped, yields multiple new insights about the poet as women and writer.

Polly Longsworth, author of The World of Emily Dickinson

[Aífe’s findings] represent a sea-change.

Martha Nell Smith, author of Rowing in Eden and Open Me Carefully

Aífe Murray stunned us into the past with a reading from her powerful rendering of Dickinson’s sonic environment, revealing the forgotten musicality of the village of Amherst. It was a tour through Dickinson’s daily life: in and out of the conservatory, parlor, and library, and among family, neighbors, servants, farmworkers, and itinerant peddlers.

Molly Schwartzburg, Stanford University
on Poetry Center San José Celebrates Emily Dickinson

Many biographers have noted the impact on young Willie Yeats of the old woman who cooked and cleaned for his grandparents in Sligo, and who filled the boy’s imagination with legend and fairy-lore from her post in the kitchen. Aífe Murray’s extraordinary study of Emily Dickinson’s Irish maid not only moves a similar story to the New World but also gives its substance and lasting significance. Murray’s locates Margaret Maher at the heart of Dickinson’s creative process, and she documents Dickinson’s encounter, and apparent fascination, with the unlettered Irish workforce that was changing the character of her New England. In the future, students of the Irish in America will be grateful to Murray for giving voice to a previously unspoken-for generation of Irish immigrants — the domestic workers — and will marvel at her brilliant charting of the interplay of language between domestic and employer.

James Rogers, author of After the Flood: Irish America, 1945-1960

Aífe Murray brings the poet’s work into view in ways that are wonderfully original and suggestive… she deepens our sense of the world Emily Dickinson lived in as she brings to life the struggles, liveliness, and the generosity of the mostly unnoticed people who worked so hard and devotedly in and around the Dickinson household. The impact of this project is very powerful. Most people hearing or reading Aífe’s work are themselves children of immigrants. It is both revealing and inspiring to see a major literary figure placed in a context that is richer and more fully human then we had previously recognized.

Stephen Arkin, Emeritus Professor and Chair, Department of English
San Francisco State University

[In Aífe Murray’s work], we discover a poet whose artistic productions depended on the support of servant women whose companionship both enabled and informed her work.

Paul Crumbley, author of Inflections of the Pen:
Dash and Voice in Emily Dickinson

Murray’s work represents some of the newest and most exciting scholarship currently being produced on Emily Dickinson… addressing exciting questions about the poet’s craft and context… [She] revises our view of the Homestead as a static site, outside the time of social interaction… [and] makes a persuasive and illuminating argument for the effect of Hiberno-English on Dickinson’s syntax, explaining what scholars have previously (mis) identified as Dickinson’s idiosyncratic linguistic gestures. This is a highly innovative approach… [in] one of the most authentically intellectual and passionate engagements with [a] project.

Allison Giffen, Associate Professor of English
Western Washington University

Aífe Murray’s research is part of the new history that has caught the attention of those researching women’s history — the interaction of working class and middle-class women. It began with the research on suffrage and now is extended to the relationship of maid to mistress.

Lynn Bonfield, author of Roxanna’s Children:
The Biography of a 19th-century Vermont Family

[Dickinson’s] ear for the voices of Irish working people is surely an influence on her poetry.

Jane Conner Marcus, author of Art and Anger and
Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy

Aífe Murray’s work has its own unique dynamic. It represents a valuable and adventurous scholarly investigation that deserves attention and — as she is an independent scholar — support.

Jack Morgan, editor of The Irish Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett

Critical Responses to “Miss Margaret’s Emily Dickinson

So many of the details that [Aífe Murray] uncovers and elaborates have such resonance: the watering can that she comes upon in Kelley Square; the Square itself; most significantly the list of daily activities…that would constitute the care of a house such as Dickinson’s; the “steady proximity” of Dickinson and Maher; the fact of the use of the trunk…I almost wept at the point where [she describes] Maher’s refusal of compensation when she worked with Todd. She must have understood her own legitimate role of co-authorship…how immensely importance… [her] work is — that stubborn silence, almost outside the range of intelligibility, to have opened a space and turned a light toward the present-absence of the servants…. I found it all greatly moving.

Mary Cappello, author of Called Back and Night Bloom

Aífe Murray opens her article, “Miss Margaret’s Emily Dickinson,” with the important question: “How did Emily Dickinson manage to be so prolific in the nineteenth century, an era when household work was so labor intensive?” (697). Literary critics may scrutinize every aspect of women’s writing from biographical details to punctuation, often forgetting this simple question. What exactly were women expected to accomplish in the infamous domestic sphere? What work was there?

Martha Nell Smith, “The Kitchen” from ‘To Venerate the Simple Days’:
Women’s Literacy Practices in the Nineteenth Century

Murray’s article [Miss Margaret’s Emily Dickinson”] is thoroughly researched, using both primary archival materials and secondary historical and theoretical studies. In her research, Murray uncovered various discrepancies between accounts that have been used and recycled as “facts” and the actual witness of historical records. Most of these “facts” appear first in writings by Millicent Todd Bingham and then are repeated and/or elaborated in Richard Sewall’s The Life of Emily Dickinson (1974), often quoted without question. And most of these “facts” use the words of Mabel Loomis Todd, her daughter Bingham, or their friends and dispute and label as “fiction” the testimony of Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Emily Dickinson’s niece, and her friends. Yet in querying Sewall himself about some of the “facts” in dispute, Murray received this candid response, which calls some of his biographical account into question: ‘I understood from Mrs. Bingham that. . . .I’m not sure, though, that she had it right. I know nothing about Bianchi’s relations w/Maggie. Bianchi may be right in this instance’ (September 19, 1994, letter, quoted in above article, n39).

Martha Nell Smith, “The Dickinsons and Class”
from The Civil War, Class and the Dickinsons

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