Book Highlights

  • Emily Dickinson wasn’t isolated in her bedroom – she was in the kitchen writing and baking alongside her maid, other servants, and their children. This is corroborated by her manuscripts, family eyewitness accounts, and a study of 19th century daily domestic life in the poet’s household.
  • Establishes a causal relationship between the presence and absence of a maid with Emily Dickinson’s cycles of productivity. A maid’s presence freed Emily Dickinson from the most onerous household tasks. The author examines the impact of servant hiring patterns while previous Dickinson scholars attributed fallow periods to her drive being “spent.”
  • Examines the impact of servant speech on the poet’s own breathtaking language. Previous scholars have not credited Hiberno English, African American Vernacular English, and other working class vernaculars, spoken by household servants with whom she spent her days, as contributors to her modernist innovations that still rivet readers.

  • Her Irish maid’s presence was crucial to Emily Dickinson defining herself as a poet. Although in her youth she scorned the immigrant Irish, declaring they should be “scientifically” destroyed, Emily Dickinson later drew close to her Irish maid and laborers.

  • Examines a “battle” between two leading families for one young Irish immigrant maid. For poet Emily Dickinson the stakes were high and she staged a successful campaign to win the services of Tipperary immigrant Margaret Maher. They baked and cooked together for the next 17 years.
  • A maid saved an opus from planned destruction. Apparently on her deathbed, Emily Dickinson extracted an oath from her maid Margaret Maher to burn the poems she stored in her maid’s trunk. This maid later tearfully appealed to the poet’s brother and sister-in-law about breaking this oath. Margaret Maher’s independent thought and action was responsible for saving an important piece of America’s literary inheritance.

  • Examines Irish motifs in Emily Dickinson’s self-scripted funeral and the significance of her requesting six of the family’s Irish laborers for her pallbearers. For a writer for whom symbols and signifying were paramount and whose every pen slash has been examined by scholars, this is a curious absence.
  • Establishes the importance of laborer Tom Kelley and why Emily Dickinson chose him for her chief pallbearer. Post-famine immigrant Tom Kelley was a go-getter in the fashion of Edward Dickinson, Emily’s father. Tom was a man of many fewer words than Edward but they were well-timed and full of heart.

  • Servants’ own lives – and their stories of Emily Dickinson – make the writer more fully human. Servant descendents were interviewed by the author and their family photographs are published for the first time these.
  • Shared sensibilities with servants. By looking at the family history of several key servants, the author establishes that Emily Dickinson shared similar values and sensibilities especially with her maid Margaret Maher and the maid’s brother-in-law, Tom Kelley.
  • Establishes that maid Margaret Maher was from an extended family of writers, scholars and teachers. This maid was from more erudite origins than that of her mistress’ Massachusetts clan and drawn to work for writerly families in America.
  • Domesticity was a volatile aid to her literary process. Not a timid pastime or a barrier but a method for developing great art. The brevity of recipes, the mix of astonishing flavors in cooking, the meditativeness of baking – or “menial labor and the muse” – were parts of her alchemical writerly recipe.
  • Establishes Emily Dickinson was a book artist. Original manuscripts reveal mixed media or hybrid works on paper that combine drawings, plants, and cut-outs mixed with language, and include pop-up and other sculptural poems, hand-made books, and broadsides. Her work harkens back to illuminated manuscripts and Blake, links to Morris, the futurists, France’s livre artiste, and anticipated the 20th century’s book arts movement.
  • We thought we knew Emily Dickinson but we don’t. Emily Dickinson is much more than the myth in white scribbling alone in her room or the “half cracked” cartoon character [buffoon] depicted by Julie Harris in “The Belle of Amherst.”
  • There’s a parallel story actively shaping the poet’s writing life. It’s a story filled with stablemen, maids, seamstresses, laundry workers, boy messengers and laborers mentioned in her letters and poems – and recollections from their descendants.
  • Readers are usually concerned with the ways great writers influence the language and culture – this book turns that notion upside down. It views how Dickinson’s environment, especially the poor working class community of Amherst, was essential to, and changed, her life and art.
  • This book is about more than Emily Dickinson; it’s about how writers write and with what “materials” – the “ecology of writing.”
  • This book is about more than Emily Dickinson; it’s about how biography develops and how the standard Dickinson narrative was put together by those who didn’t or couldn’t see a significant part of her life spent with servants.
  • A true Emily Dickinson is invisible just like her servants have been invisible in the Dickinson narrative.

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