Review: Emily Dickinson Journal

A couple decades ago the common wisdom in Dickinson studies held that Emily Dickinson was fortunate to have lived an elite life that offered her countless hours of leisure she could devote to writing; some years later the common wisdom shifted so that Dickinson was seen as a woman who worked long days performing duties such as caring for her mother and baking, her literary output accordingly seen as nearly miraculous, stolen from midnight hours. Aífe Murray sides with neither of these outlooks in Maid as Muse but instead offers a fresh, savvy picture of Emily Dickinson that compasses and mediates both. The Dickinson she portrays was privileged and had the luxury of performing the tasks of her choosing even as she worked alongside domestic maids who performed the many onerous chores necessary to running a nineteenth-century household. Murray puts forward an intricate and vivid perspective on the poet’s day-to-day life, a perspective in which literary arts and domestic arts intertwine. She finds an Emily Dickinson we have never seen before.

Murray does this by mixing modes of discourse, offering traditional archival research and interviews of descendents of Homestead workers, interspersed with occasional scenes of Murray’s imagining. These created scenes, noted and italicized, present an intuitive interpretation of the information she amasses. Murray’s scholarly sleuthing turns up incisive results, and she follows those results to create occasional careful fictions that she argues must be pursued in order to fill the historical gaps in studies of underrepresented populations. Part biography, part literary criticism, part historical retrieval, part imaginings, part personal narrative of a research journey undertaken to glean a sense of her own Irish past, the book undertakes search and research, historical information remaining paramount, fictionalized sections enhancing the historical information.

Showing how life and language in the Homestead were matters of coexistence between Emily Dickinson and servants, Murray focuses primarily on Margaret Maher, an Irish immigrant who worked for the family from 1869 to 1899. The intrepid Margaret Maher, called “Maggie” by the family and mentioned often in Dickinson’s correspondence, proved important to the poet as confidante, protector, independent spirit, and co-worker in a day-to-day existence of camaraderie that crossed class lines. Murray broadens the angle of inquiry to include other servants as well—immigrant Irish, immigrant English, African American, and Native American, including some eighty servants who were hired at the Homestead (18). Servants affected the community’s social structure as a whole, as she demonstrates when she gives a dishy account of a town’s power play between two prominent families, the Boltwoods and the Dickinsons, both of whom fought to keep Margaret Maher as their employee.

Murray posits the Homestead kitchen as the “generative site” of Dickinson’s poetry, (23) where, working shoulder to shoulder with Maher and others, the poet would occasionally stop her task at hand to jot down lines of verse on a chocolate wrapper or a shopping list, interacting with many people as Maher’s nieces stopped by, nephews arrived to convey messages, the stableman delivered fresh milk, or a Native American woman paused at the door to sell baskets. Finding an alternative to the society of the parlor, Dickinson in the kitchen heard the Irish, African American, and Native American patterns of speech that would have thrilled her, given her self-proclaimed “Vice for Voices.” In the kitchen she spent time in the “most creative room in the house” (99).

Too, Murray reminds us of the unrelenting physicality of domestic chores. One of the most surprising discoveries of the book arises from Murray’s correlation of Dickinson’s pattern of poetic output not to waxing and waning periods of inspiration, but to the waxing and waning pattern of servants hired at the Homestead. Servants made Dickinson’s writing possible because their labor alleviated the unceasing toil of housework. Throughout Maid as Muse we gain a newly urgent understanding of Dickinson’s artistic decisions as dependent upon decisions concerning domestic chores.

In the chapter, “Of Pictures, the Discloser -,” Murray grapples with Emily Dickinson’s view of those less advantaged than she. She starts by considering Dickinson’s well-heeled appearance in the 1847 daguerreotype, a look she juxtaposes with the conditions of those who lived through the Irish potato famine occurring at nearly the same time in 1848. Murray then describes the social anxiety felt by many established families as a growing population of Irish immigrants entered Massachusetts. That Edward Dickinson might have reacted with a fear of displacement makes particular sense given the family’s history of financial setback and his single-minded obsession with regaining status. Murray examines some of Emily Dickinson’s letters expressing prejudice, such as the execrable letter in which she suggests a kind of “ethnic cleansing” (143) of her brother Austin’s classroom attended mostly by Irish boys. His sister urges him to manage the class by way of the “cuff and thrash,” and “sticks and stones” (L48). Murray, however, astutely finds that Dickinson’s diction mixes tones that range from cavalier to compassionate. “The Malay – took the Pearl -” (Fr451), she finds, acknowledges the plight of the underprivileged, portraying “the rightful ascendancy of the poor and the demise of the rich through their own self-admitted weakness and complacency” (163). Murray sees a progression in Dickinson’s views of different social minorities; from Dickinson’s formerly unforgiving views, she had by 1871 softened her harsh opinions on class difference, if not race.

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 (95), 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 for the Emily Dickinson Journalpublished Fall 2010

Daneen Wardrop recently was awarded a prestigious $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship for poetry. She is the author of four books, including the book of poems, “The Odds of Being” (Silverfish Review Press, 2008), which was awarded the 2006 Gerald Cable Book Award. Her most recent title is Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing (2009). A professor at Western Michigan University, she teaches American literature.