Aife Murray, author of a new book, “Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language,” gave a fascinating talk in D.C. a few days ago, at my beloved Politics & Prose.
It seems that Dickinson was influenced by the friendships with and linguistic patterns of Irish immigrant maids and household workers as well as Native American and African American household help too. Though Dickinson did not travel widely, the world came to her through these people whom she seemed to prefer to the Yankee protestant “usual suspects,” or people more like her own family. She even had six Irish immigrants as pallbearers at her own, personally planned funeral, to the consternation of her family.
Murray used the phrase “occupationally invisible” to describe those behind-the-scenes workers in a home, often forgotten but highly influential. I appreciated that phrase as I’m often (on this blog, in fact) thinking about those whom we don’t notice but who deserve more credit for their roles in many arenas. The idea of invisible people is abhorrent. We all have categories like that.
My own Master’s thesis was on the relationship between white children and black women as domestics (maids) in the South in fact, fiction and film (primarily from the 1950’s to the 1980’s). This topic is dear to me. Yet I had never thought of the (now quite obvious) fact of the artistic influence that goes on in the h0me and of the role of “maid as muse.”
Thanks, Ms. Murray.
Learn more about this and read the book, which looks to be fascinating. And while you’re at it, support an independent bookstore and buy it from them.