Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language

13 Apr 2010 4:32 PM | Posted by GNHLHA

From Newsletter Volume 6, Number 1

By Ai’fe Murray

When American poet Emily Dickinson wrote the lines "I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you - Nobody - too? Then there's a pair of us!" she might've been writing about the women and men who tended her kitchen hearth and household grounds in the quiet country town of 19th-century Amherst, Massachusetts. Except that Emily Dickinson, who yearned for privacy, became a famous "Somebody" while her many maids and stablemen, gardeners and laundry workers slid from the public's sight. But that's about to change. Those "nobodies" long lost to history are about to get their public due with the publication of Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson's Life and Language.

This new book, by Elm City native Aí’fe Murrayundefineddaughter of trade unionists Betty Murray and the late Henry Murray-- squarely places the renowned American poet downstairs in her kitchen, a warm and lively place which was a veritable United Nations of helping hands from English immigrant stablemen and African American gardeners to Protestant Yankee seamstresses and Irish immigrant laundry workers and maids-of-all-work. According to Aí’fe (pronounced ee-fah), the poet apparently rubbed elbows with these men and women because she was the family baker. Emily Dickinson won baking prizes at local fairs and, even after the family hired a live-in maid, her father insisted that Emily make all of the bread. As a baker herself, the author understood how much time the poet would have spent in the kitchen working alongside of her servants. That explains why, according to Ai’fe, that Emily Dickinson’s letters frequently refer to her servants Ai’fe didn't set out to write a book about the servants and their relationship with one of the world's most famous poets. It came about because Murray, now of San Francisco, found herself coming up short when comparing her own writing productivity with that of the very prolific Emily Dickinson.  Wondering who helped make Dickinson’s writing possible, the author stumbled upon a photograph of three servants in a Dickinson biography. Staring at those three Irish faces she thought to herself, “my great-grandmother could’ve been scrubbing Emily Dickinson’s stairs!” But there’s more: Dickinson was influenced by the servantsundefinedand maid Margaret Maher, with whom Dickinson was especially close, saved poems that the poet stored in the maid’s trunk from their planned destruction.

Ai’fe  Murray is the daughter of Betty Murray, the former treasurer of the Greater New Haven Labor History Association and a recipient of the Association’s Augusta Lewis Troup Award. Ms. Murray begins the book tour in her home town. Maid as Muse was launched at the New Haven Free Public Library on Tuesday, March 16 at 6 p.m. Following a reading and a question and answer session, books were available for purchase and signing. For more information about her writing and the book, please visit 

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