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Aífe Murray

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


Aífe Murray writes about those who have been forgotten or hidden. Her multi-form project, Kitchen Table Poetics, investigates class, race, and artistic reciprocities through the lens of Emily Dickinson and her servants.

Aífe [ee-fah] has been in residence at the Emily Dickinson Museum; she conceived and has led several public walking tours of Amherst from the perspective of the Dickinson servants; and created Art of Service, an artists' book collaboration with the present-day housecleaners and gardeners of the Dickinson Museum. She was an affiliated scholar with the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University and named the 2007 Scholar in Amherst by the Emily Dickinson International Society.

Her book Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson's Life and Language will be published in 2010 by the University Press of New Hampshire. A companion Dickinson servant website is being built at the Dickinson Electronic Archive. Aífe is turning the book's first two chapters into a theater piece.

For her newest project, Stand up and Be Counted, she was awarded a 2009 Research Fellowship by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.


add yourself to the Maid as Muse email or postal mail lists:

contact Aífe about a doing a presentation:


How do you pronounce Aífe?
ee - fah

What are Aífe's favorite pretzels?
Penny Sticks("Food of the gods" -- Hank Murray)

reviews and endorsements

about Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson's Life and Language
the forthcoming book

"Absolutely original... electrifying!... this has importance way beyond Dickinson."
Tillie Olsen

"[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

"First, the way [she] writes. Splendidly unacademic... Second, I think [Aífe Murray] 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, The Life of Emily Dickinson

"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 woman and writer."
Polly Longsworth, The World of Emily Dickinson, Austin and Mabel, and a forthcoming Dickinson biography (Norton)

"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, Director, Center for Irish Studies, University of St. Thomas

"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, San Francisco State University

About "Miss Margaret's Emily Dickinson",
An article published in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society, Volume 24: Number 3 (Spring 1999), pages 697-732

"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 important... [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, 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, Rowing in Eden
"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