When I heard the Treasury is going to put a woman on the $10 bill, I admit I had to check who was on it. To my great disappointment (and chagrin, I guess, that I didn’t know this already), it’s not Andrew Jackson. He’s on the $20. Alexander Hamilton is on the $10, and I esteem him as much as any of the Founding Father generation because a) he was born into lowly circumstances and was a completely self-made man; b) he fought on the side of Federalism; c) he detested slavery; and d) we can thank him in no small part for our awesome banking system, which, 2008 or no 2008, is still the best in the world.
But Andrew Jackson? Come on, people. You don’t have to throw the South those dried out bones anymore. Get rid of Mr. Trail of Tears on the $20.
Anyway, we’re looking for a female here for the $10 bill. An impressive, major American female. Whom to pick?
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we picked an artist? Imagine if this country could muster that kind of respect for the basic human activity/survival mechanism that is making art, in whatever form. I realize it’s probably too much to dare to hope that our deeply ingrained national anti-intellectualism could stomach such a notion. But I dare.
The first person I thought of, whom I would readily put at the same level as Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton et al., was Emily Dickinson.
My freshman year in college I took an English lit survey course from a professor named Helena Michie. To this day, I remember her introducing us to the racy poem “He fumbles at your Soul,” and wondering aloud why we refer to male poets by their last names, but we refer to Dickinson as, simply, “Emily.” At the time I dismissed this suspiciously Boomer feminist-sounding notion; and now, while I acknowledge there was gender bias going on (although: do English professors still refer to Emily Dickinson as Emily?), I also believe that there is a certain tenderness in referring to the poet by her first name.
And regardless, I love to think of Dr. Michie presenting a bunch of 18 year-olds with that wild poem, written in the throes of the Civil War.
Emily Dickinson is one of the greatest poets of the English language. She was also groundbreaking, and was so far ahead of her time that it’s hard to believe this mousy, retiring, odd little woman in New England was churning out such visceral, electric, and lyrical ideas, eccentrically broken up with all those dashes. Her main themes were death, nature, immortality, sex… and death. She died in the 1880s unknown, for the most part unpublished, and her poems, found neatly stacked and tied with ribbons, weren’t published accurately and unedited until the 1950s, when the true measure of her greatness began to be understood.
Many other American women deserve to be on our currency: Colonial-era Native Americans, abolitionists, suffragists, (let’s, ahem, not mention the Prohibitionists), educators, entrepreneurs, doctors, civil rights activists, feminists, astronauts… but why not an artist? Why not pick a very great artist whom fame eluded in her lifetime?
Why not Emily?
He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys —
Before they drop full Music on —
He stuns you by Degrees —
Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers — further heard —
Then nearer — Then so — slow —
Your Breath — has time to straighten —
Your Brain — to bubble Cool —
Deals One — imperial Thunderbolt —
That scalps your naked soul —
When Winds hold Forests in their Paws —
The Universe — is still —
F477 (1862) J315