In today’s New York Times, Gail Collins has an op-ed piece about the online movement to replace Andrew Jackson with a famous American woman on the twenty-dollar bill –the comment thread is long and lively, and from what I can see, largely devoid of the misogyny that usually dominates such online fora (one recalls in this context the disgusting remarks that followed the suggestions in Britain of putting Jane Austen on the £10 note). Collins links to the website, “A Woman’s Place is on the Money,” where proponents of replacing Jackson have narrowed down the list to fifteen candidates, all of them worthy: Sojourner Truth, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks, for instance, all seem eminently honorable. Some of the other finalists–Margaret Sanger or Betty Friedan–would be controversial, but none of the ladies nominated, to my knowledge, ever defied a Supreme Court decision in order to forcibly remove an entire people from their homeland and bring on a genocide.
Many years ago, I remember thinking that an overhaul of all the faces on our American coins and bills would make sense. It’s not that I dislike Washington or Lincoln, but it seemed to me that perhaps it was time to celebrate other American achievements? The thought came to me after a trip to Ireland with my father in the mid-80s. There on the Irish punt (pound) banknotes were images of figures from Irish literature–Jonathan Swift on the ten, Yeats on the twenty! How cool was that? And in the 90s, Swift would be replaced with James Joyce on the ten. All of this came to an end in 2002, of course, when Ireland went on to the euro. At any rate, it all seemed so much nicer to me to look at a bill and perhaps recall lines like But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you, / And loved the sorrows of your changing face instead of trying to forget the Trail of Tears.
On the plane ride home, I imagined an entire set of banknote dedicated to American authors, and what those bills might look like. I can still see these in my mind’s eye. Mark Twain on the five-dollar bill, with Huck and Jim on the raft gracing the reverse. On the ten, I could see Melville, and a scrimshaw rendering on the back of Moby Dick and Ahab. Perhaps the twenty could have a double portrait of Hemingway and Faulkner on the front while the reverse featured a whole bunch of empty bottles? Truthfully, I was torn on the twenty: maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald be better, backed by an image of the Long Island Sound and a pier with a green light, and So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past written above.
But this left the $1 bill. I thought hard about it–who should grace the most common bill of all? The answer suggested itself immediately: Emily Dickinson. I loved the idea, and still do, of seeing the Belle of Amherst on the one, perhaps in an etching taken from the famous daguerrotype, the only known portrait of the poet (a stylized version of this image had already appeared on a stamp some time ago). On the reverse, it’s hard to say what to put, though I like the idea of a robin, maybe, an American bird far less grandiose than the eagle. Anyway, that’s my two cents on the matter. As it happens, Dickinson’s not on the list of nominees for the $20, and perhaps it’s just as well. It’s probably too rich a denomination for her blood. How dreary to be someone, after all.
The Robin’s my Criterion for Tune (285)
The Robin’s my Criterion for Tune—
Because I grow—where Robins do—
But, were I Cuckoo born—
I’d swear by him—
The ode familiar—rules the Noon—
The Buttercup’s, my Whim for Bloom—
Because, we’re Orchard sprung—
But, were I Britain born,
I’d Daisies spurn—
None but the Nut—October fit—
Because, through dropping it,
The Seasons flit—I’m taught—
Without the Snow’s Tableau
Winter, were lie—to me—
Because I see—New Englandly—
The Queen, discerns like me—