A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade

A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade

3.2 4
by Christopher Benfey
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

The country's most noted writers, poets, and artists converge at a singular moment in American life

At the close of the Civil War, the lives of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade intersected in an intricate map of friendship, family, and romance that marked a milestone in the development of American art and

See more details below

Overview

The country's most noted writers, poets, and artists converge at a singular moment in American life

At the close of the Civil War, the lives of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade intersected in an intricate map of friendship, family, and romance that marked a milestone in the development of American art and literature. Using the image of a flitting hummingbird as a metaphor for the gossamer strands that connect these larger-than-life personalities, Christopher Benfey re-creates the summer of 1882, the summer when Mabel Louise Todd-the protégé to the painter Heade-confesses her love for Emily Dickinson's brother, Austin, and the players suddenly find themselves caught in the crossfire between the Calvinist world of decorum, restraint, and judgment and a new, unconventional world in which nature prevails and freedom is all.

Editorial Reviews

Mindy Aloff
…[a] tender, suspenseful and informed meditation on action and thought in the cultivated realms of East Coast America following the Civil War.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal

Literary professor, scholar, and critic Benfey (The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan) examines the intertwining lives of several American writers and artists in post-Civil War America. Contending that while these were years of societal instability, as much had changed after the war, Benfey likewise sees this era as a time of liberation for this group of gifted men and women. Readers gain insight into the behavior of an extended cast of characters including renowned preacher/orator Henry Ward Beecher; writer and painter Mabel Loomis Todd; Austin Dickinson, Emily Dickinson's prominent attorney brother; and painter Martin Johnson Heade. Their parallel interests-e.g., travel and exploration of warmer climates, obsessions with the hummingbird (a bird native only to the Americas) and the trailing arbutus flower, and a fascination with the English romantic writer Lord Byron-are also emphasized. It is clear the author seeks to enlighten, and he achieves that goal with this scholarly yet intimate behind-the-scenes glimpse into the lives of some of our most important artists. Recommended for larger academic libraries.
—M. Neville

Kirkus Reviews
Ambitious, eccentric synthesis of late 19th-century artistic currents shows a static America progressing after the Civil War into a period of movement and romance. As evidenced by his previous teeming works, Benfey (The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan, 2003, etc.) likes to keep the literary pot boiling. In this elegant but not entirely cohesive study, he uses the hummingbird as a metaphor for the postwar era's evanescent spirit, and as a means of spotlighting the shared interests of the actors he has assembled. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a radical writer who served as a colonel in the Union army, published essays about hummingbirds that were read avidly by Emily Dickinson, who in turn wove the birds into poems and wrote to Higginson for literary advice. Harriet Beecher Stowe, credited by President Lincoln with starting the Civil War with Uncle Tom's Cabin, sheltered, named and drew pictures of a wounded hummingbird, which Benfey argues became a stand-in for her troubled, alcoholic son Fred. Martin Johnson Heade, recognized for his paintings of salt marshes and haystacks, traveled to Brazil to paint hummingbirds; his work was beloved by Stowe and her brother, abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, for whom the bird was a metaphor for the delicate female parishioners he seduced. Heade's comely apprentice and crush, Mabel Todd, mingled with the Dickinsons in Amherst, Mass., offering Emily her sketches of hummingbirds while having an affair with the poet's brother Austin; Mabel later helped bring Emily's work to the public light. One life dovetails into the other in this spiraling contemplation, which shows itinerant journalist Mark Twainemerging from his own trip to the tropics "at a critical moment of self-recognition," recognizing that Heade had undertaken "a kindred quest."A handsomely illustrated volume that reflects Benfey's depth of reading and passionate interests, though the connections he makes are occasionally strained.
From the Publisher
"A highly engaging and deftly written sequence of intertwined vignettes. . . . [A Summer of Hummingbirds] reads like a dream sequence, and should not be missed."
Michael Kammen, The Boston Globe

Read More

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780143115083
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/31/2009
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
726,280
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >