The Washington Post
A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain , Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Headeby Christopher Benfey
At the close of the Civil War, the lives of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade intersected in an/b>/i>
The country's most noted writers, poets, and artists converge at a singular moment in American life, a great companion to fans of the film A Quiet Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson.
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.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The Washington Post
In his last two books, Christopher Benfey, a prolific critic, poet and professor of literature at Mount Holyoke, cultivated an unorthodox style of historical storytelling that spurns the traditional mechanics of cause and effect. To steal a phrase from poetry, we might say that he writes history in the lyric rather than the epic mode. The goal is to evoke the thoughts and feelings created by a particular time and place. He has previously applied this technique to Victorian America's discovery of Japan and Edgar Degas's year in New Orleans.
Now Benfey turns to the more familiar territory of the 19th-century literary renaissance in New England. He focuses on some of the era's most famous writers, as well as lesser-known figures-as the subtitle indicates: "Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Johnson Headeall of whom found inspiration and self-expression in flowers and birds, the hummingbird above all. This is the book's MacGuffin: "why did hummingbirds in particular elicit such a powerful attraction, rising at times to an obsession?"
Benfey's answer is that after the Civil War Americans "gradually left behind a static view of existence, a trust in fixed arrangements and hierarchies," and came to embrace a new dynamism that "found perfect expression in the hummingbird." By tracing their allusions to hummingbirds in poems, pictures, sermons and anecdotes, he shows how these sensitive souls registered the shock of war by seeking symbols of the evanescence of life.
The elegiac mood gives way near the end, when sex wrestles thespotlight from death. Stowe's brother, a celebrated preacher, ensnares himself in a sex scandal, Heade begins a flirtation with the magnetic Mabel Loomis Todd, who throws him over for Dickinson's married brother, and the reclusive poetess embarks on her own late-life love affair.
Whether Benfey's book succeeds depends on the expectations of the reader. This is not a conventional cultural history, nor is it a linear history of literary influences. Instead, to borrow from a description of Dickinson's hummingbird poems, it presents "a fusion of realistic detail and vaporous suggestion." Those who aren't already familiar with the period-and even many who are -might drift as the author flits, birdlike, from one poignant tableau to another, beckoned by the wafting scent of yet another reference to birds or flowers. (He suffers some minor errors of fact and interpretation, due to an excessive dependence on secondary sources, but they don't alter the overall effect.)
This book fares best when seen not as an argument but as a meditation on a moment in history, in which the reading experience itself recreates those feelings of evanescence.
Debby Applegate won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for the biography The Most Famous Man in America (Doubleday).
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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.
To a teetotaler like Harriet, as author Christopher Benfey points out, "hum" could also mean "rum," and a convalescent hummingbird could provide a small but vital buzz of compensatory energy for a mother who had lost a son to drink. The ambiguity of the hummingbird as a figure of abandon, as a kind of tiny avian Bacchus, is evident: despite their size, male hummingbirds are fiercely competitive, even violent. To the Aztecs, the hummingbird was Huitzilopochtli, the, blood-drunk god of war representing both creation and destruction. Emily Dickinson called the bird the "Inebriate of air" and "debauchee of dew." After the war, Stowe moved to the heart of the South, to Jacksonville, Florida -- and as she and her contemporaries would discover, among the vines of Florida there would be no shortage of hummingbirds.
American artists and writers recovered from the trauma of the Civil War by seeking signs of health, love, and vigor in the abundance of nature; from these signs they would learn the passion of progress and self-discovery. This is the saga that unfolds in Christopher Benfey's A Summer of Hummingbirds, his fascinating, carefully wrought account of the lives of some of America's most fascinating artists of the 1860s, '70s, and '80s. There's Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the, self-besotted, idealistic man of letters who, despite his wounds, seemed "less a martyr than a martinet...float[ing] through the war"; Stowe, antebellum America's most famous writer, painting flowers, nursing injured hummingbirds, and worrying about her wounded, wayward son; Harriet's brother Henry Ward Beecher the charismatic preacher whose sex scandals would shock the nation; the saturnine bachelor and itinerant painter of dreamlike, austere landscapes, Martin Johnson Heade; his student Mabel Loomis Todd, thrilling her Amherst neighbors with her painted dresses and bohemian airs; Mark Twain, the groundbreaking western voice who meshed uneasily with the New England elite. Above all there is Emily Dickinson -- reticent and bold, prim and profound, an all-but-invisible presence with an unmistakable voice. On their own, each is fascinating. But Emerson had said, "I hate everything frugal and cowardly in friendship; in that at least we should be brave and generous"; and it's in the wary dances and powerful orbits of their friendships that these truly star-struck, nature-addled romantics came into their own.
Their demimonde was no café-and-garret bohemia; it was ineluctably American. Benfey traces the charged connections and crossed paths in their frequent comings and goings from New York and New England to Florida and California, from the Americas to Europe, from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern. Twain and Heade pass through Nicaragua within weeks of one another, each contemplating the same pyramidal mountain rising from a lake. Harriet Beecher Stowe writes a polemic essay against Byron's sexual transgressions while her brother Henry tells his mistress that a love like theirs is the passion of higher natures, and Mabel Loomis Todd pursues an affair of her own with Emily Dickinson's brother-in-law, playing Beethoven on the piano for Emily herself, who hides in the shadows of the next room. Throughout these liaisons and experiments, they were unflaggingly passionate and unfailingly proper, as sure of their potential as they were uncertain of their places in the world. Benfey reminds us that this America of passion, intrigue, and art was no backwater, either -- that even by the middle of the 19th century, America's cultural elites were objects of fascination abroad. Harriet Beecher Stowe's writing inspired the very different novelist George Sand; Emperor Pedro II of Brazil (whose country would be the last in the West to outlaw slavery) paid a visit of homage to the abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier. These were artists and thinkers intoxicated with fascination: enthusiastic for social causes, wondering of the planets and stars, besotted with the vagaries of insects and wild animals, in whose mute acts they discerned the roots of meaning: the spider and the bee, the butterfly and the bear, and especially the hummingbird -- all of them existed in an increasingly divided-up and decimated nature to offer signs and lessons to their indulgent, enthusiastic auditors.
If Dickinson is Benfey's still center of passion and integrity, it is Stowe even more than Twain who represents the artist as an actor playing with the flux of world events. With her pen, she accomplished what John Brown had tried and failed to do by the sword. Benfey portrays her both as a writer in control of her art and the center of a troubled, talented family. To a great extent, she imagined America -- and human society in general -- as an expansion of the problems of the domestic sphere; their world was a house out of order. And like her fellow progressive New Englanders, she sought answers in nature with an animistic fervor at once prim and pagan.
Benfey's account of their fascinations and discoveries buzzes and flits from one flower to the next, hummingbird-like; at the same time his tale is contrived like a flower, its loose, glittering petals arranged in circles around a darkening center. In his narrative, Stowe and her fellow New Englanders comprise a pious and merry coven, bundled and beset with contradictions, who threw off their ancestors' cold Calvinism in favor of the redemptive power of nature. It was all earnest and intense, a heady play of signs and wonders. Emily Dickinson had appealed to Higginson for advice in letters of such dizzying intensity and concentrated energy that even the imperturbable Colonel was taken aback ("Mr. Higginson," she began, "are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?") Her setbacks and subtle victories, won in the most radically solitary career in American letters, ultimately comprise the chief drama of the book; and when late in life she wins her way to love, its intensity and purity are almost medieval when set beside the worldly passions and enthusiasms of her sisters, cousins, and friends. These postbellum American artists awakened to the terror, the comedy, and the lush potency of a world that was not made for us -- a world that would haunt the work of twentieth century artists like Joseph Cornell, whom Benfey makes the subject of a sensitive coda. Mark Twain sensed this world aborning; Martin Johnson Heade saw it, too, in the pure vegetal ambition of tropical flowers, the shimmering vistas of Florida, and the hungry whirr of hummingbirds. --Matthew Battles
Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History. He has written about language, technology, and history for such publications as The American Scholar, The Boston Sunday Globe, and Harper's Magazine.
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Meet the Author
Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. He is a prolific critic and essayist who writes for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. He has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.
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