Synopses & Reviews
A surprising and scandalous story of how the interaction within a group of exceptional and uniquely talented characters shaped and changed American thought.
At the close of the Civil War, the United States took a deep breath to lick wounds and consider the damage done. A Summer of Hummingbirds reveals how, at that tender moment, the lives of some of our most noted writers, poets, and artists including Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade-intersected to make sense of it all. Renowned critic Christopher Benfey maps the intricate web of friendship, family, and romance that connects these larger than life personalities to one another, and in doing so discovers a unique moment in the development of American character.
In this meticulously researched and creatively imagined work, Benfey takes the seemingly arbitrary image of the hummingbird and traces its route of evanescence as it travels in circles to and from the creative wellsprings of the age: from the naturalist writings of abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson to the poems of his wayward pupil Emily Dickinson; into the mind of Henry Ward Beecher and within the writings and paintings of his famous sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. A Summer of Hummingbirds unveils how, through the art of these great thinkers, the hummingbird became the symbol of an era, an image through which they could explore their controversial (and often contradictory) ideas of nature, religion, sexuality, family, time, exoticism, and beauty.
Benfey's complex tale of interconnection comes to an apex in Amherst, Massachusetts, during the summer of 1882, a time when loyalties were betrayed and thoughts exchanged with the speed of a hummingbird's wings. Here in the wake of the very public Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton sex scandal, Mabel Loomis Todd the young and beautiful protégé to the hummingbird painter Martin Johnson Heade begins an affair with Austin Dickinson and leaves her mentor heartbroken; Emily Dickinson is found in the arms of her father's friend Judge Otis Lord, and that's not all.
As infidelity and lust run rampant, the incendiary ghost of Lord Byron is evoked, and the characters of A Summer of Hummingbirds find themselves caught in the crossfire between the Calvinist world of decorum, restraint, and judgment and a romantic, unconventional world in which nature prevails and freedom is all.
"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 Heade' all 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 the spotlight 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)." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Christopher Benfey's The Summer of Hummingbirds is an indispensable Baedeker to the American cultural landscape of the nineteenth-century. He accomplishes for literature and art what The Metaphysical Club did for philosophy and politics establishing crucial linkages, both biographically and intellectually, among a diverse group of writers and artists whose work defined a vibrant new aesthetic in the years after the Civil War. And who would have guessed that reclusive Emily Dickinson entertained a secret lover? Romantic intrigue plays no small part in this absorbing tale, which follows a 'route of evanescence' through the studies and studios of Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Martin Johnson Heade, and a handful of fascinating if less-well-known members of an expansive circle of friends, siblings, and spouses whose influence on each other and on the American spirit Benfey traces with uncanny insight." Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism
"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." Library Journal
"A handsomely illustrated volume that reflects Benfey's depth of reading and passionate interests, though the connections he makes are occasionally strained." Kirkus Reviews
"It's very pleasant to float alongside so curious and playful a writer as he drifts from one anecdote or observation to the next." New York Times
"Entertaining as some of the biographical material is, the loftiness in Benfey's book lies in his critical analysis, where he is generous in giving previous critics their due as well." Chicago Tribune
"[A] highly engaging and deftly written sequence of intertwined vignettes....This book is about exotic and symbolic sensibilities, as well as covert desires by not-so-virtuous Victorians. It reads like a dream sequence, and should not be missed." Boston Globe
"Readers should keep in mind that no matter how fast the author's wings are beating on the hummingbird theme, the deeper subject of the book is that sense of evanescence emerging after the war, the need for reconstruction in a cultural sense. Benfey is at his strongest when engaging in riffs of literary criticism (pertaining to Dickinson) and art criticism (pertaining to Heade), and in trying to tease out how his subjects may have cross-pollinated." Art Winslow, The Chicago Tribune
(read the entire Chicago Tribune review
A renowned critic pens this surprising and scandalous story of how the interaction within the lives of some of the nation's most noted writers, poets, and artists shaped and changed American thought.
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 protege 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."
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.
About 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.