Friday, July 04, 2008

Pg. 99: Christopher Benfey's "A Summer of Hummingbirds"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Christopher Benfey's A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade.

About the book, from the publisher:
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 protegee 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.
Among the acclaim for the book:
"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

"In a quieter time, in the wake of our own tumultuous Civil War, some American writers and artists tried to reorient themselves to a world more dynamic and forward-looking than before the war. In A Summer of Hummingbirds, literary scholar Christopher Benfey focuses on writers like Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and some painters as well, to present a fascinating and suggestive narrative about this period of readjustment and re-evaluation."
--Alan Cheuse, NPR

"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."
--Michael Kammen, Boston Globe

Benfey’s neatly pieced-together book makes for lively and moving reading."
--Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor
Read an excerpt from A Summer of Hummingbirds, and listen to Christopher Benfey read Emily Dickenson's poem, "A Route of Evanescence."

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 also serves as a regular art critic for the online magazine Slate. Benfey has published three books set in the American Gilded Age: The Double Life of Stephen Crane, Degas in New Orleans, and The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan. He has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

The Page 99 Test: A Summer of Hummingbirds.

--Marshal Zeringue