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  • A Motley Assemblage
  • Cushing Strout (bio)
A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe & Martin Johnson Heade, by Christopher Benfey (Penguin Press, 2008. 304 pages. Illustrated. $25.95)

Christopher Benfey is an imaginative and original writer. The characters mentioned in his subtitle are historical persons, not inventions, however, and his claims about them are historical too. These claims are not modest: their lives intersected “to make sense of it all,” marking “a unique moment in the development of American character.” There’s more: the hummingbird is “a symbol of a new world of fluidity and flux” in which “God is the hummingbird.” These are not so much evidence-backed arguments, however, as they are assertions of the author’s fertile imagination.

Some of the associations made in the book are riddles. Benfey is scrupulous in telling us that “there is no question of direct influence” connecting Dickinson’s writing about herself as a daisy, Byron’s Castle of Chillon, and Henry James’s story “Daisy Miller.” There is “no evidence that he knew of her or her work at that time.” So what is the significance of the connection? “The nexus” of James’s story, the castle, and Byron’s poem about it is supposed to help us understand what Emily Dickinson was “getting at with her flowers, her birds, and her prisons”: escape from “the wintry prison-house of custom and Calvinism, and access instead to nature and to feeling.” It’s a long way [End Page xxxi] around to this explanation, and the reader may find it too much like the rabbit that the magician pulls out of his hat.

There is more sleight-of-hand association in Benfey’s claim that Martin Johnson Heade’s paintings of birds and flowers enable Mabel Todd to see the same meanings in Dickinson’s poetry—though Heade and the poet never met nor did Dickinson and Todd ever meet. Heade is one of the great painters of the American nineteenth-century, and it is a boon of the book that it reprints several of his paintings (alas, not in color). It is appropriate that Heade is the most interesting figure in the book, because it was a biography of him that was “the initial impulse” for Benfey’s book.

Yet it is a mistake to connect Heade to Benfey’s theme about evanescence. Heade is rightly seen now to be a leading “luminist” painter. John Baur coined the term in 1954 to define “a polished and meticulous realism in which there is no sign of brushwork and no trace of impressionism, the atmospheric effects being achieved by infinitely careful gradations of tone, by the most exact study of the relative clarity of near and far objects, and a precise rendering of the variations in texture and color produced by direct or reflected rays.” (I have a Metropolitan Museum of Art poster of Heade’s “The Coming Storm,” with its arresting stillness, and it exactly fits Baur’s definition of luminism.)

There are only four persons mentioned in the subtitle of Benfey’s book, but there are thirteen in the book itself. Benfey admits that his cast looks at first like a “motley assemblage” with “often dizzying relationships” that connect them. He unifies them by their fascination with hummingbirds, which is fair enough, but then he turns the birds with a wave of his wand into a portentous symbol of a “new world of instability and evanescence” arising from a “new sense of evolution.”

But evanescence is not at all equivalent to evolution. Benfey’s term may be appropriate for hummingbirds, but it cannot bear the heavy weight of his idea that this “motley assemblage” had an influence strong enough to have “changed forever the way in which Americans think and feel.” There is no doubt that Benfey’s book is “meticulously researched and creatively imagined,” but the dust-jacket flap also refers to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily Dickinson, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe as “great thinkers,” a claim they never would have made for themselves. The jacket flap also panders to an audience that won’t...


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pp. xxxi-xxxiii
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