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Reviewed by:
  • A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade
  • Sarah Driscoll (bio)
Benfey, Christopher . A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade. New York: Penguin, 2008. 304 pp. ISBN 978-1594201608, $16.00.

On April 17, 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson opened a cream-colored envelope that held a letter, four poems, and a smaller envelope. The letter's first sentence bore a question: "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?" Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson's initial correspondence developed into a twenty-five year friendship between two very different people, Brenda Wineapple suggests in White Heat: "If she sought solace in poetry, a momentary stay against mortality, hefound it in a time of activism" (12). Interestingly, Dickinson addressed Higginson precisely because he was both her opposite and an entry into the intellectual life she clearly sought. So despite their at times almost seemingly irreconcilable differences, she entrusted him with her work, and as Wineapple attests, the recluse and the activist, an "unlikely pair," established a friendship for years to come.

The act of constructing biography rarely focuses on braided narratives like these, which rely on social encounters and chance relationships rather than microscopic, solitary biographical analysis to reconstruct history. Meredith McGill, author of The Traffic in Poems: Nineteenth Century Poetry and Transatlantic Exchange, goes so far as to argue that until relatively recently, scholars have been content to write national histories that "rarely, if ever, intersect with one another" (1). The notion that the biographical act, in essence, can be defined as that of trailing not one life, but many intertwining lives, suggests that telling one individual's story by default involves a degree of social relativity and incorporative, dynamic work, even in the case of Emily Dickinson, whose myth of provincialism has pervaded literary scholarship for years. [End Page 389]

Although McGill's interest in transatlantic circulation clearly transcends the scope of this review, her approach is relevant to the premise of Christopher Benfey's newest book, A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, in which he presents biography as an act of braiding and retracing social relationships that often evolved as the result of unforeseeable encounters. A Summer of Hummingbirds chronicles the intersecting, shared experiences of artists and writers who lived during and after the Civil War. The crux of the book concerns moments during which these individuals' lives crossed paths, presented as a mosaic of the time period in which social networking, not personal narrative, constructs biography. Friendships ignite, people become romantically involved, and art takes shape, almost fortuitously, under the ironical evanescence of the hummingbird.

Benfey's interest in the social crossroads of the figures he discusses, and the subsequent exchange of art and writing that precludes isolated cultural practices, is no more apparent than at the beginning of the book, when the text introduces a ragtag "Dramatis Personae" cast that includes Lord Byron, Pedro II of Brazil, Henry Flagler, and Emily Dickinson in an attempt to reveal a "cult of hummingbirds" whose desire for mobility both during and after the Civil War revealed a common denominator in their incredibly diverse and often antithetical lives. As Benfey attests, Americans "gradually left behind a static view of existence, a trust in fixed arrangements and hierarchies. In science and in art, in religion and in love, they came to see a new dynamism and movement in their lives, a brave new world of instability and evanescence" (5). It is through this new fluid existence that the book engineers an impressive braid of interwoven narratives that reject social provincialism in favor of dynamic-even transatlantic-relationships.

The power of Benfey's hummingbird is that it isn't mere metaphor. All of the individuals he describes-Mabel Loomis Todd, Martin Johnson Heade, and Pedro II, for example-indeed shared a fascination with these lightning-like birds. Given the history of the hummingbird as an...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 389-394
Launched on MUSE
2010-09-12
Open Access
No
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