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  • A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade
  • Katie Peterson (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. $25.95.

Christopher Benfey's impressionistic study concerns the work of, and the personal connections between, the names in its subtitle: three familiar literary figures, and the fourth, the less well-known landscape painter Martin Johnson Heade. Temporally situated but associatively structured, the book focuses on the Civil War and its emotional aftermath. Benfey identifies among the four a "common fascination" with the hummingbird, inspired by the shifting conditions generated by the war, and a mood of "evanescence": "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. This dynamism, in all aspects of life, found perfect expression in the hummingbird" (5). In the course of the book, Benfey links Dickinson, Twain, Stowe, and Heade in more factual terms, charting the connections of friendship and romance that made them aware of each other. Dickinson readers will be, perhaps, most interested to know of Heade's flirtation with Mabel Loomis Todd, which was disappointed by her preference for the dashing Austin Dickinson. [End Page 121]

The most obvious comparable work in recent critical memory is Louis Menand's engrossing Metaphysical Club (2001)—but Benfey's book, while similarly interested in linkages, degrees of separation, and correspondences in a mid-nineteenth-century America whose borders were widening, is less driven by a fascination with how ideas generate and percolate than it is by an interest in how social practices affect the distribution and reception of art. According to Benfey, an important part of what the Civil War changed was faith in social arrangements, like marriage and friendship. Those that had seemed natural before the war "did not survive the carnage on the killing fields of Antietam and Gettysburg" (12). Indeed, where The Metaphysical Club argued for cross-pollinating influences among (mostly) male intellectual groups, A Summer of Hummingbirds concerns itself with solitary acts of world-making (Higginson's journal from the Civil War, Harriet Beecher Stowe's son's disappearance after the war, Dickinson's lyrics), illicit affairs (Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton, Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd), and complicated friendships (Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lady Byron, Emily Dickinson and just about anyone she was friends with).

The charm of the book, and its own enthusiasm for the subjects it pursues, comes from how these rule-bending and rule-breaking social arrangements might situate familiar artists, and familiar works. Benfey's pursuit of connection rarely feels forced—but his questions can sometimes appear to serve the book's aesthetic ends without ending in a more substantitive discussion. What are we to make of a question like, "was it entirely by coincidence that Dickinson gave Mabel a poem about a hummingbird so soon after Heade's visit?" It is difficult to know what the nature of personal association is for Benfey that he finds so mysterious and noteworthy. One finds oneself wanting to know the purpose behind the question, as well as the answer to the question itself.

Benfey's study helpfully structures itself around three themed sections, "War," "Prisons," and "Flight," tracing a trajectory through the war years, culminating in 1882, the year the author calls the "Summer of Love," when Dickinson found Judge Otis Lord and Austin found Mabel. But the book moves around in space from figure to figure much like the hummingbirds it invokes. Chapters are structured by diffuse groups of paragraphs; the authorial voice is as likely to move to a new topic as it is to circle back to something previously discussed. Benfey seeks to explore "evanescence" not only in subject matter, but in form. As a result, the intellectual narrative of the book is by turns delightfully unpredictable and distractingly disorganized. When Benfey does land on a subject, he stays with it by taking a...


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pp. 121-123
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