May 2009

Guy Cunningham

nonfiction

A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Johnson Heade by Christopher Benfey

Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds is that rare history tome where the author’s voice matters as much as -- if not more than -- the material. Benfey surveys the intellectual scene in the post-Civil War United States through the lives of some of its chief movers and shakers. While the book’s subjects -- chiefly the writers Emily Dickinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, prominent clergyman Henry Ward Beecher (Stowe’s brother), and the painter Martin Johnson Heade -- often share social and familial bonds, Benfey never makes much effort to present them as a unified intellectual movement. Instead, he darts in and out of their lives like the hummingbirds of the book’s title.

Think of it as a group portrait without a true “group.” Instead, we encounter a series of interconnected vignettes centering on several prominent writers, artists, and thinkers mostly living in New England in the late 19th century. The results can be frustrating, and the book is so overstuffed that summarizing all of its intellectual and narrative twists would be impossible. But it’s also incredibly charming.

The tie that Benfey uses to hold everything together is the simple hummingbird. We’re told that the birds “served as emblems of freedom” for antislavery activists before the war, and that most of Benfey’s subjects were fascinated by the creatures -- Heade painted them, Dickinson wrote about them, Beecher collected pictures of them. Benfey goes so far as to describe them as a virtual “cult of hummingbirds.” The hummingbird motif also serves as a convenient fig leaf to allow the author to cover an obscene amount of ground, like a hummingbird flitting from flower to flower. The book manages to introduce us to a disparate cast of characters, ranging from Brazil’s literary-minded Emperor Pedro II, to feminist iconoclast Victoria Woodhall, to twentieth-century art star Joseph Cornell (who created several sculptures inspired by Dickinson).

While the story encompasses a multitude of personalities, however, it is Dickinson and Heade who stand out. Benfey is primarily an art critic, and he is at his best either reading Dickinson’s poetry (which is generously, and expertly, excerpted) or following the evolution of Heade’s art. The author has an amazing ability to summarize an artist or their work in a matter of lines, such as when he describes an 1862 series of nature paintings by Heade thus: “It is as though these colorful birds entered a studio in their Sunday best and asked to be painted as respectable loving couples. Their courtship is staid; they survey their nests like proud homeowners, sharing the pleasure of parenthood.” Here, Benfey subtly uses Heade’s work as a window into the values of the pre-Civil War United States, as the “respectable” hummingbirds mirror the values of antebellum Calvinist New England. Later, as the science of Charles Darwin and the Romanticism of Lord Byron push against these traditional norms, Heade’s style evolves into one that “often seems to anticipate Monet” and other modernists -- mirroring changes in society at large.

One can’t help but notice Benfey’s affinity for Heade’s work -- an affinity that extends to the man himself. For example, when Heade retires to Florida, it’s not enough that we learn the state was still largely unsettled and despoiled; instead, “Everything conspired to translate the moment of arrival into a dream or fairy tale.” The joyfulness of Benfey’s language is striking. He enjoys these people’s company, and shows them off with the enthusiasm of a dinner party host. 

Of course, this might not have been the book his publisher’s had in mind -- especially since the subtitle, Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe & Martin Johnson Heade, feels like it belongs to A Summer of Hummingbird’s more conventional (unwritten) cousin. Twain, for example, despite his top billing, is a minor presence here, seemingly included out of obligation. We don’t even get to the 1882 “summer of hummingbirds” promised in the title -- when Heade’s protégé Mabel Todd had an affair with Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin -- until page 195.  But part of the fun is watching Benfey push against conventional structure, as he indulges in quite a few passing intellectual fancies. You might wonder exactly what the emperor of Brazil has got to do with Emily Dickinson -- not much -- but that doesn’t make Pedro II, who became emperor at fourteen and later lost his crown for his opposition to slavery, any less fascinating.

The book is certainly not for everyone. Some will find its disjointed narrative difficult to follow and ultimately not worth the effort. In many ways, it seems to be the nonfiction equivalent of a collection of interconnected short stories -- if you’re in the mood to be glib, think of it as Jesus’ Son with hummingbirds instead of heroin. It’s rarely boring and the writing is often quite beautiful. For example, Dickinson’s mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson does not simply fade into obscurity -- instead we’re told, “He knew that he and his kind were destined for irrelevance. That was his burden and his tragedy.”

Benfey does a good job of making the case for Heade as an important American painter, he gives us a glimpse of the reclusive woman behind Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and he introduces us to more fascinating characters than I can count. That’s achievement enough. The book is never more than the sum of its parts, but it will reward those who can get past its occasional lack of focus.

A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Johnson Heade by Christopher Benfey
Penguin
ISBN: 0143115081
304 Pages