I recently finished 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. I had seen the book last summer at my library but hadn’t had the chance to read it until now.
The book details an interesting intersection of poetry and prose, scandal and passion, art and nature, and the possibilities that existed during the Civil War and in post-war America.
Twenty years after his initial journey down river, Mark Twain described the post-war South in this way: “It is like a man pointing out to me a place in the sky where a cloud has been.” Here is where Benfey begins his tale of the changing country and changing attitudes about love and nature, and it is here that the tale Benfey tells takes on a gossamer quality- vague connections that entertain more than they inform. The book really focuses on Heade, a painter of nature, specifically hummingbirds, Dickinson (along with Austin Dickinson, her brother), and Stowe (along with Henry Ward Beecher, her brother and prominent minister). Through their tales of war, scandal, and travel, Benfey weaves the hummingbird, tracing its “route of evanescence.”
The book reinvigorated my love for learning. Not that the love had lapsed completely. Since I will be teaching AP Language this year, I thought it appropriate to get my mind geared toward the reading of non-fiction. I realized, too, that non-fiction requires a slightly different set of reading skills (more on my “skill toolbox” later).
Regardless, the book proved interesting. From the scandal of Lord Byron’s supposed love affair with his sister (his poem “The Prisoner of Chillon” proved important to these writers), to Henry Ward Beecher’s affair with married Elizabeth Tilton (a scandal reminiscent of John Edwards’ or Nevada Senator John Ensin’s affairs today) to Austin Dickinson’s romance of married Mabel Loomis Todd, who would later become one of Emily Dickinson’s editors, to the quest for the elusive hummingbird in “what Henry James would call ‘the great empty peninsula [Florida]‘” (236), from Fred Stowe’s war campaign and disappearance in San Francisco to the burning of Jacksonville, Florida under the watch of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the book captured my love of literature and love of history (albeit the connections between characters tenuous, seemingly specious at times).
Most surprisingly was how Benfey wove Emily Dickinson like the path of a pale hummingbird or the shy arbutus flower through the lives of the characters. Emily, who eschewed the public in favor of writing letters and walking in her family’s garden, and who for me is the most mysterious American writer of the 19th century, moved like the slight bird, flitting and fluttering through the garden of American history.