From Publishers Weekly
Debby ApplegateIn his last two books, Christopher Benfey, a prolific critic, poet and professor of literature at Mount Holyoke, cultivated an unorthodox style of historical storytelling that spurns the traditional mechanics of cause and effect. To steal a phrase from poetry, we might say that he writes history in the lyric rather than the epic mode. The goal is to evoke the thoughts and feelings created by a particular time and place. He has previously applied this technique to Victorian America's discovery of Japan and Edgar Degas's year in New Orleans.Now Benfey turns to the more familiar territory of the 19th-century literary renaissance in New England. He focuses on some of the era's most famous writers, as well as lesser-known figures—as the subtitle indicates: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Johnson Heade—all of whom found inspiration and self-expression in flowers and birds, the hummingbird above all. This is the book's MacGuffin: why did hummingbirds in particular elicit such a powerful attraction, rising at times to an obsession? Benfey's answer is that after the Civil War Americans gradually left behind a static view of existence, a trust in fixed arrangements and hierarchies, and came to embrace a new dynamism that found perfect expression in the hummingbird. By tracing their allusions to hummingbirds in poems, pictures, sermons and anecdotes, he shows how these sensitive souls registered the shock of war by seeking symbols of the evanescence of life. The elegiac mood gives way near the end, when sex wrestles the spotlight from death. Stowe's brother, a celebrated preacher, ensnares himself in a sex scandal, Heade begins a flirtation with the magnetic Mabel Loomis Todd, who throws him over for Dickinson's married brother, and the reclusive poetess embarks on her own late-life love affair. Whether Benfey's book succeeds depends on the expectations of the reader. This is not a conventional cultural history, nor is it a linear history of literary influences. Instead, to borrow from a description of Dickinson's hummingbird poems, it presents a fusion of realistic detail and vaporous suggestion. Those who aren't already familiar with the period—and even many who are —might drift as the author flits, birdlike, from one poignant tableau to another, beckoned by the wafting scent of yet another reference to birds or flowers. (He suffers some minor errors of fact and interpretation, due to an excessive dependence on secondary sources, but they don't alter the overall effect.) This book fares best when seen not as an argument but as a meditation on a moment in history, in which the reading experience itself recreates those feelings of evanescence. Debby Applegate won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for the biography
The Most Famous Man in America (Doubleday).
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Reviewers found much to praise in A Summer of Hummingbirds
â"from the many anecdotes Benfey has uncovered to his critical insights into art and literature. However, they disagreed over whether his book has uncovered an underlying theme that helps explain the thought of an entire period (as Louis Menand did in The Metaphysical Club
, for example), or whether he has simply pointed readersâ attention to a series of interesting but unconnected coincidences. Even if his argument crumbles under scrutiny, critics still found it âvery pleasant to float alongside so curious and playful a writer as he drifts from one anecdote or observation to the nextâ (New York Times Book Review
). Since cultural changes like the one Benfey seeks to describe are notoriously difficult to pin down, readers may have to judge the book for themselves.Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.