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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 Paperback – Bargain Price, March 31, 2009

4.3 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

SignatureReviewed by 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. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Reviewers found much to praise in A Summer of Hummingbirdsâ€"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 readers’ attention to a series of interesting but unconnected coincidences. Even if his argument crumbles under scrutiny, critics still found it “very pleasant to float alongside so curious and playful a writer as he drifts from one anecdote or observation to the next” (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. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (March 31, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143115081
  • ASIN: B002SB8OD4
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,760,619 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Hummingbirds! I would have never thought of them as some kind of ambiguous stand-in for a number of concerns of the period (marital infidelity or bliss, abolitionist arguments of freedom, a hint of tea totaling or the pleasures of a sumptuous life) but I'm sure I'll see them everywhere now.

Benfey provides you with a paragraph or so of Twain, a few stanzas of Dickinson, a painting of Heade and then composes fascinating readings, sensitive of them by combining close analysis and historical detail. His pleasure and enjoyment of these authors and artists is palpable and contagious.

I really appreciate the way this book resists the common urge to treat Dickinson's biography as freakish (the white dresses, the recklessness, etc.). Benfey calls her a "stay-at-home visionary" and points out that "by April 1882, Dickinson could have published a volume of her poems had she wished to do so."

One of my favorite aspects of this book is the way it makes moments of the nineteenth century seem so close to our own experience. Benfey ends a description of the "hotel-world" that Henry Flagler creates: "Guests arrived at the resort in luxury railroad cars designed by Flagler, bearing the same yellow trim--`Flagler Yellow'--as the arches and windows of the hotel. The transition between railroad and hotel was seamless..." Doesn't that just sound like the branded, constructed trip one would get from, say Disney?
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Format: Hardcover
It is a little difficult to pin down what "A Summer of Hummingbirds" is. Like the little bird that serves as the central metaphor, the narrative flits about, darting among its "flowers," the artistic and cultural lights of 19th century America, creating a kaleidoscope of their intersecting relationships, influences, work and zeitgeist. The experience of reading it is very much like viewing a large collage comprised of many recognizable individual images and materials, that taken in its entirety is at once abstract yet pleasingly aesthetic.

There are no surprises among the cast of characters Benfey traces through their swirling circles, except the 20th century artist Joseph Cornell who serves as a coda absorbing and releasing the energy of the muses before him. Artist Martin Johnson Heade seems to touch all of the 19th century line-up, including Thomas Higginson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Ward Beecher, Emily Dickinson, Austin Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd and Mark Twain. Early in their lives, Lord Byron, slavery and the Civil War inspire meditations on freedom, and Darwin alternately stirs up curiosity about natural phenomenon and challenges to religious belief in the creation story. Hummingbirds turn up everywhere, as images of freedom, images of restless lives, images caught in poetry and on canvas, and as pets and taxidermy specimens. Benfey's subjects are intellects on fire. It is only time before their passions boil over to more physical alliances that seem to coalesce around the summer of 1882, also the year of the transit of the planet Venus.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
No one channels the Zeitgeist as engagingly as Christopher Benfey. In "The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan" he wrote about the late 19th infatuation with all things Japanese. In his most recent book, "A Summer of Hummingbirds," he looks at dislocations in the post-Civil War period: among them changing sexual mores, changing tastes in literature and art, and religious doubt. The book's subtitle speaks of the "intersecting worlds" of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, but there is an entertaining supporting cast, including Henry Ward Beecher (principal in one of the century's great sex scandals), Mabel Loomis Todd (principal in another less public, but no less scandalous, one), and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (an early proponent of Emily Dickinson).

Benfey is a master at connecting all of these people through their relatives, their marriages, their literary and artistic interests, their jobs, their social engagements---and their infatuation with hummingbirds. The latter set of intersections is occasionally pushed a bit far, but it's a nice motif, for the most part. Some of Benfey's chatty, impressionistic chapters are a delight; it's like reading a highbrow 19th century version of People Magazine, where the Beecher/Tilton adultery scandal would be right at home. As in his book about Japan, Benfey writes well about artists, too, and his sketch of the artist Martin Johnson Heade is affectionate and compelling.

The only person whom Benfey does not write well about is Emily Dickinson. He conveys her milieu very well, but the poems themselves really seem to elude him. He has an unfortunate tendency to insert them as props to make his point, without reading them closely.
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Format: Hardcover
The overall symbol of the hummingbird to describe how America was changing from a staid worldview to a more transient, evanescent one in the Civil and post Civil War period is probably insightful. The author also gives us some biographical details not well known about well known luminaries (and people who would become luminaries) of that period. HOWEVER, his writing is pedestrian and I found the book quite a slog. I'm a huge fan of Emily Dickinson(who knew?) and an admirer of Mark Twain, et al. So, I persevered; but I kept thinking about how dull this English professor's classes must be, despite the interesting subject matter.

I don't think this book would capture/retain the interest of the general reader.
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