By Art Winslow
Christopher Benfey, a scholar of Emily Dickinson and Gilded Age America, would not have his book "A Summer of Hummingbirds" had Dickinson not responded to a small floral painting sent to her in 1882 by writing an eight-line poem in return, which spoke of "A Route of Evanescence" in describing the essence of a hummingbird.
"The exchange of gifts had lasting repercussions for American literature," Benfey asserts well into his book—not a case he has made by that point, despite putting forth some related and imaginative other propositions—but he is referring to the fact that the sender of the painting, Mabel Loomis Todd, was an early champion of Dickinson's work and would become one of her posthumous editors. "Almost alone among her contemporaries, Mabel Todd recognized the genius of Dickinson's poems and shepherded them to a wider public," Benfey points out.
Todd, although married, was having an affair with Dickinson's brother, Austin, who was also married, when she sent her painting of white Indian pipe flowers to the reclusive poet. Consider that Dickinson was romantically involved with her father's best friend (a married man), throw in a painter named Heade who was yet another would-be suitor of Todd's, and you will understand why Benfey's book is subtitled, "Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade." (Heade, the least-known among these, was a late Hudson River School painter who went on to develop his own aesthetic in treating landscapes, flora and birds, particularly hummingbirds.)
Benfey's crosscurrents of influence—and inferred influence, which he raises in speculation—entail an even wider cast than those named above. Most prominently these include the onetime minister, Civil War soldier and writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whose literary advice Dickinson recurrently sought (and who, incidentally, was virtually blind to Walt Whitman's worth and on meeting Twain considered him " 'something of a buffoon, though with earnestness underneath' "); and the famous, charismatic but scandal-beset preacher Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe), who over time provided providential advice to the unchurchly Twain.
Setting his stage, Benfey notes that Todd and Heade, Dickinson and Higginson, Beecher and his novelist sister Stowe, "were fanatical about hummingbirds." They wrote poems and stories, and drew and painted hummingbirds, tamed live ones and collected stuffed ones—in short, represented an "informal cult of hummingbirds" with origins that hewed back to the Civil War. Why the obsession? Here is the branch on which Benfey's book balances:
"Americans during and after the Civil War gradually left behind a static view of existence, a trust in fixed arrangements and hierarchies. 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."
This is a handy unifying image-theme for a writer offering up cultural interpretation, and for the most part it proves utilitarian in linking the otherwise somewhat disparate parts of Benfey's story. It should be noted that he drinks his own nectar a little too deeply on occasion, however, ascribing hummingbird-like qualities or connections to situations and people for what seem to be rhetorical ends rather than historical necessity in what is being described.
For example, when recounting the sad tale of Stowe's son Fred, who was a Union soldier in the war and was wounded in the head by an artillery fragment at Gettysburg, Benfey writes that Stowe "hoped to domesticate her wayward son as she had domesticated Hum" (a wounded hummingbird Stowe nursed and wrote about). This follows Benfey's parsing of a Stowe story and drawing in which the hummingbird is taken as a stand-in for Fred. Much more poignant, and to the historical point, Fred was one of those traumatized by the war, experiencing severe lingering pain and an inability to control his use of alcohol. A half-dozen years after the war he joined the merchant marine. When his ship docked in San Francisco, he was "the oldest surviving son of the most famous writer in the United States. He stepped off the ship and vanished into thin air. He was never heard from again."
Readers should keep in mind that no matter how fast the author's wings are beating on the hummingbird theme, the deeper subject of the book is that sense of evanescence emerging after the war, the need for reconstruction in a cultural sense. Benfey is at his strongest when engaging in riffs of literary criticism (pertaining to Dickinson) and art criticism (pertaining to Heade), and in trying to tease out how his subjects may have cross-pollinated.
Twain and Beecher, for example, both acquired paintings by Heade, Stowe plugged his art in an essay collected in her "House and Home Papers," and Benfey suggests Todd perceived similarities between the imagery used by Heade (with whom she had studied) and by Dickinson. Does the description of a sunrise on the Mississippi found in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" owe its tonal shifts to exposure to Heade landscapes, as is Benfey's hunch? On the ultimate question of whether an aesthetic was transferred—or was shared—the evidence remains somewhat gossamer.
Noting that the physical distance between Hartford, Ct., where Twain and Stowe were neighbors, and Amherst, Mass., where the Dickinsons lived, was a short one, Benfey contends that this may also be true of "the temperamental distance among these remarkable creative minds, who survived the war and the loss of so many certainties, and changed forever the ways in which Americans think and feel." Much of this is cast as a reaction against the strictures of Calvinism, with Lord Byron's poetry and passion a precursor model of sorts, at least for the Beechers and their associates, and for Dickinson, whose poetry is occasionally laced with Byronic allusions. Benfey casts Byron as "a potent symbol of the confusions of the 1870s," an orienting point by which Stowe and Dickinson "chartered their emotional course."
Many will find the narrative in "A Summer of Hummingbirds" to be as dartingly peripatetic as the avian of its title. In part this is because Benfey is chasing an abstract concept, the emergence of a new mind-set after the Civil War, and he finds evidence of it in widely disparate places. So we encounter briefly Twain's and Heade's separate travels to the tropics; peek in on the abolitionist stronghold of Newburyport, Mass., where Higginson preached and worked with movement leader William Lloyd Garrison; read Twain's description of Beecher preaching at his Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, cutting the air with his arms as he strode the stage and stamped his feet for emphasis, "a striking mosaic work, wherein poetry, pathos, humor, satire, and eloquent declamation were happily blended upon a ground work of earnest exposition." We see Dickinson as Higginson did in Amherst, too, "A step like a pattering child's in entry & in glided a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair & a face . . . with no good feature," who confesses to fright and never seeing strangers and hardly knowing what to say "but she talked soon & thenceforward continuously"; and Stowe at her cottage in Florida, where she became a tourist attraction, and Heade in Florida, too, at a kind of pre- Disney World resort constructed by the Standard Oil partner of John D. Rockefeller, which had artist studios set up as part of the spectacle for the touring public.
Entertaining as some of the biographical material is, the loftiness in Benfey's book lies in his critical analysis, where he is generous in giving previous critics their due as well. He says of Heade that in the flatness of his Florida landscapes he "constituted a new aesthetic vision in American art," and he had, in the superlative canvases of his mature phase, absorbed principles from bird-and-flower painting in Asian art to "make it live." He considers Dickinson's "A Route of Evanescence" to be her signature poem in many respects: It is a riddle and a poem of definition, typical modes for her, and she sent it to more correspondents than any other poem, sometimes signing it "Humming-Bird," as if she were its subject. We see her most poignantly in a letter Benfey presents, Dickinson writing to Austin's wife, Susan, following the typhoid death of their 8-year-old son, Thomas Gilbert, of whom the poet claimed to "meet his sweet velocity in everything that flies."
A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson HeadeBy Christopher BenfeyPenguin, 287 pages, $25.95Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun