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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

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A surprising and scandalous story of how the interaction within a group of exceptional and uniquely talented characters shaped and changed American thought At the close of the Civil War, the United States took a deep breath to lick wounds and consider the damage done. A Summer of Hummingbirds reveals how, at that tender moment, the lives of some of our most noted writers, A surprising and scandalous story of how the interaction within a group of exceptional and uniquely talented characters shaped and changed American thought At the close of the Civil War, the United States took a deep breath to lick wounds and consider the damage done. A Summer of Hummingbirds reveals how, at that tender moment, the lives of some of our most noted writers, poets, and artists-including Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade-intersected to make sense of it all. Renowned critic Christopher Benfey maps the intricate web of friendship, family, and romance that connects these larger than life personalities to one another, and in doing so discovers a unique moment in the development of American character. In this meticulously researched and creatively imagined work, Benfey takes the seemingly arbitrary image of the hummingbird and traces its "route of evanescence" as it travels in circles to and from the creative wellsprings of the age: from the naturalist writings of abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson to the poems of his wayward pupil Emily Dickinson; into the mind of Henry Ward Beecher and within the writings and paintings of his famous sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. A Summer of Hummingbirds unveils how, through the art of these great thinkers, the hummingbird became the symbol of an era, an image through which they could explore their controversial (and often contradictory) ideas of nature, religion, sexuality, family, time, exoticism, and beauty. Benfey's complex tale of interconnection comes to an apex in Amherst, Massachusetts, during the summer of 1882, a time when loyalties were betrayed and thoughts exchanged with the speed of a hummingbird's wings. Here in the wake of the very public Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton sex scandal, Mabel Loomis Todd-the young and beautiful protŽgŽe to the hummingbird painter Martin Johnson Heade-begins an affair with Austin Dickinson and leaves her mentor heartbroken; Emily Dickinson is found in the arms of her father's friend Judge Otis Lord, and that's not all. As infidelity and lust run rampant, the incendiary ghost of Lord Byron is evoked, and the characters of A Summer of Hummingbirds find themselves caught in the crossfire between the Calvinist world of decorum, restraint, and judgment and a romantic, unconventional world in which nature prevails and freedom is all.


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A surprising and scandalous story of how the interaction within a group of exceptional and uniquely talented characters shaped and changed American thought At the close of the Civil War, the United States took a deep breath to lick wounds and consider the damage done. A Summer of Hummingbirds reveals how, at that tender moment, the lives of some of our most noted writers, A surprising and scandalous story of how the interaction within a group of exceptional and uniquely talented characters shaped and changed American thought At the close of the Civil War, the United States took a deep breath to lick wounds and consider the damage done. A Summer of Hummingbirds reveals how, at that tender moment, the lives of some of our most noted writers, poets, and artists-including Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade-intersected to make sense of it all. Renowned critic Christopher Benfey maps the intricate web of friendship, family, and romance that connects these larger than life personalities to one another, and in doing so discovers a unique moment in the development of American character. In this meticulously researched and creatively imagined work, Benfey takes the seemingly arbitrary image of the hummingbird and traces its "route of evanescence" as it travels in circles to and from the creative wellsprings of the age: from the naturalist writings of abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson to the poems of his wayward pupil Emily Dickinson; into the mind of Henry Ward Beecher and within the writings and paintings of his famous sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. A Summer of Hummingbirds unveils how, through the art of these great thinkers, the hummingbird became the symbol of an era, an image through which they could explore their controversial (and often contradictory) ideas of nature, religion, sexuality, family, time, exoticism, and beauty. Benfey's complex tale of interconnection comes to an apex in Amherst, Massachusetts, during the summer of 1882, a time when loyalties were betrayed and thoughts exchanged with the speed of a hummingbird's wings. Here in the wake of the very public Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton sex scandal, Mabel Loomis Todd-the young and beautiful protŽgŽe to the hummingbird painter Martin Johnson Heade-begins an affair with Austin Dickinson and leaves her mentor heartbroken; Emily Dickinson is found in the arms of her father's friend Judge Otis Lord, and that's not all. As infidelity and lust run rampant, the incendiary ghost of Lord Byron is evoked, and the characters of A Summer of Hummingbirds find themselves caught in the crossfire between the Calvinist world of decorum, restraint, and judgment and a romantic, unconventional world in which nature prevails and freedom is all.

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    Cynthia

    This is very interesting, but a little dry. Truly the intersection of lives one might not realize were so interconnected and how those individuals seemed to influence each other. Very good.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jared

    Christopher Benfey takes a promising premise--the differing relations of many prominent 19th century authors and artists (Emily Dickinson, Austin Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Martin Johnson Heade, and several others) who are united (he argues) over their loves of the hummingbird. While many of these individuals did have relationships with the others (though none with all), he provides little other than a few references by most of the characters to birds to unite their stories. T Christopher Benfey takes a promising premise--the differing relations of many prominent 19th century authors and artists (Emily Dickinson, Austin Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Martin Johnson Heade, and several others) who are united (he argues) over their loves of the hummingbird. While many of these individuals did have relationships with the others (though none with all), he provides little other than a few references by most of the characters to birds to unite their stories. The historical analysis was very weak, and while many of his conjectures are not refutable, he provides precious little to defend them. Much of Benfey's argument relies on contentious evidence he extracts from generous extrapolations from his texts; for a scholar of Emily Dickinson, he demonstrated weak readings, I thought, of the poet; identifying several of her poems as on hummingbird themes, when it's not always necessarily apparent the subject is even a bird. His argument about the hummingbird as an image of changing social thought in Post-Bellum America is poorly developed, and the narrative itself suffers from an unbalanced attention to all of his characters. Mark Twain and Henry Ward Beecher only crop up when they seem relevant, and then never return, with no explanation. Benfey seems to brush over many of his characters as uninteresting, without giving them sufficient time and space to sustain his judgments (Eunice Beecher is dismissed as a "rather stiff little trophy," with no defense--and no footnote). Benfey's historical research is shoddy, and relies on only a few secondary texts to support his arguments outside of his literary works; a broader palate of both secondary and primary texts would have permitted a better development narrative and argument. Finally, the epilogue seems entirely to lose sight of the rest of the book's narrative and argument, and delves into a history of criticism of Emily Dickinson, leaving the reader wondering just what happened to the nineteenth century story-line. Still, the book somehow manages to be an enjoyable, if maddening, read.

  3. 4 out of 5

    James Murphy

    When I finished this book the word delicate came to mind, suited to a work in which hummingbirds play so big a part. It's a pleasure to read criticism as delicate as this and as magical as a hummingbird's flight. Benfey describes an age of American art and letters and society and history focusing on the lives and work of Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Martin Johnson Heade, and Emily Dickinson as well as various lives around them. He finds what they all have in common and shows how those enth When I finished this book the word delicate came to mind, suited to a work in which hummingbirds play so big a part. It's a pleasure to read criticism as delicate as this and as magical as a hummingbird's flight. Benfey describes an age of American art and letters and society and history focusing on the lives and work of Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Martin Johnson Heade, and Emily Dickinson as well as various lives around them. He finds what they all have in common and shows how those enthusiasms link them and help create the art we associate with the period following the Civil War. Benfey uses the theme of hummingbirds, appropriate to all his subjects, to flit from person to person connecting them in the darting thrust of his text and ideas. But not only hummingbirds stitch them together--they share other confluences of circumstance, such as Brazil, transits of Venus, northeastern Florida, and flowers like the trailing arbutus. The picture Benfey is able to give us of the period and his subjects by using all these associations is colorful and elaborate. If the book has a main focus it's Dickinson. She's the flower here and the others along with their family and acquaintances are the hummingbirds who hover and feed on or near her presence in our literary history. I think the book is ambitious, clever criticism.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Carol

    This sounded like a great book but for me, when all is said and done I wondered what was the point? The title was much more provocative then the actual story. I think academic types are just in love with discovering a new twist.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    This is one that I return to...a little hard to do, if I am looking for a particular thing, as it weaves together all those people so intricately. I was amazed at all the coincidences, who knew whom, who slept with whom, etc. But there is an index! I felt connected somehow to almost all the people in the book, amazing, since the book is about how they are connected to each other. Sort of a six degrees of Emily Dickinson kind of game. Loved it.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Colleen Reilly

    Not really surprising, or scandalous, but a fascinating frame with which to examine somewhat overlooked,but formative years in the nation's history. Not exactly action packed, but a fine read for anyone who has time to ruminate on hummingbirds. Not really surprising, or scandalous, but a fascinating frame with which to examine somewhat overlooked,but formative years in the nation's history. Not exactly action packed, but a fine read for anyone who has time to ruminate on hummingbirds.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Trixi

    So I finally finished this one and it was good, nice little inside glimpse into these peoples lives.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Marla Glenn

    What a delightful idea!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Captain Sir Roddy, R.N. (Ret.)

    I found this very well-written and interesting book the other day on the bargain table at my local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds, while just a touch over 250 pages in length, is a fascinating look at a series of seemingly unconnected historical events involving a group of prominent literary, theological, scientific, and artistic Americans during the late-1860s through the 1880s. Interestingly, what seems to link these persons together was their unmitigat I found this very well-written and interesting book the other day on the bargain table at my local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds, while just a touch over 250 pages in length, is a fascinating look at a series of seemingly unconnected historical events involving a group of prominent literary, theological, scientific, and artistic Americans during the late-1860s through the 1880s. Interestingly, what seems to link these persons together was their unmitigated passion for hummingbirds! As Dr. Benfey writes, “they wrote poems and stories about hummingbirds; they painted pictures of hummingbirds; they tamed wild hummingbirds and collected stuffed hummingbirds; they set music to the humming of hummingbirds; they waited impatiently through the winter months for the hummingbirds’ return.” Dr. Benfey puts forward the proposition that this fascination was one result of the great tragic, but ultimately liberating, experience of the American Civil War. Benfey believes that “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.” The book kicks off with Thomas Wentworth Higginson and his black Union soldiers near Jacksonville, Florida, during the American Civil War. Before his military service began, Higginson wrote an essay entitled, The Life of Birds, that was published in The Atlantic in 1862. He began the essay with a long look at hummingbirds which, in his words, were “an image of airy motion,” and wondered if “gems turn to flowers, flowers to feathers, in that long-past dynasty of the humming-birds?” A fanciful nod to Darwinism, perhaps. Higginson, during the war years, was already corresponding with Emily Dickinson, the shy and reclusive brilliant poet of Amherst, Massachusetts. In fact, in 1862, Dickinson sent three poems to Higginson for his opinion and asked if they had the potential for publication. Dickinson, it seems, was inspired by Higginson’s nature essays to begin writing poems about hummingbirds, including this example: “Within my Garden, rides a Bird Upon a single Wheel— Whose spokes a dizzy Music make As ‘twere a traveling Mill— He never stops, but slackens Above the Ripest Rose— Partakes without alighting And praises as he goes” I learned some interesting new things about Emily Dickinson, Henry Ward Beecher, his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), Mabel Loomis Todd, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. To me though, I was most intrigued with Martin Johnson Heade. Heade was an artist, largely a landscape painter, of the American mid-19th century “Hudson River School;” that also produced artists like Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, and Albert Bierstadt. Heade loved painting nature and the wildlife that lived in it. It appears that he also had a bit of wanderlust in him as he traveled all over the globe in pursuit of practicing his art. He particularly loved to paint hummingbirds in their natural habitats, and visited Central and South America in pursuit of these little flying jewels. Many prominent Americans, including Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) ownws paintings by Heade. Generally, the book gives a wonderful overview of each of these amazing people and what made them important in their own time. The real point of the book though, in my opinion, is Dr. Benfey’s contention that there was a convergence, of sorts, of most of these people in and around Amherst, Massachusetts from the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s, for a variety of reasons. I really don’t want to give anything away, but there are some really interesting and juicy tid-bits concerning Henry Ward Beecher, Austin Dickinson, the beautiful and talented artist Mabel Loomis Todd, Martin Johnson Heade, and Emily Dickinson. Benfey’s book then, in a sense, is really a ‘string-of-pearls’ of connected, or quasi-connected, relationships among the book’s principals. These relationships occur over the twenty-year period following the Civil War, the so-called 'great American Golden Age,' and culminate with Henry Flagler’s promotion and development of Florida as a winter travel destination. As I mentioned above, the book starts in Florida with Higginson; it goes full-circle and ends in Florida with Flagler and Heade and Flagler's fabulous resort hotel in St. Augustine, Florida. This was a very thought-provoking and fun book to read. I have to say that learning more about Emily Dickinson, the person and woman, has increased my appreciation of the brilliance and genius of her amazing poetry. Getting to know her brother Austin, and sister-in-law, Susan, and her friends David and Mabel Todd was an added bonus. Discovering Martin Johnson Heade’s life and paintings was fantastic, as I am a huge fan of the Hudson River School, landscape art in general, and especially paintings of birds. Finally, the book includes an excellent collection of end-notes and a superb index. This is a fast read and will make a wonderful addition to anyone’s American literature bookshelf. I highly recommend Dr. Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Denise Louise

    The premise of this book is very loose. I'm not exactly sure what point was being made. These poets and artists were all connected by their love of hummingbirds? Well, hummingbirds are generally intriguing creatures and most people like them. I don't think it is much of a common thread to seize upon. The book is interesting as a history of famous people of this time period just before, during and after the Civil War. I felt almost it was a tabloid of the celebrities of that day - the rich and fa The premise of this book is very loose. I'm not exactly sure what point was being made. These poets and artists were all connected by their love of hummingbirds? Well, hummingbirds are generally intriguing creatures and most people like them. I don't think it is much of a common thread to seize upon. The book is interesting as a history of famous people of this time period just before, during and after the Civil War. I felt almost it was a tabloid of the celebrities of that day - the rich and famous of the time and the scandals, tragedies, and intrigues that surrounded them. Like reading about the actors, musicians and sports figures of our day. Especially when looking at the sexual scandals among the key characters. So, interesting, intriguing, but I think it would have been better without trying to create the hummingbird connections. I'm not sure why that was necessary, except as an excuse to write about the people and create the book.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Cj

    This would be a hard book to recommend. The use of hummingbirds as a bridge to connect artistic luminaries that flourished during the period following the Civil War was a rather rickety construct. The writing style reminded me of the gossip columns of early Hollywood. Instead of being about Greta Garbo or Mary Pickford, the catty commentary is about Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain. But the book is short, I like this era, and the almost malign treatment of the time and the lives of the historical This would be a hard book to recommend. The use of hummingbirds as a bridge to connect artistic luminaries that flourished during the period following the Civil War was a rather rickety construct. The writing style reminded me of the gossip columns of early Hollywood. Instead of being about Greta Garbo or Mary Pickford, the catty commentary is about Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain. But the book is short, I like this era, and the almost malign treatment of the time and the lives of the historical figures was kind of fun (the bombastic rhetoric suited the author's gossipy style) . It was a nice change to not have anyone being stuck up on a pedestal. But I think most people would find better use of their time reading something else.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Lynne

    I found this frustratingly fragmented. There are many intertwining biographic snippets from an interesting period in US history, but none given the fullness I wanted. That is why I read novels...they go where biographers can't. I visited Emily Dickinson's home with my sister last spring so was especially interested. I confess I still can't wrap my head around her poetry. There is an interesting connection to the boxes of Joseph Cornell in the epilogue (another fragment). Sometimes I went "tsk ts I found this frustratingly fragmented. There are many intertwining biographic snippets from an interesting period in US history, but none given the fullness I wanted. That is why I read novels...they go where biographers can't. I visited Emily Dickinson's home with my sister last spring so was especially interested. I confess I still can't wrap my head around her poetry. There is an interesting connection to the boxes of Joseph Cornell in the epilogue (another fragment). Sometimes I went "tsk tsk" outloud at the author who made some bizarre leaps of interpretation of the work of Dickinson, the painter, Martin Johnson Heade (very fine work), and others.

  13. 4 out of 5

    James

    I found this book alternately fascinating and boring. The book mostly follows the lives of Dickinson and Heade, with a good helping of Harriet Beecher Stowe and almost nothing about Mark Twain - contrary to the book cover's claims. Benfey is particularly enamored of Dickinson's poetry, but I found the forays into poetry analysis jolting. They interrupted the story. How the American civil war impacted Stowe and Dickinson was particularly engrossing. The last chapter was terrible. It had little to I found this book alternately fascinating and boring. The book mostly follows the lives of Dickinson and Heade, with a good helping of Harriet Beecher Stowe and almost nothing about Mark Twain - contrary to the book cover's claims. Benfey is particularly enamored of Dickinson's poetry, but I found the forays into poetry analysis jolting. They interrupted the story. How the American civil war impacted Stowe and Dickinson was particularly engrossing. The last chapter was terrible. It had little to do with the book. It felt as if the publisher said, "Add twenty pages", and Benfry wrote of two characters almost completely unrelated to the previous chapters.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Wrenn

    I LOVED this book. It was utterly fascinating. Benfey is one of those rare nonfiction writers that manages to educate you and entertain you at the same time. I couldn't put this book down. I learned SO much and feel like I have a much clearer understanding of what these authors' lives were like and how they were connected. I'm starting another book of his shortly and cannot wait to read it. Can't recommend it highly enough! I LOVED this book. It was utterly fascinating. Benfey is one of those rare nonfiction writers that manages to educate you and entertain you at the same time. I couldn't put this book down. I learned SO much and feel like I have a much clearer understanding of what these authors' lives were like and how they were connected. I'm starting another book of his shortly and cannot wait to read it. Can't recommend it highly enough!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Donna

    The subtitle of this book: "Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade," intrigued me, as I knew very little about these people and how their lives might be connected. The author described how the lives of these people were intertwined during the nineteenth century after the Civil War. While somewhat interesting at times, overall, it did not hold my attention and I had to push myself to finish it. The subtitle of this book: "Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade," intrigued me, as I knew very little about these people and how their lives might be connected. The author described how the lives of these people were intertwined during the nineteenth century after the Civil War. While somewhat interesting at times, overall, it did not hold my attention and I had to push myself to finish it.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Christina O'reilly

    the book is built on a nontraditional structure which could get in the way for some people. it flits from one person to the next, from one theme to the next, from one art form to the next. layering upon layering, but when i walked away i had a rich experiential feeling of american culture as it shifted after the shock of the civil war. useful for the troubles we're looking at now. the book is built on a nontraditional structure which could get in the way for some people. it flits from one person to the next, from one theme to the next, from one art form to the next. layering upon layering, but when i walked away i had a rich experiential feeling of american culture as it shifted after the shock of the civil war. useful for the troubles we're looking at now.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    I read this books as a kind of palate cleanser between responding to student theses. It's kind of like My Emily Dickinson Lite. That is to say, a pleasant diffusion of 19th century American arts and culture. If you want depth, go elsewhere. I read this books as a kind of palate cleanser between responding to student theses. It's kind of like My Emily Dickinson Lite. That is to say, a pleasant diffusion of 19th century American arts and culture. If you want depth, go elsewhere.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    disappointingly dull. As a history and american studies major who went on to do graduate work in art history, I really wanted to like this book, but I could barely finish it. The connections were there, yes, but they were tangential. It needed a good editor.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Autumn

    One star for Emily Dickinson, no stars for the book itself.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Steph Foster

    Lots of interesting facts in this book, but it didn't flow together very well. I still really enjoyed learning about each artist individually and could definitely have used some more Mark Twain. Lots of interesting facts in this book, but it didn't flow together very well. I still really enjoyed learning about each artist individually and could definitely have used some more Mark Twain.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jenny Powell

    Absolutely beautiful read! Highly rec for your summer reading.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sally Anne

    A book best savored at leisure, when you, too have time to meander around the ideas and personalities herein. A good one.

  23. 5 out of 5

    stephanie suh

    The Greeks called it Ethos, and the Germans named it Zeitgeist. The world has always seen and experienced epoch-making changes of guiding ideals or beliefs that particularize ideology of an era under the cataclysmic reconstructions of social modus operendi, cultural trends, and memes. Something like that happened in the mid-late 19 century post-Civll War America, and it was something of American Renaissance. Emily Dickinson saw it as a flash of a hummingbird’s flight into a route of evanescence The Greeks called it Ethos, and the Germans named it Zeitgeist. The world has always seen and experienced epoch-making changes of guiding ideals or beliefs that particularize ideology of an era under the cataclysmic reconstructions of social modus operendi, cultural trends, and memes. Something like that happened in the mid-late 19 century post-Civll War America, and it was something of American Renaissance. Emily Dickinson saw it as a flash of a hummingbird’s flight into a route of evanescence - of the antebellum social arrangements, hierarchies, puritanical morality, and intellectual formations, all of which seemed unseemly and even contumacious in a dawn of new era. So Christopher Benfey presents in this beautifully ethereal book his sensitive and illustrative script of Post-Civil War American literary scenes in which the persons of Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mark Twain are played on the same epochal screen, using the image of a hummingbird as a cross-cutting medium to interweave the lives of the American intelligentsia. Benfey draws on his unparalleled knowledge of the American intelligentsia with a tender and intelligent contemplation on action and thought in the culturally sophisticated realms of East Coast America in the aftermath of the Civil War. For instance, he introduces the reader Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a passionate collector of expensive paraphernalia, whose Byronic-like charm and charisma led him to a famous scandal involving a love affair with a wife of his friend and parishioner. But Benfey sees the reverend as breath of a fresh air in the stuffy Protestant tenets of mortification of sensualism, which is only a friori natural to God-given human nature. In fact, Beecher substituted the drab and dreary Calvinist doctrines of predestination and infant damnation with the love of nature, the tender love, and mercy of God who created Beauty to be realized and appreciated, not to be despised and avoided. Besides, Charles Darwin’s Evolutionism manifested a perfection consistent with the Christian views: that all living things evolved into their most advanced forms meant the perfect beauty made in the Image of God. Indeed, such perceptions of God and his creations bespeaks liberalization of Protestant moral codes that often yielded to perverted acts of unnaturally repressed desires. It was a leap into a new world of "fluidity and flux". All this seemed to conspire to reckon the moment of new arrival of intellectual zeitgeist with a divine revelation or a sibylline prophecy in this book, which is why it is a contemporary nonfiction that resembles a classic fiction. Rich in detail and vivid in description that successfully resurrect the period, it is a riveting tale of the American literary legacy to be told with Benfey’s poetic use of simple language with a fascinating take on the felicitous subject worth the reading. The book embroiders on the lives of the American literary celebrities of the time by interconnecting them with the gossamer threads of contemporary providence or fortuity in one way or another, willed or unwilled, when a pre-Civil War mindset and post Civil War necessities still clashed. Nevertheless, Americans after the war came to see a new substratum of social order and changed directions in all aspects of life, fittingly found in the figure of a hummingbird, an indigenous bird of the American continent, that is uniquely American. IT was also a time of Transit of Venus, as the new tone and sensibility for new era became dawned on the American social and cultural horizon. This book is a tessera elegantly and delicately put together by Benfey’s appealing narrative and approachable scholarship in a mosaic of American literature.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kristin

    I liked this book, if only because I learned more about various artists (Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and particularly Martin Johnson Heade, who I had not heard of) and their backgrounds/history. The book does seem a bit scattered at times, where you're just starting to get into a person and his/her story, and then the author switches to someone new. With that said, his scattered writing style does keep the reader from getting bored if you're not interested in a particular I liked this book, if only because I learned more about various artists (Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and particularly Martin Johnson Heade, who I had not heard of) and their backgrounds/history. The book does seem a bit scattered at times, where you're just starting to get into a person and his/her story, and then the author switches to someone new. With that said, his scattered writing style does keep the reader from getting bored if you're not interested in a particular person, as the topic will switch within a short time. I read the book for an artists' book club and we had enough material from the book to have a good discussion. Reading the book, however, did feel like I was reading a book for school/college, or an assignment, rather than for enjoyment. Lines from the book that stood out to me: "A new sense of precariousness in the lives of artists and writers, and the ways in which art served as a temporary anchorage amid uncertainty." "The wonder is that with so little encouragement, Dickinson had the inner strength and ambition to keep at her task, and the confidence to know that her eccentricities of language... were in fact her strengths." "In the quiet confines of his [Head] his studio, he could paint as he wished to paint, and consolidate the hints and intuitions that were shaping his new paintings." "The gay Quakers... the children of Quaker families, who, while abandoning the strict rules of the sect, yet retain their modest and severe reticence, relying on richness of material, and soft, harmonious coloring, rather than striking and dazzling ornament." "Three big ideas had come his [Head's] way, and he knew exactly what to do with them. He absorbed each idea, let it settle into his artistic practices. Then he found a way to synthesize all into the great canvases of his mature phase..." Each artist has "its own logic and its own path of development."

  25. 5 out of 5

    Martha

    Mom really loves this book and recommended it to me. I think she heard the author speak at a Mt. Holyoke reunion. It IS fascinating, especially since Doug Miller has found that we have neighboring ancestors from this part of the country who were working on the same religious contentions 100 or more years before, and since we are dealing with the same political issues now. I haven't finished the book but I think it talks about the historical issues I have liked in Jill Lepore's works such as the Mom really loves this book and recommended it to me. I think she heard the author speak at a Mt. Holyoke reunion. It IS fascinating, especially since Doug Miller has found that we have neighboring ancestors from this part of the country who were working on the same religious contentions 100 or more years before, and since we are dealing with the same political issues now. I haven't finished the book but I think it talks about the historical issues I have liked in Jill Lepore's works such as the Mansion of Happiness, in a more accessible, but still scholarly manner. I can't wait to watch these people meet up. And reading snippets of Emily Dickinson's works in context is helpful and inspiring.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    This was sort of interesting, but I don't think terribly well written (or edited). It shows how all these people (7 or 8 major players) were connected, but I'm not sure if there was a point or thesis made. We had just been to the Frederick Church House (Olanna), and seen Heade's "Gems of Brazil," so I had some context for this. But, I found confusing to read, as it went back and forth in time a lot and jumped around from person to person without a lot of coherence. I'm glad I read it, and it cer This was sort of interesting, but I don't think terribly well written (or edited). It shows how all these people (7 or 8 major players) were connected, but I'm not sure if there was a point or thesis made. We had just been to the Frederick Church House (Olanna), and seen Heade's "Gems of Brazil," so I had some context for this. But, I found confusing to read, as it went back and forth in time a lot and jumped around from person to person without a lot of coherence. I'm glad I read it, and it certainly added to my understanding of these important historical figures. Most interesting for me on Beecher Stowe and the cult of Byron.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Tracy

    I was drawn to this book having a love of hummingbirds. it has marvelous antidotes of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. a beautiful lovely quality of captivating writing which engages the reader. I really could not put this book down. it’s fascinating to find out all these scrumptious details of people after the civil war.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kathy

    I rather enjoyed this weird little piece of work. Though the scholarship was incredibly shoddy and the links to the various artists and writers often times seemed contrived, I applaud the writer's ability to hold my attention and weave a delightful bit of cotton candy. Fun in spite of its many flaws! I rather enjoyed this weird little piece of work. Though the scholarship was incredibly shoddy and the links to the various artists and writers often times seemed contrived, I applaud the writer's ability to hold my attention and weave a delightful bit of cotton candy. Fun in spite of its many flaws!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

    Like many other reviewers I was excited to read this romp, but was disappointed in the how the author seems to be trying to create a more scandalous and salacious interplay of relationships than there was. Honestly was hoping for more insight on the hummingbird! lol. Would be of interest to those studying the figures represented in the book.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Molly

    I am not sure about this book. It was compelling but the structure and tone was very navel-gazey. It did not feel like it had a cohesive narrative, which I guess was the point, but it felt forced rather than organic.

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