The years during and following the Civil War saw momentous social, polticial, religious, scientific and artistic ferment. Art and activism were closely aligned and, for many, there was a change in sensibility. For a loosely connected cluster of American writers and artists, the hummingbird came to symbolize their epoch. Christopher Benfey explores this phenomenon in his engaging A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Johnson Heade.
Benfey skillfully explores the personal histories as well as the work of his primary subjects and explains how hummingbirds came to symbolize "a new dynamism and movement in their lives." For Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example, with her personal tragedies and outrage at slavery, the hummingbirds represented, in part, freedom in world of captivity. Heade had a lifelong obsession with the birds and intended to use his expert knowledge of them to launch a career as an artist. Mark Twain greatly admired Heade's work and Benfey shows how it may well have influenced the best descriptions of the river in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Emily Dickinson's signature poem focused on the hummingbird. She sent it to seven correspondents, more than any of her other poems, and sometimes even signed it "Humming-Bird," as though she herself were its subject. There are numerous other hummingbird references throughout her work. Other hummingbird enthusiasts also figure in A Summer of Hummingbirds, including Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a leading abolitionist and commander of the first African-American unit to fight for the Union. His essay, "The Life of Birds," published in 1862, regards birds as exiles from another, better world and gives special attention to hummingbirds. Dickinson was impressed by Higginson's essays on nature and wrote several poems inspired by his descriptions of spring flowers and hummingbirds. They also corresponded about her work over many years.
Another person profiled is Henry Ward Beecher, the preacher who was once "the most famous man in America." Beecher was known as an abolitionist, accepted evolution, and emphasized the "Gospel of Love" in contrast to the Calvinist approach he had known in his childhood and during his preparation for the ministry. A lover of nature, he also had a collection of stuffed hummingbirds. Already controversial for his views, he was at the center of highly publicized adultery trials that failed to find him guilty.
There is also Mabel Loomis Todd, one of the few people who recognized Dickinson's genius and was an editor, along with Higginson, of the first published volume of her poems. Heade brought Mrs. Todd to an appreciation of nature through art and then became infatuated with her; much to Heade's disappointment, she began an adulterous affair with Dickinson's brother.
Benfey adroitly presents this group in vivid scenes that recreate what it must have been like during a time of great cultural transformation. This is not a strict literary or cultural history and some readers may find it too episodic or feel that the author digresses too much. But it is all interesting and helps us to understand how nature and freedom began to move some cultural figures beyond conviction and restraint.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and frequent contributor to BookPage.