Christopher Benfey, professor at Mt. Holyoke College, has received widespread praise for his book A Summer of Hummingbirds. In this scholarly piece that revolves around multiple 19th-century figures, Benfey combines an analysis of literature, art, and cultural history.
Through vignettes woven together like a thick bird’s nest, the author depicts the lives of celebrated American writers, poets, and artists during and after the Civil War. The book describes how Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, among others, curiously intersect in the ever-changing American society.
These renowned personalities search for love and inspiration in a post-Civil War nation, which has “left behind a static view of existence, a trust in arrangements and hierarchies, and ultimately find meaning in a world of instability and evanescence.” As the nation reshaped itself following the horrors of war, so too did Benfey’s subjects search for spiritual rebirth in their own idiosyncratic ways.
The hummingbird, with its constant motion and resonating effect in nature, serves as the symbolic nexus that ties together the various characters and their shifting realities.
Beecher, renowned speaker and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was naturally fascinated by movement and resonance. Inspired by Darwin’s theory, Beecher began to view nature’s perennial qualities as vital concepts in their own lives. He wrote, “Creation, Darwin argued, was ongoing. Life in its diversity was not fixed for all time but in flux.”
Benfey notes the intersecting themes and paths of his subjects. Mark Twain prepares his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by traveling the country’s riverboat system and by exploring the jungles of Central America. Martin Johnson Heade, too, sought inspiration for his paintings in the tropical countries south of the United States. His fascination with hummingbirds flourished in this region, and Heade returned to the United States to paint them.
In the summer of 1882, the “Summer of Hummingbirds,” Heade traveled to Western Massachusetts with Dickinson and Beecher. During this time, Emily Dickinson wrote her signature poem, a riddle about a hummingbird, which epitomizes the attitude all of Benfey’s writers and artists on the ephemeral state of society and life. Thus Benfey, through Dickinson’s climactic poem, defined the hummingbird as the ever-changing symbol of his subjects’ lives.
Benfey describes not only a symbol, but also the transformation of a country, its artists, and the metaphors that revolve around the art itself. Benfey’s depiction of the reshaping of America’s perspective on society, art and even God traces back to the movement of a hummingbird. “Human life, all life, is a route of evanescence.”
Benfey will be talking to English III students on Thursday, February 24th.