Sunday, June 22, 2008

"A Summer of Hummingbirds"

New from Penguin: A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade by Christopher Benfey.

About the book, from the publisher:

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 protegee 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.
Read an excerpt from A Summer of Hummingbirds, and listen to Christopher Benfey read Emily Dickenson's poem, "A Route of Evanescence."