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At the close of the Civil War, a unique moment in US culture

The hummingbird became the symbol of an era for 19th-century America.

By / May 31, 2008



In the summer of 1882, Martin Johnson Heade, an American painter known for his remarkable paintings of hummingbirds, traveled to Amherst, Mass., in amorous pursuit of one of his students – heedless of the fact that she was a married woman. Her name was Mabel Todd and her husband was an astronomer working at Amherst College.

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But Heade was destined for disappointment. Todd was already falling in love with another man. Her romantic interest – and, eventually, her lover – was Emily Dickinson’s married brother, Austin. Shortly after Heade’s arrival in Amherst, Todd was invited to play the piano at the Dickinson homestead. To thank Todd, Emily Dickinson sent her a poem – about a hummingbird.

In Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, intellectual and personal plotlines intersect, intertwine, collide, and finish by creating a delicate pattern. It was a relatively small world in the 19th century so perhaps it is not too surprising that the lives of the American intelligentsia of the time were so interconnected. But it is fascinating – and Benfey’s neatly pieced-together book makes for lively and moving reading.

Benfey’s real subject, he tells us, is the “cluster of American artists and writers adrift during the seismic upheaval of the Civil War and its wrenching aftermath.” If you’ve recently read Drew Gilpin Faust’s forceful “This Republic of Suffering,” then the anguish imposed on Americans by the Civil War will be fresh in your mind. Benfey’s more narrow focus on this particular group of “remarkable creative minds, who survived the war and the loss of so many certainties” serves as an interesting amplification of Faust’s thesis that the war altered Americans irrevocably.

Benfey teaches English at Mount Holyoke College. The hummingbird leitmotif, he explains, occurred to him when he discovered that so many of the period figures who interested him – Mabel Todd, Martin Johnson Heade, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe – were all “fanatical about hummingbirds.” (The hummingbird was also a key figure in the debate over evolution started by Darwin’s 1859 “The Origin of Species.”)

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