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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.

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Perhaps the hummingbird, with its tiny size, remarkable speed, and evanescence, seemed an antidote to the suffering of the war. Or perhaps these lively talents – many of whom flitted from passion to passion and not always wisely – saw something of themselves in the little bird. The many overlapping love affairs Benfey recounts seemed to bring more difficulty than succor. The various voyages made in search of peace or beauty (Heade to Brazil, Harriet Beecher Stowe to Florida, many of the period’s celebrities to the Hotel Byron in Switzerland) did not always deliver.

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Of course the emotional toll of the war was enormous. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s son Fred survived the war but was destroyed by it. He hoped a long sea voyage might restore him but, instead, in 1871 he “stepped off the ship and vanished into thin air. He was never heard from again.” His mother never got over the loss.

Even in her seclusion in Amherst, Emily Dickinson felt the war intensely. In 1861, she wrote that she would “have no winter this year – on account of the soldiers.” Instead, she said, “when the Humming birds come down” she would shut her eyes “and go far away.”

But for this cluster of thinkers, there is no escape from one another. Mark Twain, who visited Nicaragua a few months after Heade’s trip there, bought one of Heade’s Florida landscapes for his Hartford home. Henry Ward Beecher, whose infidelities nearly undid him, was a collector of both hummingbirds and Heade’s paintings. Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd blasted their own lives with their affair but in the end, it was Todd’s connection with their family that saved Emily Dickinson’s work from obscurity. “Almost alone among her contemporaries,” writes Benfey, (and beginning with Dickinson’s hummingbird poem), “Mabel Todd recognized the genius of Emily Dickinson’s poems and shepherded them to a wider public.”

Benfey closes his examination of these eventful 19th-century lives with a thrust into the future. In the 1940s and ’50s, American artist Joseph Cornell became fascinated with both Heade and Dickinson and introduced the hummingbird into his own work. And so in a move that seems almost a feat of time travel, the little bird darted once again into another century of American culture.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.


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