A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade. Christopher Benfey. Penguin Press, 2008. Pp. xv + 288. Hardcover, $25.95. ISBN 978-1-59420-160-8.

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The following review appeared 24 August 2008 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Barbara Schmidt

Christopher Benfey's A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade is best described as an adventure in interpretation. At the heart of this study is poet Emily Dickinson and a network of connections with other nineteenth century artists and writers. Vignettes of their lives make up the bulk of the book.

The title characters of Benfey's book stack up thus: Martin Johnson Heade was an American artist noted for his portraits of landscapes, flora and hummingbirds. Benfey believes Heade's paintings inspired poems by Dickinson and sermons by Henry Ward Beecher. The Dickinsons had family ties to Henry Ward Beecher who was Harriet Beecher Stowe's brother. Mark Twain, friends with both Beecher and Stowe, once wrote about a painting (now lost) by Heade. This is the fragile web of connections upon which Benfey's title is based.

Benfey writes that the thread that binds his characters together is a "quest for psychic wholeness played out in kindred ways" in the aftermath of the Civil War (p. 2). "Adrift in a new world of often devastating change, they found meaning in the shifting light on a river at dawn, or the evanescent flash of a hummingbird's flight" (p. 4). Benfey describes what he calls an "informal cult" built around hummingbirds: "almost all the actors I had begun to assemble on my little stage ... were fanatical about hummingbirds. They wrote poems and stories about hummingbirds; they painted pictures of hummingbirds; they tamed wild hummingbirds and collected stuffed hummingbirds; they set music to the humming of hummingbirds; they waited impatiently through the winter months for the hummingbirds' return" (5). Add Benfey's statement to the text that appears on his dust jacket: "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 environment in which nature prevails and freedom is all." The result is a hint of sensationalism that never quite materializes.

Benfey spins a number of "Dramatis Personae" into his web of connections ranging from British poet Lord Byron who died in 1824, to American artist Joseph Cornell who died in 1972. His narrative drifts from one "Dramatis Persona" to another. This style will likely remind Mark Twain scholars of the story of "grandfather's old ram" told by Jim Blaine in chapter 53 of Roughing It. However, while the "old ram" story continually meanders in a long line away from its subject, Benfey's meditations always circle back to Emily Dickinson.

Benfey speculates about Mark Twain's trip in late December 1866, when he spent a couple of days crossing Nicaragua while traveling from California to New York. Martin Johnson Heade had spent most of the summer of 1866 in Nicaragua in search of flora and birds for his paintings. Benfey writes, "And so it was that two restless, rootless wanderers--one in flight from New York [Heade], the other in flight to it [Twain]--happened to cross paths in the forests of Nicaragua in 1866. … For both Twain and Heade, the passage through the tropics marked a critical moment of self-recognition. Each recognized in the other's work a kindred quest" (p. 139). There is no evidence that the two men ever met in Nicaragua, or at any other time. Just what this "critical moment" in Nicaragua was for Mark Twain is left to the reader's imagination.

In late May 1867, Mark Twain visited an art exhibition at the Academy of Design in New York and wrote a report for the Alta California describing a painting he particularly enjoyed:

There was a dreamy tropical scene--a wooded island in the centre of a glassy lake bordered by an impenetrable jungle of trees all woven together with vines and hung with drooping garlands of flowers--the still lake pictured all over with the reflected beauty of the shores--two lonely birds winging their way to the further side, where grassy lawns, and mossy rocks, and a wilderness of tinted foliage, were sleeping in a purple mist. I thought it was beautiful, but I suppose it wasn't. I suppose if I were not so ignorant I would have observed that one of the birds' hind legs was out of line, and that the coloring was shaky in places, and that some of the 'effects' were criminal transgressions of the laws of art (Mark Twain's Travels with Mr. Brown, p. 239).

Mark Twain did not identify the painting or the artist. However, the editors of Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals, Vol. 1 (1975) and Theodore Stebbins, author of The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade (2000), identify the work as a lost painting by Heade titled "Lagoon in Nicaragua." Benfey relies on Stebbins's identification in regard to another painting attributed to Heade, also lost, that was once displayed in Twain's Hartford home. Without providing additional supporting evidence that Twain ever purchased a Heade painting, Benfey describes Twain as Heade's "friend and patron in later life" (p. 84). He credits Heade's art with inspiring a passage in Huckleberry Finn: "The nearly mystical account of the shimmering sunrise over the Mississippi that opens the nineteenth chapter seems to borrow some of its tonal shifts and evanescence from Heade" (p 146).

Mark Twain lectured in Emily Dickinson's hometown of Amherst on February 27, 1872. The local newspaper reported 800 people were present and proclaimed his appearance a "first-class failure." Although Dickinson may have attended the lecture, Benfey provides no record of her being in the audience or of her ever meeting Mark Twain. Benfey's continual endeavors to draw Twain into the network of his hummingbird cult always fall short.

Early into this book a reader may begin to suspect that the inclusion of Mark Twain's name on the cover and title page is exploitative and that Benfey is overreaching with an implied promise he cannot fulfill. Mark Twain never collected hummingbirds and his married life was free of extramarital affairs and scandal. While he might have found his "psychic wholeness" in the "shifting light on a river at dawn" (instead of hummingbirds), it may have been the changing shape of the river itself that fascinated him.

In spite of the book's shortcomings where Mark Twain is concerned, the discussions of people he knew may be of interest to Twain scholars. These include vignettes of abolitionist and Union officer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was Dickinson's literary mentor. Also profiled is one of Dickinson's possible romantic interests, Reverend Charles Wadsworth, whom Twain met in San Francisco. Wadsworth later warned Jervis Langdon that Mark Twain was not a good prospect for a son-in-law. Benfey discusses Henry Ward Beecher's alleged sexual escapades (a topic that interested Twain). He suggests Beecher's sister Harriet Beecher Stowe had "her own incestuous fantasies about her brother Henry" (p. 269). Benfey also discusses Stowe's landmark 1869 article in the Atlantic Monthly titled "The True Story of Lady Byron's Life," but fails to note Twain's interest in Stowe's article.

Benfey is an English professor and art critic. His book is based on a number of secondary sources and includes reference notes. However, he assumes a freedom to speculate and assign motive without a concern for facts that would normally rein in a historian--his book is entertaining but often reckless.