Ambitious, eccentric synthesis of late 19th-century artistic currents shows a static America progressing after the Civil War into a period of movement and romance.
As evidenced by his previous teeming works, Benfey (The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan, 2003, etc.) likes to keep the literary pot boiling. In this elegant but not entirely cohesive study, he uses the hummingbird as a metaphor for the postwar era’s evanescent spirit, and as a means of spotlighting the shared interests of the actors he has assembled. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a radical writer who served as a colonel in the Union army, published essays about hummingbirds that were read avidly by Emily Dickinson, who in turn wove the birds into poems and wrote to Higginson for literary advice. Harriet Beecher Stowe, credited by President Lincoln with starting the Civil War with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, sheltered, named and drew pictures of a wounded hummingbird, which Benfey argues became a stand-in for her troubled, alcoholic son Fred. Martin Johnson Heade, recognized for his paintings of salt marshes and haystacks, traveled to Brazil to paint hummingbirds; his work was beloved by Stowe and her brother, abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, for whom the bird was a metaphor for the delicate female parishioners he seduced. Heade’s comely apprentice and crush, Mabel Todd, mingled with the Dickinsons in Amherst, Mass., offering Emily her sketches of hummingbirds while having an affair with the poet’s brother Austin; Mabel later helped bring Emily’s work to the public light. One life dovetails into the other in this spiraling contemplation, which shows itinerant journalist Mark Twain emerging from his own trip to the tropics “at a critical moment of self-recognition,” recognizing that Heade had undertaken “a kindred quest.”
A handsomely illustrated volume that reflects Benfey’s depth of reading and passionate interests, though the connections he makes are occasionally strained.