From Benfey (English/Mount Holyoke Coll.; A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, 2008, etc.), a lyrical but unsentimental family memoir, taking in art, memory and time.
The circumstances of the author’s youth are not entirely rare: On one side, the bloodline extends far back into the American colonial past, on the other to just a few decades in the lives of refugees and exiles. Thus our narrator, as a boy, found himself at a basketball awards dinner where trophies were followed by a father-and-son game, his German-accented father dressed in coat and tie, awkward. “He could no more play basketball than fly to Mars,” writes Benfey. However, his American grandfather was a more practical sort, a bricklayer who once traveled from North Carolina to the Benfey home in Indiana just to lay in a mantelpiece, showing his grandson how to apply mortar, “spread with a pointed trowel like icing on a cake.” Disappointments gave way to understandings as the years passed. Forging links to a deeper past, the author looks at great naturalist William Bartram and explores the hidden past of his parents—he discovered, for instance, that his mother had been engaged to be married before meeting his father, a fact that would rattle any sensitive kid. Benfey’s account, as he puts it, is more geological than chronological, bound together by the clay worked by his artful ancestors and, in one extended section, by the against-the-grain teaching that took place at Black Mountain College in North Carolina courtesy of a small troupe of brilliant European exiles. “Black Mountain had seemed almost a mythical place during our upbringing, a tether linking our flat Midwestern childhood to the vivid summers of artistic innovation and adventure,” he writes—how many other childhood homes had a painting by Josef Albers in the dining room?
Lively, intelligent and interesting—a look inside not just a single family, but also an entire artistic tradition now largely forgotten.