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Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
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A-A Summer of HummingbirdsChristopher Benfey, an English professor at Mount Holyoke College, specializes in 19th- and 20th-century American literature. He is the author of several books and is a widely published critic and essayist.

The Topic: Hummingbirds, unique to the New World, serve as an excellent unifying motif for Benfey’s exploration of the connections between American authors and artists in the late part of the 19th century. Benfey contends that in this period, all of the figures (and more) in his lengthy subtitle were not only reconstructing an American culture that had been shattered by the Civil War but were also awakening from the Puritan values of the past and discovering a more individualist spirituality. According to Benfey, several of these artists, many connected personally, adopted the hummingbird motif as a symbol of freedom; the era’s dynamism; new ideas about nature, sexuality, and religion; and life’s evanescence (a recurring theme). He traces the motif’s influence in the works and lives of each figure, as well as in the culture that made them and that was made by them.
Penguin. 287 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1594201609

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Benfey’s book comprises a concatenation of startling coincidences. … This book is about exotic and symbolic sensibilities, as well as covert desires by not-so-virtuous Victorians. It reads like a dream sequence, and should not be missed." Michael Kammen

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"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." Marjorie Kehe

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Solving puzzle upon puzzle in the imagery, the critic brings artist and poet into telepathic communication. There is nothing surreal about it: Those conversations with the past are as natural as the backward flight of a hummingbird. They are what make art, art." Mindy Aloff

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Readers should keep in mind that no matter how fast the author’s wings are beating on the hummingbird theme, the deeper subject of the book is that sense of evanescence emerging after the war, the need for reconstruction in a cultural sense. Benfey is at his strongest when engaging in riffs of literary criticism (pertaining to Dickinson) and art criticism (pertaining to Heade), and in trying to tease out how his subjects may have cross-pollinated." Art Winslow

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If A Summer of Hummingbirds collapses under rigorous scrutiny, if it often frustrates even the attempt to subject it to that sort of scrutiny, perhaps that’s not a mortal sin. This isn’t a work of history, really, but an adventure in interpretation, and as such it can claim a lot of leeway." Laura Miller

Critical Summary

Reviewers found much to praise in A Summer of Hummingbirds—from the many anecdotes Benfey has uncovered to his critical insights into art and literature. However, they disagreed over whether his book has uncovered an underlying theme that helps explain the thought of an entire period (as Louis Menand did in The Metaphysical Club, for example), or whether he has simply pointed readers’ attention to a series of interesting but unconnected coincidences. Even if his argument crumbles under scrutiny, critics still found it "very pleasant to float alongside so curious and playful a writer as he drifts from one anecdote or observation to the next" (New York Times Book Review). Since cultural changes like the one Benfey seeks to describe are notoriously difficult to pin down, readers may have to judge the book for themselves.

Cited by Critics

AZ-MetaphysicalClubThe Metaphysical Club A Story of Ideas in America | Louis Menand (2001): Award Star Pulitzer Prize. The title of the book is the same of that of a discussion group that lasted only a few months in 1872 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Four of its members—Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey—went on to help establish a dominant national philosophy in the 20th century, often summarized as "pragmatism." Menand offers a biography of each member and interweaves the development of the group’s thinking with events of the time.