"A Route of Evanescence"
A critic follows the images that enraptured American writers and artists after the Civil War.

Reviewed by Mindy Aloff
Sunday, June 22, 2008


Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade

By Christopher Benfey

Penguin Press. 287 pp. $25.95

In 2008, it is easier to form a mental picture of the condemned being torn apart by lions in the Colosseum of ancient Rome than it is to summon up the day-to-day existence of Emily Dickinson, functioning by choice as an inmate in her father's house in Amherst, writing intimate letters to a close friend in the same town without ever meeting her, even once, in person. Arguably the greatest poet America ever produced, Dickinson sought refuge from most human contact, and she shied away from publishing nearly all the poems produced by her multitudinous, overlapping brainstorms -- those scribbled inklings of her vast interior life that she nested under the flaps of envelopes or on the backs of packaging for chocolate bars. Today, she'd be disabused of her strangeness through pharmacological means. Clearly, she was suffering in some way. But she was fated to live in a time and place that indulged her. In that, at least, she was lucky.

It is the particular quality of Dickinson's world from her own point of view, and the lives, loves and works of a few of her contemporaries, that Christopher Benfey, a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, seeks to evoke in A Summer of Hummingbirds, his tender, suspenseful and informed meditation on action and thought in the cultivated realms of East Coast America following the Civil War. Dickinson knew some of the people Benfey describes, such as her epistolary friend, the painter Mabel Loomis Todd, and her epistolary mentor, the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who found her so intense a personality that he could barely tolerate the brief time he spent with her). But she had no contact with others, such as Mark Twain and Henry James. Because so few of her poems were published in her lifetime, they probably never knew of her existence.

What many of America's leading writers and artists shared, Benfey contends, during that transitional period between the end of the Civil War and the full exploitation of industrial powers we call, in the phrase coined by Mark Twain, "the Gilded Age," was a fascination with certain literary and poetic images of personal freedom.

Sometimes these images were based in wild nature. For example, hummingbirds, so persistent in the canvases of Martin Johnson Heade, embodied a kind of heartbeating liberty that represented a prelapsarian innocence, an ideal conjunction of impulse and action that was considered both glamorously evanescent and fortuitously local to the Americas. (Even the satirical Twain could become an earnest aesthete before a Heade painting of a Nicaraguan lagoon.)

Sometimes the images were based on human nature. The Romantic rule-breaking of Lord Byron's Promethean life, as well as his poetic expression, ensorcelled individuals as unlike as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry James. Byron's 1816 poem "The Prisoner of Chillon" -- about a man languishing for six years in a castle dungeon who kept himself sane through his glimpses of the sky and fleeting encounters with birds, and who, upon being granted freedom, left his monastic situation reluctantly -- became a touchstone.

Before the Civil War, Benfey also suggests, a culture of decorum restrained most urges toward more personal freedom. However, given the war's devastation and the context of the country's growing obsessions with material goods and mechanical processes, social institutions (such as marriage) lost authority against the exigencies of passion. Impulses formerly held in check were unleashed, especially in artistic circles, where the border between imaginative liberty and behavioral license can be thin indeed.

Benfey explains that he was setting out to write "a complicated memoir" when the idea for this book waylaid him, and he seems to have retained here the complexity and passion of whatever he put aside. The "summer" of the title, toward which everyone's story rushes to commingle, like a confluence of rivers, occurred in the year 1882, when Mabel Loomis Todd and Dickinson's brother, Austin -- both married to others and parents of small children -- became lovers, and when Emily Dickinson, then 51, entertained the doubly joyous prospect of marriage to her longtime admirer, Judge Otis Lord, and publication of her poems in a book (neither of which were to be). It was also the season when Todd broke the heart of the lifelong bachelor Heade (who, at 64, mended and married another woman) -- a season of high passions. Later that year, on Dec. 6, the very universe participated in what might be termed a celestial affair by way of the Transit of Venus, when the planet could be observed passing across the face of the sun.

Benfey's final chapter is devoted to a critical analysis of the enigmatic yet severely beautiful 1950s boxed constructions in homage to Emily Dickinson by the New York artist and filmmaker Joseph Cornell. 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. ยท

Mindy Aloff is the editor of the anthology "Dance Anecdotes" and the author of the forthcoming "Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing In Disney Animation." She teaches at Barnard College.

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