Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Book in Hand – A Summer of Hummingbirds

I’ve just finished reading a most interesting book: A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade by Christopher Benfey. It seems serendipitous that I should have spotted this on the new book shelf at the Farmington Public Library at a time when I have been curious about Emily Dickinson and the people in her life.

I’ve always been sympathetic to Dickinson’s poetry, but my interest in her as a person was sparked this summer during the 2008 CONCORA Summer Festival, where the festival chorus, under the direction of Richard Coffey, gave the Connecticut premiere of A Heart in Hiding, choral settings by Gwyneth Walker of what she calls “the passionate love poems of Emily Dickinson.” The professional ensemble CONCORA (of which I am a member) performed the set on the October 19 "American Voices" concert, with Dr. Walker in the audience.

Dr. Walker’s grouping and interpretation of these “passionate” poems gave me pause. I had never really considered Dickinson as a lover, either as the object of passion or as the active partner in a romantic relationship. I confess that I was skeptical of Walker’s collation and interpretation of these poems; they seemed to me to be spiritual rather than romantic. Dickinson’s appropriation of frankly spiritual, even theological language, accomplished perhaps what she intended, to screen, to conceal, to deflect. I found it particularly challenging to prepare program notes for these settings for the CONCORA Summer Festival.

Now, after having done more reading and study (in particular this book, A Summer of Hummingbirds), and having had the chance to work with Walker’s settings for the past few months, I have developed a better understanding of Emily Dickinson and many of her poems; I would write very different program notes now than I did several months ago. Not that my earlier notes were wrong; rather, they were not as complete as I would have liked them to be. I did not to delve too much into Walker’s musical interpretation since I was not convinced that I understood it.

In A Summer of Hummingbirds, author Christopher Benfey explores some surprising parallels and connections between and among the lives of writers Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), and Mark Twain (1835-1910) and artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), and uses these connections as a means to illuminate and analyze trends in art, philosophy, and popular culture in the years following the American Civil War. Benfey offers fascinating insights, connections, and anecdotes about these important thinkers and artists and some of the ideas and loves they held in common.

Much of the “action” of the book oscillated between Amherst (Massachusetts), where I once lived, and Hartford (Connecticut), near where I live now, so I felt many personal connections, too.

Though I found this book fascinating from beginning to end, by the time I reached the final pages, I was uncomfortably aware of the very fragile threads that Benfey found — or spun — to weave his narrative together. I sensed the essential rightness of his basic premise: that these particular thinkers had much in common, and that their work reflected and articulated many of the ideas and themes prevalent in the culture of the time. However, some of his conclusions seem to be more conjectural than factual, and the book seems to be an expression of Benfey’s wishful fantasies about this group rather than a solid analysis of a substantial body of evidence. It might have been better treated as a substantial article rather than a full-length book. (As I often do, I question the role, knowledge, and efficacy of this book’s editor, who did not wield a strong-enough hand in challenging Benfey’s assumptions and helping him to create a stronger overall narrative.)
Still, I found here much food for thought. I also appreciated being introduced to the life and work of artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), whose paintings of hummingbirds and orchids brought the heat and shimmer of the tropics home to his war-weary compatriots (see example here, Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds, 1871, National Gallery of Art).

As always, the more I learn, the more questions I have… so it’s off to the library again. Yes, there is an abundance of good information available online, but I will never give up the delights to be found in browsing at the library, nor will I ever give up the tactile pleasure of the book in hand.

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