The Civil War was a watershed in American history. Before the war, American life was built upon a series of religious and social truths few people questioned. After the war, America began its transformation into the modern world, and the pre-war certainties gave way to doubt and instability. The exploding growth of the Gilded Age following the Civil War was accompanied by intellectual tremors set off by Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and other skeptics of inherited Calvinist ideas. Historians have charted this transformation in the second half of the nineteenth century in a number of different ways, but in A Summer of Hummingbirds, Christopher Benfey has found a unique expression of the change.
He follows a group of American artists and writers linked by family and friendship, tracing their responses to the changing postbellum world through their poetry and art, their motifs and metaphors, and in particular the striking image of the hummingbird. “In science and in art, in religion and in love, they came to see a new dynamism and movement in their lives, a brave new world of instability and evanescence. This dynamism, in all aspects of life, found perfect expression in the hummingbird.”
Benfey divides his study into three parts: from conflict (images of the Civil War), through confinement (images of prison), to release (images of flight or of escape). Part One is called “An Oblique War,” from a phrase Emily Dickinson used in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1863, and focuses on the effects of the Civil War on this group of writers and artists. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin that President Abraham Lincoln claimed had started the Civil War, had a son, Captain Fredric Stowe, permanently wounded in the war in 1863. Stowe was drawn to the image of the fragile hummingbird, and in fact she painted one in 1864, a figure, Benfey suggests, that may have reminded the writer of her vulnerable son. The war was actually a stimulant to Dickinson, for she produced many of her greatest poems in a burst of creative energy during the war, although most would not be published until after her death. Her famous line “I taste a liquor never brewed,” for example, was written in 1861; the hummingbird narrator of the poem was for Dickinson a figure of “ecstasy,” Benfey writes; the same figure for Stowe was one of “vulnerability.” Henry Ward Beecher, the most famous minister in America, and the brother of Harriet, collected stuffed hummingbirds, while the artist Martin Johnson Heade in 1863 headed to Brazilwhere the greatest number of species of hummingbirds livedto try to become the John Jay Audubon of the bird.
Part Two, “At the Hotel Byron,” opens with Stowe on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the setting for Lord Byron’s popular 1816 poem “The Prisoner of Chillon,” which tells the story of the sixteenth century hero of Swiss independence, François Bonnivard, who was imprisoned for six years in the Castle of Chillon, and, when released, hesitated to leave his familiar dungeon. The romantic Byron was a favorite with American readers. “He represented, with his passions and his flair, an escape from the prison of Puritan repression,” Benfey suggests. Lyman Beecher (Harriet and Henry’s father) preached a funeral sermon when the poet died in 1824, while Harriet called his popularity in America “Byronic fever,” modeled the heroic Augustine St. Clare in Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the poet, and later published a book-length defense of the wife abandoned by the poet, titled Lady Byron Vindicated (1870). Henry James used Chillon as a crucial setting in his novella Daisy Miller (1879), when the title character visits the castle with a potential suitor. Finally, Mark Twain made fun of the castle and its famous prisoner in his narrative of travel through Europe, A Tramp Abroad (1880), claiming Bonnivard should have amused...
(The entire section is 1615 words.)