When good ideas don’t reach fruition — “A Summer of Hummingbirds..” by Christopher Benfey
Sometimes, it’s because the bookstore ordered too many copies.
But sometimes, it’s because the book simply never caught on, due to whatever forces.
“A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade” is one of those books.
On a recent trip to Barnes & Noble, I stopped by the bargain section, and it caught my eye. (Books about authors are always interesting to me.) Being that it was $6.00, I bought it on the spot.
While a sweet idea, the hummingbird thread that is supposed to connect all these notables eventually wears thin and just breaks. In the time period of the civil war, Hummingbirds were all the rage. Everyone liked them, not just these specific famous people of the era. The specific people he calls out all moved in a sort of vague and wide-ranging social circle (mainly, they all have ties to New England, it seems.)
However, there’s no grand explosive theory here to make the book a blockbuster. Benfey has researched these people and these times in minute detail, but alas… the very concept he’s working from isn’t that interesting.
It’s really a book about what a few noted people were doing over the course of a few years before, during, and after The Civil War.
Dickinson is, as always, written as hermit-like and practically a saint. Twain actually barely appears – which is a shame, as by nature he’s an interesting dude. By far, the most interesting figure of the book (and the information I enjoyed the most) was about Harriet Beecher Stowe. Other than knowing she wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” I knew nothing of her life, which was pretty fantastic and interesting. She had a war-veteran son vanish, as well as a friendship with Lady Byron (who’s story she tried to tell during a time when the world was feeling Byron-fever.) If there was a book about Stowe and her crazy life, I’d be curious to read that. Unfortunately, the coverage of her in this book is all-too-brief, thanks to the other plots it’s trying to follow.
Frankly, though it’s charming in places, this book is a little bit like a train of thought that starts off promising but winds up amounting to not much. This is unfortunate, because it starts off with such incredible promise.
Was reading it a waste of time? Absolutely not. Benfey is a historian and there’s things to be learned here.
However, alas, it was far from a riveting read.