MHC Benfey's New Book Wins Wide Praise

Monday, June 23, 2008 - 11:30

Posted: June 23, 2008

English professor and acclaimed art and literary critic Christopher Benfey's new look at late 19th-century American artists and writers has gained widespread notice.

A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, published earlier this year by Penguin, focuses on Amherst, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1882 and the literary and artistic talents circling in, through, and around that town.

"In this meticulously researched and creatively imagined work," according to the publisher's description, "Benfey takes the seemingly arbitrary image of the hummingbird and traces its 'route of evanescence' as it travels in circles to and from the creative wellsprings of the age: from the naturalist writings of abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson to the poems of his wayward pupil Emily Dickinson; into the mind of Henry Ward Beecher and within the writings and paintings of his famous sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. A Summer of Hummingbirds unveils how, through the art of these great thinkers, the hummingbird became the symbol of an era, an image through which they could explore their controversial (and often contradictory) ideas of nature, religion, sexuality, family, time, exoticism, and beauty."

The book has netted praise in numerous venues including the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, LA Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. National Public Radio posted an excerpt of the tome on its Website, along with a recording of Benfey reading and discussing Emily Dickinson's "A Route of Evanescence."

A June 20 Chronicle of Higher Education feature on Benfey quoted a number of critics and scholars on the new work, including Morris Dickstein:

"Morris Dickstein, a cultural critic and English professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, praises Benfey more generally as 'a gifted and versatile critic,' citing Benfey's forthcoming collection, American Audacity: Literary Essays North and South (University of Michigan Press, fall 2008). Benfey, he says, 'makes unexpected juxtapositions that reflect his broad range of interests: Northern and Southern writers, American and Asian culture, literature and the visual arts, as in his fine book on Degas in New Orleans.'

"'This used to be called comparative literature before it was expropriated by theory,' Dickstein says. 'Now it's one-of-a-kind, the work of an idiosyncratic man of letters, following his own nose, sometimes whimsically, and opening up obscure corners of art and cultural history to a general audience.'"

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