Christopher Benfey has emerged over the past decade as a prolific critic, essayist, and author, whose reviews in the New York Times Book Review,the New Republic,and the Times Literary Supplementhave established him as a distinguished contemporary arbiter of modern and late twentieth-century American literature.
His interests and scholarship transcend academic disciplines, however--ranging from art and literature to social history. In addition to his work on literary figures and movements, Benfey, who is well known as an Emily Dickinson scholar, has served as an art critic for the online magazine Slateand is the author of a critically acclaimed book on French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas. He has even explored the world of fashion photography: his article on fashion photographer Helmut Newton appeared in the "Fashions of the Times" section of the New York Times Magazinein 1998.
A professor of English at Mount Holyoke, Benfey has written two books on Emily Dickinson and a biography of Stephen Crane--the latter named a "notable book of the year" by the New York Times.His most recent work, Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable(Knopf), was named one of the ten most important books of 1997 by the Chicago Tribuneand was issued in paperback last March.
Degas in New Orleans,which was prominently reviewed in the Tribune,the Washington Post,the Boston Globe,and the New Orleans Times Picayune,and featured in articles in the New York Timesand the Wall Street Journal,provides a revelatory glimpse of nineteenth-century New Orleans, its distinctive Creole culture, and Degas's visit there in 1872 as the city was recovering from the Civil War. Degas painted key works there, and visited with family members during his brief sojourn. In his book, Benfey explores the little-known facts of Degas's history.
The artist's mother, for example, was born in New Orleans, and first cousins of hers were African Americans. "Benfey is the first to write about the black-white family connection," noted the Globereviewer. Benfey's book points out that Degas also had New Orleans relatives connected with a prominent white supremacist league. Critics praised Benfey for his rigor in portraying a racially conflicted city in the confusing postwar era.
Benfey's thoughts of late have turned north to New England. This summer he authored a prominent review in the New York Timeson a new biography of Robert Frost, and his current research concerns cultural exchange between New England and Japan during the Gilded Age. Benfey's book on this subject is under contract by Random House, and he is spending this year working on it under a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.