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At the close of the Civil War, a unique moment in US culture

The hummingbird became the symbol of an era for 19th-century America.

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In the summer of 1882, Martin Johnson Heade, an American painter known for his remarkable paintings of hummingbirds, traveled to Amherst, Mass., in amorous pursuit of one of his students – heedless of the fact that she was a married woman. Her name was Mabel Todd and her husband was an astronomer working at Amherst College.

But Heade was destined for disappointment. Todd was already falling in love with another man. Her romantic interest – and, eventually, her lover – was Emily Dickinson’s married brother, Austin. Shortly after Heade’s arrival in Amherst, Todd was invited to play the piano at the Dickinson homestead. To thank Todd, Emily Dickinson sent her a poem – about a hummingbird.

In Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, intellectual and personal plotlines intersect, intertwine, collide, and finish by creating a delicate pattern. It was a relatively small world in the 19th century so perhaps it is not too surprising that the lives of the American intelligentsia of the time were so interconnected. But it is fascinating – and Benfey’s neatly pieced-together book makes for lively and moving reading.


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