The Woman in White

The Riddle we can guess

We speedily despise.

—Emily Dickinson (1222)

A mysterious “confluence of hummingbirds” is the starting point for Christopher Benfey’s engagingly impressionistic work of literary and cultural criticism, focusing on the summer of 1882 when Americans as gifted and temperamentally disparate as Emily Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, and Mabel Todd and Martin Johnson Heade seem to have become “fanatical” about hummingbirds:

They wrote poems and stories about hummingbirds; they painted pictures of hummingbirds; they tamed wild hummingbirds and collected stuffed hummingbirds; they set music to the humming of hummingbirds; they waited impatiently through the winter months for the hummingbirds’ return.

In addition to what Benfey calls his “motley assemblage” of dramatis personae he has also included Mark Twain, Henry James, John Greenleaf Whittier, the capitalist investor Henry Morrison Flagler, the suffragette activist Victoria Woodhull, and the twentieth-century artist Joseph Cornell; there is even room in this leisurely constructed narrative for an exploration and exegesis of the Gilded Age phenomenon of the lavish “hotel-world” of South Florida. As if to suggest an aestheticism seemingly at odds with our more customary sense of American pragmatism and Puritanism, Benfey begins his book with a curious epigraph from John Ruskin—

I have wasted my life with mineralogy, which has led to nothing. Had I devoted myself to birds, their life and plumage, I might have produced something myself worth doing. If I could only have seen a hummingbird fly, it would have been an epoch in my life.

—and he includes in his final chapter a passage of adulatory prose from Henry James describing the gigantic Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, in 1905, by all reports a bizarre Disneyland of conspicuous consumption:

It is difficult to render the intensity with which one felt the great sphere of the hotel close round one, covering one in as with high shining crystal walls, stretching out beneath one’s feet an immeasurable polished level, revealing itself in short as, for the time, for the place, the very order of nature and the very form, the only one, of the habitable world.

All of which is to argue, the reader surmises, that the post–Civil War/pre–World War I America of which Benfey writes bears a significant relationship to fin de siècle English culture, and that the individuals whom Benfey discusses—Emily Dickinson, for one, of whom it’s said by her sister-in-law/neighbor Susan Dickinson that the reclusive Amherst poetess had not “any idea of morality”—are aesthetic epicureans of a sort, finding profound meaning in “routes of evanescence” unexpectedly akin to the Pateresque ideal of burning with a hard gem-like flame.

Christopher Benfey, poet, critic, and professor of literature at Mount Holyoke, whose previous critical works include
Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others (1984), Emily Dickinson: Lives of a Poet (1986), The Double Life of Stephen Crane (1994), The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening…

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