Too Few Butterflies
From LA Review of Books:
There were too few butterflies in Atlanta for Vladimir Nabokov’s tastes. In a letter to his wife Vera (dated October 11, 1942), the astute lepidopterist complained that the city was too far above sea level (1,000 feet) to do much in the way of butterfly catching. Nabokov was in Atlanta as part of a speaking engagement at Spelman, the historically black liberal arts college for women. Nabokov spent a total of six days at Spelman, during which he gave a series of lectures on the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (whose maternal great-grandfather was African), suffered through daily prayers and southern hymns (he was an avowed atheist), and took a group of students butterfly hunting on the college grounds. The highlight of his trip was giving a keynote lecture, “Pushkin the Poet. Pushkin the Man,” in which he spoke of the poet’s African lineage, saying, “[Pushkin] provides a most striking example of mankind at its very best when human races are able to freely mix.”
Nabokov spent 20 years in the United States (1940–1960), achieving his greatest literary successes with the novels Lolita, Pnin, and Pale Fire. Though born in St. Petersburg, educated at Cambridge University, and based for two decades in continental Europe, Nabokov eventually came to regard himself as an American writer; in a 1967 interview with The Paris Review, Nabokov exclaimed, “I am as American as April in Arizona,” though he stopped short, due to his indebtedness to Russian culture, from becoming “emotionally involved in, say, American regional literature, or Indian dances, or pumpkin pie on a spiritual plane.” Hesitations about pumpkin pie aside, Nabokov became an insightful critic of American culture, an outsider who, precisely because he stood apart, was especially adept at satirizing middle-class American kitsch, with its aspirational consumerism and insecurity about its own youth. John Updike famously said Nabokov “rediscovered our monstrosity.”
Most of what we know about Nabokov’s “American years” took place in the isolating cocoons of New England and mid-Atlantic college campuses; he taught Russian literature at Wellesley from 1941 to 1948 and at Cornell University (where he lectured to none other than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg) from 1948 to 1959. This invites a question: Can we truly consider Nabokov an important cultural critic of American life, if the canvas of his imagined American landscape covers only a small sliver of posh New England schools and the trivialities of white upper-middle-class ennui? In other words, to what extent could Nabokov have really “rediscovered our monstrosity” if he never took on the United States’s greatest claim to monstrousness — racism? The materials from Nabokov’s Spelman trip help to close this circle, revealing not only the author’s opinions regarding Jim Crow segregation, but also his fascination with the highly sexualized nature of American racist discourse and public policy, which were fueled by anxieties about race mixing.