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The Most Famous
Lepidopterist in the World
Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime — but I never expected it to be a source of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum.
— Strong Opinions
Lepidoptery, the branch of science dedicated to the study of butterflies and moths, has its own legendary figures, and its history is both long and glorious. But for lepidopterists, as in fact for most entomologists, the light of celebrity seldom shines outside a narrow but passionate circle of scientists and collectors.
During the Age of Exploration, when the influx of exotic new plants and animals from the four corners of a seemingly boundless globe astounded Europe, the study of biology, often a preserve of the well-born, offered a path to wealth and fame. Sir Joseph Banks, the eighteenth-century English biologist who accompanied Captain James Cook on his three-year circumnavigation aboard the British ship Endeavour, was a friend of King George III and one of the most famous men of his day. In the next century, Baron Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian nobleman who pioneered the study of South America's vast flora and fauna, was considered by many of his contemporaries to be, after Napoleon, the most famous man in Europe.
For natural biologists of the twentieth century however, thestory takes on a different complexion. In 1973 the Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch shared a Nobel Prize (the only entomologist ever to have won such recognition) for deciphering the honeybees' intricate food dance, the ritualistic motions a worker bee uses to convey the exact location of sources of nectar, pollen, and water, even miles away, to the rest of the hive. Von Frisch's work caught the public imagination for a while, but today few nonscientists even remember his name. Other researchers, too, have claimed a share of the limelight. Edward O. Wilson, for example, has become a recognizable public-television personality on the strength of his popular writings on ants and his influential work on the biodiversity crisis. And the lively meditations of the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould on everything from dinosaurs to baseball have enshrined him among the media's most reliable scientific pundits. But for the most part today's entomologists, and certainly the lepidopterists among them, toil along with little public recognition. "Lepidopterists are obscure scientists. Not one is mentioned in Webster," explained one of their number, the novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov.
Nabokov himself was a peculiar case. In 1999, the centennial of his birth in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nabokov is known mostly as the Cornell University literature professor who in the 1950s wrote Lolita, a serious novel with a salacious reputation and an underaged heroine whose name filled a semantic gap in the English language. But he was much, much more.
In fact, Lolita was only a part of a literary career that reached back to the 1920s and across two continents. Along with seventeen novels, he wrote poems, plays, film screenplays, and stories, some in Russian, some in English, but all with the same distinctive flair for language and imagination -- an astounding bilingual achievement.
In some ways Nabokov's popular literary reputation reached a peak in the 1960s, but he maintains a passionate and distinguished following, and there are many signs of a resurgence. In academic circles Nabokov is increasingly mentioned in the company of such lights as Marcel Proust and James Joyce. Three scholarly journals are devoted to his life and works. There is a Nabokov web site, called Zembla, after the imaginary kingdom in his novel Pale Fire. In the last several years a remake of the film Lolita has been the controversial subject of wide media attention. In 1998 the editorial board of the Random House Modern Library, in a highly discussed list, ranked Lolita the fourth-best English-language novel of the twentieth century, ahead of anything written by William Faulkner, Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, or Saul Bellow; according to some of the participants, Lolita was actually ranked first by more of the invited judges than any other work. Pale Fire occupied the fifty-third spot on the same list. Nabokov's Speak, Memory is another masterpiece, one of the most celebrated of modern literary memoirs; it ranked eighth on the Modern Library's nonfiction list, making Nabokov the only author with a book in the top ten of each. Furthermore, some critics believe that The Gift, written during the 1930s, is the century's best Russian-language novel. And in the world of scholarship Nabokov's massive four-volume translation of and commentary on Pushkin's great poem Eugene Onegin, which he published in 1964, is still the most authoritative.
These are only a few of the highlights of his work, yet as impressive as Nabokov's writings are, his biography is almost equally intriguing. In outline Nabokov's life story seems almost like a fairy tale. His birth into a stupendously wealthy family of Russian nobles and a blessedly happy childhood and youth were followed by the loss of nearly all possessions, expulsion from home, and the violent death of his beloved father. Then came decades of relative anonymity, the precarious struggles of exile, and a demanding career as a college teacher at Wellesley and Cornell, before the great reward in the fullness of years, somewhat incongruously in Nabokov's case, the particular kind of fame that only American popular culture can bestow. And, for the epic touch, his was a life played out against a background of some of the greatest social and political upheavals of the twentieth century: Nabokov was driven out of Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and then, twenty-five years later, out of Europe by the Nazis. These experiences supplied the author with one of his major literary themes: the poignant absurdity of the exile.
Despite the brilliant résumé, for most of his career Nabokov wrote in comparative obscurity, first for the small and fragmented world of the Russian emigration and later for a narrow, though ardent, readership in English. Until 1958, the "year of grace," when Lolita was published in the United States, Nabokov was unable to support himself solely on his literary creations. But suddenly the little girl and her creator became international sensations.
A small circle of admirers was already aware of yet another strange and wondrous facet of Nabokov's life: that he collected and studied butterflies and had published articles on lepidoptery in scientific journals; that he was an acknowledged expert on a group of butterflies called Blues, and even that he had held an official position at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. An entire chapter of his memoirs, which were published serially in The New Yorker magazine beginning in the late 1940s, had been devoted to his love of butterflies, and Time, Vogue, and other magazines had sent photographers to capture him at work at his desk in the museum. As word spread that lepidoptery had provided for a steady stream of themes, metaphors, background, and incidental detail of much of Nabokov's literary production, including Lolita, his engagement with butterflies became an irresistible sidelight of his fame.
Throughout his literary career Nabokov had reserved lepidoptery as a potential alternative profession. He told interviewers that, if not for the Russian Revolution, he might indeed have been a full-time professional lepidopterist. As it was, even after he became an international superstar of literature, he ranked lepidoptery as one of his three professions, along with teaching and literature. "My passion for lepidopterological research, in the field, in the laboratory, in the library, is even more pleasurable than the study and practice of literature, which is saying a good deal" he told an interviewer in 1966.
This double fascination for literature and lepidoptery took on mythical proportions among his admirers and was interpreted as a reversion to the Leonardo archetype of the scientist-artist, a distinct oddity in the late twentieth century. There was lofty talk of the mystical places where art and science meet. Academics and journalists alike enthusiastically seized on this curious side of the exotic author, and often Nabokov, butterfly net in hand, just as enthusiastically obliged with a collector's pose in cloth cap, shorts and high socks.
In fact, Nabokov seemed to regard himself as sort of public ambassador of lepidoptery. As early as 1951, when he had already established a modest literary reputation, Life magazine asked him for assistance on a projected article about his collecting. Nabokov responded enthusiastically, suggesting suitable quarry and collecting sites in the American West, his favorite hunting grounds:
All these western butterflies can make wonderful pictures and such pictures have never been taken before. Some fascinating photos might be also taken of me, a burly but agile man, stalking a rarity or sweeping it into my net from a flowerhead, or capturing it in midair. There is a special professional twist of the wrist immediately after the butterfly has been netted which is quite fetching. Then you could show my finger and thumb delicately pinching the thorax of a netted butterfly through the gauze of the netbag. And of course the successive stages of preparing the insect on a setting board have never yet been shown the way I would like them to be shown. All this might create a sensation in scientific and nature-lover circles besides being pleasing to the eye of a layman. I must stress the fact that the whole project as you see it has never been attempted before.
To be sure, Nabokov no doubt appreciated the latent possibilities for literary self-promotion, but his personal desire to court a wider audience for his lepidoptery was pure and authentic, and it survived to the end of his life, well after any need for the financial rewards that publicity might bring had vanished. Images of him on the hunt are familiar to his readers today. A photograph of an intensely focused Nabokov, age sixty-six, net at the ready, by Philippe Halsman for an article in the Saturday Evening Post, taken from the perspective of the invisible prey, has become a literary icon. It is probably the most famous photograph of the author, but it is only one fragment of the evidence of the public's enchantment with his quirky pursuit. Brian Boyd, Nabokov's principal biographer, could write that, by the end of 1959, Nabokov had become the most famous lepidopterist in the world.
Amid the adulation, however, one glaring fact stood out. It was impossible for most people to know what to make of all this. Journalism could offer little guidance, beyond reciting Nabokov's professional affiliations. Lepidoptery, like much natural science, stands outside the experience of most journalists, as of most of the readers of his literature. On one level there was the simple question of how serious Nabokov was about butterflies. For reasons that will become apparent, it was really only in the 1990s that an answer to that question was possible for the large majority of interested readers; one of the many glories of Brian Boyd's two-volume biography, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, published in 1990 and '91, respectively, is that it clears up any doubts about the author's profoundly serious and dedicated attitude. Before that even readers well-disposed to Nabokov had to make of his lepidoptery what they would, as many still do. Most are merely bemused or perplexed. The benevolent are free to see the harmless eccentricity of a crank, while the most uncomprehending critics have detected an elaborate, self-serving literary pose.
Most admirers of his literary works are sufficiently versed in language and literature to make their own judgments about the caliber of Nabokov's literary accomplishments. But while no one who has looked even casually into Boyd's biography can now doubt the seriousness of his science, few have the expertise to judge the work for themselves. Was Nabokov a true scholar of Lepidoptera, or merely a dilettante whose contributions were remarkable? Many might assume that the answer to that question is a hard and fast one, and that the question could be answered simply by canvassing a few experts. This is not at all the case; his attainments are a matter of some disagreement among scientists, and his reputation in science, like his reputation in literature, has fluctuated over the years. Moreover, in science as in art, the judgments of individuals often reflect personal prejudices, inclinations, and points of view. In Nabokov's case they are also affected to some degree by the social history of science in America.
A cardinal point in many of the discussions of Nabokov's lepidoptery is that, whatever his accomplishments, he attained them without benefit of formal training. He had no degree in biology, and as a lepidopterist he was self-taught, having studied butterflies from the early years of his childhood, a passion he described in incomparable images in Speak, Memory. His first published work in English was in fact a slender article about butterflies, "A Few Notes on Crimean Lepidoptera," which appeared in one of his favorite magazines, The Entomologist, in 1920, while he was a student of French and Russian at Cambridge University during the first years of his family's exile.
For much of his adult life in Europe, Nabokov had set aside time, when he could, to visit the continent's museums and, more rarely, to collect. Toward the end of 1940, soon after arriving in the United States and despite the exigencies of finding a way to support himself, he wasted no time in heading to the American Museum of Natural History in New York with an unusual butterfly he had taken on the flowery slopes above the village of Moulinet, in the Maritime Alps of France. He was given free access to the collections and helped along in his research.
And then, in 1941, after taking up a lectureship at Wellesley College, he stopped at the nearby Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University to visit the lepidopterological collection. Finding the specimens ill-organized and poorly protected in glassless trays, he presented himself to Nathan Banks, the head of the Entomological Department, and volunteered to straighten up the collection. That association soon turned into a modest formal position, a part-time research fellowship that made him the museum's de facto curator of Lepidoptera. His starting salary of $1,000 a year eventually rose to $1,200, and the job lasted until 1948, when he accepted a professorship at Cornell University.
Although his Harvard contract required Nabokov to work only three half days a week, the research he chose to pursue involved long, grueling hours; at one point he told his friend, the writer and literary critic Edmund Wilson, that he was spending as much as fourteen hours a day on entomology, all sandwiched between his responsibilities of teaching at Wellesley and the labors of his writing. Yet Nabokov later described those years at the Museum of Comparative Zoology as "the most delightful and thrilling in all my adult life." During this period lepidoptery often seemed to eclipse literature for primacy in Nabokov's heart; according to Brian Boyd, his wife, Véra, more than once had to turn him gently away from entomology and remind him of his other ambitions. It was also during his tenure there that he researched his most elaborate and significant scientific work, upon which his reputation as a professional lepidopterist rests. As in much that involves Nabokov and his lepidoptery, the best description of what he did at the museum is by Nabokov himself, in a letter he wrote to his sister Elena Sikorski in 1945:
My museum — famous throughout America (and throughout what used to be Europe) — is the Museum of Comparative Zoology, a part of Harvard University, which is my employer. My laboratory occupies half of the fourth floor. Most of it is taken up by rows of cabinets, containing sliding cases of butterflies. I am custodian of these absolutely fabulous collections. We have butterflies from all over the world; many are type specimens (i.e., the very same specimens used for the original descriptions, from the 1840's until today). Along the windows extend tables holding my microscopes, test tubes, acids, papers, pins, etc. I have an assistant, whose main task is spreading specimens sent by collectors. I work on my personal research, and for more than two years now have been publishing piecemeal a study of the classification of the American "blues" based on the structure of their genitalia (minuscule sculpturesque hooks, teeth, spurs, etc., visible only under a microscope), which I sketch in with the aid of various marvelous devices, variants of the magic lantern.... My work enraptures but utterly exhausts me; I have ruined my eyesight, and wear horn-rimmed glasses.
The most sublime joy associated with this work came from the butterfly-hunting trips to the West that he took every summer. Nabokov, who never learned to drive a car, estimated that in the glory years, between 1949 and 1959, Véra drove him more than 150,000 miles all over North America, mostly on butterfly trips. Those expeditions have taken on the aura of legend among lepidopterists as well as Nabokov's literary admirers, and such trips were a habit he maintained, with only the geographic scenes shifting, for the rest of his life.
Nabokov was widely acknowledged as a great collector. The several thousands of captures he made between 1940 and 1960, the years he spent in America, are now part of the collections of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (now known as the Museum of Cultural and Natural History), the American Museum of Natural History, the Cornell University Museum of Entomology, and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, including, he proudly wrote in Speak, Memory, great rarities and types (the crucial single specimens by which species are defined). The thousands of butterflies that Nabokov caught in Europe between his move from the United States to Switzerland in 1959 and his death in 1977 are now stored as a unified, independent collection at the Cantonal Museum of Zoology of Lausanne.
As a collector Nabokov was joyfully promiscuous. As a scientist, however, he specialized in Blues, a widespread group of small butterflies known today as the tribe Polyommatini, a part of the lycaenid family. Actually the name Blues is somewhat misleading, because many of them are other colors, including brown, white, and gray. Blues are found on every continent where there are butterflies (that is to say, every one but Antarctica). Historically, they have lacked prestige among both academics and amateur collectors; though certainly never short of a few enthusiasts they do not enjoy the public following of the showy, exotic butterflies like Swallowtails, the iridescent blue Morphos, or velvety green, blue, and orange Birdwings.
Between 1941 and 1952 Nabokov published eight articles on the Blue butterflies of the Western Hemisphere. Written in a highly technical format, they could mean little to nonscientists. Nabokov was right when he remarked later in his career that the articles, per se, could be of interest only to a few specialists. Admirers of his literature had to turn to other sources to learn what his lepidoptery was about. But those sources could be baffling, and for that Nabokov himself and certain aspects of his personality must bear some of the blame. Nabokov the man, like Nabokov the author, was a playful spirit with a twinkle in his eye, a prankster who liked to test the character of the people he met with comic inventions presented seriously, or with straight opinion and unvarnished truth expressed under the protective cover of a wink. He was also well aware of the ludicrous impression butterfly hunters made on ordinary people, and of the absurdity inherent in the sight of a grown man in a summer-camp garb swinging a net at tiny insects flitting through some weeds. But if anything he relished the serious pleasure he took in every aspect of lepidoptery all the more for the absurdist mask it sometimes wore, and he exploited this paradox time and time again in his literature and in his relations with the public.
Nabokov's irrepressible humor was much in evidence in June 1959, when Robert H. Boyle, a reporter for Sports Illustrated, tagged along with him on a collecting outing at Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona. The resulting article, a notable incidence of genre stretching by the magazine, appeared the following September. Amid other antics, like setting the clock ahead — so he said — to fool Véra into making an earlier start, Nabokov remarked to Boyle: "When I was younger, I ate some butterflies in Vermont to see if they were poisonous. I didn't see any difference in a Monarch butterfly and a Viceroy. The taste of both was vile, but I had no ill effects. They tasted like almonds and perhaps a green cheese combination. I ate them raw. I held one in one hot little hand and one in the other. Will you eat some with me tomorrow for breakfast?" The joking, on this occasion and on others, was an inseparable part of Nabokov's personality, so much so that his biographer Boyd judged Boyle's article "perhaps our finest moment-by-moment image of Nabokov the man."
In the realm of literature, Speak, Memory, particularly Chapter 6, is an unforgettable chronicle of the birth of a lepidopterist's passion. But concentrating as it does on Nabokov's youth rather than his mature professional interest, it leaves the door open for misinterpretation of the role of butterflies in Nabokov's adult life, as if they were only a boyish pursuit. And one of its strongest messages is that lepidopterists are a class apart:
I ... found out very soon that a "lepist" indulging in his quiet quest was apt to provoke strange reactions in other creatures.... Stern farmers have drawn my attention to NO FISHING signs; from cars passing me on the highway have come wild howls of derision; sleepy dogs, though unmindful of the worst bum, have perked up and come at me, snarling; tiny tots have pointed me out to their puzzled mamas; broad-minded vacationists have asked me whether I was catching bugs for bait; and one morning on a wasteland, lit by tall yuccas in bloom, near Sante Fe, a big black mare followed me for more than a mile.
This theme of ostracism also appears in The Gift, although that novel contains Nabokov's strongest, most extensive, and most positive literary treatment of lepidopterological themes. The narrator, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, a writer and lepidopterist and the son of a great Russian naturalist-explorer, asks:
How many jeers, how many conjectures and questions have I had occasion to hear when, overcoming my embarrassment, I walked through the village with my net! "Well, that's nothing," said my father, "you should have seen the faces of the Chinese when I was collecting once on some holy mountain, or the look the progressive schoolmistress in a Volga town gave me when I explained to her what I was doing in that ravine."
Nabokov was always intensely close to his family, but in all other relationships he was temperamentally a loner. Boyd has noted that lepidoptery was but one of the odd-man-out guises of Nabokov's life, one of the solitary wayside nooks he chose to occupy. Another was the composing of chess problems, an art that calls for a different disposition than playing the game itself, and that the author himself associated with "glacial solitude." In soccer, another of his youthful passions, Nabokov practiced the eccentric art of the goalie, the man set apart from all other members of the team, a discipline "surrounded with a halo of singular glamour."
The marginalization of butterfly hunting carried over into some of Nabokov's interviews and personal and professional relations, too. In 1971, when he and the Australian writer and critic Andrew Field were discussing the possibility of a biography, Nabokov, according to Field, protested: "I told everything about myself in Speak, Memory, and it was not a very pleasant portrait. I appear as a precious person in that book. All that chess and those butterflies. Not very interesting."
But here and elsewhere Nabokov showed himself to be a master misleader. He once told an interviewer about butterflies in his fiction: "Whenever I allude to butterflies in my novels, no matter how diligently I reword the stuff, it remains pale and false and does not really express what I want it to express, what, indeed, it can only express in the special scientific terms of my entomological papers. The butterfly that lives forever on its type-labeled pin and in its O.D. ("original description") in a scientific journal dies a messy death in the fumes of the arty gush." That is a far better description of the work of journalists and others who have tried in vain to capture the sense of mystical ecstasy that Nabokov—and only Nabokov — conveyed when writing about lepidoptery.
Nabokov's ironic deprecation of his butterflies might have encouraged Field in his own predilections. Field's book, Vladimir Nabokov: His Life in Part, appeared in 1977, the year Nabokov died. This work, the first attempt at a full biography, reflects scant appreciation for lepidoptery, Nabokov's or anyone else's. Field's treatment of this aspect of Nabokov's life is cursory and noncommittal, almost an afterthought to what is in any case an extremely impressionistic biography. In assessing Nabokov's professional achievement, Field was content to quote briefly two unnamed lepidopterists. Each of those sources is quite perceptive, in his own way, but in the end Field failed not only to evaluate Nabokov's entomological achievement with any thoroughness but even to suggest what a significant and time-consuming role it played throughout the writer's career.
To be fair, if Field trivialized Nabokov's lepidoptery as an elaborate literary pose, Nabokov suggested this idea, too — even if only to dismiss it — in a thinly-veiled self-reference in his 1957 novel Pnin. In the novel two characters disturb a flock of Karner Blues, remarkable butterflies, and now sadly endangered, that Nabokov himself scientifically named and described. "`Pity Vladimir Vladimirovich is not here' remarked Chateau. `He would have told us all about these enchanting insects' `I have always had the impression that his entomology was merely a pose' `Oh No,' said Chateau."
This is not to say that Nabokov never dealt seriously with questions about lepidoptery; far from it. In the many interviews that he granted in the years after Lolita and for the rest of his life, there were routinely one or two de rigueur questions about lepidoptery, although they were seldom followed up with any perception. Nabokov hated live interviews, so he was in the habit of demanding that all questions be submitted in advance, to be answered in writing. The collective results are a basic source for understanding his mature attitude toward lepidoptery, but they remained scattered here and there until 1973, when many were collected in Strong Opinions, a book of Nabokov's interviews, reviews, and letters to the editor. And even here a careful reader must not take everything he says strictly at face value. In an interview in 1962, despite abundant and overwhelming proof to the contrary in Speak, Memory, in his fiction, and elsewhere, Nabokov could insist with a straight face that this interest in butterflies was "exclusively scientific."
In the atmosphere of incomprehension that surrounded Nabokov's lepidoptery, another misapprehension about his work came to distort the public's perception: the idea that there was some innate, perhaps psychological, connection between Nabokov's study of butterfly genitalia — a thoroughly routine technique crucial to the identification of many of the species he worked with — and the sexual content of his novels. This idea reared its head in a widely read article in the July-August 1986 issue of Harvard Magazine, "Nabokov's Blue Period," by Philip Zaleski. Zaleski employed the suggestive notions of "dismemberment" (more commonly known as dissection) and "impalement" (that is, the mounting of specimens) and referred to the butterfly genitalia Nabokov worked with at the Museum of Comparative Zoology as the "ravished limbs of love."
In addition, according to a caption in the article, "the anagrammatical dance of `incest' and `insect' suggests how intensely, for Nabokov, art and science intertwine at their roots." The novel this refers to, Ada, does involve both insects and incest, but in context this anagram passes fleetingly and can bear none of the weight Zaleski, or his caption writer, assigned it. Many writers, not just Zaleski, seem unable to resist such neo-Freudian connections. As distorted and overblown as this sort of thing is, it is widespread and can easily prevent the discussion of Nabokov's lepidoptery from advancing very far among a public that by and large even now chooses to treat Lolita as a tale of lurid prurience and thinks of Nabokov — a devoted family man — as a sort of repressed Humbert Humbert, the monster of the novel.
In the end Nabokov's admirers might expect no more from popularizing accounts of Nabokov's lepidoptery. But nonscientists, who tend to think of all science as a cut-and-dried craft, might be surprised to learn that over the years Nabokov's colleagues have shown a comparable ambivalence about his achievement; confused readers seeking easy explanations from that quarter have been to some extent disappointed. Here again Nabokov's own puckish humor is partly at fault. Clearly, he was considered a rather odd figure by those of his colleagues who did not know him well, and among the anecdotes about him circulated by lepidopterists, it is the jokes that have become immortal. For instance, the story is told about how, sometime after the initial success of Lolita, Nabokov was late for a lunch with some old colleagues from the Entomology Department of the natural history museum in New York. Upon arriving he blithely remarked, "I hope you don't think I had stopped to dally with some young girls."
But Nabokov's obvious talents were recognized by those lepidopterists with whom he came into contact. No scientist who has read his research articles could say that he was not technically competent, even brilliant. For years that understanding has formed the basis for the most respectful published judgments of his work, even in Field's biography. According to one of Field's sources:
He cannot be called one of the ranking authorities, but his work had weight. If he had devoted more time to his work in this field he almost certainly would have been a major figure.... There is general acceptance of his work and admiration for its thoroughness. It is not eccentric. Work in this field falls into a certain mold of reporting facts. If his treatment were not standard, he would have been thrown out, that is, his work would not have been taken seriously.
But despite his accomplishments, his published work, his tenure at the Museum of Comparative Zoology and his descriptions not only of new species but of new genuses as well (related species are grouped together in genuses), there have always been professional entomologists willing to dismiss Nabokov as a gifted amateur. On the one hand, his lack of formal training is often held against him. And, to be sure, Nabokov's output was not prolific by most standards. During his career he published some twenty-two lepidopterological articles, many of which were little more than notes or newspaper reviews of popular-interest books on butterflies. By contrast, to pick a couple of examples, Nathan Banks, the man who welcomed Nabokov to the Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1941, published more than four hundred research papers. So did Norman Denbeigh Riley, for much of this century the British Museum's Keeper of the Department of Entomology, who wielded great influence in the world of lepidoptery and who, as will be seen, played a regrettable role in the way a crucial part of Nabokov's work was treated in scientific circles.
In the realm of fiction, although it is fiction informed by thorough appreciation of the history of lepidoptery, Nabokov himself credited the nineteenth-century explorer-scientist Konstantin Godunov-Cherdyntsev, a hero of The Gift (and to some extent Nabokov's literary-lepidopterological alter ego) with hundreds of articles in entomological journals, in addition to a number of monumental multivolume works with names like "Lepidoptera Asiatica," and "The Butterflies and Moths of the Russian Empire." Nabokov, who was always supremely confident of his place in literature, was proud of his lepidoptery, and he certainly considered himself a professional, but he had no illusions about his relatively humble standing in the field at the time he did his work.
Still, those who see Nabokov as an amateur naturally tend to be guarded in expressing their opinion about an immensely popular writer. Perhaps the most public instance of such an assessment came in Zaleski's Harvard Magazine article. One of those interviewed for the article, Frank M. Carpenter, an emeritus professor of zoology at Harvard and an acquaintance of Nabokov, somewhat condescendingly commended Nabokov's enthusiasm for butterflies and described his job at the Museum of Comparative Zoology as "the first rung of the ladder" and "a bottom position." Carpenter was quoted as saying: "He was seriously interested in butterflies, but the level of his interest was that which we find in the majority of amateurs. Of course, within two or three species of the so-called Blues, he obviously knew what he was doing." Carpenter went on to connect Nabokov's interest with his background. "It's an Old World tradition, particularly in the wealthy families, to become naturalists at the amateur level. Going back a bit in history, almost anybody who had property would have a collection of butterflies. Indeed, if you go back far enough, almost all the work was done by amateurs."
This description of the European aristocratic tradition is essentially valid, and it is possible to see Nabokov as a twilight figure in that venerable line, as Carpenter seems to have been suggesting. Moreover, Carpenter's summation of Nabokov's professional standing isn't that far from Nabokov's own description in reply to the question "You're a professional lepidopterist?" in a BBC interview in 1962: "Yes, I'm interested in the classification, variation, evolution, structure, distribution, habits, of lepidoptera: this sounds very grand, but actually I'm an expert in only a very small group of butterflies. I have contributed several works on butterflies to the various scientific journals."
But in his edition of selected Nabokov letters published in 1989, Dmitri Nabokov, the author's son and the translator of many of his works, took exception to Carpenter's comments, calling them "bizarre" and finding in them evidence of the patronizing envy that he thought could be detected in some of his father's former friends and colleagues after his literary success. Dmitri Nabokov was much more approving of another assessment in the same article, that of Professor Deane Bowers, at the time the curator of Lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, who said that as a lepidopterist, Nabokov remained "at some level an amateur.... a professional in that he published in professional journals, but an amateur in that he didn't have a Ph.D. in biology, and didn't work full-time in entomology."
The son might have been far less happy with another statement of Bowers's, in an article published in The Boston Globe in January 1988 in connection with an exhibit on Nabokov and his work that she curated at the museum. "Essentially, he was a great amateur collector and a scientific naif," she was quoted as saying.
He couldn't have taught an entomology class; at the Museum of Comparative Zoology he was a preparator, mounting and classifying specimens. He was instrumental in the conservation of the Lepidoptera collection — spreading, pinning, and labeling butterflies belonging primarily to the genus Lycaeides. Nabokov also worked with incredible patience on the classification of a group of small butterflies within the lycaenid family known as "Blues." He relished the description of minute detail, although his understanding of the broader concepts of biology and evolution was cloudy. In Speak, Memory, for instance, he contradicts the known genetic basis of marvelous coincidences of mimicry. His twenty published papers are descriptive, and disclose impressive expertise; he was a unique delineator of lepidopteral detail; however, his scientific contributions never rose beyond the descriptive to the synthetic.
Elsewhere in the article the author maintained, "As a scientist he never demonstrated the essential professionalism (publications and so forth) necessary for recognition. What interested him, aside from the poetry of the insect realm employed in connection with prose patterns, was the link between science and art."
The articles in both Harvard Magazine and The Boston Globe had the effect of minimizing Nabokov's achievements, at least treating them with less dignity than Nabokov himself would have expected. But in context it seems unlikely that either Carpenter or Bowers meant to disparage him. Rather, both were voicing honest opinions that to some degree reflected the values of academic hierarchy and Nabokov's place in it. It might also be arguable that the difference in these quotations and the opinion of the anonymous lepidopterist quoted by Field is one of tone rather than substance. (Certainly, to be fair, away from the ears of the journalists, there are lepidopterists who say much worse, sometimes incomprehensibly and inexplicably worse. For example during the period of scientific research that led up to this book, one who will remain nameless, a Ukrainian with a substantial reputation and familiarity with lycaenids, expressed the vehement opinion that "Nabokov's work is nonsense; it is like his fiction — but science fiction.") But since Zaleski's article appeared in Harvard Magazine and The Boston Globe article was so closely connected with an exhibit on Nabokov's work, they seemed to carry an institutional stamp.
More important, the statements by Bowers and Carpenter and the offense taken by Dmitri Nabokov hint at some lepidopterological truths. The first and probably the most important is that Nabokov's scientific career resists summing up in quotable sound bites with little context.
The second is the freight that the word amateur can and does bear in scientific circles. For just this reason Nabokov's admirers sometimes justify his claim to professionalism by pointing to his salary at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. But such efforts in themselves suggest the extent to which the meaning of professionalism has been reduced to mere semantics, minimizing the complexity of Nabokov's position in the scientific community and skirting the question of the quality of his work. This is particularly so for the 1940s, an era in which the border between amateur and professional was much more fluid than it is in this day of extreme specialization. And, as will become evident throughout this book, the history of lepidoptery to this very day is full of researchers who have made significant contributions to the field without being full-time professionals.
Bowers's observation in The Boston Globe that Nabokov's contribution to science never rose above the descriptive to the synthetic raised a related consideration. Nabokov was not, and never tried to be, a theoretical biologist. In the terms of systematic biology he was a taxonomist, a scientist who classifies living things into the related groups on the basis of their physical structure, which in turn reveals secrets of their relationships and evolution; he was not strictly speaking a systematist; that is, a scientist who deals with questions of theory and methodology. (In more casual usage taxonomists can also be called systematists, but their concerns are nevertheless distinct from those of the theorists.) In this era of molecular biology and advanced genetics, taxonomists occupy a generally low status in the world of academic science, although this hasn't always been the case. Some negative judgments of Nabokov's abilities simply reflect this prejudice against the mundane business of classification; rather than judge his work, some scientists judge his line of work. Ironically, beyond slighting Nabokov, this attitude has now come to haunt modern biology. At a time when the world seems to be poised on the edge of a massive extinction of species, a threat becoming widely known as the biodiversity crisis, there so few taxonomists that hundreds of thousands of varieties of organisms seem destined to disappear before they are even described by science.
|Preface and Acknowledgments||xi|
|Part I||The Aurelian|
|1.||The Most Famous Lepidopterist in the World||3|
|2.||A Tricky Subject||29|
|3.||A Legendary Land||56|
|4.||Lumpers and Splitters||83|
|5.||A Life in Lepidoptery||110|
|Part II||The Searchers|
|6.||Scientists and Strategy||139|
|7.||The Incorrigible Continent||164|
|8.||The Vertical Landscape||185|
|9.||Finding the Frontiers||208|
|10.||Dancing with Fire||229|
|Part III||Nabokov's Blues|
|12.||The Race to Name Nabokov's Blues||277|
|13.||Literature and Lepidoptera||291|
|14.||Darwin's Finches--Nabokov's Blues||315|
|A Glossary of Binomial and Common Nabokovian Butterfly Names||341|
|Nabokov's Scientific Publications on Blue Butterflies||347|
|Principal Academic Publications Completing Nabokov's Work on Neotropical Blues||348|
Posted February 14, 2000
Nabokov's Blues is a fascinating book that has combined a fine instinct in the authors for both literature and science. I picked this one off the shelf from the jacket endorsement of Stephen Jay Gould and found a delectable read combining both a minibiography of Nabokov, the place of butterflies in his literature, the significance of his contribution to science, and the stories of those who completed his pioneering research begun at Harvard in the 1940's. The book is informative and entertaining and obviously cuts a lot of new ground. This was a great book to read half a chapter at a time on my way to work. I always felt involved in the story and came away feeling newly informed on a lot of material I had not been aware of before-- everything from environmental issues to the often amusing and ironic anecdotes from this great writers intricate biography. This is a good book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 22, 2000
I was somewhat surprised by the New York Times review of this book. It said good things about the book but also took some shots at it-- while never once mentioning these authors' chapters on Nabokov's biography and the use of butterflies in his fiction and other writing. It seemed the review only portrayed the book as a science book. I found this book a wonderful blend of both worlds and considered that much to its credit. By comparison, the Times review seemed one-dimensional, which Nabokov WAS NOT. I was surprised also that that reviewer used an initial quotation which appeared to be of Johnson and Coates, but when you read the book, they were actually quoting someone else. Oh well, I have the same problems with some movie reviews. Of course everyone has an opinion. I felt this book made the science understandable, interesting; I felt I could really feel the landscapes and surroundings. I also felt I was being quite well informed on the conservation and other science issues. I may not be an expert on science or Nabokov but certainly felt this book was fully informing me at my level. Here's to the discerning reader! I thought Nabokov's Blues WAS a superb book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 23, 2000
Nabokov's Blues by Kurt Johnson and Stephen Coates traces the journey begun in Russia by Vladimir Nabokov with his youthful fascination with butterflies and concluded by Johnson and his colleagues with the proof of Nabokov's scientific genius in his study of butterflies. On the way Johnson and Coates provide a wealth of learning about Mr. Nabokov, the individual and the lepidopterist; the science of lepidoptery; ecological fragility, especially as it relates to butterflies; and, perhaps with the broadest appeal, the dogged pursuit of their art by basic scientists such as Drs. Nabokov and Johnson who pursue their efforts with minimal funding and little glamour. A reader who enjoys the adventure stories of Stephen Jay Gould in Wonderful Life and Jonathan Weiner in The Beak of the Finch in high profile, well-financed disciplines, will enjoy Johnson's and Coates' exploration of the conspiracy of hard work, careful thought, personalities and pure chance. Johnson and Coates capture this process in their book and invite the reader into this adventure as the scientists and their colleagues pursue the magic of butterflies that so captivated Nabokov. Nabokov's Blues is an engaging retelling of the adventures in the field and in museums, begun by one of the great story tellers of the 20th Century, Vladimir Nabokov. With the disclaimer of someone who played a minor role in Kurt Johnson's great adventure and who may be in the class described by the reviewer as 'eccentrics and polymaths', I take issue with Richard Conniff's assertion in his February 20, 2000 review in The New York Times Book Review that 'the authors fail to capture the full wonder and oddity of the enterprise.' This is exactly what the authors accomplish.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 31, 2000
Nabokov's Blues was on my holiday list and I was not disappointed. I had heard a lot about this book and enjoyed it immensely. The book is a great mix of biography, science, literature and, in all, just a first rate narrative. The ongoing story line, from Nabokov's life and first delvings into science, on to the work by other modern scientists completing his work and, finally, what it all means, is lively and fascinating. The authors have gone to pains to give appropriate examples and explanations. So, you feel you're not only getting Nabokov's story but learning a lot about science, art and literature as you move along. I've talked this book around and other readers have been as please as I was with it. This is definitely a very complete accounting of a side of this famous author's life which had simply not been told before. I recommend it both to the literary and popular science reader.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.