Students examining boxes of specimens in the Cornell University Insect Collection

Course Explores Nabokov as Writer and Butterfly Aficionado

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This story was adapted from a feature in the Cornell Chronicle.

By Kathy Hovis

Here’s how the well-known story goes: Vladimir Nabokov, professor of literature and soon-to-be-famous novelist, meets with a Cornell student who considers himself a budding writer. “What kind of tree is that outside my window?” Nabokov asks.

“I don’t know,” the student says.

“Then you’ll never be a writer,” Nabokov says.

A strange response, perhaps, for an author. But not so strange, when one discovers Nabokov spent much of his time on campus, from 1948–59, at the Cornell University Insect Collection, today housed in Comstock Hall.

Nabokov’s deep interest in and connection to the natural world and his cross-pollinating interests in the sciences and the arts were the focus of a new seminar, “Nabokov, Naturally,” taught in fall 2023 by Anindita Banerjee, associate professor of comparative literature in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Author Vladimir Nabokov taught on the Hill from 1948–59
Nabokov taught on the Hill for a decade in the mid-1900s. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

“The artistic and literary and creative parts of Nabokov’s personality greatly influenced his practices in the sciences, and the same is true in reverse,” Banerjee says. “But few people know about that, so I wanted to stitch back together these two parts of Nabokov at Cornell that are divided and help students to feel that his presence is still here.”

An avid butterfly collector, Nabokov developed theories, recently proven accurate, about the evolution of a group of butterflies known as the Polyommatus blues.

The artistic and literary and creative parts of Nabokov’s personality greatly influenced his practices in the sciences, and the same is true in reverse.

Professor Anindita Banerjee

But it was his groundbreaking work in the imperiled habitat of the Karner blue butterfly in Upstate New York that has had a lasting impact on environmental legislation and action to this day. Instrumental in spurring conservation activism in the region, the tiny butterfly played a key role in the passage of the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973.

In addition to his work on butterflies, while at Cornell Nabokov wrote the novels Lolita and Pnin, published his experimental memoir Conclusive Evidence, which was revised and published as Speak, Memory in 1966, and conceived of Pale Fire.

Students in the class read Pnin and Speak, Memory and examples of his poetry, short fiction, essays, letters, and scientific papers. They also learned how his work continues to influence contemporary literature in many languages.

Influential scientific and artistic works by Cornell naturalists past and present—from Anna Botsford Comstock 1885 to Anurag Agrawal, the James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies in CALS—proved indispensable for uncovering the ways in which human affairs and natural environments are inevitably and inextricably entangled in Nabokov’s imagination.

Students in the Nabokov and butterflies class have a discussion
An in-class discussion.

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Nabokov represents the nexus of science and art, says Braeden Thomson ’24, a student in the class.

“There’s a point in Speak, Memory where he quotes a friend as saying that while the scientist sees everything that happens in one point in space, the poet sees everything that happens in one point in time.”

The students spent hours doing research in the University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC) and the insect collection.

The cover of "Pnin"

“We talked a lot in class about how tactile and how textural a writer Nabokov was and how much he drew from his day-to-day life in the physical world, which made his writings all the more vibrant,” says Gracey Brouillard ’24.

“Connecting all of his descriptions to the intense detailed work that we could see he did with butterflies—how he studied all of the minute morphological characteristics of them—that related to the way we dissected the text and the ways we scientifically analyzed his artistic writing.”

Banerjee says her students uncovered little gems from Nabokov’s lecture notes and from notes taken by his students that could well serve as maxims for integrating environmental thought and action across the disciplines.

For example, he told students to always bring both a dictionary and a magnifying glass to his classes.

“Every great writer is a great deceiver,” Nabokov wrote in lecture notes, housed in RMC. “So is nature. Protective coloration. Spells and wiles. The writer of fiction follows nature’s lead.”

For Will Anderson ’24, the most profound lesson from the class lies in a realization that his future doesn’t depend on choosing one interest over another.

“It’s all interconnected, not just one discipline or one career path,” he says. “It’s where the flow of whatever is going on takes you.”

We talked a lot in class about how tactile and how textural a writer Nabokov was and how much he drew from his day-to-day life in the physical world.

Gracey Brouillard ’24

Banerjee says Nabokov’s life and work yields lessons that are relevant to our lives today.

“His work is filled with the convergence and coexistence of catastrophe and beauty, of despair and joy, of which the Karner blue butterfly is a great example,” she says.

“It offers a way of living through finding knowledge and beauty and meaning that is really important to the way we are trying to inhabit the planet right now.”

Top: Students examine specimens at the Insect Collection. All class photos by Patrick Shanahan.

Published December 19, 2023


Comments

  1. Ann Coyne, Class of 1958

    My roommate took his course and had daily stories of him and his wife in the classroom and out on the fields that are now North Campus chasing butterflies with nets.

  2. Nancy Green Dickenson, Class of 1959

    I remember Professor Nabokov with fondness. I
    took his Russian literature course in the 1950’s. His stunning wife Vera always joined him at the front of the classroom. They would quietly discuss words. One day while at the blackboard, he informed the class that there were only two great Russian writers and one of them was Vladimir Nabokov.

  3. Steve Wang, Class of 1992

    In our junior year, four friends and I lived in an apartment on E. Seneca St. We had heard a rumor that Nabokov had earlier lived in our house. One Saturday morning, without advance notice, we had a Russian tour group knock on our door; they were touring places Nabokov lived and worked while in Ithaca. We let them in and showed them around our apartment, and they nodded quietly and then left.

  4. Alison MacLeod, Class of 1964

    I grew up in Ithaca, in a house on East State Street, #957. My father, Robert MacLeod, was a professor of Psychology at Cornell from 1948 until his death in June of 1972. Our house, is seems, had been a favorite of Vladimir Nabokov, who preferred renting rather than owning homes – a fact I never understood. In 1953, we spent the fall semester in Ann Arbor, Michigan where my father was invited to teach as a visiting professor. During that time, the Nabokovs lived in our house for the second time. As far as I can remember, that was the last time he lived at 957. Before we left, we’d had to have our elderly, flea-infested dog put down. He’d been an outdoor dog, with access only to a room in the basement through a doggy door. Once he was gone, he’d left behind a generous supply of fleas. Since they’d lost their canine host, they made their way upwards into the residential part of the house, greatly annoying both Vladimir and his wife. It was quite embarrassing. We had to have the entire house fumigated to get rid of the fleas. One other memory attached to that time had to do with a large portrait of my brother and me that was mounted over the fire place. According to my father, that was around the time Nabokov was writing his famous novel, Lolita. My father decided that the image of his ten-year old daughter had to have been inspiration for that book. I still giggle at the thought.

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