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.
Before arriving at Spelman, Nabokov stopped off for an engagement at Coker College in South Carolina, where he stayed on the estate of a Mrs. Coker, the daughter of the college’s founder. The house and its grounds, as described by Nabokov in a letter to Vera, sound as if they were wholly unaffected by the Civil War and its consequences. To the west of the Coker mansion were the family’s cotton plantations, still being worked by black sharecroppers whose lives remained essentially unchanged from the days of slavery. Observing them, Nabokov writes, “It is picking time now, and the ‘darkies’ (an expression that jars me, reminding me distantly of the patriarchal ‘Zhidok’ [Yid] of western Russian landowners) pick in the fields, getting a dollar for a hundred ‘bushels.’” It is here at Coker that Nabokov became aware of the decisive role segregation played in the everyday lives of southerners, noting the quotidian absurdities born of the whites’ obsession with keeping the races apart: “In the evenings, those who have children rarely go out […] (despite their wealth) [because] they have no one to leave the kids with; Negro servants never sleep over in the whites’ homes — it is not allowed — and they cannot have white servants because they cannot work with blacks.”
After departing South Carolina, Nabokov made his way to Spelman, where he was greeted by the college president, a Mrs. Florence Reade; the two became close friends and stayed in touch for years after his visit to Atlanta. Nabokov wrote to Vera that he and Reade shared breakfast each morning, at which they discussed topics as varied as the “Negro problem and telepathy.” Following these daily breakfasts, Nabokov was obliged to attend chapel service, where he sat “with [Mrs. Reade] onstage in an academic cloak facing four hundred girls singing hymns amid the storm from the organ. I asked for mercy — saying that I am a heretic.” In honor of Nabokov’s presence, a prayer was recited that gave thanks “for craftsmen and poets; for those who take delight in making things and who make them well.”
What Nabokov enjoyed most, however, was the chance to give a lecture on the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, often considered the father of modern Russian literature, but still too little known outside the Russophone world. Nabokov wrote to Vera, “My lecture about Pushkin (Negro blood!) was greeted with almost comical enthusiasm.” Indeed, in remarking that Pushkin represented the pinnacle of humanity, “when human races are able to freely mix,” Nabokov was speaking out against the anti-miscegenation laws that reflected the southern whites’ entrenched anxieties about race mixing. To express such an opinion openly, in a public forum, attended not only by Spelman students but also by black men from neighboring Morehouse College, was truly an act of courage; after all, black men were often lynched upon suspicions of interracial desire. An article about Nabokov’s visit appeared in the student newspaper, The Spelman Messenger. The author’s references to Pushkin’s mixed-race ancestry had clearly struck a note: “[Pushkin] had always aspired to dream and write under the sun of Africa, the land of a maternal ancestor whose African blood was mingled in his veins with blood of the Russian nobility.”
The question of miscegenation would not appear in Nabokov’s work until some 13 years later, with the scandalous 1955 publication of Lolita — a novel Nabokov knew was a “timebomb,” as he wrote to an American friend. In “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” Nabokov writes that there are only three subjects American publishers find taboo: pedophilia, atheism (which carried connotations of “godless” communism), and “a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren.” This invocation of American hysteria surrounding miscegenation seems jarring at first. After all, Lolita is concerned with actual sexual perversity, not what racist distortion falsely presents as sexual perversity. But a closer reading demonstrates just how central the theme of American racism is to Nabokov’s narrative.
Early on in Lolita, Humbert Humbert learns that his first wife, Valeria, relocated from Europe to the United States, where she became a subject of an ethnological experiment. The project involved research on “human and racial reactions to a diet of bananas and dates”; this vignette is emblematic of the United States’s obsession with understanding race through “science,” and is tinged with overtones of Nazi eugenicist experimentation. A forgotten target of Nabokov’s satirical eye, the United States’s obsession with racial purity and the policing sex almost exclusively toward that end, is arguably a subplot of Lolita.
Indeed, one could argue that part of why Humbert Humbert so successfully evades discovery as he takes Lolita from motel to motel is that white men, even white pedophiles, were not surveilled with the same force or regularity as black men engaged in the “sex crime” of miscegenation. The Mann Act, which made transporting girls and women across state lines for the purpose of “debauchery” illegal, looms in the background of Lolita. Humbert Humbert even refers to the Mann Act, though, in true Nabokovian fashion, his quarrel with the law is aesthetic in nature — “I deplore the Mann Act as lending itself to a dreadful pun.” The Mann Act was often employed to target black men who were carrying out consensual relationships with adult white women. In his book Race, Crime, and the Law, Randall Kennedy articulates the tendency to employ the Mann Act to quell anxieties about black male sexuality: “Proponents of the Mann Act constantly deployed the imagery of race to solidify support. They named ‘white women’ as the intended beneficiaries of the legislation. They also mobilized support by evoking the specter of purchased interracial sex.” Jewish men were also targeted using the Mann Act, and indeed, the only time Humbert’s intentions with Lolita are potentially foiled is when he is mistaken for being Jewish, based on a misspelling of his last name by an employee at The Enchanted Hunters hotel. At first, Humbert is told that there are no rooms available, but when he explains that his name “is not Humberg […] but Humbert,” a room suddenly opens up — the room where he will rape Lolita for the first time.
When asked in the above-mentioned Paris Review interview about his stance on domestic (American) politics, Nabokov answered, resolutely: “I am anti-segregationist.” Perhaps Nabokov, who sought throughout his life to be considered an individual, not part of any artistic group or literary movement, found something aesthetically repulsive about racial categorization. Indeed, what most fascinated him about butterflies was their metaphoric potential for individuality — he would make meticulous note of the microscopic variations in wing patterns made each butterfly unique. Nabokov was an anti-political writer. Politics had, after all, deprived him of two homes (Russia and France) and his father, who was assassinated in Berlin in 1922 by Russian monarchists. Art and imagination were, for him, a means of transcending dreary political reality. That makes the few issues he spoke out against strongly and unambiguously — Marxism, fascism, anti-Semitism, and racism — especially salient in our patchwork understanding of Nabokov’s social conscience.
(The letters cited in this article were translated from the Russian by Olga Voronina, Brian Boyd, and Dmitri Nabokov.)