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The Americans

From a letter to Edmund Wilson,
November 25, 1942

From Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[From a catalog of curious encounters on his lecture tour.]

4) MAN in shirtsleeves at my hotel. Stuck out his pink head as I was walking along the passage to my room about 10 P.M. and suggested a night-cap. I did not want to offend him, so we sat on his bed and had some whiskey. He had evidently been bored to death and was now making much out of my skimpy company. Began telling me, with copious details, all about his sugar business in Florida, his reasons of coming to Valdosta (to hire colored labor) and lots of extravagant particularities about his factory. My whole body felt like one big yawn. I kept peeping at my watch -- thought I'd give him another 10 minutes and then turn in. As I was fumbling in my pocket for matches, a little pill-box I used for collecting moths on lighted porches fell out and rolled on the floor. He picked it up and remarked: "might be mine: I use these for collecting moths." He turned out to be an entomologist who had at one time been in touch with the Am. Mus. Nat. His. where I had worked. I did not look at my watch any more. It is the second time I have been fooled that way (first time was with Prof. Forbes in a Boston subway).

[Nabokov-Wilson Letters 88]

From a letter to Véra Nabokov, October 2-4, 1942
From Coker College, Hartsville, South Carolina.
In Russian. Unpublished.

MY darling,

A million butterflies and a thousand ovations (to make allowance for fervent Southern cordiality). About ten I came back with Mrs Coker, and after noticing some very interesting moths on the brightly lit columns of the pediment spent about an hour gathering them in a glass with carbona. You can imagine how tired I was after this mix-up of a day, but I had a marvelous sleep and the next morning read the Tragedy of Tragedy lecture (to finish with the lecture theme: today's, the third and last, also in the morning, was a reading of "Mlle O"; for all this I got a cheque today, a hundred dollars, which I'll change on Monday).

In front of the house is a huge garden, huge trees around, various kinds of live oaks, and in one corner flowerbeds and the surprising candy smell of "tea olive" -- all this in the blue of a Crimean summer -- with masses of butterflies. I caught them there after my lecture, and after lunch the biologist of the college (rather like Miss McCosh) drove me to the woods or rather coppices by the lake, where I caught wonderful Hesperids and various sorts of Pierids. I wanted to send to my dear Mityushenka one of the very broad local Papilios, but they are torn so I'll send eubule, the most prominent local butterfly, which I'll soften and spread when I get back....

I hope that at the next lecture stop there will be as many butterflies but less cordiality and less scotch on the rocks. I haven't spent a cent here so far and Fisher writes me that in Valdosta they are ready to put me up as long as I want. Tomorrow apart from still another Coker dinner with the local gentry there don't seem to be any engagements, and I'll go off on a longer butterfly hunt. Here there is one large long-tailed Hesperid, with a kind of peacock fluff on its body, charming. A great many here have read my little things in the Atlantic and the New Yorker and in general the atmosphere is the same middle-brow one as at Wellesley.... The minister and I collected many interesting caterpillars, which he will raise. I'd like a drink -- all the glasses have carbona....

One lady, who was complaining about a caterpillar in the garden, and to whom I said they give rise to swallowtailed butterflies, answered: "I don't think so. I have never seen them grow wings or anything."

[Vladimir Nabokov Archive, Montreux]

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Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Nabokov's Butterflies, The Americans - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 66.