When Vladimir Nabokov Taught Ruth Bader Ginsburg, His Most Famous Student, To Care Deeply About Writing

There are a few ways to get a glimpse of Vladimir Nabokov as a teacher, a role he occu­pied for almost twen­ty years at Welles­ley and Cor­nell. We can take the “good read­er” quiz he gave to his stu­dents. We can lis­ten to his inter­views on life and lit­er­a­ture, though they won’t give us any sense of spon­tane­ity. The Russ­ian-émi­gré writer insist­ed on care­ful­ly script­ed ques­tions and answers “to ensure a dig­ni­fied beat of the mandarin’s fan.”

We can see also see Nabokov, as played by Christo­pher Plum­mer, teach his sec­ond favorite nov­el, Kafka’s The Meta­mor­pho­sis, at a Cor­nell lec­ture above. Plum­mer, who intro­duces him­self in the role, tells us, “this urbane, world­ly Russ­ian aris­to­crat spent a large part of his pro­duc­tive life in Itha­ca, New York.” And the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, if not a like­ness, is a con­vinc­ing dra­mat­ic inter­pre­ta­tion of a very urbane, and wit­ty, Pro­fes­sor, not a man who “speak[s] like a child,” as the real Nabokov once wrote of him­self in 1973.

What of his stu­dents? What can they tell us about Nabokov as a teacher? One of his most famous, Thomas Pyn­chon, won’t say much. But per­haps his best known pupil, Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg, has paid him trib­ute many times, telling The Scribes Jour­nal of Legal Writ­ing in 2011, “I attribute my car­ing about writ­ing” to Nabokov, who “was a man in love with the sound of words. He taught me the impor­tance of choos­ing the right word and pre­sent­ing it in the right word order.”

Gins­burg, who stud­ied under Nabokov as an under­grad­u­ate in the ear­ly fifties, still sings his prais­es over six­ty years lat­er. “He was mag­net­i­cal­ly engag­ing,” she told The Cul­ture Trip this week. “He stood alone, not com­pa­ra­ble to any oth­er lec­tur­er.” And last month, the Supreme Court Jus­tice wrote a New York Times Op-Ed titled “Ruth Bad­er Ginsburg’s Advice for Liv­ing.” Sec­ond on the list, “teach­ers who influ­enced or encour­aged me in my grow­ing-up years.” Her first exam­ple, Nabokov, who “changed the way I read and the way I write.”

If Nabokov so pro­found­ly influ­enced Ginsburg’s read­ing and writ­ing, and made such a dra­mat­ic impres­sion on her as a pro­fes­sor, would we find any traces of that influ­ence in her jurispru­dence? Per­haps. As Jen­nifer Wil­son notes in the Los Ange­les Review of Books, Nabokov pro­nounced him­self “res­olute­ly ‘anti-seg­re­ga­tion­ist.’” This was among the “few issues he spoke out against strong­ly and unambiguously—Marxism, fas­cism, anti-Semi­tism, and racism.”

You may or may not see some influ­ence of Nabokov—of his repug­nance for legal­ized dis­crim­i­na­tion or of his metic­u­lous wording—in Ginsburg’s pas­sion­ate dis­sent to the 2013 gut­ting of the Vot­ing Rights Act, for exam­ple. There, Gins­burg called vot­er sup­pres­sion “the most con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly invid­i­ous form of dis­crim­i­na­tion” and wrote “giv­en a record replete with exam­ples of denial or abridge­ment of a para­mount fed­er­al right, the Court should have left the mat­ter where it belongs: in Con­gress’ baili­wick.” With­in their con­straints of legal writ­ing, I’d argue Ginsburg’s best sen­tences con­tain the cut­ting pre­ci­sion and wit of Nabokov’s scathing, deeply con­sid­ered obser­va­tions.

via The Cul­ture Trip/Vin­tage Anchor

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take Vladimir Nabokov’s Quiz to See If You’re a Good Reader–The Same One He Gave to His Stu­dents

Vladimir Nabokov Names the Great­est (and Most Over­rat­ed) Nov­els of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

Vladimir Nabokov Talks About Life, Lit­er­a­ture & Love in a Metic­u­lous­ly Pre­pared Inter­view, 1969

Vladimir Nabokov (Chan­nelled by Christo­pher Plum­mer) Teach­es Kaf­ka at Cor­nell

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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  • Larry Rosenthal says:

    Bril­liant, Josh! Time­ly and per­sua­sive.

    Might the ini­tial clause of your con­clud­ing remark be a mis­placed mod­i­fi­er?

    Have anoth­er look:

    “With­in their con­straints of legal writ­ing, I’d argue Ginsburg’s best sen­tences con­tain the cut­ting pre­ci­sion and wit of Nabokov’s scathing, deeply con­sid­ered obser­va­tions.”

    Via prox­im­i­ty, “[w]ithin their con­straints” appar­ent­ly mod­i­fies the first-per­son sub­ject (num­ber dis­agree­ment notwith­stand­ing), espe­cial­ly since the verb (-‘d argue-) and an adjec­tive appear pri­or to the clause’s intend­ed ref­er­ent. I’ll con­clude sim­i­lar­ly:

    With­in your fine blog post, I’d sug­gest you rework that clos­ing sen­tence.

    Com­ment offered play­ful­ly and respect­ful­ly!

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