An Animated Look at Vladimir Nabokov’s Passion for Butterfly Collecting: “Literature & Butterflies Are the Two Sweetest Passions Known to Man”

Lit­er­a­ture and but­ter­flies are the two sweet­est pas­sions known to man. — Vladimir Nabokov

A 1941 fam­i­ly road trip along Route 66 plant­ed the seeds for Vladimir Nabokov’s nov­el Loli­ta.

It also enriched the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry’s but­ter­fly col­lec­tion by some 300 North Amer­i­can spec­i­mens.

The author, an avid ama­teur lep­i­dopter­ist, indulged his hob­by along the way, deposit­ing but­ter­flies col­lect­ed on this and oth­er trips in glas­sine envelopes labeled with the name of the towns where the crea­tures encoun­tered his net. Upon his return, he decid­ed to donate most of his haul to the museum’s Lep­i­doptera col­lec­tion, where he was as an eager vol­un­teer.

Years lat­er, Suzanne Rab Green, a Tiger Moth spe­cial­ist and assis­tant cura­tor at the muse­um, uncov­ered Nabokov’s spec­i­mens packed in a vin­tage White Owl cig­ar box.

Rec­og­niz­ing that this col­lec­tion had lit­er­ary val­ue as well as sci­en­tif­ic, Green decid­ed to sort it by loca­tion rather than species, pre­serv­ing the care­ful­ly hand-let­tered envelopes along with the frag­ile wings and tho­rax­es.

Using Google Earth, she retraced Nabokov’s 3‑week jour­ney for the museum’s Shelf Life series, dig­i­tal­ly pin­ning his finds along­side vin­tage post­cards of Get­tys­burg, Yosemite Nation­al Park, and the Grande Tourist Lodge in Dal­las, Texas—all fer­tile col­lec­tion sites, at least in 1941.

But­ter­flies remained a life­long obses­sion for the author. He served for six years as cura­tor of Harvard’s Muse­um of Com­par­a­tive Zoology’s Lep­i­doptera wing and devel­oped an evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry relat­ed to his study of the Poly­omma­tus blues Green men­tions in the 360° video above. (Be aware, the 360° fea­ture will not work in Safari).

He also wooed his wife, Vera, by mak­ing charm­ing and keen­ly observed draw­ings of but­ter­flies for her.

An avowed ene­my of sym­bols and alle­go­ry, Nabokov pre­vent­ed but­ter­flies from occu­py­ing too sig­nif­i­cant a role in his fic­tion­al oeu­vre, though he gushed unabashed­ly in his mem­oir, Speak, Mem­o­ry:

Let me also evoke the hawk­moths, the jets of my boy­hood! Col­ors would die a long death on June evenings. The lilac shrubs in full bloom before which I stood, net in hand, dis­played clus­ters of a fluffy gray in the dark—the ghost of pur­ple. A moist young moon hung above the mist of a neigh­bor­ing mead­ow. In many a gar­den have I stood thus in lat­er years—in Athens, Antibes, Atlanta—but nev­er have I wait­ed with such a keen desire as before those dark­en­ing lilacs. And sud­den­ly it would come, the low buzz pass­ing from flower to flower, the vibra­tional halo around the stream­lined body of an olive and pink Hum­ming­bird moth poised in the air above the corol­la into which it had dipped its long tongue…. Through the gusty black­ness, one’s lantern would illu­mine the stick­i­ly glis­ten­ing fur­rows of the bark and two or three large moths upon it imbib­ing the sweets, their ner­vous wings half open but­ter­fly fash­ion, the low­er ones exhibit­ing their incred­i­ble crim­son silk from beneath the lichen-gray pri­maries. “Cato­cala adul­tera!” I would tri­umphant­ly shriek in the direc­tion of the light­ed win­dows of the house as I stum­bled home to show my cap­tures to my father.

Despite the author’s stat­ed dis­taste for overt sym­bol­ism, a few but­ter­flies did man­age to flut­ter onto the pages of his best known work, result­ing in at least one the­sis papers that makes a case for Loli­ta as butterfly—irresistible, beau­ti­ful, eas­i­ly ensnared….

Did I ever men­tion that her bare arm bore the 8 of vac­ci­na­tion? That I loved her hope­less­ly? That she was only four­teen? An inquis­i­tive but­ter­fly passed, dip­ping, between us.

- Loli­ta, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955

Track Nabokov’s cross-coun­try but­ter­fly col­lect­ing trip, cour­tesy of the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vladimir Nabokov’s Delight­ful But­ter­fly Draw­ings

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

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

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

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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