When Nabokov came to Gettysburg
I’m a longtime Nabokov nut, and am going through one of my recurrent Vladimanias. In the last month I’ve read, by the man himself, Nabokov’s Quartet, Nabokov’s Dozen, Strong Opinions, and Speak, Memory; Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, his collected correspondence with Edmund Wilson (another old favorite, the full reading of whom is likewise a lifetime project), and Alex Beam’s The Feud, a lightweight but comprehensive history of the two writers’ long friendship and terrible falling-out; and Sarah Weinman’s The Real Lolita, about a factual kidnapping-and-molestation case contemporaneous with the early stages of Lolita’s composition, which the novel references directly at one point, and which Weinman believes provided essential inspiration and information for Nabokov in writing it.
(I want to note that The Real Lolita, while worth reading for a fan of the novelist or the novel, is finally something less than meets the curious, the hopeful eye. The case’s historical documentation is scanty, and the proffered connections between fact and fiction, while ranging from undeniable to utterly speculative, are in no case as jaw-dropping, or as damning, as they are meant to seem. Weinman adopts a prosecutorial attitude toward Nabokov which casts his having written the book as virtually a criminal act, a molestation in prose which perpetuates the original crime every time the book is read or praised. This attitude is born of Weinman’s desire to do historical justice to Sally Horner, the girl whose story she reconstructs, but it is also contrived to lend a marginal true-crime chronicle the weight of moral purpose, and the effect is finally spurious. Katy Waldman’s essay in The New Yorker, “The Salacious Non-Mystery of The Real Lolita,” gets it right, I believe.)
But there’s a very specific reason I’m writing about Nabokov this morning. Looming large in his legend are the numerous automobile trips he took across the United States in the 1940s with his wife, Véra (and, usually, a student driver), in order to chase butterflies across the hills and dales of his newly adopted country. His observations of our natural scenery and motor-lodge culture provided the second half of Lolita with its singular atmosphere, both bucolic and sinister: what John Updike called “the eerie arboreal suburbs, the grand emptinesses” of America Out There.
It delights me to have learned, just last night, while reading Richard Roper’s quite good-so-far Nabokov in America, that the first stop on the Nabokovs’ first trip—May 27, 1941—was right here, in our legendary little town of Gettysburg. Driving straight from New York City, Vladimir, Véra, and student Dorothy Leuthold stayed at the Lee-Meade Inn, located at the southern tip of the second day’s battlefield, on what is known hereabouts as the Emmitsburg Road (for it leads to that Maryland town). Torn down long ago, this inn, rather palatial by motor-lodge standards, stood on land that was reclaimed, sometime later, by the Civil War Protection Trust, and is now owned by the U.S. Park Service.
I’d love to know just where upon Gettysburg’s numerous battlefields Nabokov stalked lepidoptera with his highly skilled net; the answer may be in Nabokov’s Butterflies, an entire book devoted to VN’s winged obsession, which I have yet to dip into. But in any case, he caught his first two American specimens here, later donating them, along with many others, to the American Museum of Natural History.