[This post was originally published by Bill on December 9, 2011.]
In the summer of 1984, I had a work-study job manning the checkout desk at the Library at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. The MCZ Library had long been a research resource for Harvard academics, including the late author Vladimir Nabokov. I knew this because I had read Nabokov’s precisely crafted, linguistically gymnastic, and quaintly subversive novel Pale Fire in a class the previous semester and had felt it was like discovering a message from my home planet. I binged on Nabokov for the next several months, reading his novels and learning about his life, and learned that he had studied entomology – specifically, the classification and morphology of butterflies – as a research fellow at the MCZ in the late 1940s. How cool it was to know that my new favorite author had actually indulged in his greatest passion in the very building in which I was then working! I was mystified, though, by Nabokov’s claim that, “The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru.” I myself was a biology major, but I could not imagine any scientific discovery short of evolution or DNA that would have been more rewarding than having created a timeless, internationally bestselling work of literature like Lolita.
Halfway through that summer, it occurred to me that some of the older profs might also have been there in 1947 or ’48 . . . and therefore might actually have known Nabokov personally. A little research turned up a likely prospect: Dr. Frank Carpenter, a professor emeritus who had been at the MCZ since the 1930s and who, like Nabokov, studied insects. In his time, Dr. Carpenter was the world’s premier expert on fossil insects. A number of species were named in his honor, although, ironically, not the carpenter ant. His work focused on the precise description and comparison of tiny, even microscopic, fossilized insect parts, through which he was able to draw ground-breaking scientific conclusions. Nabokov’s work with butterflies, I knew, relied on the same kind of painstaking examinations (he often focused on genitalia – go ahead and smirk, those of you who only know him from that song by The Police). How could these two not have known each other?
So the next time Dr. Carpenter – to whom I had never actually spoken before – passed by my station, I asked him if he had known Nabokov. He replied, in an amicable yet judicious tone befitting a professor emeritus, that he did indeed, that in fact he and his wife occasionally socialized with Nabokov and his wife Vera, and had even eaten dinner at their home once or twice. Delighted and slightly awed, I asked Dr. Carpenter what Nabokov was like. Most of what he replied I remember only in synopsis – he was brilliant, fascinating conversationalist, intensely hard worker – except for four words that bowled me over: “He was no scientist.”
Knowing what I had known by that time about the time and effort that Nabokov had put into his butterfly studies over the course of his life, and the widely acknowledged accuracy and depth of insight of his observations, I found this evaluation quite surprising. I had no reason to doubt it – Dr. Carpenter said it with no malice at all, and no one was more qualified to make such a judgment than he. For several years, I imagined that this was an indicator of some sort of tragic irony in the life of a great artist: Nabokov had wrongly seen himself as a sublime authority on a thin slice of the natural world, never realizing that his literary contributions were of far more value than his scientific ones. Yes, my sense of melodrama then was even more hypertrophic than it is now.
Over time, I came to see a different interpretation. Dr. Carpenter had been speaking as a scientist, and great scientists are masters not only of observation, but also of synthesis and speculation. It was widely acknowledged that Nabokov excelled at observation, but that he had produced little theorization that anyone else had taken seriously. Naturally a serious scientist would be expected to conclude that, whatever his considerable gifts, Nabokov was not really a complete scientist. But so what? He loved the work he did with butterflies – he focused so intensely on observing under the microscope that he damaged his eyesight – and collected and observed all through his life. If Nabokov’s spirit had been haunting the MCZ Library that day, his pride might have been bruised by Dr. Carpenter’s evaluation, but I have to believe that, for the most part, he just wouldn’t have cared. He got to spend his life doing what he loved best by just focusing on the doing of it, without regard for labels. In fact, if he had chosen a more traditional path – if he’d tried to crawl through the ranks of academia, from research fellow to assistant professor to professor – the perception that his theorization was weak (and the reality that he was more interested in collecting and describing than theorizing) might have limited his rise, maybe even have driven him from the field entirely. Rather than try to fit some institutional idea of what a lepidopterist should be, Nabokov made himself into his own idea of what one should be, and because of that (and the literary gifts that supplied the financial resources he needed), he got to do what he loved until he died.
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Epilogue: Earlier this year, scientists from Harvard and the American Museum of Natural History reported that, using DNA analysis unavailable until recently, they were able to confirm the validity of a theory that Nabokov had proposed, based solely on his anatomical observations. Nabokov had asserted that a certain group of similar New World butterflies had not all evolved from a common ancestor that had been blown across the ocean from Asia, as mainstream scientists believed. Instead they had come from five distinct, but related, ancestors that, at different times over millions of years, had come across a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska, and from there had migrated as far south as Chile. The DNA analysis showed that every detail of Nabokov’s elaborate theory was correct. In his lifetime, this theory had been widely considered preposterous.