The Scientific Odyssey of a
By Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates
Zoland. 372 pp. $27
Reviewed by Donald Smith
During the early 1980s, some unusual shipments of rare butterflies began arriving at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The collector wanted to know their identity but refused to say exactly where he'd found them, other than in a remote rain forest somewhere along the Dominican Republic's border with Haiti. Curiosity piqued, the museum's Kurt Johnson flew down to investigate for himself. There, in what he describes as a "remarkable little biological jewel box called Las Abejas," Johnson ran into the ghost of Vladimir Nabokov.
The man now generally regarded as one of the literary giants of the century had an even more interesting mind than his subtly layered stories suggest. During one brief span in his life, Nabokov was a salaried scientist. The author of Lolita, that brilliant literary oddity about a middle-aged man's unhealthy obsession with a 12-year-old girl, is still held in high esteem for his contributions to lepidopterology -- the study of butterflies and moths. However, disagreements linger over the purity of his professional status and the importance of his accomplishments.
These questions are taken up by Johnson and New York Times editor/book reviewer Steve Coates in Nabokov's Blues, a reassessment of the great author's scientific legacy based on new findings. The publication coincides with the centenary of Nabokov's birth, with its world-wide year of celebrations and conferences. The "Blues" of the title refers to a diverse group of small butterflies found throughout the world and especially to the Latin American residents who caught Nabokov's eye.
Although an ardent and wide-ranging collector throughout his life, Nabokov never actually set foot in Latin America. His career as a paid scientist consisted of six years during the 1940s as part-time curator of butterflies at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology and authorship of 22 articles -- a thin curriculum vitae by most standards. A friend and sometime colleague, Yale University emeritus professor of evolutionary genetics Charles Lee Remington, once characterized Nabokov as "an excellent butterfly researcher" -- nothing more nor less.
Nabokov's interest in butterflies dates to a precocious and privileged childhood in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, Russia. Fleeing first the Bolsheviks and then the Nazis, in 1941 the impoverished young aristocrat made his way to Wellesley College as a lecturer. A visit led to part-time employment at Harvard, where his first job was to clean up and organize the museum's butterfly collection. This humble platform became a springboard.
The lepidopterological study for which he is best known is a highly technical 1944 monograph of the North American species of a single genus of Blues, Lycaeides, involving the minute examination of some 2,000 specimens and the sorting-out of species and subspecies. All this he did at the same time that he was teaching college and writing fiction and poetry. To Nabokov's great satisfaction, the work was praised by Alexander Klots in his authoritative Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America as having "entirely rearranged the classification of this genus," though others have dismissed it as a largely mechanical exercise.
Blues focuses on a more obscure paper published the following year. Working with a much more limited range of specimens available to him at Harvard, Nabokov here ventured a substantially more ambitious scientific goal: a pioneering classification of a large, diverse group of Blues found throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, now known as the Latin American Polyommatini. The bulk of this book concerns subsequent studies of the same group by Johnson and others. Their expeditions were inspired by those first specimens sent from Las Abejas in 1981 by Milwaukee Public Museum collector Albert Schwartz, who feared that disclosure of their pristine location might lead to its corruption. The research trail led back to Nabokov's seminal work, which had faded from view soon after publication. Their findings largely validate Nabokov's conclusions, making him, in the authors' judgment, "grandfather to a very important group of butterflies" and securing his legacy in the field for all time.
This subject might be of marginal interest to readers not especially concerned with butterflies, were it not for the important images and themes that lepidopterology furnishes to the work of an enormously popular and critically acclaimed author. Some of these references, it must be said, probably lie in the imaginations of literary critics. For example, much has been made of Nabokov's dissection of butterfly genitalia. Freudian cues notwithstanding, the simple, disillusioning fact is that this tedious procedure is needed to differentiate closely related species. In the (believe it or not) intensely competitive world of lepidopterology, where researchers pursue a new species the way knights do the holy grail, poring over microscopic reproductive gear is merely standard practice.
In Blues, a fluttering of Latin names rushes by the reader, along with a few charts and diagrams, including a mechanical rendering of male and female genitalia in pre-docking mode. But this is intended to be a popular account. The authors lucidly explain scientific terms, though their language often requires careful attention, as in: "The discovery of significant anatomical divergence might reinforce the external differences already apparent in the wing patterns of some of the new captures." Some readers may find themselves delving into the infinite complexity of these enthralling creatures more deeply than they care to. Still, Blues is bound to charm and edify anyone who loves Nabokov, natural history, and especially butterflies. When offered a professorship of Russian and European literature at Cornell University in 1948, Nabokov reluctantly shed his part-time museum job. But he kept up his interest in butterflies, as the story of the "nymphet" Lolita, published seven years later, makes clear.
Since Leonardo da Vinci, few thinkers with serious scientific pretensions can be said to have also created great art or vice versa. In our time, the physician-poet William Carlos Williams may come closer than most to combining these roles. Johnson and Coates make good arguments that Nabokov belongs among that elite.
Donald Smith, executive co-producer of National Geographic and National Public Radio's "Radio Expeditions," is completing a novel.