Poetics of Taxonomy: Nabokov’s Butterflies

"Did I ever mention that her bare arm bore the 8 of vaccination? That I loved her hopelessly? That she ...

"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."

Although they are easy to miss, such fleeting references to butterflies appear throughout Vladimir Nabokov’s novels, gracing his characters’ afternoon walks, lofty observations, and philosophical musings. These butterflies are largely insubstantial instances of passing beauty, often tangential to the actual movement of the story. And yet they appear in nearly in all of Nabokov’s works, a testament to his fascination with the order of arthropods and their delicate wings.

The above quotation is from “Lolita,” the novel that gained Nabokov widespread acclaim. Specimens of each of the butterflies mentioned in “Lolita” are now pinned in a tray in a cabinet in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), as are all of the butterflies Nabokov ever mentions in his novels.

The cabinet is filled floor to ceiling with trays of hundreds of specimens ranging from sea green Luna moths the size of one’s hand to the petite Polyommatus blues. Each tray is dedicated to one of Nabokov’s works and houses every specimen that the work references. The butterflies flutter through his novels, but now they are inert, the objects of scientific study.

Nabokov, known mostly for his literature, worked for six years as curator of the butterfly—or Lepidoptera—wing of the MCZ. There he developed a theory regarding the migration of the Polyommatus blue butterflies. Although his taxonomic research was largely forgotten in the decades after his departure from Harvard, Naomi E. Pierce, a biology professor in the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Department, has renewed the attention paid to Nabokov’s work in Lepidoptera, authoring a new much-talked-about study that legitimates the novelist’s scientific pursuits.

Nabokov was both a writer and a scientist, and a look into his time at Harvard reveals the precarious balance he tried to strike between Lepidoptera and literature, as well as the marked tension he had with a university that is now profoundly affected by his work.


As a child, Nabokov loved butterflies. His passion for Lepidoptera lasted his entire lifetime. Each summer, he and his wife Vera travelled to Colo. and Utah to expand his collection. Notably, the first work Nabokov published in English was an article in the scientific journal The Entomologist.

In 1941, while teaching at Wellesley College, the amateur butterfly collector made a visit to Harvard’s MCZ seeking to compare his personal collection to the University’s. He had arrived in the United States one year prior.

He was astonished by how poorly organized Harvard’s Lepidoptera collection was, and before leaving the museum that day he left a note offering to help rearrange it. What started as an unpaid position tidying the University’s Lepidoptera wing turned into a part-time job. Within a short period, Nabokov became the de facto curator of the collection, working in office number 402, on Oxford St.

Nabokov was a taxonomist, meaning his primary task at the MCZ was classification. Working in an era before molecular biology, he studied speciation by examining genitalia. While at the MCZ, Nabokov focused his studies on a group of butterflies known as Polyommatinae. Nicknamed ‘The Blues,’ the Polyommatinae form a subgroup within the family Lycaenidae.

These are not the bright oranges of the Monarch. Some Polyommatus blues’ wings are a dusty cornflower blue, faded around the edges. Others are more copper, still others are white. Often, the wings are ringed with brown.

Nabokov was unique in his efforts to postulate the specific order in which species developed. “He was more evolutionary in his thinking,” and also advanced in purporting numerical taxonomy, Pierce says.

“For a traditional morphologist at the time, he was ahead of his time in trying to be so quantitative,” she continues.


While at Harvard, Nabokov lived in a cul-de-sac off of Concord Avenue, a two minute walk from the Quad, in a four-story red brick building. It was here, at 8 Craigie Circle, in apartment number 35, that Nabokov penned his first American novel.

In the introduction to “Bend Sinister,” Nabokov describes his time there, saying, “I slept at least four or five hours, the rest of the night walking pencil in hand about the dingy little flat.”

“He wrote his first really great English language novel while living there and looking outside,” says James R. Russell, professor of Armenian Studies, who taught a Mather House seminar on Nabokov for many years. “It begins with the view from that window.”

Nabokov’s tenure at the MCZ lasted only until 1948, when he left Cambridge for a position as a professor of Russian literature at Cornell. Though he was part of the staff at the MCZ, Nabokov was never officially affiliated with the Harvard Faculty.

At Cornell, Nabokov published “Lolita,” for which he quickly gained widespread literary acclaim.

With his newfound fame as an author, Nabokov found it difficult to maintain his commitment to both literature and Lepidoptera. “I found it no longer physically possible to combine scientific research with lectures, belles-lettres, and ‘Lolita,’” Nabokov remarked.

In 1951, Nabokov’s son Dmitri entered the College. While his son was a student here, Nabokov returned as a visiting professor and lectured on “Don Quixote,” arguing that the novel should be removed from the canon.

After his son graduated, Nabokov applied for a professorship at Harvard, whose Slavic Department outshone that of Cornell. However, Roman Jakobson, the famed philologist and linguist who was then a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, staunchly opposed Nabokov’s candidacy.

“In an ideal world, he and Nabokov would have been good friends,” Russell says, “But the world being what it is, they had a falling out.”

The two disagreed on whether it was permissible to maintain ties with the Soviet academic establishment: Jakobson kept in close contact with the academics in the USSR during the time of Stalin, which Nabokov denounced as morally impermissible. Nabokov’s family had fled Russia in 1919 as political exiles.

Jakobson also believed that Nabokov lacked the scholarly experience required for professorship. In defending his decision to oppose Nabokov’s appointment, Jakobson famously said, “even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?”

So, Nabokov spent the rest of his academic career in Ithaca, before moving to Montreux to pursue writing full time.


Prior to his application for professorship, however, Nabokov described his lab at the MCZ in a letter to his sister.

“My laboratory occupies half of the fourth floor,” Nabokov wrote in 1945. “Most of it is taken up by rows of cabinets, containing sliding cases of butterflies ... We have butterflies from all over the world ... Along the windows extend tables holding my microscopes, test tubes, acids, papers, pins, etc.”

Over half a century later, the MCZ looks nearly the same as it did in the 1940s. The Lepidoptera wing is packed with dingy gray file cabinets that span the room from wall to wall, floor to ceiling. Nabokov’s penchant for organization seems to have stuck: each specimen has been meticulously classified and labeled. The smell of napthalene—mothballs—is overwhelming. Brightly colored butterflies, some possessing a metallic sheen, pop against the otherwise musty interior. The hallway floor, which has not been replaced in the intermittent decades, features rippled cement. Nabokov used to say that it resembled the skin of an elephant, Pierce says.

Today, Pierce curates the Lepidoptera wing of the MCZ that Nabokov once presided over. Pierce first came to Harvard in 1977 as a graduate student. She was assigned to an office in the dark and gloomy basement of the biology labs. While exploring the room, she sat down at the desk that had been left there. “It was one of those old metal desks with the laminated top and metal drawers,” Pierce describes. “I opened up one of the drawers and there were all these labels—they all said V. Nabokov.”

It was not until two decades after she first sat down at Nabokov’s old desk, however, that Pierce became interested in exploring Nabokov’s work. Over the years, Nabokov’s research in Lepidoptera was acknowledged, but the scientific community had not given his theories much credence. Nabokov’s lack of formal training undermined his scientific work. Additionally, molecular biology had begun to overshadow the field of taxonomy. But a few individuals, namely entomologist Kurt Johnson and Steven L. Coates, had begun re-examining Nabokov’s theories on the Polyommatus blues.

In the late 1990s, Pierce read Johnson and Coates’ book, “Nabokov’s Blues.” The book highlighted Nabokov’s 1945 paper, “Notes on Neotropical Plebijinae,” where Nabokov classified a vast array of South American blue butterflies. But more significant than his system of classification is the fact that Nabokov attempted to construct an evolutionary timeline for these butterflies, an endeavor that few taxonomists undertook.

The South American blues, Nabokov speculated, had migrated from Asia to the New World by crossing the Bering Strait, before crossing the isthmus of Panama and settling on the tops of the Andes. This migration was followed by four more waves of blue butterflies, each also crossing the Bering Strait.

The paper was unique in language, as well as in its hypothesis. “He talks about receiving an ‘invasion from Asia,’” Pierce says, “This is 1945, so of course he’s laughing as he’s writing that.”

Pierce was inspired to further explore Nabokov’s hypotheses using DNA gene sequencing techniques, which would allow her to create a phylogeny, or study of evolutionary relatedness, of the Polyommatus blues. The project was the result of “collaborative effort[s] of scientists around the world,” says Pierce, who lists Roger U. Vila—a scientist and mountaineer—as well as Johnson, Zsolt Balint, and Dubi Benyamini as co-writers. She and her team traveled to South America, to climates as inhospitable as the Andes, to collect specimens. Finding—and catching—a butterfly atop a precarious peak in South America requires patience and determination.

Pierce remembers that it was not until the last day of an expedition that they finally caught the desired specimen of Eldoradina, a type of butterfly, which was integral to completing their study.

In a paper published on Jan. 26 of this year, Pierce and her co-writers confirmed Nabokov’s hypotheses on the blues. Not only did Nabokov get the genera’s migratory patterns correct, he also correctly identified the precise order of its movement to the New World.

“It was when we went through and we realized that even the timing of it was the same—that’s when we thought, ‘Wow this really was pretty amazing,’” Pierce says of Nabokov’s theories, which had  proven true.

Carl Zimmer wrote a New York Times article covering Pierce’s paper on Jan. 25. It was the most e-mailed story of the week.


Although interest in Nabokov’s lepidopteral work within the scientific community had been limited before Pierce’s paper, general fascination with Nabokov’s butterflies has been fairly consistent. Over the years, so many individuals have asked to see the specimens that Nabokov curated that the butterflies he classified are now being removed from the MCZ’s larger collection so as to be more readily accessible for public viewing.

In the corner of this lab is the filing cabinet holding the shelves of Nabokov’s literary butterflies. Then-curator of Lepidoptera Deane Bowers put together this collection in 1988 for an exhibit on the intersection of Nabokov’s Lepidoptera and writing. Even though Nabokov called his interest in butterflies “exclusively scientific,” he mentions butterflies a multitude of times in his novels.

Although Nabokov did not consider his science and his literature to be particularly related, he did see the connections between science and art in a more abstract sense. “There is no science without fancy and no art without fact,” Nabokov is famous for saying.

“He was a taxonomist, concerned with making sure that every butterfly was in its appropriate category and that he knew its name, and he brings a sense of that into his stylistics as well,” says Jacob M. Emery, a tutor in the Department of Comparative Literature. “When you read his works, you know the exact species of every tree that a character passes.”

In his literary stardom, Nabokov became known for syntactically complex sentences and strikingly specific language. His memoir, “Speak, Memory,” is laced with this specificity of observation: “On the white window ledges, on the long window seats covered with faded calico, the sun breaks into geometrical gems after passing through rhomboids and squares of stained glass,” Nabokov writes.

Nabokov’s trilingualism—he grew up speaking Russian, English, and French—contributed to his unique writing style. “His English has a trace of foreignness, a foreign syntax, that makes it very interesting,” says Svetlana Boym, professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and professor of Comparative Literature. “This, perhaps, is what made his writing so remarkably captivating.”

Leland de la Durantaye, an associate professor of English, specializes in Nabokov’s literature. Durantaye imagines Nabokov’s worldview to be that there are “ever so many wonders around one every moment of every day and it sufficed to look, to look carefully, vigilantly, to see them,” Durantaye writes in an e-mail.

Charlotte Austin ’11, who took the Mather House seminar on Nabokov with Russell last Spring, describes Nabokov’s prose as constructed like a puzzle. “It demands you to really look into things and not take anything for granted and not believe that anything is a coincidence,” she says.

This decoding is an experience Nabokov wanted for his readers.

“He wanted a reader who doesn’t try to impose symbols and ideological interpretations, but who reads through details,” Boym says.


For someone who spent years classifying hundreds of specimens, Nabokov himself seems to defy categorization. According to Boym, “Nabokov was not a writer to whom a single label applied.”

Nabokov, who was born in Russia, established himself early on as a Russian lyric poet. However, his Russian contemporaries did not consider his poetry to be first-rate. It was only after Nabokov came to the United States and left poetry for novel writing that his work began to be recognized on the international stage. “He retrospectively considered himself a very bad poet and believed he sort of killed this lyrical poet to become a great novelist,” Boym explains.

While nearly all of Nabokov’s work was published in both English and Russian, the English and Russian versions of his novels, short stories, and poems were rarely exact translations of one another. Nabokov translated his own writing, or at least closely supervised the translation process, and in doing so frequently made significant changes to his own work. He altered dates, replaced references, omitted pages at a time, and even changed the ending of his novel “Despair” in the English version, providing much fodder for literary analysis.

Over the decades, Nabokovians have struggled with whether to consider Nabokov a Russian or an American writer—he left Russia for Western Europe, and later America, at a young age, but remained strongly connected to Russian culture throughout his lifetime. Some point to the fact that he wrote his memoir in English as evidence for his ultimate identification with America. However, Nabokov continued writing in Russian even while he was living in the United States and frequently wrote of a homecoming to the USSR, especially in his poetry, which he continued to write without it being his primary pursuit.

“One must note that he consciously placed himself in both the Russian and Anglo-American literary traditions,” Jasper N. Henderson ’12, who studies Nabokov, writes in an e-mail.

Nabokov himself never quite took the question seriously. “He made a very funny joke that he used to be a Russian writer, and then he came to America, gained a lot of weight and stopped smoking,” Boym remarks. “‘Now two-thirds of him is American’ he used to say.”


Asked if she had previously read Nabokov’s novels, Pierce replies, “Yes, who hasn’t?”

Nabokov’s larger-than-life legacy has a distinct mysticism about it. Readers have long been captivated by his heart-rending storytelling and linguistic genius. “I always return to Nabokov if I’m standing by my bookshelf and feel like taking a book out and reading a couple of paragraphs of extravagantly good prose,” Emery says.

Harvard University, an institution where Nabokov was never fully accepted, now offers a multitude of classes, both scientific and literary, that focus on Nabokov’s work. His thoughts and stories crop up in the lives of professors and students alike, in areas both personal and professional.

Boym jokes that she now holds the position Nabokov never achieved—she admits, “I think he deserved it more.” Boym stresses that Nabokov has influenced her as an academic. “I think everything I’ve written about is to some extent connected to Nabokov,” she says, failing to conceal a smile of admiration.

Russell, meanwhile, remembers reading Nabokov’s “Pnin” at 15 on his way to school on New York City’s D train. At the time, he was fascinated with Nabokov’s portrait of Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, a Russian emigre professor escaping the “Hitler war.” Two weeks ago, Russell, now a professor, sat in Starbucks at the Harvard Coop, wearing an olive green Israeli Defense Forces sweatshirt and drawing pages for illuminated Hebrew manuscripts.

Russell still finds himself returning to Nabokov for inspiration.

He says, “I do very often walk at night to Craigie Circle where he lived and just say a prayer for him, or look around. It’s one of my holy places.”

“Some of my students once actually rented an apartment in that building so they could be close to where Nabokov had lived,” Russell adds. “On the night of their graduation I remember we all went outside holding lit candles and read from our favorite bits.”

In “Speak, Memory,” Nabokov paints himself as the romanticized figure that Russell and his students imagine him to be. “I have hunted butterflies in various climes and disguises,” Nabokov writes. “As a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret; as a fat, hatless old man in shorts.”

In the same text, Nabokov comments on his time in Cambridge: “Incredibly happy memories, quite comparable, in fact, to those of my Russian boyhood, are associated with my research work at the MCZ, Cambridge, Mass (1941-1948).”