Past Tense: Nabokov and Jakobson

“Gentlemen, even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?”

“Gentlemen, even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?”

— Harvard Slavic Professor Roman Jakobson

The scathing remark settled any dispute: Vladimir Nabokov was not to be admitted as a Harvard professor.

In 1957, McGeorge Bundy, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote to the chairmen of all the departments, asking for names of scholars they would particularly like to have on the faculty. Nabokov had spent eight years in Cambridge, from 1941 to 1948, during which he taught comparative literature at Wellesley and organized the butterfly collection at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Nine years after moving to teach at Cornell, Nabokov sought to return to Harvard, this time as a professor of Russian literature.

Several professors favored Nabokov’s appointment, writes Brian Boyd in “Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years,” including his friend Harry T. Levin, chair of the Department of Modern Languages. With the publication of “Lolita” two years behind him, the writer was already of great renown in both Russian and English.

But Slavic Languages and Literatures Professor Roman Jakobson—one of the stars of the department and the author of the quotation above—would not agree to it.

Nabokov and Jakobson had known each other, though not well; they had agreed to work together on the English translation of “The Song of Igor’s Campaign,” at less than 1,000 lines, a short ancient Russian epic. Their lives reveal superficial, structural similarities that were set against the ever-present backdrop of the Cold War. Their feud, though, reveals a more complex story: one strung between academic training, Russian politics, and the legitimacy of creative scholarship.

Art in a National Context

By the time he arrived at Cornell in 1948, Nabokov had spent years translating and writing commentary for “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign,” the story of the unsuccessful war waged by a prince from Kiev against Steppe marauders. Around the same time, two other Russian émigrés were working on a critical edition to the poem: Marc Szeftel, on the history faculty at Cornell, and Jakobson.

In 1949, Nabokov and Jakobson first discussed the possibility of collaborating on the definitive English edition, along with Szeftel. The project was nothing if not timely. Their proposed translation of the Igor Tale would emerge within a context of shifting Soviet ideas about the social role of art, a context all three scholars knew well.

The period following the Russian Revolution was witness to a renewed interest in the ancient Russian epic genre. According to James R. Russell, Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard, who taught a House seminar on Nabokov for years, such a revival can be traced to two sources. One was a remnant of 19th-century nationalism, a desire to demonstrate artistic sovereignty by turning away from the biblical tradition and towards home-grown legends.

“There was a second and, in some ways, even darker ideological impetus,” says Russell, “in the Soviet Union.”

Joseph Stalin, along with supportive members of the literary establishment, began to condemn the avant-garde art of the time: formalism, or art for art’s sake. They believed instead that art should have a practical purpose: socialist realism that would go beyond the “bourgeois” art of the 19th century. “It had to come from the people,” Russell says, “as defined by the Soviet ideology.” This meant, ultimately, the folk bards. Though long part of peasant life and embedded in oral tradition, only now were these bards championed on a political level, with recordings and publications encouraged.

In the 40s, this artistic and intellectual debate between formalism and socialist realism was more than a question for the Ivory Tower. Back in New England, such a phenomenon resonated with the Russian expat scholars in both their scholarship and personal ties.

The Writer and the Scholar