Nabokov's Butterflies Shelf Life 360

Vladimir Nabokov is best known for his literary masterpiece Lolita, but next to writing, his great passion was the study of moths and butterflies. Curatorial Assistant Suzanne Rab Green tells the story of the author’s first road trip across the U.S., where he drew inspiration and collected specimens along the way.

The Butterfly Trail

The highways and roadside motels of pre-interstate America provided the backdrop for literary giant Vladimir Nabokov's famous novel Lolita. But they were also prime collecting grounds for Nabokov’s great passion, lepidopterology—the study of moths and butterflies. 

Vladimir Nabokov stands in a grassy field holding a butterfly net.
Pictured in later years, Nabokov maintained his passion for the study of butterflies throughout his life.
Horst Tappe/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nabokov was never a full-time entomologist, but he was an extremely knowledgeable amateur who published several scientific papers and described more than a dozen new butterflies.

Soon after moving to the U.S., Nabokov began volunteering in the Lepidoptera collections at the American Museum of Natural History. It was here that he met with early scientific encouragement and began to study the group that would later become his specialty: small Polyommatus butterflies known as blues. Recent genetic research has supported Nabokov’s 1945 hypothesis about the evolution of blues in the New World.

Single butterfly specimen, Lysandra cormion, light colored with darker dots around the edges of the wings. © AMNH
Three labels from left to right reading "Moulinet alpes maritimes France", "Holotype Slide #2 Lysandra cormion Nabokov" and "Lysandra cormion." © AMNH

Nabokov took many road trips over his lifetime and drove thousands of miles across the United States, but his first cross-country adventure was in the summer of 1941. The writer donated many of the butterflies and moths collected on that trip to the Museum. Suzanne Rab Green geo-referenced and curated Nabokov’s 1941 collection, re-tracing his three-week cross-country road trip, providing a vivid record of a formative period for the great novelist.

May 26, 1941
Illustrated postcard featuring the entrance of the Lee-Meade Inn and two cottages on site of Gettysburg Battlefield.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Vladimir Nabokov's first cross-country trip of the U.S. began on May 26, 1941. 

Driven by a student, the Nabokov family left New York City and would travel more than 3,000 miles in about three weeks. Their first night's stop was at the Lee-Meade Inn in Pennsylvania. 

Credit: Boston Public Library

May 27, 1941

Nabokov collected these specimens in Gettysburg on May 27, 1941. 

June 1, 1941
Single, dark colored butterfly specimen with light dots around the edges of the wings.

Jackson, Tennessee: Nabokov wrote to his mentor William Comstock at the Museum that most of his collecting "was done along the (more or less 'super') highways."

June 1941
Postcard with text "Modern Tourist Cottages. Cafe and Service Station, West Side City Limit" and illustration of cottages and trees in Jackson, Tenn.

The motor courts he frequented along the way were often Nabokov's collecting grounds. 

Credit: Boston Public Library 

June 3, 1941
Label reading "Dallas, Tex. 3.VI.41" beneath two pinned butterfly specimens.

Dallas, Texas: Nabokov stored specimens in glassine envelopes, labeling each one carefully with location and date. 

Entomologists often record the month of collection using roman numerals.

June 3, 1941
Five pinned butterfly specimens in a box, with two larger colorful butterflies at the center.

Butterfly specimens collected by Nabokov on June 3, 1941. 

June 1941
Postcard for the Grande Lodge in Dallas, Texas featuring colorful illustrations of lodge exterior, lobby, and a room.

The night before, the Nabokov party had stopped at the Grande Tourist Lodge. 

Credit: University of Texas Libraries 

June 7-9, 1941
Postcard with text "Grand Canyon of Arizona In the Ole Southwest" and illustration of Grand Canyon and tall tree.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: In the midst of his fast-paced road trip, Nabokov stayed for three days at the Grand Canyon. 

Credit: Boston Public Library

June 7-9, 1941
Single, dark-colored butterfly specimen.

There, despite stormy weather, he collected what he believed to be a new species, which he dubbed Neonympha dorothea in honor of their cross-country driver, Dorothy Leuthold. It's since been recognized as a subspecies—Cyllopsis pertepida dorothea

Credit: S. Rab Green/© AMNH

September 8, 1941
Postcard with text "Yosemite Falls and the Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California" and illustration of a dramatic waterfall and tall trees.

Yosemite National Park, California: The Nabokovs reached California in June. After several weeks at Stanford University, they visited Yosemite National Park, where the author couldn't help but gather more butterflies. 

Credit: Boston Public Library

September 11, 1941
Single pinned butterfly specimen with light color, dark spots, and irregular wing edges.

On September 11, Nabokov wrote to Comstock, saying, "I have done a good deal of collecting this season, and have had plenty of thrills and disappointments. The former consisted in meeting among their natural surroundings butterflies I had never seen before; the latter were the poor collecting grounds and bad weather." 

September 11, 1941
Four pinned butterfly specimens, neatly organized in a box with labels beneath each one reading "September 8, 1941 Leg. V Nabokov."

In the same letter, he offered the specimens he had collected that summer to the Museum.