Episode 17: Nabokov's Butterflies 360


“A given landscape lives twice: as a delightful wilderness in its own right, and as the haunt of a certain butterfly or moth.”

Vladimir Nabokov Author and Lepidopterist



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. 


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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.


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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.

Recently, Curatorial Assistant 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.

Unless otherwise noted, images are © American Museum of Natural History.

May 27, 1941
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
Nabokov collected these specimens in Gettysburg on May 27, 1941.
June 1, 1941
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.”
The motor courts he frequented along the way were often Nabokov’s collecting grounds.

Credit: Boston Public Library
June 3, 1941
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.
Butterfly specimens collected by Nabokov on June 3, 1941.
The night before, the Nabokov party had stopped at the Grande Tourist Lodge.

Credit: University of Texas Libraries
Grand Canyon
June 7–9, 1941
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
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: © AMNH / S. Rab Green
September 8, 1941
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
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.”
In the same letter, he offered the specimens he had collected that summer to the Museum.