Category Archives: Biography

Pnin and Nabokov and his Butterflies.

Nabokov's Butterflies and Pnin

Nabokov’s Butterflies and Pnin

I never really ‘got’ Nabokov. I knew as a literature major I should. I just couldn’t.

At the ripe old age of eighteen or so I identified intensely with the narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. I still do. And that was simply where I stopped with Russian Literature, forever and amen.

Recently a friend had the sad honor to act as executor for a former Park Ranger and biology teacher. She brought me the last of his personal effects, his books, to look through.

Among them I first found Pnin in an innocent looking paperback and set it aside for myself to read. It looked an approachable, non-intimidating Nabokov. Then I could claim to have at least read one.

Pnin hooked me from the first page with his idiosyncratic dress, his strong sense of what must be true at all odds with what is actually happening around him, his ineffectual life present life so deeply rooted in a rich, lost past, his challenged English, his rich sense of humor. Pnin is doing things po amerikanski (the American way), telling his life story in a nutshell- a coconut shell. Pnin, “to make a long story very short [one of the few English expressions he can use semi correctly]: habitated in Paris from 1925, abandoned France at beginning of Hitler war. Is now here. Is American citizen. Is teaching Russian and such like subjects at Vandal [Waindell] College (35).” This fiftyish professor reminded me of a nattily-attired old Latin American Literature professor from my university years and stole my heart.

Later I found Nabokov’s Butterflies, a substantial hardback collection of letters, biographical essays and photographs. September 27 1945 he wrote to Edmund Wilson from Cambridge Massachusetts “I am doing the same things I was doing last year: dissecting butterflies at the Museum and teaching Russian to girls in Wellesley… The urge to write is something terrific but as I cannot do it in Russian I do not do it at all…”

Thank heaven Nabokov later managed to write in English.

These endless details, these tremendous run on sentences are an example to us all.

According to Wikipedia Pnin is supposed to be narrated by the unreliable Vladimir Vladimirovich N___ and Professor Pnin based on an unfavorable and humorous character study of a real professor Nabokov knew at Cornell. But for me Pnin and Nabokov are each other-both ever  wanderers, both teaching at the college level, both passionate thinkers, both with names which will forever and ever be mispronounced by all posterity.

Nabokov couldn’t possibly have produced the humor and compassion of this funny and sad character without somehow seeing himself in Pnin’s shoes- or, to be more precise, “His sloppy socks… of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges; his conservative black oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing…” [ I am a sock and shoe person myself. I wear only smartwools and own 3 pairs of one or two hundred dollar shoes instead of dozens of cheap shoes.]

I understand that Pnin, ever the refugee, ends up drifting again at the end, but reappears in Pale Fire, so Pale Fire is next on my list. Perhaps I won’t claim or bother to ‘get’ Nabokov, but what a joy Pnin is, and I look forward to learning what else Nabokov’s discerning, richly detailed, emotionally searching, gently ridiculing, ultimately unreliable narrator has to offer.

Meanwhile I have Nabokov’s Butterflies here for you, a very nice gently used edition for $25 plus 3.99 media mail shipping. winecountrybooksnapa at gmail.

Best wishes, and happy reading.

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Filed under 1950's, Biography, illustrated

On Sermons, Separatists and Supremacy, or The Merry Chase Part II, 1951

This week I photographed a bunch of oldies in preparation for offering them for sale online. Old books, not old people, folks. 

Ernest Sevier Cox’s Teutonic Unity, an attractive little volume, came across my desk, and I had to take a closer look. 


As I learned, I thought, should I dignify this work with a blog post?

‘Racial’ separatism and the belief that those of ‘different races’ should be not just separate but often killed off completely still exist in our society, so… yes. Ick.

Cox was born in Knoxville Tennessee, home of my alma mater. A quick search reveals no known connection to the family of Cherokee-killer John Sevier, who homesteaded and populated those mountains, but perhaps Earnest’s thoughts were borne from the Indian killing generation to his mind and heart by bloodline. And on the other hand, to be fair, Sevierville Tennessee was anti slavery and anti-secession in the Civil War era. (“Sevierville Tennessee,” Wikipedia). Perhaps Earnest’s loss of his father at a young age left him emotionally stunted and scrambling for something he could believe in and fight for.  Who can’t have at least some grain of compassion for that 12 year old boy Cox once was?

And this copy is signed with a gift inscription in the careful, crabbed handwriting of a sick old man. This wouldn’t be the first time I have felt some compassion for old men isolated from loved ones and society by their misdeeds or so deeply immersed in their principles that they cannot see the truths of the human condition. The recipient passed away in Virginia in 2008, I believe. I can’t find any trace of their association other than this.


I lived in the South most of my life, but the verbiage he chose for his titles somehow still made my jaw drop.   

  • White America (1923)
  • Let My People Go (1925)
  • The South’s Part in Mongrelizing the Nation (1926)
  • Lincoln’s Negro Policy (1938)
  • Three Million Negroes Thank the State of Virginia (1940)
  • Teutonic Unity (1951)
  • Black Belt Around the World at the High Noon of Colonialism (1963)

He helped pass the Virginia anti-miscegenation laws that were finally and famously overturned by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Loving v Virginia. 

Cox worked with both former Nazi believers in ‘racial purity’ holed up in Argentina and Northern Europe AND with African Americans like Marcus Garvey who saw repatriation to Africa as the only way to heal and rebuild from the evils and abuses of slavery in America.  Some Americans of African descent were also against mixing and wanted the political, geographical and cultural haven from persecution that might be provided by a nation of their own. 

Toward the end of his life he self-published this volume and distributed it for free, in service to his ideals. 

The thoughts espoused by Cox and his international Nazi and Nordicist buddies are so distasteful, and as we now know in this era of genetic testing to prove ancestry, they are largely fiction. We have many skin colors. We are geographically culturally and perhaps ethnically diverse. But we are One Human Race.

I also believe ‘kids today’ are eradicating prejudice. They just couldn’t care less. Say what ya want about them, and it’s probably almost all true, but I believe they are our hope for an end, at least in developed countries, to hate  harm or marginalization of people due to traits they were born with and cannot help. Thank God.

And people self identifying as two or more races continues to be the fastest growing group on the US Census. The word self identifying is important though, because if your family has been on this continent for more than a century, you most likely have some fraction, no matter how invisible, of some oppressed group’s blood in your veins- indigenous American or African American, Jewish, what have ya.   

But while oppression continues- abuse of children, marginalization and ignorance of the culture and voices of women and minority groups, uses of our environment and natural resources that poison those who live nearby and ultimately our entire human family, anywhere a sense that we can somehow silence or overpower another group of humans in some way for our own benefit and peace of mind still exists, it is important to understand this sort of thinking and how these thoughts are ‘justified’ to keep ourselves off of certain slippery slopes. I worry that in the backlash against ‘political correctness’ we will forget why it matters.

A useful quick dose of Cox’s views and his role on the American and world stage in the White Supremacist or Nordicist movements from the 20’s through the 50’s can be found on Google Books on the scanned pages of a tome called Science for Segregation by one John P. Jackson.   Apparently Cox thought that keeping ‘races’ separate was part of survival of the fittest. Since I have always understood that a diverse gene pool helps keep recessive dangerous traits at bay- Hapsburg jaw? Haemophilia anyone?  I am not sure where he got that. I didn’t feel like pursuing it though. 

A more personal account of his lonely, angry, wandering life can be found on Encyclopedia Virginia’s website- “Earnest Sevier Cox” 

Wikipedia is, as always, invaluable for quick, concise, broad strokes on any given matter or person. “Earnest Sevier Cox”

 Someone take this book off my hands, preferably to study how to peacefully eradicate thoughts like these for good. 

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Filed under African, American, Antiquarian, History, Latin American, Signed, social currents, Southern

I’m back!

A friend recently gave me the Ray Davies tribute album This is Where I Belong. It brought  my adolescent crush on Davies back in an overwhelming rush. In my heartstruck state I have been doing some research and found out just how much growth and innovation the Kinks and Davies personally contributed to early rock and roll.

So naturally this one comes to mind when I sit down at my Wine Country Books desk for the first time in too long. How I’ve missed you, books!  I got me an exercise ball chair… I got me a stack o’ books… In here in the dark I can hear the birds singing sweetly out there. It is an unseasonably beautiful November day here in wine country, perfect for photographs of my lovely books. To work!

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Filed under Music, Rock and Roll

Striving toward such an epitaph

“It is my belief that having reached this concluding chapter, the reader must be aware by now that Tennessee Williams is a man with fewer major faults than many less interesting people.” Gilbert Maxwell, Tennessee Williams and Friends An Informal Biography. 1965, World Publishing Company


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July 29, 2013 · 7:15 pm

Scott Freeman’s Midnight Riders: The story of the Allman Brothers Band

(First Edition, First Printing, Little Brown and Co 1995)

Midnight Riders was a bestseller.  Scott Freeman was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize while at the Macon Telegraph and News.  Just looking at the title forced me to crank up some Allman Brothers.

Don’t even try to tell me those first few Hammond B3/acoustic notes don’t make your heart stir in recognition and fellow-feeling. Arrangement, vocals, lyrics…

“tells of the brothers’ difficult childhood: their extraordinary self-education in the world of Southern blues and r&b; their unsuccessful early musical incarnations; and their triumph as they rose to unimaginable wealth and success…” drugs, Dixie Mafia connections, tragedy, loss, and musicians and storytellers at the very top of their craft… what’s not to love?

midnight riders

Get Midnight Riders: The story of the Allman Brothers Band by Scott Freeman at your public library. If not there, buy the first edition, first printing here.  Condition VG+ (book pristine, appears unread, dust jacket shows shelf wear including shine partially rubbed away)

A steal at $30 and shipping is free! Email winecountrybooksnapa at gmail dot com.



July 25, 2013 · 3:10 am