Butterfly drawings on the 1958 American edition of “Lolita.” From the book “Nabokov’s Butterflies” From the book “Nabokov’s Butterflies”

A literary giant's love of butterflies

After spending the day catching butterflies on Mount Ashland in the summer of 1953, Vladimir Nabokov would return to his Meade Street home to finish what is regarded by literary scholars to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

Nabokov was working on "Lolita" in the home above downtown Ashland, during what he called an "extraordinarily productive writing summer."

A 1999 fire destroyed the house at 163 Meade St. that Nabokov and his wife, Vera, rented from a professor who taught at what is now Southern Oregon University.

But Ashland residents can return to the mountain where Nabokov classified butterflies and the novel in which he alluded to them.

A fundraiser at the Mount Ashland ski lodge Sunday, sponsored by the Jackson County Library Foundation, will provide background on the novelist's time in Ashland, his studies of butterflies and his writing about the winged creatures. Proceeds from the event will benefit the county's public libraries.

"Scientists think of him as a scientist, and literary people think of him as a writer," said Shelley Austin, the foundation's executive director. "It's pretty amazing because he was so accomplished in both of those fields."

The 3 to 7 p.m. Nabokov on Mount Ashland event will feature a lecture by Robert Michael Pyle, co-editor of "Nabokov's Butterflies," a collection of Nabokov's writing, translated by his son, Dmitri Nabokov.

Pyle, who holds a doctorate in ecology from Yale University, plans to search Mount Ashland for a relative of the butterfly Nabokov was studying while writing "Lolita" and to show audience members the live butterfly, called Nabokov's Blue.

"Participants may have an opportunity to see live examples of the actual kind of butterflies he worked on," Pyle said.

The Gray's River, Wash., resident also plans to play a recording of Nabokov reading his poem, "Lines Written in Oregon," that he wrote in Ashland.

An Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor, who has yet to be announced, will read from Nabokov's work. Tickets to the event, which includes a catered dinner, cost $36.

Nabokov was as serious about becoming a lepidopterist, or butterfly collector, as he was a writer, Austin said.

"My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting," Nabokov wrote in "Strong Opinions," a collection of his essays, interviews and letters to editors.

Butterfly allusions flit through the pages of "Lolita," about a romance between a middle-aged professor and a 12-year-old girl, Lolita. The professor, Humbert Humbert, compares Lolita to a butterfly.

Nabokov used the same language to describe the Blue butterfly in his scientific writing as he did to describe Lolita in his novel, Pyle said.

"This is Nabokov's big caper, that he used some of the same language to describe the girl and the butterfly," he said. "He probably wondered if anyone would ever notice."

Just as Humbert loved Lolita, Nabokov loved butterflies.

"Every summer my wife and I go butterfly hunting," he wrote in his 1956 essay "On a Book Entitled 'Lolita.' " "It was at such of our headquarters as Telluride, Colorado; Afton, Wyoming; Portal, Arizona; and Ashland, Oregon that 'Lolita' was energetically resumed in the evenings or on cloudy days. I finished copying the thing out in longhand in the spring of 1954, and at once began casting around for a publisher."

The novel was published in Paris in 1955 and in the U.S. in 1958, creating a sensation because of its controversial subject matter. The book sold out the day it reached U.S. shelves and was on best-seller lists for a year, Austin said.

Nabokov discovered Ashland while traveling to visit his son, Dmitri, in Roseburg, she said. The author and his wife ended up spending July though September of that year in Ashland.

"He found that this was an abundant place for butterflies," Austin said. "Between the middle of July and the middle of August is when most of the flowers and butterflies are out. So that's right now and it's just gorgeous up there.

"Once you get butterflies in your head, you see them everywhere, and I've been seeing them everywhere," she said.

Just like Nabokov.

For more information on the event or to buy tickets, see or call the library foundation at 541-774-6572.

Hannah Guzik is a reporter at the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or

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