The campus of Southern Oregon University

Nabokov in Ashland, Oregon
by D. Barton Johnson and Sheila Golburgh Johnson

Nabokov had planned to spend the summer of 1953 writing and butterfly hunting in Southeastern Arizona. In mid-April he and Vera arrived in the hamlet of Portal, the gateway to the Chiricahua Mountains, where they had rented a cottage on a ranch. Although the area was exceptionally rich in bird life (and still is), the weather and the butterfly collecting is poor. Waiting for decent collecting weather, Nabokov devoted himself to working on Lolita and to reworking Conclusive Evidence into Russian. The weather did not improve and, having killed a rattlesnake near their doorstep, the Nabokovs decided to look for a more hospitable setting.

The Nabokovs’ son, Dmitri, then finishing his sophomore year at Harvard, was to spend the summer working on a construction site in Oregon and then go climbing with his mountaineering club in British Columbia. This, together with Nabokov’s desire to add another possible locale for Humbert and Lo’s travels and to broaden his collecting range, brought him to Ashland (population circa 8,000), eleven miles north of the border on Interstate 5 (Boyd II, 223-226).

Ashland lies at the south end of the valley formed by the scenic Rogue River, justly famed for fishing and rugged river-rafting. The rather steeply terraced town lies at about 2,000 feet and is separated from California by a range of mountains peaked by Mount Ashland at 7,500 feet. The mountain views of the surrounding canyons and the valley are indeed spectacular, and the mountain meadows sometimes retain their flower cover into September, making it a good place for butterflies.

Ashland itself is heavily flowered and takes great pride in Lithia Park, a mile and a half stretch along a mountain stream adjacent to extensive public gardens. At one time the park had been the site of a watering spot, famed for the curative powers of its lithium mineral springs. By far the largest and tallest structure in town was the once elegant resort hotel, the Lithia (now the Mark Anthony, still bearing traces of its former grandeur.) As the tourist brochures say, “Within an hour’s drive of Ashland, you will find many rivers, lakes and mountains and an abundance of wildlife.”

The town is best known for its Shakespeare Festival dating back to 1935 when the town’s decaying Chautauqua site was replaced with the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, a simulacrum of The Globe. Now rebuilt and supplemented by the elegant Angus Bowmer Theater, and the smaller Black Swan, the theaters form a major dramatic arts center, specializing in Shakespeare, but offering a wide range of plays, both old and new. There are also several good used-book stores and restaurants.

In recent years, my wife, Sheila, and I have taken to spending a week or so in and around Ashland theater-going and birdwatching. Knowing the Nabokovs had spent a couple of months there, we decided to poke about and see if ghosts lingered. Armed with the dates and the Nabokovs’ rental address by Brian Boyd and the name of the archivist of Southern Oregon College by Stacy Schiff (Vera Nabokov’s biographer), we launched or casual investigation

The house rented by the Nabokovs at 163 Mead Street still stands. Although ten minutes on foot from the main street, Siskoyou Blvd., it is not easy to find. For one, Mead is but two blocks long and not on all of the town maps. For another, city sources spell the name as both Mead and Meade. I have marked its location on the city map below.

163 Mead Street is marked by the lower of the two small red circles; the second circle is the site of the Ashland County Library (see below)

The easiest way to get to the house is on foot. Locate the Ashland Country Library at 405 Siskiyou Boulevard and the corner of Gresham. Walk (steeply) up Gresham about four blocks to Pearl. Turn right and follow Pearl (for the one short block of its existence) to where it dead ends at Mead. Directly across from you is the mailbox for 163 Mead.

The concrete retaining wall at the left of the mailbox marks the lower end of a steep driveway up to the house. Dmitri, who visited his parents there, recalls taking advantage of the downhill driveway slope to get his aged car going.

Some fifteen feet up and slightly to the left of the box, you will see, flanked by a handsome madrone on the left and a Ponderosa pine on the right, a small house screened from prying eyes by a wooden fence. The cottage is surrounded by flowering shrubs and has an Oregon Oak shading the small back yard.

The next shot shows the front entrance and the living room picture window, followed by a view from the front of the house.

The present owner of the house knows of its Nabokovian history and there is a copy of Lolita on her book shelf. She has, she says, occasionally seen curious souls peering over her fence. It is not surprising since the address may be found in Brian Boyd’s biography and in the Homes and Haunts section of ZEMBLA. If you visit, please respect her privacy.

The Nabokovs spent July and August at 163 Mead. The butterfly collecting in the area was apparently excellent since Nabokov told his sister that his butterfly passion had become a real mania. Boyd reports that Nabokov walked as much as eighteen miles a day in the surrounding mountains. It was also an extraordinarily productive writing summer. Lolita was nearing its final form and Vera was transcribing its text at the typewriter as Vladimir dictated from his manuscript pages (Boyd II, 225). Much of he opening chapter of Pnin was written here and mailed off to The New Yorker on July 26th (Diment 45; Barabtarlo 73). Nabokov also composed two poems: “The Ballad of Longwood Glen” (June or July) and “Lines Written in Oregon” (August 29). The Lolita work was presumably done at the Mead Street address, and Brian Boyd has privately suggested to me that it may be the source for Lolita ‘s famous “Lawn Street.” But at least some of Nabokov’s writing was done at the local college library.

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* Unless otherwise noted, biographical information is drawn from Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991). Specific information about Pnin is drawn from Gennady Barabtarlo, Phantom of Fact: A Guide to Nabokov’s Pnin (Ardis: Ann Arbor, 1989) and Galya Diment, Pniniad (Seattle: U. Of Washington Press, 1997). Photographs, unless otherwise noted, are by Sheila Golburgh Johnson. My special thanks to Southern Oregon University Archivist Herold Otness and to Mrs. Lisa Cobo.