The campus of Southern Oregon University

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

Ashland is the home of Southern Oregon State College. Founded in 1872, it was, in the early fifties, the Southern Oregon College of Education. The campus, located just off the main street (Siskiyou Blvd) at the south end of town is green and spacious. I soon located Harold Otness, the college archivist, in his office in the library. Although he had not been there in the fifties, he knew about Nabokov’s connection with the town and school. Harold Otness performed wonders for me. Not only did he burrow into the files and unearth some forty-year-old correspondence, but he contacted on my behalf many of the “old timers” who had been there in the early fifties. Alas, few were still about and none of them had known the Nabokovs. The natural sciences people did not recognize the name and the literature faculty had apparently had no contact with him, although they knew the name. There was only one link -- Arthur S. Taylor, the Nabokovs’ landlord. Taylor, Professor of Social Science, and Chairman of the Department, was one of the leading lights of the college where he taught from 1926 until 1963. He is commemorated in a handsome modern social sciences building named “Taylor Hall.”

In the summer of 1953 Dr. Taylor, his wife Blanch, and their daughter Georgia went east to visit the State Teachers College at Oswego, NY, leaving their small house at 163 Mead Street vacant . Before departing, Dr. Taylor rented his home to the Nabokovs and introduced him to Miss Myrtle Funkhouser, the college librarian. The only written record I could find was an exchange of letters between Taylor and Miss Funkhouser. A letter of 23 July 1953 from Dr. Taylor ends “Best regards to all. Nabokov wanted me to thank you for your courtesy. They seem to be real nice.” Miss Funkhouser replied on the 29th with a rather newsier letter. She has been attending Festival rehearsals for Taming of the Shrew; the college President is fussing because the men of the institution do not set a proper example for the youth of the nation in their school attire”; and that Dr. Taylor’s department was bemoaning his absence since he was not there to provide questions for and correct the exams of the eight graduate students. No word of Nabokov.

I also paid a visit to the English Department. Although some of the English faculty people knew Nabokov had spent time in Ashland, none had any first-hand information about his stay. One of them, Don Reynolds, mentioned, however, that Nabokov had once been a patient of his doctor. I spoke with Dr. Aubrey M. Hill on the phone. Still in practice in 1996, he had only recently opened his office when the Nabokov’s came to see him in the summer of 1953. He no longer recalled what the medical problem had been (something minor, he said) but that Nabokov remained by far the most eminent patient he had ever had. He also recalled encountering the Nabokovs on the street and exchanging chit-chat about the plays.

The building containing Miss Funkhouser’s College Library where Nabokov apparently did some of his work also stands, although the library itself now occupies a new building. In the fifities, the library was on the second floor of Central Hall. Archivist Otness produced for me the photograph of the modest library given below. In the picture the room has, alas, been rearranged for a lecture. It may well be Pnin’s birthplace.

For those who wish to pay their respects to Timofey Pnin, I provide a map of Southern Oregon State College campus with Central Hall highlighted. (A larger version of the map is available at the Southern Oregon University Web site.)

The photographs below show the newly completed Central Hall (1951), its present entrance, and a view of the picturesque campus.

The College Library in Central Hall was within easy walking distance of the Nabokovs’ rental. It was not so near, however, nor nearly so charming as the town library just down the hill from their residence. It would be surprising, if Nabokov, at one time or another, had not taken advantage of the nearby facility. ( I am pleased to report that both the college and town libraries, as well as local book stores, have quite respectable Nabokov holdings.) Because it affords a good starting point for seeing the house at 163 Mead Street, I have marked the Public Library on the town map above and include a photograph of it here.

The Nabokovs spent a pleasant and productive two months in Ashland. The town did not, however, find its way into Lolita or, for that matter, into any of Nabokov’s writings. The writer’s only explicit literary memento of Oregon is his strange and haunting poem “Lines Written in Oregon” with its ghostly Phantom Orchid and the mysterious “Esmeralda” to whom the poem is addressed. Like many of Nabokov’s allusions, this one is multi-layered. In part though, it evokes the lush greenery of the Ashland setting.

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