Nabokov's Golliwoggs: Lodi Reads English 1899-1909
by D. Barton Johnson
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The Golliwogg motif, the Sophie motif (and the Mayne Reid one), find their culmination in the final scene of Speak, Memory. But the revelation is subtle. The American Golliwogg is echoed in the latent figure of the colorful clothes ”cakewalking” on the clothesline overlooking St. Nazaire harbor from which the Nabokovs will leave for America. The Sophie motif points in the same westerly direction. Just as Mademoiselle tacitly calls attention to the opening two chapters of Les Malheurs de Sophie (by substituting Sophie’s wax-doll for the Volodya’s burial of the Golliwogg), the final scene of Speak, Memory evokes the last chapter of Sophie which tells of the departure of Sophie’s and Paul’s families for America aboard the Sibylle. Like Nabokov’s Humbert, the family has been left an inheritance by “an American uncle“ whose will specifies that they must go to America.22 The Nabokov family that departed France aboard the Champlain some eighty years later had, alas, no “American Uncle.”

It is a truism that Nabokov’s Speak, Memory is a highly selective account of his early life. Each detail has been chosen not so much because “it happened” but because it contributed to the major themes that formed Nabokov’s life. Nabokov’s childhood English reading is part of one of these themes. It is not by chance that Speak, Memory ends with the Nabokovs’ departure for America. If the main theme of Speak, Memory is the development of the man and the writer, its geographical goal is America.23

Many of Nabokov’s childhood books have American connections. The earliest are either mythical or English in setting, e.g., fairly tales or King Arthur. Florence Montgomery’s Misunderstood is the only more or less contemporary English work and its parallels to Nabokov’s own existence are apparent.24 Meade’s Beyond the Blue Mountains is presumably mythical in setting but already it sounds the theme of being called to distant place, much as that English fairy tale in which the boy is drawn into the picture and set on the wooded path. The Golliwogg books, although Anglo-American in origin, feature a purely American hero and two dolls draped in an American flag. The Golliwogg is part of the “blackface” American popular culture of the time with its minstrel shows, cakewalks, and so on. De Ségur’s classic Les Malheurs de Sophie ends with the family’s departure for America. The “Buster Brown” and “Foxy Grandpa” comic strips are wholly American creations and are the Index’s first invocation of the American theme.25 And, in a few years, the boy’s adventure books of Captain Mayne Reid, who himself emigrated to America, will create the American Wild West for the young Nabokov. Like much else in Speak, Memory, the books and illustrations of Nabokov’s “English childhood” point toward his destiny as an American writer.

University of California at Santa Barbara

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Notes

22. This parallel was first pointed out to me by Dutch Nabokovian Gerard de Vries.

23. Speak, Memory's “Index” provides a curious example. “America” rates several, mostly fleeting references. The only extended one is “119-139.” These pages prove to be Chapter Six, the butterfly chapter which follows Nabokov from his first swallowtail at Vyra to his discoveries in the mountains of the American West.

24. Nabokov affection for Montgomery’s maudlin novella is reminiscent of his odd admiration for H.G. Well’s Passionate Friends (1913) which Nabokov listed as among the most underrated books of the last seventy-five years. Nabokov’s attitude toward the novel, basically a feminist tract, can be explained only in terms of autobiographical resonance. See my World’s in Regression, pp. 176 & 183.

25. Nabokov’s interest in comic strips was not limited to his childhood. Axel Rex, protagonist of Laughter in the Dark is a cartoonist, the creator of “Cheepy.” Bend Sinister also features an invented comic strip (Etermon) and Speak, Memory pays its coded tribute to Otto Soglow’s strip The Little King. Alfred Appel, whose 1974 Nabokov’s Dark Cinema ( New York, Oxford UP) remains the best introduction to Nabokov’s use of images from popular culture, surveys his American comic strip allusions (pp. 74-85). Dick Tracy and Kerry Drake figure in Lolita, as does Lo’s favorite strip Penny. Appel also quotes a personal conversation in which Nabokov mused: “Dennis the Menace doesn’t look like his father. Could he be illegitimate?”(31). When he ponders writing a letter about it to The Herald Tribune, "he is dissuaded by Vera who remarks that the paper had not printed his earlier letter about plot inconsistencies in Rex Morgan.”

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