Tuesday 1 December 2020

and Whitman's Butterfly

 In the course of my researches, I came across the phrase 'a butterfly good-time', attributed to Walt Whitman. I wasn't able to source it (anyone?), but while searching online I found this remarkable photograph, which I'd never seen before (though I suspect it might be familiar to American readers). It shows – or purports to show – Walt communing with a butterfly that has settled on his finger. 'The picture is substantially literal,' Whitman told his chronicler Horace Traubel. 'We were good friends: I had quite the in-and-out of taming, or fraternising with, some of the insects, animals.' In the same vein, he told the historian William Roscoe Thayer that 'I've always had the knack of attracting birds and butterflies and other critters.' 
  This was all prime BS, of course, yet another example of Whitman's endless self-mythologising. The butterfly is in fact a die-cut cardboard novelty item, attached to the poet's finger by a ring that is clearly visible in the photograph. The cardboard butterfly turned up many years later among Whitman's notebooks. It is not altogether convincing...


  1. I just did a shallow dive on Google hoping that Nabokov had encountered the photo and the accompanying quote, but nothing turned up. Oh well. Imagining the reaction is going to keep me grinning all day.

  2. Yes, I don't think Vlad would have been hugely impressed by Walt's fakery. Funny, isn't it, that if you Google search 'Nabokov Whitman' the first thing you get is one of Lana Del Rey's tattoos...

    1. And the related Frequently Asked Question, "What does 'Nabokov'mean?"