On this day in 1958, Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita is published in the U.S.
The novel, about a man’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl, had been rejected by four publishers before G.P. Putnam’s Sons accepted it. The novel became a bestseller that allowed Nabokov to retire from his career as college professor.
Nabokov was born in 1899 in St. Petersburg, Russia, into a wealthy and privileged family. He lived in a St. Petersburg townhouse and on a country estate, and learned boxing, tennis, and chess. He grew up speaking both English and Russian, attended Cambridge, and inherited $2 million from an uncle. However, his family lost much of their wealth when the Russian Revolution forced them to flee to Germany. Nabokov earned money by teaching boxing and tennis, and creating Russian crossword puzzles. He worked during the day and wrote at night, sometimes in the bathroom so the light wouldn’t bother his family. He wrote many novels and short stories in Russian. In 1939, the tall, athletic scholar was invited to Stanford to lecture on Slavic languages. He stayed in the U.S. for 20 years, teaching at Wellesley and Cornell, and pursuing an avid interest in butterflies. (In fact, he was a research fellow at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and discovered several species and subspecies of butterflies.) He and his wife, Vera, spent summers driving around the U.S., staying in motels, and looking for butterflies. The motels, the American landscape, and butterflies all figure prominently in various works.
Nabokov’s first novel in English was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. His most successful books in the U.S. were Lolita and Ada (1969), a family chronicle about a childhood romance between two close relations, which becomes a lifelong obsession between the characters.
Nabokov and his wife returned to Europe in 1959, and he died in Switzerland in 1977.