Vladimir Nabokov

Colloquy on Browning's Door

Compiled by Stephen H. Blackwell

Note: The following exchange took place between the 6th and 21st of February, 1995, on the electronic "journal" NABOKV-L, edited by D. Barton Johnson. The rejoinders are in chronological order, minimally edited.
—Stephen H. Blackwell

* * *

Would anyone care to offer elucidating comment on a sentence in the chronology at the end of Nikolai Gogol? It's in the entry for "Winter 1836-1837": "Browning's door is preserved in the library of Wellesley College” (p. 159 of my New Directions paperback). An apparent non-sequitur which yet nets Browning a spot in the index. And, while we're at it: is it?

Allan McWilliams
U. of Arizona

* * *

Does anyone know if the door really exists and which Browning owned it? It could not possibly be Robert Browning since at the time he was not even twenty years old. Elizabeth, who was older, did not becoming a Browning till later. But I do think Nabokov, playing yet another hoax and trick, wants his reader to associate it with Robert Browning, even though it may have been a name of one of Wellesley's presidents, for all I know. He does not provide one with Mr. Brownings first name in the index, either. Nabokov did not believe in indexes or chronology (that


is why he starts Gogol's book with the writer’s death), did them reluctantly when asked (as was the case in the Gogol book) and poked fun of them while at it. I think the significance of the Browning's door entry was not Browning but Wellesley College where he taught at the time of finishing the book. He is most likely making fun of Wellesley's—and America's (especially when compared to Europe)—lack of "real" history by commemorating a trivial event of this kind. By making his readers assume that the door belonged to the most famous of all Brownings, who happens to be English, not American, Nabokov may be also underscoring the lack of American literary history as well. And then, of course, he also liked Robert Browning.

Galya Diment
University of Washington

* * *

I always assumed this was true. VN taught at Wellesley, after all. E. A. Poe's door used to be on Colonel Gimbel's suite in Pierson college at Yale. A door from Poe’s Philadelphia house, I think. These odd things do happen. Dickens inkwell is in Longfellow's house in Cambridge.

David R. Slavitt

* * *

I have used the fine library at Wellesley and must say that I have never noticed this door there, so it must be kept well away from serious business, or else it just look like all the other doors in the place. I do think I’ve heard this tale before, though it may just have been in reading Nikolai Gogol. As to what it means, here is


my interpretation: you will have noticed in this Chronology a rather playful attitude towards the idea of giving a useful account of Gogol's life in this form. Generally we know that Nabokov and his doubts about biography (see particularly his lecture on "le vrai et le vraisemblable"), though he was also drawn into it (as in The Gift, and indeed at various points in the main text of this book). There is a tendency to paint little scenes but also point up their literary rather than factual basis, or otherwise make clear the distance between a life and our ability to reconstruct it in writing; the Chronology sometimes plays the game of depicting Gogol's life, and sometimes it makes fun of the game or seeks to remind us of its rules. This particular entry in the Chronology which tells us about Browning's door is the third in a sequence that details some of Gogol's European wanderings, and it starts out by telling us that in Paris Gogol lived on the corner of the Place de la Bourse and rue Vivienne. Well, if it's important to know the geographical location at which much of the first part of Dead Souls was written, wouldn't it be still more instructive to have before you the very door of the house where it all happened? We have that for Browning. Alas, this important resource for the scholar has apparently been lost in Gogol’s case.

John Lavagnino
Department of English and American Literature,
Brandeis University

* * *

I am still at a loss about the date, even assuming that such a door exists and it is at Wellesley. Browning was born in 1812; he published his first poem — anonymously—in 1833. He traveled to Russia in 1834 — that may be yet another link for Nabokov in connection with Gogol. He also was in Italy in 1838, when Gogol was there too. By 1836 Browning was just


gaining fame—Paracelsus was published in 1835. It is possible that Wellesley would acquire his door after just one successful work?

Galya Diment

* * *

I wish I could remember exactly, and I will try to find the correct information about this, but I do recall some association between the Wellesley Library and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's door. I was a student at Wellesley when Nabokov taught there and took several courses in the Russian language from him.

Naomi B. Pascal
University of Washington

* * *

That would really make lots of sense since Wellesley is a woman's college. It also would explain why Nabokov steers away from giving the first name or an initial--he is playing a trick on us all. The problem with the date is then also explained, since she was an accomplished poet by then. She was also, of course, still a Barrett, and was yet to even meet her future husband-to-be but that is precisely why Nabokov can play this joke on us. He may have even foreseen that we would look into Robert Browning's biography—which he probably knew—find about his Russian trip and try to connect it to Gogol this way. Gave him quite a few chuckles, I am sure, at our expense.

Galya Diment

* * *


While we're brainstorming (a word I hope VN would have hated, by the way), every time I read notes about this subject I cannot help associating it with Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown(ing) (a story I can imagine VN disliking if not wildly hating) and the door out of which this character ventures out into the world to eventually become a sour, dour misanthropist. I can still see his wife's ribbons fluttering in the breeze in my mind’s fuzzy eye. This all may be totally out in left field, as I do not know whether VN ever read Hawthorne (but I bet he did).

James McShane
Queens Borough Public Library

* * *

Pilgrimage to "Browning's Door"

Last evening, I went to see Browning's door at Wellesley College. It is located on the fourth floor of the Clapp library, just outside the "Special Collections" room. Forgive my lack of expertise in doors. The door appears to be made of oak (?), with four inlaid panels and a seam down the middle. It has a brass knocker (again — excuse my terminological ignorance) and a large brass mail slot (marked "LETTERS") a little below waist level (depending on your waist). On the threshold, a plaque reads, "The Door of 50 Wimpole Street. Given to Wellesley College by Mrs. Charles F. Griffith of Philadelphia. May 1937.”

At Wellesley, the letter slot seems to have been the door's most prominent feature. In the August 1937 Wellesley College Magazine appears Caroline Hazard's dedicatory address of May 20. In 1930, it turns out, Hazard had acquired for the college Robert Browning’s remarkable love-letters to Elizabeth Barrett, which


had, of course, passed through the door's slot. The first letter was written in January, 1845, a week after Browning began reading Barrett’s two volumes of poems published in 1844. They met on May 20, 1845 at 50 Wimpole, and married on September 12, 1846.

For Hazard, the creative romance emanating from the letters and the door is augmented by the fact that the acquisition of the letters was made possible by a benefactor with a remarkable love story of his own, a philosopher from Harvard named George Herbert Palmer. Evidently, his wife also wrote poetry, and after her death, Palmer stocked Wellesley s (now destroyed) Browning room with rare books and first editions. His antiquarian connections uncovered the Browning letters in 1930.

All of this is to suggest that in the Wellesley College tradition, the door's primary significance was a symbol of an alliance of loving creativity. It may be that the letters themselves hold clues to Nabokov's mention of the door in the Gogol book. (The letters are published, but I have not looked at them). On the other hand, perhaps the entry is simply Nabokov's tribute to great and creative loves.

When I first read Nikolai Gogol years ago, I assumed that the Browning entry was merely Nabokov's joke on the editors who insisted on a chronology but did not read it. Even such a reading remains satisfying, if not complete. In response to Galya Diment's observation, I think that when Nabokov laughs, he does so at the expense not of his good readers, but of his careless ones. In the chronology, I sense an inclusive chuckle.

Stephen Blackwell

* * *

My wife, whose field of expertise is psychoanalytical approaches to lit, was shocked, SHOCKED! to learn that Robert Browning had been


slipping things into that prominent slot "a little below waist level", especially with that "brass knocker" above! I realize that "BB" would eschew any such considerations, but I no longer fear his raising a rowe [sic.—sb] over this.

Ki semenat ispinaza, non andet iskultsu!

J. A. Rea

* * *

After following the discussion about Nabokov and Browning's door, I was surprised to discover on the front page of Saturday, February 11, 1995's Boston Globe an article about a new biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which contained a photo of Browning's door and brief description of how Wellesley College came to own it. It seems that Wellesley College students also found a use for the mail slot, passing valentine cards. That is until the College decided to nail the slot shut.

Jonathan Thomas

Collection Development Librarian

Boston College Law Library

* * *

It strikes me as particularly ironic that Nabokov chose to feature the door which is associated with one of the most famous Victorian romances in a work of Gogol, of all people, who was not particularly known (to use a Victorian understatement) for his romantic feelings towards women. An accident—or a fully-intended gesture?

Galya Diment


* * *

My goodness! First we have observations on Browning's letters posted through a slot "below waist height". Now we have confirmation that the slot was used for Valentines until the slot was "nailed shut" <ugh!>... and to top it all the latest information comes from a Mr. John Thomas. Where will all this end!?—

Roy Johnson

* * *

On Browning's Door. I think Blackwell is quite right that VN doesn't hoodwink his reader; rather, he invites him to wink at Laughlin's misplaced pedantry. But there is more to it, for the playful entry is packed tight.

"Winter 1836-37.

"Paris. Lived on the corner of the Place de la Bourse and rue Vivienne. Wrote there a large portion of the First Part of Dead Souls. Browning's door is preserved in the library of Wellesley College. On warmish days he took Chichikov for strolls in the Tuileries. Sparrows, grey statues."

The door is inserted as a tribute to Gogol's famous non-sequitur zigzags, a stylistic trademark quirk that VN points up at every turn in his book (and in his lectures). Examples are immense in number, but it seems offhand that the closest in tone is the one at the close of "The Diary of a Madman".

Taking Chichikov for strolls in the Tuileries paraphrases the famous line in Eugene Onegin (I v Letnii Sad guliat' vodil—And to the Letniy Sad took him for walks, in VN's translation. See also his not to his line). Of course, Pushkin died a violent death that very "Winter of 1836-37," while Gogol was in Paris evolving a plot of his Dead Souls that Pushkin had palmed him (according to Gogol). (Cf. the next entry.)


The chirping and twittering of the sparrows sitting on the grey statues in the Gardens, droppings and all, are imitated in "chichikov" and "tuileries." Gogol, Pushkin, and the frivolous, onomatopoeic, multi-planed "Vivienne" form a string familiar to the reader of The Gift, while Browning, he or she, seems immaterial.

Gene Barabtarlo

* * *

I was just glancing at the 1971 reissue of Nikolai Gogol, and I noticed that Browning's Door, the Browning index listing, and indeed a great many humorous index items were expunged from that late edition. I wonder whose decision that was!

Stephen Blackwell

* * *

Compiler's Afterward

As a closing remark, I would like to point out two connections that arose after the "colloquy" had run its course. First, about the Boston Globe article and the biography it features: the main topic of the biography in question (Dared and Done, by Julia Markus; Alfred A. Knopf) is the part-African heritage of Elizabeth Barrett's paternal lineage: her grandfather, purportedly, was the son of a plantation owner and a slave in Jamaica. The article includes a photograph of Barrett, which is also housed at Wellesley and displays distinctly African facial features. Nabokov would have had access to these materials. I think we know of another poet with an African great-grandfather....


Second, Barabtarlo's reference to The Gift may be doubly apt: recall the scene at the beginning of Chapter Two: "Among the birches there was an old acquaintance, with a double trunk, a birch-lyre, and beside it an old post with a board on it; nothing could be made out on it except bullet marks; a Browning had once been fired at it by his [Fyodor’s] English tutor— also Browning—and then Father had taken the pistol, swiftly and dexterously ramming bullets into the clip, and knocked out a smooth К with seven shots" (78-9). This is probably just charming coincidence, but it is matched by another: just as Robert Browning found Elizabeth Barrett through her poetry, so also Zina Mertz finds Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev through his.

Stephen Blackwell
Indiana University