Video/Production – Ned Brown

Arts & Culture

Literary Luminaries

2 min read

James R. Russell
Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

For many years, I taught a House seminar on Vladimir Nabokov, and another on great alienated Cambridge writers among whom he figured. The noted Russian-American writer lived in Cambridge longer than anywhere else in the United States. Here at Harvard he wrote his ars poetica, “Fame.” Here he wrote his first great English-language novel, “Bend Sinister.” Here he gave classes the first mimeographs of his translation of the “Igor” epic. Here at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, he classified Lepidoptera.

Vladimir Vladimirovich is one of many extraordinary, creative literary minds who walked Harvard’s halls and meadows and whose spirits hover over us. Jorge Luis Borges, while staying here to lecture, had a ghostly encounter with his double, on a bench on the banks of the Charles. After graduating from Harvard, William S. Burroughs Jr. wrote his first subversive short story, about the sinking of the Titanic, while living on Mount Auburn Street. T.S. Eliot, who lived a few blocks away on Ash Street while teaching at the College, kept a manuscript of “The Waste Land” in a chest at the back of the house. The list goes on: Seamus Heaney, E.E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau …

One of the greatest and least known American writers of the 20th century, Delmore Schwartz, author of “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” and other short stories and poems studied, taught, and wrote at Harvard. Saul Bellow wrote a novel about Schwartz, “Humboldt’s Gift.” My favorite Schwartz abode is 9 Story St., and I often walk home that way from work. It reminds me that out of the incidents of the day, the many lives around the square, the very air (trembling with electricity in autumn, sere in winter, sweet in spring), stories are woven, and each of us can write his or hers.