When Vladimir Nabokov came to Springfield

The great Russian novelist, author of Lolita, was taken aback by a flagpole enthusiast

click to enlarge Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977, visited the Illinois State Museum for its butterfly collection.
Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977, visited the Illinois State Museum for its butterfly collection.
click to enlarge Elmer Kneale’s flagpole still stands in back of his former home on Rutledge Street in Springfield.
Elmer Kneale’s flagpole still stands in back of his former home on Rutledge Street in Springfield.
click to enlarge Elmer Kneale
Elmer Kneale
When the great Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov visited Springfield in 1942, he met a man who would become fodder for one of the most entertaining letters he wrote to his wife. It was excerpted last year in The New Yorker magazine and is among 300 letters to be published in a forthcoming volume titled Letters to Vera.

Several years before writing the classic Lolita, Nabokov came to town to give a lecture to the Mid-Day Luncheon Club. He was met at the train station by the secretary of the club, whom he described as “a creepily silent melancholic of somewhat clerical cast with a small stock of automatic questions, which he quickly exhausted,” according to The New Yorker.

The day after his arrival, the man escorted Nabokov on a tour of the Lincoln home and tomb, where it became clear that the passion of the man’s life was flagpoles. “He livened up and flashed his eyes one single time – got awfully nervous, having noticed that the flagpole by the Lincoln mausoleum had been replaced by a new, taller one,” Nabokov wrote. The man “sighed with relief” after finding out that the pole was 70 feet tall – 10 feet less than the flagpole in his own garden. “He’s saving money for a hundred-foot flagpole,” noted Nabokov, adding, “Dr. Freud could have said something interesting on that subject....”

Although Nabokov didn’t name the man, the club secretary at the time was Elmer Kneale. His obituary proclaims him to be “probably the most self-effacing and modest” of all the men in Springfield. “A placid, unobtrusive man who shuns glory,” he had a mild, methodical manner of speaking, and used an ambiguous “we” when describing his activities, according to another newspaper account. In photos, a balding Kneale peers out over wire-rimmed glasses, looking very much the part of Nabokov’s melancholic. But here’s the clincher: a sky-high flagpole still stands behind Kneale’s former home at 1224 Rutledge Street.

Kneale was a principal founder of the Mid-Day Luncheon Club in 1915 and was its secretary until he died in 1944. The 15 original members, who included Vachel Lindsay, met for friendly discussions of scientific, historic, literary and artistic topics at the Samovar Tea Rooms on Sixth Street. After a year of growth, the club moved its meetings to the Leland Hotel. A 1925 history of the club says some “wits” in town called it the Nut Club, with one joking that after some nuts from his automobile went missing, he found them at a meeting of the Mid-Day Luncheon Club.

Nonetheless, thanks to the prominent speakers the club engaged, membership mushroomed to more than 1,000 by the time Kneale died. Meetings with particularly well-known guests were opened to the public in the evenings at the State Arsenal, where the Armory now sits. One such event in 1922 featured Vice President Calvin Coolidge and General John J. Pershing. It drew an audience of 7,500, with 1,000 more turned away.

Lured by Lincoln, a steady stream of world and national leaders, businessmen and celebrities came to Springfield at the rate of more than 20 each year in the club’s heyday. They included William Jennings Bryan (at the time Secretary of State), William Howard Taft (Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), Queen Marie of Romania, David Lloyd George (former prime minister of Great Britain) M. Georges Clemenceau (former French prime minister, who was “almost suffocated” by fumes from camera flashlight powder as he laid a wreath on Lincoln’s Tomb, according to the Illinois State Journal), Crown Prince Olav of Norway, J.C. Penney and “motion picture stars” such as Caesar Romero and Lowell Thomas.

“Back of it all,” noted a 1943 ISJ article, “writing endless letters with imperturbable tenacity, making arrangements, keeping membership rolls, receiving dues, greeting celebrities, approving menus, arranging programs, handling expenses, and dealing with a hundred other items, was matter-of-fact, persistent Elmer Kneale.”

Kneale’s efforts even caught the attention of the Saturday Evening Post: “He was driven by a passionate and promiscuous enthusiasm for well-known people, so that in the years that he presided over the arrangements the speakers may have been madly inappropriate, but they were never dull,” wrote columnist Elise Morrow, as quoted in James Krohe’s Honest Abe’s Almanac. “There were no limits to Elmer Kneale’s peculiar aspirations for Springfield, and he had the humorlessness of the absolute fanatic.” After he recruited the faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson, Morrow related, a leading Springfield lawyer told him he’d gone too far. “Why?” Kneale responded. “She’ll draw a whopping crowd.”

“Why don’t you see if you can get Al Capone?” cracked the lawyer.

“Who?” asked Kneale, whipping out his notebook.

The Springfield newspapers, however, had nothing but praise for Kneale. The ISJ declared, “A singularly self-effacing man, possessed of a keen intellect, Kneale has chosen, with no regard for profit, to serve as a sort of apostle of ideas and culture.” He invited “the famous of the earth” to visit Springfield, and they returned home with “the names of Springfield, Lincoln, and Elmer Kneale. When the late State Senator Thomas Reese, publisher of the Illinois State Register and a celebrity of some renown, toured the world, he found himself identified from Paris to Peking as a fellow townsman of Elmer Kneale.”

Kneale, who worked for the Illinois State Register for 37 years, “walked through life performing the duties of a routine employee of a newspaper business office, but extended the fame of his native town into even the remote places of the earth,” according to his ISJ obituary.

How could Nabokov, with his reputed powers of observation, have failed to see that underneath Kneale’s mild-mannered exterior beat the passionate heart of a Springfield superhero? Well, Nabokov was something of a cold fish, if not a snob, according to some. In a snarkier letter to literary critic Edmund Wilson printed in Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, Nabokov included Kneale in a list of “aberations of homo saps and homo sapiens” that he collected on his lecture tour through the U.S. that fall. This description of Kneale adds the tidbit, “I noticed him tingle for a moment when I happened to mention Poland and Poles.”

Really, it’s not surprising that the author of the scandalous Lolita would be unable to relate to a lifelong bachelor like Kneale. In the letter to Wilson, Nabokov surmised that Kneale’s sex life was either limited or nonexistent. Should a man who addresses a male friend as “Bunny” really be making fun of someone else’s sexuality? Some people might consider Nabokov’s passion for collecting butterflies an odd hobby for a grown man, even if he was curator of lepidoptera at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology at the time of his visit.

In the end, thankfully, Nabokov left Springfield with the names of two men who did impress him. In the last portion of the letter to Vera [see sidebar “Unpublished fragment”], which was not printed in The New Yorker, Nabokov wrote that he got on very well with John C. McGregor, the director of the Illinois State Museum and founder of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey. He also praised the museum and its butterfly and fossil insect collection.

He hit it off as well with Paul Angle, the librarian of the Illinois State Historical Library, state historian, and Lincoln scholar. Angle introduced Nabokov’s speech titled “One Hundred Years of Exile: The Strange Fate of Russian Literature” before a large noontime crowd at the Leland Hotel. Nabokov spoke about outer and inner exile, which he described as a restlessness of the soul, noting that it “seems a national state of great Russian writers,” according to ISJ.

Nabokov ended the account of his visit, however, on a rather sour note. “Now I am waiting at the Springfield station for the train, which is an hour late.” Some things never change.

Karen Fitzgerald is a writer in Pleasant Plains. She can be reached at kmfitz3@juno.com. You can read more about Elmer Kneale on her blog springfieldskinny.wordpress.com.

Unpublished fragment of Nabokov’s Springfield letter

Brian Boyd, editor of the forthcoming Letters to Vera, provided IT with the portion of the November 7, 1942, letter from Springfield that was not printed in The New Yorker magazine. It was written by Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd, with Dmitri Nabokov.

I spoke before a huge crowd. Got on very well with the director of the State Museum McGregor (really a charming museum with a decent collection of butterflies and undescribed fossil insects which will be sent to Carpenter at my museum) and with the director of the history library Paul Angle. Now I am waiting at the Springfield station for the train, which is an hour late. I love you very much, my sweetheart. Yesterday I again had an attack – but very short – of fever and pain between the ribs. It’s not cold, but dampish. I am kissing my Mityushonok very much.

Used by permission of
The Wylie Agency LLC 

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