When Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita, I doubt he imagined his audience as cowgirls from Montana. Perhaps though, he would have been amused by the image of a young woman, braids trailing from under her cowboy hat, lounging on a dilapidated porch, perusing one of his novels. Wheat fields roll away from her for miles in every direction until they tilt upward and form rocky mountains dabbed with snow. The cowgirl rests her dirty boots on an overturned Coleman cooler and holds in one hand a Coors light and in the other Pnin. Or Pale Fire. Or Speak, Memory. The books I required students in my Literature 494 course to read this fall. And yes, three of them were bona fide cowgirls—myself included.
The University of Montana Western—or Western, as it is known by locals—sits at the edge of Dillon, a town of 5,000 people surrounded by sheep and cattle ranches. To my knowledge, I’m the only professor at Western who grew up on a ranch here, graduated from the high school a few blocks away, left to travel, earned a Ph.D. and returned—kicking and screaming—to teach here.
I stand in front of my students wearing an Ann Taylor suit and introduce myself. Sixteen girls and four boys in clean-cut jeans and T-shirts watch me. I ask them to write a distinguishing characteristic on a note card. I wonder how they’ll respond to Nabokov. Academics and writers esteem him as a master prose stylist, but I fear he will be too difficult for students from a bucolic background. Three of the girls wear wranglers and cowboy boots. I see manure on one pair.
When I was in fifth grade, my father instituted “The Breakfast Club.” He, my younger sister, Karen, and I would rise at 4:30 am, saddle our horses and gather a herd of around 200 heifers. Karen pushed the heifers up a narrow alley, and Dad caught them in a chute. I gave them a quick vaccination in the rear—a flu shot basically—and Dad let them go. When we finished, we’d run inside and eat a quick plate of pancakes before Dad drove us to school late. I shudder to imagine what my teacher said to herself when I walked through the door smelling of the cow crap clinging to my Wranglers and boots, my hair a tangle.
My students hand back their note cards. A girl named Paige with long mousey hair and bangs over her eyes smiles at me. In loopy capital letters, she wrote, “My dog Gomer is my Soulmate! Horses are my passion, and I’d love to write after college.” Dakota is seated next to her. Long silversmith earrings sparkle under her dark hair, and she has heavily-mascaraed black eyes. She smiles too when she hands me her card, but her eyes are wary. She wrote, “I rodeo & my horses + my dogs are really important to me.”
“What do you know about Nabokov?” I ask the class.
“I’m just glad I know how to say his name now,” Paige giggles.
“He wrote Lolita,” a guy says. He’s got shoulder-length blond hair and a cut-off t-shirt exposing a series of complicated tattoos on his shoulders and arms.
“Yes, Lolita is considered to be one of his masterpieces,” I say. “Do you know the names of some of his other novels?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever read a whole novel,” a girl in plaid in the back of the room whispers to her friend.
I hurry to tell them the reasons I chose to study Nabokov: he’s a writer’s writer; he’s written well in numerous genres (poetry, short stories, novels, memoir, criticism, theatre, film, translation); his works take place in a variety of settings and during an important epoch (Russia, France, Germany, America from early 1900’s-1970’s); he’s a literary genius known for his irony, suspense, imagery, descriptions of people and craft.
But, I am not a Nabokov scholar. I never took a class or even read one of his books for my own coursework in poetry or Russian language and literature. Several years ago, I picked up Pale Fire while browsing at a bookstore and loved it. Later, I acquired Pnin and devoured it in a single evening. I read a few of Nabokov’s short stories in Russian, his book of criticism on Gogol and his translation of Eugene Onegin.
When the department chair informed me I was going to teach an Author Seminar—a course with a focus on a single writer—I chose Nabokov. I knew I wouldn’t get away with teaching an entire class of poetry or Russian literature, but I figured Nabokov was American enough; I could buffalo my students with my knowledge of Russian, if not my particular knowledge of the author at hand.
I pull out Verses and Versions, a book of Russian poetry Nabokov translated. I read my students the poem “Russia” by Alexander Blok in Russian first and then in English.
“Nice,” the blond-haired young man says. One of the cards in front of me says, “Bob, longer hair, undecided senior, married, two kids.” This must be him. How can you be an undecided as a senior?
Western is open-enrollment and serves mostly local students, many of whom are unprepared for higher education. They can tell you how to build a barbed-wire fence, pick a stone from a horse’s hoof or castrate a bull calf, but many of them have trouble writing a five paragraph essay, locating Egypt on a map or naming the last five Presidents of the US. Mention names like James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, or Flannery O’Connor and you’ll get a blank stare. These are the English majors.
I hand out the syllabus and we read it together. I place particular stress on my attendance policy; absenteeism is one of my pet peeves. After the syllabus, I show a short documentary on Nabokov and then let them go for a fifteen-minute break. In addition to our unique student population, we have an unusual schedule where students attend one class at a time, three hours a day for eighteen days.
While my students are gone, I read over their note cards. Mano is “Hawaiian!” is a square-faced boy with two gold hoop earrings and a black tribal tattoo down the length of his right leg—my only minority student. Meredith writes, “I plan to teach high school in a more foggy/rainy place upon graduation. I have naturally red hair and like hats.” I remember her lips set in a thin line.
Students filter back into the classroom with candy bars and sodas. I’m checking my e-mail and half-listening. Bob and Mano come in together talking about their tattoos. They sit across from each other and lean back.
“It was like this,” Mano explains. “My old man, he says, ‘You wanna drink some beer?’ I was surprised. I was sixteen, but he’d never asked me before. So, I says, ‘Sure.’” Mano laces his fingers together and stretches them above his head. “So he took me to my uncle’s.”
Bob laughs in anticipation.
“Next thing I know I’m laying on the ground all foggy like. One of my cousins is sitting on one shoulder and one on the other. My dad and my uncle, they get these long sticks with ink on them and Dad’s shouting, ‘Hold his leg still, hold his leg still or it’ll be crooked.’”
Bob is laughing harder now, his long hair swaying.
I listen to this exchange with a smile and with apprehension, hoping I can bridge the gap between their lives and those we will be reading about.
Return tomorrow for the next installment of “Teaching Nabokov to Cowgirls.”
Dr. Danielle Jones teaches writing and literature at the University of Montana Western. She has a Ph.D in Poetry from SUNY-Albany and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University. For the 2012-2013 academic year, she has been awarded a Fulbright Scholar Grant to Russia, where she will teach literature and work on her memoir, Mother Russia, Father Time.