Author, translator, and teacher—these three sides of Vladimir Nabokov are showcased in Verses And Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry (Harcourt, $40). First proposed in the 1950s, the idea of a volume of Nabokov’s English renderings of Russian poetry is finally a reality, co-edited by Nabokov’s biographer, Brian Boyd, and Stanislav Shvabrin. In addition to generous selections (in the original Russian and in English) of the works of Pushkin, Lermontov, Blok, Fet, and Mandelstam, among other 18th- through 20th-century poets, this anthology also includes Nabokov’s translations of several French poets, his own English lyrics, and essays on poetry, poets, and the art of translation which, as he noted in a poem to Pushkin, might at best come up with “roadside prose--/All thorn, but cousin to your rose.”
“I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness,” said John Muir in 1874. Born in Scotland, reared in rural Wisconsin; resistant to industrial and agricultural life, yet a talented carpenter, engineer and fruit rancher; an autodidact of botany and geology; and given to taking walks, long walks, of, say 1,000 miles or so, Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, indeed exhibited A Passion For Nature (Oxford Univ., $34.95). Until discovering the beauty of the Sierra Nevada and falling in love with California in general, Muir felt restless and alienated from both farming and urban life. Donald Worster’s biography sets Muir within the currents of his time, showing his struggles to harmonize scientific views of nature with spiritual belief, and to advocate wilderness preservation in the face of civilization’s relentless expansion. Generous quotations from Muir’s letters and sketches from his notebooks bring the man to life.
In White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Knopf, $27.95), accomplished biographer Brenda Wineapple has struck on a rich subject, one combining literature, American history, and fascinating personalities. Everyone has heard of Emily Dickinson, although she remains enigmatic. By contrast, Higginson is unfamiliar today, though renowned in his time as a journalist, editor, abolitionist, and activist for black enfranchisement and women’s rights. He led the Union Army’s first black regiment, the First South Carolina volunteers, formed in 1862. Higginson met Dickinson just twice—an experience he said “drained my nerve power”—but the two corresponded for nearly 25 years, and Higginson left some of the few first-hand impressions of the poet that we have.