Christopher Benfey

Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke. He is the author, most recently, of Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay.

(December 2015)

See NYRB titles related to this contributor.

  • Pagodas in Quebec

    October 28, 2015

    A taste for Asian things is often associated with Commodore Matthew Perry’s “opening” of Japan, but a horizon-expanding exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston shows that the prodigious appetite for Asian luxury goods began centuries earlier.

  • The Unguarded Moment

    September 9, 2015

    As my father turns ninety and I myself slide farther past sixty, the photographs of my father from a 1929 birthday party recall the poet Rilke contemplating a photograph of his own father in his youth: “You swiftly fading daguerreotype/ In my more slowly fading hands.”

  • Some Japanese Ghosts

    July 23, 2015

    Japanese ghosts have returned this summer to haunt my dreams, summoned by a striking Katsushika Hokusai exhibition in Boston, and by other stray events that stirred up spectral associations with the Japanese master’s mesmerizing art.

  • America: Beaver or Bear?

    July 4, 2015

    What is to be the future of the American empire?

  • The Guts of Spring

    April 18, 2015

    In Roman times, the haruspex was a priest who practiced divination by inspecting animal entrails. The ritual sacrifice of animals, except under carefully regulated conditions (sport-hunting, the slaughter of livestock, the euthanizing of pets) is now strictly prohibited. And yet…

  • Tarot Dreams

    March 26, 2015

    The images in Tarot function much the way dreams do in psychoanalysis, providing a symbolic and interpretable language for the elusive shape of our lives.

  • The Shadow World of Alfred Kubin

    November 18, 2014

    Alfred Kubin, “an artist who has yet to be truly discovered,” according to the catalog of a wide-ranging exhibition at the Shepherd Gallery, will strike some viewers as several different artists.

  • By Horror Haunted

    October 30, 2014

    Halloween has always seemed to me the most poetical of holidays.

  • The Birds of War

    September 30, 2014

    Why shouldn’t we, like the Romans, take our bearings from the flight of birds? Would our expectations differ significantly from those of the so-called experts?

  • Bend or Break

    July 3, 2014

    In art, it is generally more interesting to bend the rules (bend them like Beckham) than to break them. Bend is evolution. Break is revolution. What once seemed revolutionary (Whitman, Impressionism, Duchamp, Cage) often turns out to be evolutionary instead.

  • Pain and Parentheses

    April 26, 2014

    “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three,” Nabokov writes in Lolita. How many other parentheses like this are there, windows in a wall of verse or prose that suddenly open on an expanse of personal pain?

  • Spring Is Far Behind

    March 17, 2014

    So much of reading is anticipation. So much of spring is the longing for spring.

  • Dickinson: Raw or Cooked?

    January 25, 2014

    Was Emily Dickinson a radical poet of the avant-garde, or was she a poet of restraint, who restricted herself to a few traditional patterns of meter and stanza?

  • Swing Low

    December 14, 2013

    My mother left contradictory instructions about arrangements for her death. She told my father, firmly, that she didn’t want a memorial service. And she told me, just as firmly, that she wanted “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”—“the cradle-song of death which all men know,” as W. E. B. Du Bois called it—sung at her memorial.

  • Silenced

    November 5, 2013

    The best sequences in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave are not history lessons. They are, instead, visually ambiguous and open-ended.

  • Nighthawks

    October 4, 2013

    There are countless poems about dreams, of course, and even some, like Poe’s, about dreams within dreams. Rarer are those poems, or other literary inventions, in which the actual words arise in the dream, to be recorded by the writer upon waking.

  • What Seamus Heaney Taught Me

    September 1, 2013

    Seamus Heaney used to say that the poetry-writing hours of a poet’s day were the easy part; it was what to do with the rest of the day that was a challenge.

  • Shards of Summer

    June 25, 2013

    “Everything in the world exists to end up in a book.” How quaint of Mallarmé! Everything in the world exists to end.

  • Rite of Spring

    May 14, 2013

    Margaret Fuller was known to perform the ancient form of divination in which a passage of Virgil selected at random is assumed to reveal what lies ahead. I thought I might follow Fuller’s lead, and greet the spring by serendipitously dipping into a trusted book for guidance.

  • Scrapbook Nation

    February 20, 2013

    Everyone seems to have kept scrapbooks during the nineteenth century. Like a Twitter account or a Facebook wall, scrapbooks filled with clippings gave the illusion of bringing order to the torrent of newsprint that threatened to overwhelm readers.

  • The Lost Wolves of New England

    January 22, 2013

    Wolves have not been welcome in our woods for a very long time. Among the first laws instituted by the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 was a bounty on wolves, which Roger Williams, who fled the colony for its religious intolerance, referred to as “a fierce, bloodsucking persecutor.”

  • Wagner with Guns

    January 5, 2013

    Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is in love with European allusions. What might have started as a way of explaining Christoph Waltz’s German accent (he’s an immigrant, etc.) seems to have spread into the plot.

  • The Empty Chair That Keeps Me Awake at Night

    October 17, 2012

    I have no idea what Clint Eastwood had in mind when he dragged an empty chair up to the stage at the Republican Convention in Tampa last August. But I was thinking of that empty chair in Tampa as I watched Tuesday’s presidential debate at Hofstra University. Who do we want in the president’s chair, making decisions when the next crisis—and we know there will be a next crisis, and a next—erupts? An Oval Office occupied by Romney would suffer from a different kind of vacancy, a void of ideas or convictions, a sketchy foreign policy based on China-bashing and pandering to his old pal Bibi. That’s the empty chair that keeps me awake at night.

  • Posing for the Senate

    August 6, 2012

    It is hard to watch the verbal sparring between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown, the candidates in this fall’s closely watched Massachusetts Senate race for the “Kennedy seat,” without recalling the classic 1949 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn vehicle Adam’s Rib.

  • How to Be the Photograph

    December 13, 2011

    There was reason to expect some personal revelations when the musician and writer Patti Smith took the stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Friday evening in early December. She was there to talk about Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and indefatigable promoter of modern art whom O’Keeffe married in 1924. An exhibition upstairs in the Tisch Galleries—showcasing the works of art that O’Keeffe had selected from Stieglitz’s private collection and given to the Met in 1949, including some of his erotic photographic portraits of O’Keeffe herself—was the immediate occasion for Smith’s appearance, along with the publication of the first volume of letters by O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, which Smith carried onto the stage like a bible, festooned with yellow Post-it notes.

  • Someone Else's Children

    November 28, 2011

    My wife and I have two sons, aged eighteen and twenty-two. Both have registered for the Selective Service, as the law requires. We don’t have a clear idea of Tommy’s or Nicholas’s views regarding military service; we hope that circumstances won’t force us to find out. None of us knows any men or women currently serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are someone else’s children. During the Civil War, in contrast, the mangling of young bodies was evident to all. Three million volunteers armed with advanced rifles, and firing at one another at point-blank range, fought on battlefields often not far from their own homes. American writers, many of whom had children in the war, were not insulated from the carnage.

    The remarkable medical photographs of the Civil War surgeon-photographer Reed Bontecou—now published in their entirety for the first time and recently shown at The Robert Anderson gallery in New York—bring us closer still.

  • Mitt, We Hardly Knew Ye!

    October 3, 2011

    We’re feeling vulnerable and surly these days in western Massachusetts, as the leaves turn yellow, the Red Sox fade, and winter looms. Our corridor of New England along the Connecticut River endured, during the summer months, a ruinous tornado in Springfield, an earthquake, of all things, and Hurricane Irene, which knocked out roads and historic covered bridges in our hill towns and across neighboring Vermont, and left a lot of people homeless and adrift. We don’t see much of Mitt Romney, our ex-governor, in these troubled times. Then again, we never did.

  • Lost Rituals, Found Poems

    January 7, 2011

    When I was a child growing up in a drab college town in Indiana, our family received an annual New Year’s visit from a vivid woman named Erika Strauss. The high point of Erika’s visit to our house was the old European New Year’s ritual known as “Bleigiessen,” or lead-pouring.

  • Under Fire: Mark Hewitt's 'Big-Assed' Pots

    September 8, 2010

    Although his “big-assed pots” have entered many museum collections (a show of his work will open at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans in January), Mark Hewitt insists on calling himself a “functional” potter, a maker of pots for use, as opposed to the “studio” or art potters whose work is intended for display.

  • Emily Dickinson in the Bronx

    July 21, 2010

    It would be difficult to describe the sheer strangeness, for me, of driving down from Amherst last month to pay tribute to Emily Dickinson in the Bronx.

  • Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia

    October 30, 2015 — February 15, 2016

    Spanning the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, the show brings together nearly one hundred objects in every medium imaginable, including feathers and seashells, from four continents.

  • Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In

    May 4, 2014 — November 30, 2014

    This absorbing new exhibition is built around a single, quiet motif in many variations: the window.