Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke. He is the author, most recently, of Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay.(May 2016)

Cosmopolitan Folk

Elie Nadelman: Tango, circa 1920–24

As a striking exhibition at the New York Historical Society makes clear, the sculptor Elie Nadelman and his wife Viola were among the first serious collectors of American folk art and among the first to use the Germanic notion of a national “Volk” to confer prestige on such objects. Unlike their nativist counterparts, who amassed Americana in an effort to bolster nationalist claims to a distinctive artistic tradition, the cosmopolitan Nadelmans acquired both European and American objects to demonstrate the “derivation” of American folk art from European prototypes.

Wittgenstein’s Handles

A door handle in the house Ludwig Wittgenstein designed with architect Paul Engelmann, 1972

When Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, the idea that drove him beyond all others was that the nature of language had been misunderstood by philosophers. They were better conceived of as a part of the activity of life. As such, they were more like tools. It is the utility of handles that Wittgenstein insists on here: “The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.” The pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles.

A Wonderfully Ephemeral College

Josef Albers teaching at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, circa 1946
Of the self-styled “progressive” liberal arts colleges founded between the world wars—including Bennington and Sarah Lawrence, Goddard and a reconceived Antioch—Black Mountain College was among the most distinctive, and was also the first to close. A fragile undertaking from the start, rendered more precarious by the Great Depression, the college …

A Darker Jungle

Bagheera, voiced by Ben Kingsley, and Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi, in Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book, 2016

For the most part, this new Jungle Book is shockingly dark, replacing the psychological conflict and nuanced family dynamics of Rudyard Kipling’s original stories with sporadic violence and a pervasive air of menace.

Mystery in Miniature

Matthias Buchinger—who was born without hands or feet in Nuremberg in 1674 and never grew beyond the height of twenty-nine inches—was a magician and musician, a writing master and itinerant artist active in Britain and the Continent. His wondrous powers have been a longtime obsession of the magician and writer-savant Ricky Jay, who has collected some fifty examples of Buchinger’s baroque work, from engraved self-portraits framed with Buchinger’s characteristic arabesques and curlicues to spiraling texts that would fit on a thumbnail, now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass in Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant, 2015

In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio dons a voluminous bearskin for his wilderness adventures, as though adopting the identity of a marauding bear. Superhero-like, he survives long immersion in a swirling waterfall in midwinter, a plunge over a cliff while eluding a band of rifle-wielding Indians. Iñárritu seeks to persuade us that all this really happened.

Sex, Money & Collecting

Peggy Guggenheim on the roof of her palazzo in Venice, October 1953
The Guggenheim family name is attached to three major cultural institutions. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, on Upper Fifth Avenue in New York, is best known for the 1959 Frank Lloyd Wright building—its greatest single work of art—that houses the collection of what its founder called “non-objective painting.” The John …

Pagodas in Quebec

Kano Naizen: Southern Barbarians Come to Trade (detail), Japan, circa 1600

A taste for Asian things is often associated with Commodore Matthew Perry’s “opening” of Japan in 1853–1854, but a horizon-expanding exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston shows that the prodigious appetite for Asian luxury goods;graceful porcelain jars, gilded folding screens, shimmering lacquered chests, colorful Indian bedspreads; began centuries earlier. Surely the Ursuline nuns in Quebec were in on the joke when they depicted, on a decorative altar covering, pagodas alongside Algonquin longhouses.

The Wonder-Wounded Harold Bloom

Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, 1926
At eighty-five, Harold Bloom is among the foremost literary critics at work today; he is also, surely, one of the strangest. He has seemed at times an impassioned guardian of the acknowledged masterpieces of The Western Canon (the title of his book of 1994), reaffirming the preeminence of Dante or …

The Unguarded Moment

French Prime Minister Aristide Briand pointing at the photographer, during the negotiations of the Seven-Power Conference, Paris, July 19, 1931

One of the founding figures of photojournalism, Erich Salomon pioneered the use of hidden cameras—the phrase “candid camera” was first applied to him. As my father turns ninety and I myself slide farther past sixty, the unguarded moments at a 1929 birthday party, captured by Salomon’s camera, 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

Katsushika Hokusai: Phoenix, 1835 (detail)

I was expecting the current Katsushika Hokusai exhibition in Boston to showcase works beautifully, ingeniously executed—arresting views of Mount Fuji, The Great Wave—and I wasn’t disappointed. But I also found a different Hokusai in Boston—weirder in imagination, grander in scale, more audacious in technique.

America: Beaver or Bear?

A cartoon of President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear in Mississippi, November 16, 1902

Is America an Empire? Should it be? I’ve recently found myself thinking about Rudyard Kipling and Teddy Roosevelt, two celebrants of empire who became close friends over a series of visits they made to the Washington Zoo in 1895. We already know that the 2016 presidential campaign will involve a great deal of muscular talk about America restoring its leadership in world events. But what is to be the future of the American empire?

The Case of the Skeptical Pragmatist

Ernest Hemingway in Key West, Florida
These are dark times for the humanities, or so we are often told. We have had the melancholy litany drilled into us: the best students are gravitating to the sciences; funding for nonscientific research is drying up; good jobs are scarce for graduates with degrees in English or art history.

The Guts of Spring

Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin: Still Life With Partridge and Pear, 1748

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

Wheel of Fortune and Time, from a set of Tarot cards designed by Bembo Bonifacio and Antonio Cicognara for the Visconti-Sforza family in the mid-fifteenth century

It is not surprising that the images on Tarot cards, so vivid and mysterious, appeal to poets as a means of providing metaphors. Intrigued by Jessie Weston’s suggestion, in From Ritual to Romance, that the Tarot was related to fertility cults, T. S. Eliot inserted “Madame Sosotris, famous clairvoyante,” and her “wicked pack of cards” into The Waste Land.

The Shadow World of Alfred Kubin

Alfred Kubin: The Moment of Birth, 1903

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. His friend Kafka noted in 1911 that he “looks different in age, size, and strength according to whether he is sitting, standing, wearing just a suit, or an overcoat,” an observation that might be modified to describe Kubin’s varied art as well.

By Horror Haunted

New Hampshire, 1954

My wife and I moved to a new house a few years back. The street address is 666. I warned her that Halloween might be lively at our house and suggested that we get the number changed. I think she was a little embarrassed for me, suspecting that I was superstitious. So far—knock wood—the tricksters have stayed away. But an attempt to remove the diabolical digits from the garage door, where they had been nailed in place by a previous owner, has gone awry. The outlines of the ghostly numbers now shine forth from the stained wood, more visible than ever.

How Bad Are the Colleges?

William Deresiewicz, Portland, Oregon, 2012
A striking feature of American higher education during the past few decades has been its rapidly increasing homogeneity. With few exceptions, our colleges and universities teach pretty much the same courses, hire similarly trained professors, build indistinguishable buildings, and make the same pitches to prospective students.

The Birds of War

Mombasa, Kenya, 2012

Is it to be war? It would seem so, now and for the foreseeable future. Yet the future seems, increasingly, unforeseeable, as the seers, convened around the tables at CNN or PBS, predict the most contradictory things. I myself have found that a few quiet minutes on the patio, facing the cloud-infested sky, give me a clearer sense of the future than the morning newspaper.

Bend or Break

Mongolia, 2012

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. “She broke my heart.” In retrospect, she only bent it.

Wyeth and the ‘Pursuit of Strangeness’

Andrew Wyeth: Wind from the Sea, 1947
The last time that the National Gallery devoted an exhibition to Andrew Wyeth, it was billed as a revelation but received with some resistance. This was the notorious Helga show, or striptease, as John Updike—one of the few critics to find things to admire in the 1987 exhibition—described it: several …

Whistler: The Enraged Genius

James McNeill Whistler: Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Old Battersea Bridge, 1872–1873
In 1891, Stéphane Mallarmé, the most exacting French poet of his generation, helped bring about the purchase, by the French government, of his friend James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. One can see why this arresting 1872 portrait of Whistler’s mother, in mourning and seated in …

Pain and Parentheses

“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three,” Nabokov writes in Lolita. I found myself wondering how many other parentheses like this there were: windows in a wall of verse or prose that suddenly open on an expanse of personal pain. Masquerading as mere asides, they might hold more punch than parentheses are usually expected to hold, more even than the surrounding sentences, and have all the more impact for their disguise as throwaways.

Spring Is Far Behind

Reydarfjordur, Iceland, 2007

So much of reading is anticipation. So much of spring is the longing for spring. Chaucer says, “Aprille with his shoures soote” is the time when “longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.” I myself long to goon on a pilgrimage.

The Art of Janet Malcolm & Emily Dickinson

Janet Malcolm: Common Sense, a collage from her ‘Emily Dickinson Series,’ 2013
The twenty-six collages that make up Janet Malcolm’s arresting and faintly melancholy “Emily Dickinson Series,” the artist’s fifth solo exhibition at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in Chelsea, look on first view like leaves from some late Victorian archive, though the field of science or art to which they belong remains …

Dickinson: Raw or Cooked?

Emily Dickinson (left) and Kate Scott Turner Anthon, 1859. Analysis suggests that this daguerrotype, recently brought to the attention of scholars, is the only photographic image of Dickinson as an adult

Was Emily Dickinson a radical poet of the avant-garde, challenging regularized notions of stanza shape, typography, visual and verbal presentation, erotic love? Or was she a poet of restraint, restricting herself to a few traditional patterns of meter and stanza? It is a conflict reaching back to “The War Between the Houses,” when Dickinson’s manuscripts were divided into two main collections.

Swing Low

Beverly McIver: uncompleted portrait of Chris with his mom, oil on canvas, 2013

My mother, who died on the fall equinox, 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.

An American Romantic

Norman Rockwell: Triple Self-Portrait, 1960
At the time of his death, Norman Rockwell was one of the most popular artists in America and one of the most maligned. The suspicion has lingered that perhaps he shouldn’t have been considered an artist at all, as opposed to an illustrator (as he called himself in his charming memoirs) or, worse, a hack purveyor of kitsch, churning out his annual calendar design for the Boy Scouts or, for Hallmark, a Christmas card of Santa asleep on the job.


Chiwetel Ejiofor as the enslaved fiddler Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave

The best sequences in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave are not history lessons. They are, instead, visually ambiguous and open-ended. As Solomon Northup’s hopes for freedom are repeatedly dashed, McQueen risks a sustained, silent stare at Solomon’s face, allowing us to guess what his emotions are. Time passing is expressed in slow, soundless pans of Louisiana swamps, gaunt trees wreathed in moss at dawn and sunset. At such moments, one feels that McQueen would almost have been happy making 12 Years a Slave as a silent film, with a meditative slowness almost non-existent in current Hollywood productions.