Christopher Benfey is the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke. He is the author of five books about the American Gilded Age, including Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival (2012) and, most recently, IF: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years, published this month by Penguin.
 (July 2019)


Cornering the Word Market

A portrait of Noah Webster in an advertisement for the first Merriam edition of Webster’s dictionary, published in 1847–1848

The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight Over the English Language

by Peter Martin
Under certain circumstances, the question of whether a particular string of letters constitutes a word can assume a momentary prominence, with money or honor on the line. Passionate squabbles can erupt over a game of Scrabble or over how Jeff Bezos asserts his right to privacy. In his February online …

Is It Like Japan Yet?

Vincent van Gogh: Flowering Plum Orchard (After Hiroshige), 1887

Van Gogh and Japan

by Louis van Tilborgh, Nienke Bakker, Cornelia Homburg, Tsukasa Kōdera, and Chris Uhlenbeck, with a contribution by Claire Guitton

Japan’s Love for Impressionism: From Monet to Renoir

edited by the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany
When Vincent van Gogh made his momentous decision to leave Paris behind and move to Arles in February 1888, he was determined, at age thirty-four, to remake his art, his personal relationships, and himself, body and soul. Central to this midlife dream of self-transformation was the artist’s surprising conviction that …

Coffins and Jukeboxes

Robert Frank: Sick of Goodby’s, 1978; from The Lines of My Hand

American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank

by R.J. Smith

Robert Frank: Film Works

edited by Laura Israel
“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here,” James Agee remarked at the start of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), his landmark collaborative study, with the photographer Walker Evans, of three tenant families in Depression-era Alabama. “It would be photographs,” Agee insisted; “the rest …


The Year of the Amazon?

Duel between Amazons, illustration from Collection des vases grecs de le Comte de M Lamberg, by Alexandre de Laborde, nineteenth century

In September, a group of environmental activists and artists, alarmed by fires raging out of control in the Amazon rainforest, and by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s ruinous policy of encouraging commercial development there, urged the notoriously chintzy Bezos to buy the Amazon rainforest. “So, do it, Jeff,” they wrote. “Invest in your legacy, before everyone figures out where all the cardboard comes from.” Those ubiquitous Prime delivery vans during the holidays are part of Amazon’s burgeoning “fulfillment industry.” First “procurement,” then “fulfillment.” Exactly what kind of “customer satisfaction” is Amazon aiming for? If Bezos named his firm after the Amazon River, how did the river itself come to be called the Amazon? Was the rainforest once inhabited by golden-crowned women warriors mounted on fleet-footed steeds?

Bowling with Melville

A pair of ‘pinboys’ posing for Lewis Hine with a bowling ball and pins, New Haven, Connecticut, 1909

In White-Jacket, Melville, surely drawing on his own experience as a pinsetter in a bowling alley, has his narrator compare a theatrical performance on shipboard to bowling a strike: “Ah Jack, that was a ten-stroke indeed!” Three chapters later, however, in one of many violent metaphors in the book drawn from bowling, some cannon balls stowed on board are loosed in a violent storm, and the midshipmen are turned into pins: “The rolling to and fro of the heavy shot… on the gun-deck, had broken loose from the gun-racks, and converted that part of the ship into an immense bowling-alley. Some hands were sent down to secure them; but it was as much as their lives were worth. Several were maimed.”

How Rodin Kept His Feet on the Ground

Lithograph of a foot, twentieth century

The Thinker is not my favorite Rodin sculpture. But then something brought me closer to The Thinker. In a glass case at the Musée Rodin, displaying preparatory studies, my attention settled on a terra-cotta fragment identified as “The Thinker’s Right Foot.” His foot! Suddenly, I had a completely different feel for The Thinker. And I found myself wondering whether Rodin, too, had felt that the success of the sculpture might depend in some crucial way on getting the feet right.

Triumph and Disaster: The Tragic Hubris of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If—’

The famous quote from Kipling’s poem “If—” above the doors that lead to Wimbledon’s Centre Court, London

For these next two weeks, the best tennis players in the world will enter Wimbledon’s fabled Center Court under two lines of poetry inscribed in capital letters above the tunnel that leads from the locker room: “IF YOU CAN MEET WITH TRIUMPH AND DISASTER / AND TREAT THOSE TWO IMPOSTORS JUST THE SAME…” The passage is from Rudyard Kipling’s “If—,” once voted Britain’s most popular poem. It might surprise the poem’s many enthusiasts to learn that Kipling, who lived for several years in Vermont and built himself a tennis court there (reputedly the first in the state), originally used “If—” as the epilogue to a story about George Washington and his resistance to public opinion. Today, it is Kipling himself who often faces the public’s wrath.