Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke. He is the author of Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival. (February 2018)


The Quiet Little Warrior

John Singer Sargent: John Hay, 1903

All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt

by John Taliaferro

Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image

by Joshua Zeitz
During the winter of 1903, John Singer Sargent was invited to the White House to paint Theodore Roosevelt’s official portrait. Feeling like “a rabbit in the presence of a boa constrictor,” Sargent had the impatient president grasp the large round knob of a staircase, as though to keep him in …

Building the American Dream

An engraving of New Harmony, Indiana, the utopian community founded by Robert Owen in 1825 and dissolved in 1827

Man’s Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War

by Philip F. Gura

Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism

by Chris Jennings
On a sunny August afternoon in 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, after a picnic in the Berkshires and a leisurely smoke under the trees, decided, seemingly on impulse, to visit the Hancock Shaker Village, on the outskirts of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. For Melville, who lived nearby, it was a chance …

Emily: The Quiet Earthquake

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them

edited by Cristanne Miller

A Quiet Passion

a film directed by Terence Davies
“There are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over,” Sarah Orne Jewett wrote in The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), “—the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old …

The Long-Distance Reader

Lauren Bacall and Robert Gottlieb celebrating the publication of Bacall’s memoir, By Myself, which Gottlieb edited, New York City, January 1979

Avid Reader

by Robert Gottlieb
There is a special allure in learning the secrets of people who work behind the scenes, especially when their success—as diplomats, psychoanalysts, or spies—depends in large part on the invisibility of what they do. This is certainly true of book editors. The illusion they seek to promote is that the …


Christmas in July

The Netherlands, 1912

My family is very passionate about Christmas trees. We insist—or rather, my wife and our two sons insist—that the search for the tree must be arduous. We are surrounded in bosky Amherst by small Christmas tree farms, as I meekly point out, but instead we drive over an hour to remote Ashfield, up near the Vermont border, to a particular farm. There, outfitted with saws and a large cart, a sort of wheeled gurney, we hike to where the trees are, a half hour’s climb up the sloping path. Then, with much discussion—should cuteness be a factor, or some elusive element of character?—we select our tree.

The Short, Sad Story of Stanwix Melville

Illustration by Bill Bragg from The Folio Society edition of The Complete Shorter Fiction by Herman Melville

“He seems to be possessed with a demon of restlessness,” Stanwix’s mother remarked. But his real demon was motionlessness. After eighteen months in California, Stanwix reports: “I am still stationary.” After Bartleby’s employer suggests that he might consider “going as a companion to Europe, to entertain some young gentleman with your conversation,” Bartleby replies, “I like to be stationary.” To which his exasperated employer responds: “Stationary you shall be then.” Published two years after Stanwix’s birth, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” could not be based on Stanwix. But could Stanwix be based on Bartleby? Could Herman Melville, the distant, depressed father, have helped create the conditions for a Bartleby?

The Mysterious Music of Georg Trakl

Otto Dix: Sunrise, 1913

Both Wittgenstein and Heidegger found themselves, at pivotal moments in their careers, turning to the arresting work of the early twentieth-century Austrian poet Georg Trakl (1887–1914). Not surprisingly, Wittgenstein and Heidegger responded to Trakl’s striking and still mysterious poems in sharply divergent—one might almost say opposite—ways.

The Bruegel of Bendel’s

Florine Stettheimer: Asbury Park South, 1920

There is a larger cultural dimension to much of what we see in Florine Stettheimer’s paintings at the Jewish Museum: the skyscrapers, the department stores, the African-American jazz, the shifting gender roles. Viewers in search of the perfect counterpoint to the Stettheimer retrospective need only walk a block south to the razzle-dazzle show “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s.”