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.
 (June 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 Loved One

Terence Stamp in Peter Ustinov’s film adaptation of Billy Budd, 1962

Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Uncompleted Writings

by Herman Melville, edited by Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, Robert A. Sandberg, and G. Thomas Tanselle, with a historical note by Hershel Parker
When Herman Melville died at seventy-two, in September 1891, he had been out of public view for so long that The New York Times identified him as Henry Melville. An obituary writer expressed surprise that the author best known for Typee—his first novel, set in the South Seas, notorious for …


The Bees That Live on Human Tears

Matthias Trentsensky: Bees and Bee-keeping, from “The Young Landsman,” Vienna, 1845

In our culture, bees seem deeply ingrained in the rituals of mourning. In Greek mythology and many other traditions, African and Amerindian, bees shuttle between life here above and the underworld. The Delphic oracle was closely associated with bees. It seems fitting that the Taiwanese woman who had come to the hospital complaining of a swollen eye should have acquired her tear-drinking bees while visiting a relative’s grave. But poets seem to have known about the special significance of bees all along, and their connection to what Virgil called lacrimae rerum, “the tears of things.”

The Torments of Spring

Karl Buchholz: Last Snow at Weimar, 1889

I’m dreading the arrival of spring. It’s not that I prefer winter. But there’s something about spring that gives me pause. “You mention spring’s delaying—I blamed her for the opposite,” Emily Dickinson wrote, in May 1866. “I would eat evanescence slowly.” That’s me in a nutshell, here in Dickinson’s Amherst where I live, eating evanescence slowly. Dickinson is the great poet of the torments of spring, it seems to me, when everything has thawed—except us.

A Cure for Metaphor-Blindness

From the series

One way of seeing, in Wittgenstein’s formulation, is what we might call accurate seeing. This is how the blind man sees after Jesus touches his eyes for a second time, and he sees “every man clearly.” The other way of seeing is more like seeing men as trees walking. Wittgenstein calls this metaphorical way of seeing “seeing as.” He tells us, for example, that he “may well try to see” the letter F “as a gallows.” “Could there be human beings lacking in the capacity to see something as something?” Wittgenstein wonders. He suggests that this condition might be called  “aspect-blindness” and compares it to “the lack of a ‘musical ear.’”

The Don of Trumpery

President Trump at a rally at Landers Center in Southaven, Mississippi, October 2, 2018

Naming can be an art. We have a president who takes names very seriously, using them for specific purposes and according them strange powers. Having apprenticed himself to mobsters and wrestlers (great adopters of mythic nicknames), he has transformed politics into mass entertainment. He relishes the sound of names, especially his own. For Trump, naming is branding. Extending the Trump brand appears to have been the central driver of his initially only half-serious presidential bid, and it continues to drive Trump’s presidency, as he dreams, no doubt, of a Trump Tower on Mars.