Christopher Benfey is the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke. He is the author of five books, including Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival and, most recently, IF: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years. (July 2020)


The Opposite of Ordinary

John Cage and Merce Cunningham, France, 1970


a documentary film directed by Alla Kovgan

Dancing with Merce Cunningham

by Marianne Preger-Simon, with a foreword by Stuart Hodes and an afterword by Alastair Macaulay
During the mid-1950s and early 1960s, Merce Cunningham, the most inventive and influential American choreographer of the second half of the twentieth century, took his dance company, founded in 1953 at the legendary Black Mountain College in rural North Carolina, on the road. They traveled in the maverick composer John …

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 …


Richard Wright, Masaoka Shiki, and the Haiku of Confinement

Richard Wright, Paris, 1957

Bedridden in his Odéon apartment, Richard Wright—author of the 1940 novel Native Son and the autobiographical Black Boy (1945), his searing account of growing up in the Jim Crow South—spent the last year and a half of his life, before his death in 1960 at the age of fifty-two, writing haiku: “The sound of the rain / Blotted out now and then / By a sticky cough.”

Pandemic Journal, April 6–12

Making face masks amid the coronavirus outbreak, Haarlem, Netherlands, April 4, 2020

The latest edition in a running series of dispatches by New York Review writers documenting the coronavirus outbreak with updates from around the world, including Verlyn Klinkenborg in East Chatham, Hugh Eakin in Minneapolis–St. Paul, Dalia Hatuqa in Amman, Zoé Samudzi in Windhoek, Ariel Dorfman in Durham, Nathaniel Rich in New Orleans, Christopher Benfey in Amherst, Mira Kamdar in Videlles, Arthur Longworth in Monroe.

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.”