Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, John Byrne, Alan Moore, Dan Jurgens … Valdimir Nabokov? The list of writers who have contributed to the Superman mythos is robust, but one might be forgiven for being surprised at the inclusion of the Russian-American author of Lolita in such company. But it appears that in 1942, Nabokov composed a poem, “The Man of To-morrow’s Lament,” whose protagonist is the now-iconic Man of Steel.
The poem, a comic cri de coeur about Superman’s personal agonies having married Lois Lane, begins with the hero bemoaning the fact that he must wear special glasses in bed with his inamorata, or else “when I caress her with my super-eyes, / her lungs and liver are too plainly seen.” He goes on to worry that the couple can never have a child, because he – the poem presumes a male heir – will at two years old “break the strongest chairs,” and at eight “ruin the longest railway line / by playing trains with real ones.” In case one worries that Nabokov’s approach is entirely frivolous, he does include one highbrow reference, when Superman, speaking in the voice of his alter-ego Clark Kent, nods to his “namesake in ‘Lear.’ ”
According to the Times Literary Supplement, where the lost poem is being printed for the first time, Nabokov wrote the piece at the behest of critic Edmund Wilson, then submitted it to Charles Pearce, at the time the poetry editor for The New Yorker, who had published earlier work by the Russian expat.
Pearce’s response to the Superman poem was less than enthusiastic: “Most of us appear to feel that many of our readers wouldn’t quite get it.”
Writing in the TLS, Andrei Babikov points out that “The Man of To-morrow’s Lament,” while appearing in retrospect as something of an outlier in Nabokov’s work, was actually part of a flurry of output the author produced in the years following his immigration to the U.S., when he was trying to get his name established in his new home and was writing in a new language.
Between 1940 and 1943, Nabokov threw himself at anything that might rescue his writing career: the mystery novel (in English), a second volume of The Gift (in Russian), a theosophical dramatization of Don Quixote for Mikhail Chekhov. None of these projects came to fruition. He wrote reviews and essays for newspapers and magazines, lectures for his college courses, English-language short stories, articles on entomology and mimicry, a literary biography of Nikolai Gogol; he translated Alexander Pushkin and Vladislav Khodasevich into English, and wrote his own best long poems in Russian, as well as some expressive English poetry.
The value of the “The Man of To-morrow’s Lament” as poetry is in doubt, even today, but it is certainly intriguing to read the work that Pearce effectively quashed. (Biographer Brian Boyd assumed no manuscript was extant; Babikov uncovered a typescript in the Edmund Wilson archives at Yale University.)
Nabokov is not the only unexpected writer to be associated with the Man of Steel in recent weeks. According to the film industry trade paper Variety, Ta-Nehisi Coates has signed on to write the screenplay for an upcoming Superman movie for J.J. Abrams’s production company Bad Robot. Variety quotes the author of Between the World and Me as saying, “I look forward to meaningfully adding to the legacy of America’s most iconic mythic hero.”