on March 12, 2003
Newton Arvin was a distinguished literary critic, scholar, and college professor whose influence on the early days of American literary studies is still felt today. In 1960, as the age of McCarthy's witch-hunt mentality drew to a close, Arvin and his friends were targets of a police raid, where relatively mild homoerotic materials were seized. The men were arrested and accused of having a "smut ring", leading to their felony convictions, as well as the loss of their jobs and the shame of being revealed as homosexual in 1960. Werth's biography is not only about Arvin's personal and literary life, but is also about America at this time, the puritanical crusades it supported, but which proved their own undoing. Werth's writing is a bit dull during the first half, but as it progresses, and Werth explores Arvin's life in relation to his friends (including his once-lover Truman Capote) and to the world, it becomes a fascinating story of a man who fell from grace, but who didn't let it destroy him. Not only is this a compelling sliver of gay history, but it also showcases the lives of intellectuals in a country where intelligence is progessively devalued.
on September 30, 2002
Read THE SCARLET PROFESSOR, an engrossing true story
about a college professor embroiled in a sex scandal . . . Newtown Arvin published groundbreaking literary studies in his 37 years at Smith College, and he cultivated friendships with the likes of Lillian Helman and Truman Capote . . . a social radical and closeted homosexual, he somehow survived McCarthyism.
But in September of 1960, his apartment was raided and his
collection of erotica was confiscated . . . it was then that his
troubles began . . . he was brought to trial, and in doing
so, he also named names of other so-called pornographers.
I found this part of the book particularly fascinating, in that
it helped give me a better feel for America's moral fanaticism
during that time period . . . even if you're not a fan of
biographies, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised
if you give this one a chance.
There were many memorable passages; among them:
The following day he [Newton] wrote to her again:
"I realize how good I ought (and must) be to you in
order to make you happy and keep you by me. I wish
that I could be a god and a saint and a knight and a
good companion for your sake." If Arvin was to fail as
a husband, it would not be for want of trying.
[from his journal] Reading of student papers, bluebooks,
etc. a form of torture, though inescapable at best. What
gives the extra turn of the screw is, of course, the
debased English in which most of them are written.
Reading them is a matter of rubbing an iron file over
one's teeth, or holding urine in one's mouth, or having the
racket of a bulldozer in one's ear for an hour or two on
end. Physical tiredness inevitably ensues.
The sudden seizure of his secret history completed the
shattering of Arvin's world. When he saw police returning
with the slender volumes, opening them, flipping through
their limited pages--beginning to decipher the penciled
hieroglyphics that unlocked his innermost life--it was as if
there was nothing left of him to take or preserve. He was
in utter panic, shaking his face fallen.
on June 24, 2002
Barry Werth's "The Scarlet Professor" is a rather dry but thorough account of Newton Arvin's self-destructive collision with the stultifying socio-political reality of post-WW II America. As a communist homosexual, his well-deserved place as a respected national scholar and critic was a train wreck waiting to occur in that era of various mass hysterias. The J. Edgar Hoover/McCarthy era, in fact, becomes the more fascinating part of this decades-long drama; we are along with cadres of feds'n'cops as they coordinate and close in on the laughably Mitty-esque "ringleaders" in the series of "smut" busts. How simple things were when the nation was so self-righteous that police squads fanned out across the land to root out stacks of gay pics and mags in people's private homes. The most lasting and valuable upshot of all this high-sounding puffery was the Mapps v. Ohio ruling that disallowed use of any evidence seized in the warrantless busts these over-zealous Christian soldiers performed.
America's puritanical silliness aside, the book relates Arvin's personal failings, self-loathing, doubts, and travails as being the focal catalyst of much of what has become conventional wisdom regarding Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Longfellow. Of each, Arvin was able to discern a specific experiential and/or psychosexual linkage with himself; it is this synthesis that acts as Arvin's Rosetta stone in deciphering the deeper deconstructions of his authors' lives and works.
I'll leave the more esoteric literary arguments to others. Read this as a historical document of an era rapidly fading from America's contemporary memory - so long as you don't take stone bosom-covering AG Ashcroft too seriously. He would have fit right in during those strangely paranoid fifties.
on October 1, 2001
This book was given to me as a gift so I felt an urge to read it right away. It was a B+. It's about the literary life of Newton Arvin who was shattered by a scandal in 1960. I was born in 1959 so it was interesting to me to read of what was going on at the time. It ventures into the closeted homosexual literary elite. This book gave me other book ideas that I really want to read like: The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne, Letters & Leadership by Van Wyck Brooks, Roderick Hudson by Henry James, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Memoirs of Hecate County by Edmund Wilson, Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote, and other books that were actually written by Newton Arvin. This book is a great book for any aspiring writer and/or a lover of literature. A few lines that captured me in the book that will give you a flavor for it are:
It seems our worst fears are always more than justified.
I shan't advise you. If I were you I would follow my impulse or interest, and get to work.
He recoiled from loving and from being loved, which, taken away, left little worth living for.
He felt more trapped in Northampton...which, if nothing else, had made small-town life easier to bear by fostering certain illusions: stability, permanence, and a sense of home.
He craved solitude, a place of his own as a tranquil and sacred abbey.
'You know how much I love you'...'It is a luxury only to allow oneself to SAY it from time to time.'
...if I ever really began a 'letter' to you it could have no imaginable end--or even beginning--for it would just have to circle for ever and ever, like a great wheel, about the one central fact...
Like most of us aging and lonely people, what he wants is it get away from HIMSELF & unfortunately you take yourself wherever you go!
In short, there are sunny days, and there is memory, and--hardest of all--there is choice.
...the deepest betrayals usually came not from one's enemies but from one's friends and associates.
on August 13, 2001
Barry Werth is to be commended for "The Scarlett Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal." He writes aptly in unembellished prose to tell us of the sad life of the scholarly Arvin, a Smith college professor. Arvin, who wrote critically acclaimed books about Melville and Hawthorne, as well as Longfellow, helped to found the academic discipline now known as "American Studies"; by focussing on these gifted American writers, he helped establish a tradition of American literature and literary criticism. Born a generation before "coming out of the closet" was advisable or even possible, Arvin led a furtive, secretive life. He spent decades wrestling with his own conscience over his sexual orientation, and enduring depression, loneliness, and overwhelming feelings of guilt. When his apartment was raided for pornography and he was put into jail, he fell apart completely, talked freely to the police, and implicated others, who also then had to stand trial. Reading this book is a sobering and sorrowful experience. Arvin knew very little happiness, living his constricted life in a harsh, judgmental time in this country.
on July 12, 2001
September 2, 1960 isn't exactly a day which will live in infamy. It is however, the day on which Professor Newton Arvin, award winning biographer of Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman, became the most prominent victim of Eisenhower's "pink scare" and the key player in the Smith College homosexual sex scandal. "The Scarlett Professor" is an exhaustive biography of one of the nation's most influential, albeit mostly forgotten, literary critics. A mentor of Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, Arvin taught the classics at Smith for 36 years. Then, caught in a sting spearheaded by the postmaster general, Arvin plead guilty to possession of "pornographic" materials and implicated a number of his associates. Plagued by depression throughout his adult life, Arvin was forced to resign his teaching post and spent his final years in and out of pyschiatric facilities. Barry Werth has adroitly rendered, not only the world of Newton Arvin, but a tragic and, until now, egregiously overlooked episode in our nation's history. An important and impressive book.
on July 6, 2001
Newton Arvin got the biography he deserved. His story of scandal, scholarship, and self-loathing had been an intriguing footnote in the biographies of Truman Capote too long. His contribution to American Studies as discipline cannot be refuted.
When I first read of Arvin in Clarke's biography of Capote, I thought his story would make great reading and possibly a decent drama as Alan Turing's story did. The lack of an ARvin biography surprised me. I am no longer surprised. Arvin was not a flawed genius who sold out his friends in a moment of fear. Just as perceptive as his reflections on the lives of Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman are, so was his assessment of himself. He was self-loathing because there was so much about him to loathe.
Werth struggles and fails to make him engaging enough for an analytical biography. All he succeeds in doing is answering the question. "Why hasn't there been a biography of Newton Arvin?" Werth's emphatic answer is Arvin is just too boring and self-absorbed; the problem is it took him 300 page to do it.
on July 5, 2001
I enjoyed Werth's book very much. It accomplishes many things: it evokes the hothouse environment of American academia in the mid-20th century, it places Newton Arvin--a respected critic of American literature--in what must have been for him a bewildering nightmare of suspicions and scandal, and it chillingly recalls the hostilities and dangers endured by gay people in the 1950s. I especially enjoyed how Barry Werth explained Arvin's attraction to literary figures such as Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, and Longfellow, each of whom represented political and historical forces with which Arvin could readily sympathize. (I disagree with another reviewer who complained about Werth's suggestion of a Melville-Hawthorne "romance." Other critics and historians have explored the nature of these two men's friendship, and the suggestion that both men were gay is hardly a new or shattering idea. Anyway, Werth is primarily concerned with Arvin's interest in Melville and Hawthorne as authors and not in the possible romance between the two men.)
Arvin was lucky to be surrounded by devoted colleagues and friends, and if he comes off in this book as a cold, selfish intellectual, he nonetheless earned the respect and support of some very distinguished people, including David Lilenthal, Edmund Wilson, and Van Wyck Brooks. He certainly seems an admirable person when compared to the hypocrites in public office who regulated morality in 1950s America. Werth is to be congratulated for doing an excellent job in retrieving a seemingly irretrievable past and for restoring Arvin to the distinguished circle of critics and teachers to which he once belonged.
on June 1, 2001
Newton Arvin, a professor at Smith College for Women, could have fallen from grace during the McCarthy years, because he had a pinko history. He could have been ostracized because of his divorce in 1940. But he avoided scandal from his divorce and his politics, only to fall hard to it in 1960, when he was arrested for possessing pornography. Arvin still has a fine reputation among students of literary history because of a series of biographies of nineteenth century American writers, but now is otherwise obscure. His story is told in _The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal_ (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday) by Barry Werth. This is a biography that seamlessly weaves together Arvin's literary interests and the hidden parts of his life, producing a memorable picture of a loner trying to make his own way in a hostile land. It is also a fine summary of an episode of regrettable American repression.
Arvin grew up in Valparaiso, a backwater of Indiana, and knew he was different from other boys. He went on to Harvard, and then to teaching literature at Smith. What he loved was reading and working earnestly on critical biographies of Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, and Longfellow. Werth's book shows how in successive examination of these giants, Arvin was also examining himself, coming to a better understanding of his own quiet secret life. Arvin didn't really get an understanding of his own homosexuality until he was in his forties. Of course he kept the secret from most others, but revealing it to himself initially overwhelmed him with shame. The panic and depression he felt over it would color his frequent psychiatric hospitalizations all through his life; he would go through rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. He eventually allowed this part of his personality to express itself in cruising, in the New York Bath scene, and in taking lovers such as Truman Capote. What brought Arvin down was a postal campaign against "pornographic filth in the family mailbox." The idea seems quaint and stupid now, although we fret over the same issues on the Internet, but the Massachusetts police became adept at making porno arrests as a political favor for politicians who wanted to look good in the papers. The self-righteous police arrested Arvin in 1960 for simply possessing homosexual pornography, and his world collapsed. It didn't matter, of course, that in a few years, owning pornography would no longer be a crime (and some of the examples of the items for which Arvin was arrested, illustrated in the book, look positively wholesome). He was an intellectual asset to Smith, which treated him compassionately, and his many friends found ways to support him, but to the end of his life, he remained a solitary, brilliant man who cultivated loneliness.
He found redemption again in writing, and worked on his memoir, which was never published, but which Werth has been able to study, along with the diaries. Worth's research has enabled him to write thoroughly and dispassionately about this unhappy, gifted man and what was at the time the expected treatment of homosexuals and porn fiends. This is not a gay-rights polemic, but a thorough and fascinating examination of a unique life and time.
on May 16, 2001
For years ths 1960 scandal involving Smith College faculty and others has been whispered and gossiped about, rarely accurately. Finally, Barry Werth has taken the time and trouble to put all the pieces together, the ruthless behavior of corrupt police, the virtual "reign of terror" the incident engendered, the utter devastation wrought upon the lives and careers of several teachers, most notably the distinguished American literary scholar and critic Newton Arvin. Werth is a skilled researcher, a fine narrator, and above all an honorable and just writer. He makes no judgments, leaving the reader to make his own. It is hard to believe, in this relatively liberated day, that the merest suggestion, the slightest hint of homosexuality, was sufficient to destroy lives, careers, reputations. Even honorable academic institutions like Smith College did not behave admirably in this woeful tale of a monumental miscarriage of justice. Above all, set in the context of his biography, the whole incident ruined the life of a brilliant scholar, teacher, and critic whose fragility rendered him incapable of coping with the barbarism of a biased and inept judicial system. I was there and lived through it: it is, alas, all too true. This is an important book and ought to be on the MUST READ list of every American interested in the preservation of civil liberties.