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Scarlet Professor
by J.S. Hall
2001-08-29

This article shared 828 times since Wed Aug 29, 2001
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The Scarlet Professor...Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal By Barry Werth, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, hardcover, 336 pages, $26.00

If you've never heard of Newton Arvin, don't feel too bad; nowadays only a few people know of him, and mostly that's due to his two-year relationship with a young Truman Capote. But for a good part of his life, Arvin was a celebrated reviewer and critic, and a pioneer in the field of American literature studies. He was also at the heart of one of Northampton, Massachusetts's darkest moments and dirtiest secrets.

On Sept. 2, 1960, plainclothes police officers raided Arvin's cramped attic apartment, illegally searching for, and seizing, a variety of homoerotic photographs, magazines and movie reels. Faced with the prospect of up to five years in jail, Arvin named names of other gay men...friends and colleagues...who possessed similar materials. The subsequent scandal brought shame to Smith College ( where Arvin had taught for over 30 years ) , and ruin to those involved. A Northampton resident, Barry Werth first wrote about this shameful incident in the New Yorker, and has expanded that piece into a full-length biography called The Scarlet Professor, and spent two years living in Arvin's former apartment while writing it. The result is a surprisingly readable account of what it was like to live as a closeted gay man in a small New England town during some of the 20th century's most repressive and conservative decades.

Physically unprepossessing, Frederic Newton Arvin possesses a keenly analytical intellect, which he soon realized would be stifled in his native Indiana, so he resolved to head for the East Coast for his higher education. While he had hoped to settle in New York, he found himself temperamentally unsuited for life in the Big Apple, and eventually settled in Northampton for a "temporary" teaching assignment at Smith College that would last for 37 years. Like most writers, Arvin couldn't sustain himself on his work alone, and had to support his efforts with a job he found draining and distasteful; this conflict would plague him continually and doubtless contributed to his fits of depression. ( Then again, a seven-year sham marriage to a former Smith student didn't help matters either; Arvin's treatment of his wife veered from cruel to wheedling and apologetic, and both spent time in mental institutions as a result of their union. )

Only at the writers' colony Yaddo could Arvin truly be himself, and peep from his carefully maintained closet. There, he began a lifelong friendship with Southern author Carson McCullers, and enacted a two-year relationship with young, flamboyant Truman Capote ( who would declare, "Newton was my Harvard" ) , "that encompassed the happiest, most productive period of Arvin's life." Ultimately, their vastly different personalities and lifestyles drove them apart, but they remained steady friends for the remainder of their lives.

A critic of Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville and Emerson, Arvin found something of each that resonated within him. As a repressed homosexual, he could easily identify with Hawthorne's solitary brooding, observing that "people were punished most harshly not for their actions, but for their secrets," and revealing "'the dark connection between guilt and secrecy' in Hawthorne's writings as the solitary obsession of a young man choosing to live outside society." Much later in life, Arvin's studies of Emerson's limitless optimism apparently inspired him to satiate his thwarted sexual desires more fully and openly ( although this could've just been desperation overwhelming years of repression ) , which ultimately led to his arrest and punishment for his secrets. While occasionally the stretching from a magazine article to full-fledged biography shows rather noticeably...especially at the end, when an ill Arvin had retreated from worldly events...Barry Werth has created a compelling, absorbing recount of one of our country's more shameful moments of hysteria. His recreations of events will transport readers to times when friends knew as little as possible about each other, lest they be forced to testify against them; fireplaces burned with illicit "erotica," the mere possession of which could send a person to prison; and a puritanical postmaster made it his holy mission to stamp out smut. It may not exactly be light reading, but its happening in the two now unofficially known as "Lesbianville, USA" makes it an even more important read...perhaps a cautionary tale against those in power who would curtail our personal liberties in the name of family values ... .


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