“The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal” by Barry Werth— America’s Need to Punish

Werth, Barry. “The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal”, Nan A. Talese, 2001.

America’s Need to Punish

Amos Lassen

I do not know how I missed this book and the story behind and if a wise friend had not sent me a news clipping about an opera being prepared from the book I still might not have known anything about it. Once I read that article, I realized that I had to know more and this came upon this book. Barry Werth’s “The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal” is a provocative and very unsettling look at the consequences of America’s puritanical “need to punish.” This is the tragic story of one of America’s great literary minds whose life and career were shattered by the “Pink Scare.”

Newton Arvin (1900-1963) was one of America’s most respected literary critics and was admired by Edmund Wilson and Lillian Hellman. Arvin was a mentor to Truman Capote and a member of the American Academy of Arts and in 1951, won the National Book Award for his biography of Herman Melville. As a scholar and writer, Arvin focused on the secret, psychological drives of American masters, specifically Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Arvin was born and raised in the constrained society of Protestant Indiana and was a social radical and a homosexual who was only out to himself and friends. When the national antismut campaign followed the “Red Scare”, his apartment in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he was a distinguished professor at Smith College, was searched and relatively mild homoerotic materials were confiscated. He was arrested for possession of pornography, accused in the press of being a leader of a “smut ring,” and forced to choose between friendship and survival. After naming several men, he despaired at his own guilt and confusion, and took himself to the state mental institution overlooking the Smith campus. It was in that institution that his public shame and the fear of his associates caused the unraveling of his connections to the institutions that had been of major importance his life.

Barry Werth explores the virulence with which even the most marginal “sins” are dealt with during the height of America’s recurring puritanical crusades. We gain a new perspective from his insights into the political and moralistic fanaticism that has been part of this country’s social landscape and about the dangers of a society where the possibility of a “private life” no longer exists.

Werth begins  with the arrest of Newton Arvin for possession of pornography. He then gives us a chronologically organized narrative from Arvin’s arrival in Northampton, MA, as a 24-year-old instructor at Smith College, to his death. Arvin became a well-known literary critic and wrote biographies of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville, among others. He was forced into early retirement at Smith in 1960 after being sentenced for possession of pornography and for lewd (i.e., homosexual) behavior. What Werth stresses here is the psychological cost of Arvin’s concealing his homosexuality, as well as the similarity between the prosecution of Arvin and that of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”.

Smith College, at that time, treated its homosexual professors more harshly than a heterosexual professor who was sexually involved with at least one member of the all-female student body. Through Arvin and his associates, Werth gives the details of the “witch-hunt,” first for Communists, then for homosexuals in mid-20th-century America. Newton Arvin was one of the premier literary critics of his day and was hailed for his brilliance by such contemporaries as Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, and Edmund Wilson. As professor of literature at Smith College, he transformed the s

tudy of American literature and saw the discipline through to maturity. Nonetheless, he was plagued with feelings of inferiority, self-doubt, and worthlessness. Earlier, he became a communist darling at Yaddo, the writers’ colony in New York, and he was homosexual, which he kept secret for much of his life. Yet he had torrid affairs (one with Truman Capote) and was a major figure in a 1960 homosexual scandal at Smith. After his arrest, he started naming names, and guilt drove him to the Massachusetts state mental facility, in which he spent the rest of his days. This book totally captures the politics, social climate, and culture of fear that Arvin experienced in the world’s greatest democracy.

Barry Werth takes us to a crucial episode in the history of American repression of which there is little known—The Smith College Homosexual Scandal of 1960 which had until this book not been researched or reported in such detail. I was glued to this book as I read.

When Arvin was arrested, he sank into confusion and despair causing his betrayal of several friends.

We see here the essence of a conflicted man and a provocative and unsettling look at American moral fanaticism.

Barry Werth does a marvelous job helping the reader to understand the challenges that Arvin faced as a closeted gay man in this society in the 1920’s through the early sixties.

Werth implies the homosexuality that was a hidden part of Arvin’s entire adult life contributed to his frequent mental collapses and breakdowns, but also may have allowed him to have brilliant insights into the lives of his subjects such as Walt Whitman (an acknowledged homosexual) and Hawthorne and Melville (apparently both sexually ambiguous writers). Although Arvin found the American Communist Party too intellectually bankrupt for his tastes, he was a `fellow traveler’ who supported labor and socialist movements. Yet he also tried to be objective in his analysis of American poetry and fiction and was a knowledgeable, conscientious, and honest teacher of young ladies. His political views colored his scholarship, but did not distort it.

Arvin lived his life in a period in which homosexuality was considered either a crime or a mental illness or both. In his younger days he alternately fought his desires or gave into them in various clandestine relationships. Arvin also seemed to have had an aversion to emotional intimacy and that would give him a life of loneliness. His life ended tragically in disgrace in 1960 with his arrest for possessing what postal authorities claimed was ‘homosexual pornography’. By that time, he was mentally and physically too fragile to deal with this and died in 1963.

There are those who will see Arvin as a whining hypochondriac and a rat who betrayed his friends. He was nothing to look at and he was a poor conversationalist about things that did not concern his academic interests. What we really see here is how terribly pre-1960 America treated homosexuals, communists and the mentally ill. It is also a good argument against those who would broaden police searches and seizures.

The news is just out that a new opera on the very college campus where the original events took place is in rehearsal at Amherst College. I got a peek at some of the lyrics and I can tell you that these are not the kind of songs we usually hear in operas:“One-two-three — ‘kinky, stinky, commie, finkie…”

This will be a Five College Opera production that is based on Northampton writer Werth’s book.  After reading Werth’s book, composer Eric Sawyer of Amherst College and lyricist Harley Erdman of UMass Amherst decided to turn it into an opera. Like the book, the opera draws parallels between Arvin’s public disgrace and that of Hawthorne’s heroine, Hester Prynne, who was forced to wear the letter A on her dress, for adultery.

The opera stars UMass Amherst professor and tenor Bill Hite and tells Arvin’s story mostly through flashbacks and his imagination, after he checks himself into the Northampton State Hospital for psychiatric treatment.

Arvin is seen as a victim that he was caught up in a witch hunt. He was subjected to invasion of privacy, which a few years afterwards would have been unconstitutional but he also was a difficult character to consider completely admirable because he named names of his friends. He remains a sympathetic character and he is relatable.

Even though this was a very painful period for Arvin, ultimately it helped him become a more integrated, honest person. Even though didn’t live that much longer after all this happened he did somehow manage to become a person at peace with himself. The opera will have its premier on the Smith College campus in September, along with a symposium about the Arvin case.

Regardless of how far Smith has come since 1960, from gay rights to free speech, there is no getting away from the fact that past actions got us to what we have today and by having this opera, history can be stopped from repeating itself.

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