Cover image for The scarlet professor : Newton Arvin : a literary life shattered by scandal
The scarlet professor : Newton Arvin : a literary life shattered by scandal
Werth, Barry.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Nan A. Talese, [2001]

Physical Description:
325 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, portraits ; 25 cm
General Note:
"Books by Newton Arvin": p. [305].
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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Item Holds
PE64.A78 W47 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In this provocative and unsettling look at the consequences of America's puritanical "need to punish," Barry Werth explores 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 esteemed literary critics, admired by Edmund Wilson and Lillian Hellman, and mentor to Truman Capote. He was 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 such American masters as Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and identified the witch-hunt mentality that lies deep in the American psyche. Born and raised in the constrained society of Protestant Indiana, Arvin was a social radical and an unproclaimed homosexual. He came through the Red Scare relatively unscathed, but when the national antismut campaign followed, 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 banished himself to the state mental institution overlooking the Smith campus. From there public shame and the fear of his associates began to unravel his connections with the esteemed institutions that had been the cornerstones of his life. InThe Scarlet Professor,Barry Werth probes into the virulence with which even the most marginal "sins" are pursued in the fever of America's recurring puritanical crusades. His insights into the tangle of political and moralistic fanaticism underlying America's social landscape provide a forthright and compelling perspective on the dangers of a society where the possibility of a "private life" no longer exists. ButThe Scarlet Professoris not just a political parable. It also a story of redemption.

Author Notes

Barry Werth is the author of "The Billion-Dollar Molecule" & "Damages". He has written about Newton Arvin for "The New Yorker" & has also been published in "GQ" & "The New York Times Magazine". He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Newton Arvin was one of the premier literary critics of his day, hailed as brilliant by such contemporaries as Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, and Edmund Wilson. A professor of literature at Smith College for much of the twentieth century, he transformed the study of American literature and saw the discipline through to maturity. Nonetheless, feelings of inferiority, self-doubt, and worthlessness plagued him. Once a frail boy from Indiana, 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), figured prominently in a 1960 homosexual scandal at Smith, and was arrested for possessing pornography. After the last, he started naming names, and guilt drove him to the Northampton, Massachusetts, state mental facility, in which he spent the rest of his days. Werth's wonderfully crafted biography of the brilliant, tormented critic captures the politics, social climate, and culture of fear of the America that Arvin experienced. --Michael Spinella

Publisher's Weekly Review

Newton Arwin was a prominent American literary critic of the 1940s and '50s who was vilified for his homosexuality. Werth employs measured, cautious phrases in his new account of Arwin's life. He avoids extended analysis, as if afraid the tactic might disturb the fragile balance between daring and cowardice, brilliance and reticence, sensuality and propriety that he finds at the core of Arwin's sporadic sexual experimentation, debilitating mental disorders and exquisite prose. Werth (Damages; The Billion-Dollar Molecule) argues that the oppression experienced by Arwin had implications far beyond the ruin of an academic's career. Through stark illustration of Arwin's personal disgrace, Werth exposes the paradox that, while driving those it considered culturally deviant from public life by declaring their proclivities obscene, postwar American society simultaneously preyed upon the very secrecy it demanded. The fact that Arwin himself first unearthed the historical roots of this paradox in his landmark biographies of Hawthorne, Whitman and Melville only serves to underscore the resounding simplicity that was the critic's most remarkable feature. Here was a man who wanted nothing but the opportunity to think and love with all the breadth his spirit would allow, and who had known since adolescence that his one desire constituted the essence of crime and sin in the society that enveloped him. When the police discovered pornography in Arwin's apartment, it was with disconcerting reserve that he revealed the names of several friends and fellow homosexuals. Werth's obvious sympathy for his subject prevents him from adequately confronting Arwin's climactic treachery, but the biography remains a moving portrait of a man racked by the pain of his own identity. (May) Forecast: This book originated as an article in the New Yorker and will undoubtedly receive wide review coverage, supplemented by local publicity by the author in New England. Still, it's not clear that a book-length treatment of Arwin's life will resonate with a lot of readers. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Werth (The Billion-Dollar Molecule) begins this expos with the arrest of Newton Arvin (1900-63) for possession of pornography, then presents 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 authored 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. The author stresses 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 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 ably details the "witchhunt," first for Communists, then for homosexuals, in mid-20th-century America. Recommended for both public and academic libraries. Carolyn M. Craft, Longwood Coll., Farmville, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Werth presents a dramatic, novelistic narrative of a man who won a National Book Award for his biography Herman Melville (1950) and was for many years a highly respected professor at Smith College. He was also a gay man who kept his personal life in the closet--that is, until the police found material in his apartment they deemed pornographic. Shocked at this public exposure, Arvin first tried to protect his position as an eminent man. Consequently, he named other gays who were arrested and interrogated during a government campaign against "smut." Werth is careful to portray Arvin's plight in the context of the times, which included the period of McCarthyism when many who were accused of communist affiliations "named names," thus betraying the confidence and privacy of their friends. The author also presents a complex portrait of American college life and of the role of literary criticism and biography. He is especially illuminating on how Arvin chose his subjects and why the cultural moment seemed right to deal with the subjects he did (in addition to Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, Longfellow, and others). This reviewer regrets, however, that Werth did not include a section of notes or a list of interviewees. Large literature and American cultural history collections; all levels. C. Rollyson Bernard M. Baruch College, CUNY



SEPTEMBER 17, 1924 NORTHAMPTON It was near dusk when Arvin entered the narrow, ill-lit walk-up next to Lambie's dry goods store on Main Street. Though he was still new in town, a shy, frail twenty-four-year-old Smith instructor, he affected a jaunty contempt as he hastened past the second-floor doorway of Dr. John C. Allen, President Calvin Coolidge's dentist and closest friend. As Arvin knew, Coolidge had started his political career as Northampton's mayor, and his homestead was a wood-frame duplex a few blocks from Arvin's six-dollar-a-week room in a boarding house. Anyone with an atom of love for Dear Old Hamp proudly supported Coolidge's re-election effort. Not Arvin. Like most members of his famously Lost Generation, he reviled Cool Cal and small towns. In August, he'd offered to lead the local campaign for seventy-four-year-old "Fighting Bob" La Follette, Coolidge's third-party opponent. Now, in the lingering heat, he continued upstairs to the International Order of Hibernians' hall to preside over the opening of Northampton's La Follette Boom Club. Privately, Arvin leaned toward Bolshevism and dismissed La Follette as a relic of the trust-busting, pro-farm spirit that had exhausted itself before the Great War. Arvin's generation, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, had emerged from that war to "find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken." His peers were busy thronging to the profane cities, disdaining Great Causes, and baying after pleasure and art. Yet Arvin relished the subversiveness of becoming, as he would boast in his next Harvard Class Report, "president of the La Follette Club in the President's hometown." Haunted by wanting other men, doubting his ability ever to fit in, he embraced the role of political outcast. He could champion progress but not his real self. He took the podium and, with surprising vehemence--glee, even--flayed the two major political parties. The Democrats, he said in a high-toned, punctilious Midwestern voice--a voice the critic Alfred Kazin would call "larger than the man"--stood for "sectionalism, bossism, and watchful wobbling." He reserved harsher words for Coolidge and the Republicans, whom he called "incurably identified with economic privilege of the darkest kind." As a radical with no local roots--and no desire for any--Arvin ably proved his impertinence. But as a political organizer trying to enlist a conservative, nostalgic citizenry, his instincts were--and would be--less keen. Paddle fans beat indolently overhead as seventy-five men and women fanned themselves in the hard wooden folding chairs. With his slight build, Arvin was scarcely the picture of a rabble-rouser. He had a gentle, inviting face, pale as milk. His gray-green eyes glinted anxiously behind gold wire-rim spectacles, his prim lips hid several teeth in need of removal, and, receding above a domish, lightly pocked forehead, his soft brown hair, already thinning, lay flat. Only his clothes--a sturdy three-piece suit, soft-collared shirt, and silk tie--announced greater temerity than would have been expected of the mild young clerk who inhabited them. He raised his voice and his rhetoric. Only through the independent candidacy of La Follette, he told the crowd, could the left "lay the basis for a Progressive Party with a kick in it, and put the fear of God in the hearts of the politicians." Afterward, as he returned home, Arvin was reminded how much the darkened town belonged to Coolidge and the past, not to him. Directly across Main Street, past the trolley tracks and overhead wires, stood the pinnacled, rock-faced county courthouse, the fifth on the site, where Coolidge had begun his law career. Just to its left rose the stolid beaux arts fa?ade of the Northampton Institution for Savings, where, as a young man, Coolidge, who preached hard thrift and frugality, had served as vice-president. Beyond the bank soared the ninety-foot soot-blackened brownstone spire of the First Congregational Church, on the ground where, two centuries earlier, the fiery Protestant divine Jonathan Edwards had launched the apocalyptic frontier revival known as the Great Awakening, in which the mass fervor for combating Satan rose to such a pitch that Edwards's cousin slit his own throat in an anguished attempt to cleanse an impure conscience and appease an angry God. Indeed, Northampton, a lovely if fading county seat and farm center of twenty thousand, cupped against the foothills of the Berkshires, could not have stood more proudly for the catchpenny puritanism that Coolidge promised to the country and that Arvin's generation reviled--what the Massachusetts-bred writer Robert Benchley called that "old time New England streak . . . that atavistic yearning for a bad time if a bad time is possible." To the right of the courthouse, across King Street, glittered the town's grand new vaudeville house, originally to be named the Mayflower but earlier in the year--with no intended irony for a town that, until seventy-five years earlier, banned stage plays because they fostered "immorality, impiety, and a contempt for religion"--renamed the Calvin. And yet Arvin, who came from Valparaiso, Indiana, felt flushed with a sense of purpose, of belonging. He was intoxicated by the challenge of living in the enclosed, forbidding social world around him, something that as recently as a year ago he doubted he would be able to do. All he wanted was to be a literary critic. But even the most bookish scholar had to be a man of action, a citizen. In the new world, passivity was the gravest crime, and it was necessary for those who saw the truth about America to tell it, in word and deed. Far from being discouraged by the weak turnout, Arvin relished his status as leader of the town's anti-Coolidge renegades. Not only had he got himself in the trenches; he was in back of enemy lines, pinned down by barrages, his position hopeless. A few days earlier he had written to his best boyhood friend, a young Chicago labor lawyer named David Lilienthal, about his decision to stump for La Follette: "I think it will possibly save me from the kindnesses of a lot of respectable (and very dull) people who rather enjoy a literary radical but gag at a political one." Now, the day after the rally, he wrote to Lilienthal again, boasting--and joking--about his newest success. Coolidge, famously parsimonious, was known, even during Prohibition, to like bourbon, pouring shots for himself and visitors from a bottle he kept in the lower compartment of his washstand. There was a famous story about him, which Arvin must have known, that on the night in 1918 when he was elected governor of Massachusetts, a guest noticed an old friend sitting on the bed in Coolidge's dollar-and-a-half room in a boarding house--without a drink. "Bill's already had hisn," Coolidge had snapped at the visitor. Writing to Lilienthal, Arvin reported; "The movement is promising well here in the seats of the sot." Whatever his intentions, they excluded staying in Northampton long enough to care whether its patriotic citizens disliked his lampooning their favorite son as a cheap drunkard. Excerpted from The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal by Barry Werth All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.