The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandalby Barry Werth
During his thirty-seven years at Smith College, Newton Arvin published groundbreaking studies of Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, and Longfellow that stand today as models of scholarship and psychological acuity. He cultivated friendships with the likes of Edmund Wilson and Lillian Hellman and became mentor to Truman Capote. A social radical and closeted homosexual, the circumspect Arvin nevertheless survived McCarthyism. But in September 1960 his apartment was raided, and his cache of beefcake erotica was confiscated, plunging him into confusion and despair and provoking his panicked betrayal of several friends.
An utterly absorbing chronicle, The Scarlet Professor deftly captures the essence of a conflicted man and offers a provocative and unsettling look at American moral fanaticism.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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SEPTEMBER 17, 1924
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 facade 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.
Everything in Arvin's recent past pointed to his being here, despite himself.
He had been a sickly Harvard junior when Coolidge became an overnight hero to an anxious, pent-up nation in the fall of 1919. All that summer America had seemed on the brink of class warfare. Strikes, lockouts, bombings, the Palmer Raids, deportations, violent nativism, Red scares, and calls for a proletarian revolt were everywhere, especially in Massachusetts, the most urban state in the country. Then, on September 9, the Boston police went on strike, the city's Central Labor Union threatened a general walkout, and fear succumbed to terror. Coolidge, in his first year as governor, stepped in after three nights of rioting and looting, and committed armed guard detachments to the city, as well as mobilizing forty thousand reserves. The effect was galvanic. A week before, few people beyond Massachusetts knew Coolidge's name. Now, as order returned and labor retreated, he burst on the national consciousness as the flinty, no-nonsense Republican who had "defied Bolshevism and more."
Arvin was back in Valparaiso that fall with his parents, recuperating from severe anemia. A shy, solitary English major, he dreamed only of becoming a writer, a man of letters. He was desperate to get back to Cambridge, but years of reading up to ten hours a day had so strained his eyes that his mother had to read to him. Jessie, a parched Midwestern housewife of fifty-five, had long seemed to her son a bitter and distant woman. The fourth of six children and second and younger son, Arvin blamed his father for his mother's straitened emotions. Frederic Arvin was a stern, demanding businessman who had made something of himself as vice-president of a farm loan association in Indianapolis. Family life was distasteful to him, and he was seldom at home. When he did grudgingly return for a weekend once a month or so, he was short tempered and truculent, a remote figure but a daunting one.
Arvin's return home after two years on his own in the East had unsettled him. "Walking through a mausoleum," he called it. Valparaiso, where Arvin was born in 1900, was a town of fifteen thousand in the flat, featureless northern tier of the state, the sort of insular Midwestern farm town soon to be harshly memorialized in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and Sinclair Lewis's Main Street. The presence of Valparaiso College, promoted by generations of Midwesterners as "the poor man's Harvard," elevated the town's cultural quotient, but not by much. Arvin had concluded years earlier that anyone who was sensitive or imaginative would be crippled and thwarted there. He also believed that his father, for whom he'd been named (he would drop his first name soon after college), thought him effeminate and weak and despised him for it.
The situation deteriorated sharply in November, when young Arvin wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper, the Vidette, protesting the library board's decision to remove all copies of The New Republic, a prickly, five-year-old left-leaning opinion magazine, from its shelves and burn them. Arvin's father, whom Arvin felt "capable of emotional brutality," reacted hostilely. The last time Fred Arvin's namesake had been featured in the Vidette was when he was sixteen and had had two poems published in the Indianapolis Star, the state's leading newspaper; the headline read valpo boy shows rare poetic skill. That article concluded, "Young Arvin's rhythm is said to be perfect and his rhyming unusual. Friends predict a brilliant future for him." Now, having been drummed out of Harvard's Student Army Training Corps the previous fall for failing his physical, he suffered from vaguely feminine maladies and bleak prospects. Worse, he had become, as Fred Arvin would later say, "tinctured with Sovietism."
Arvin returned to Harvard in January 1920 at a low ebb. Although he regarded himself as dull and unattractive, he yearned for affection; he'd expressed the fierce longing even at thirteen, when he wrote in his diary, "I feel so lonesome for an intimate friend." Before then, his only real friend had been Lilienthal, one of the few other aspiring intellectuals in a town where most boys preferred games to books and normal boyish cruelty to sensitive discourse. The two put together political scrapbooks, cutting out articles and pictures of great events from magazines. They formed a political club and a magazine of their own in a clubhouse they built from packing crates in the Lilienthals' barn.
Until then, Arvin had felt "uniquely misbegotten," alone, unaccepted, derided, with an "insuperable chasm" between himself and other boys--surely the only boy of his kind in the world. "I was certainly a girlish small boy, not a virile one, even in promise," he would write. "I was timid, shrinking, weak, and unventuresome. I had no skill in boyish games and sports, and no interest in them, and I was quickly penalized as a result--by taunts, jeers, and sometimes, though rarely blows." Lilienthal, by comparison, was an excessively "normal" boy, outgoing, spontaneous, and unaffected. Arvin, gleeful to have such a gifted friend, credited Lilienthal with keeping him "in line with at least something like normality" at an age when he might well have withdrawn altogether from the world of boys.
But suddenly, a few months before Arvin's thirteenth birthday, Lilienthal's father, a Jewish dry goods dealer, failed in business, and the family moved to Missouri. Arvin and Lilienthal corresponded faithfully and swore allegiance to each other throughout high school and college. But now they were young men, and Lilienthal, a senior at DePauw College in Greencastle, Indiana, had plans to marry, which prompted Arvin to write jealously that his friend "need have no apprehensions" that he himself would ever wed. He would always be, Arvin wrote on his return to Cambridge, "the bachelor friend of the family, consoling himself for his loneliness by dropping in for tea every Monday."
Then, two weeks later, he wrote:
The past four or five days have been indescribably wonderful for me, and in point of fact I am not yet walking on common earth. To say it is one grand and glorious feeling to be back in Cambridge is to put it very mildly. After what I have gone through it is almost too good to be true . . . I wish I could express to you in words what I have to say, to give you an idea of the very beautiful, very fine, and very precious thing that has come into my life, and very nearly changed the whole seeming of existence to me . . . In one sense I am no longer quite the same person. (I could be concrete instead of so beautifully vague, but somehow I dislike to be. You will understand.)
Arvin ended by apologizing for his evasiveness; "Take it from me," he wrote, " 'there's a reason.' " What he dared not say was that he was in the thrall of his first adult crush, and that the object of his passion was his roommate in Thayer Hall, a tall, dark-haired, studious-looking drama major from Chicago with a full, sensual mouth and cleft chin named Harold Ehrensperger. Arvin joked in another letter about the possibility of "nuptial ties" between him and "Bud," but he seemed to be suggesting nothing more than that the two of them had become companionable. Even in the eroticized cities, homosexuality remained the forbidden province of pansies and fairies, and Lilienthal knew Arvin to be, if unmanly in appearance, a bold thinker with a masculine mind--epicene, yes, but if anything, asexual. In other words he hadn't yet found the right woman to arouse his manhood. Lilienthal misconstrued Arvin's vagueness; his relief at his friend's euphoria let him overlook its significance.
Arvin's ebullience had other factors: his returning health and his studies. In March he wrote to Lilienthal that his weight was up to 113 1/2 pounds, an "appreciable gain," and that he was taking gym work daily, going for long walks, and sleeping eight or nine hours a night. To avoid overexertion, he'd taken a light course load, which left him plenty of time for "desultory reading of one sort or another . . . Freud's Leonardo da Vinci, Aberrations of Sex, Sexology of Childhood; Gamaliel Bradford's Portraits of American Women; Emily Dickinson's Letters and Poems; Wm. James's Talks to Students; William's Lenin, the Man and His Work; Conrad Aiken's Scepticisms; Philip Littell's Books and Things; Paul Elmer More's Platonism; etc." Arvin had always read expansively, quenchlessly, but now, a nineteen-year-old junior, he glimpsed within his obsession for books not only a prescription for a career but for a moral life.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
Barry Werth brought the story of Newton Arvin and the "Smith College Homosexual Scandal of 1960" to national attention for the first time in almost forty years in The New Yorker. Werth is the author of The Billion-Dollar Molecule and Damages. In addition to The New Yorker, his articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Outside. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.
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