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The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered By Scandal
     

The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered By Scandal

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by Barry Werth
 

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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. As a scholar and writer, Arvin focused on the secret, psychological drives of such American masters as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville and identified the witch-hunt memtality that lies deep in the American

Overview

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. As a scholar and writer, Arvin focused on the secret, psychological drives of such American masters as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville and identified the witch-hunt memtality that lies deep in the American psyche. Arvin, a Communist and closeet homosexual, experienced the national obsession firsthand when his leftist leanings drew accusations and threats from anti-Communist crusaders during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Although he came through the Red Scare relatively unscathed, the Pink Scare and nationalist antismut campaign that followed ruined him. Arrested for possession of pornography and forced to choose between friendship and survival, Arvin named several men. Despairing in his own guilt and confusion, Arvin banished himself to the state mental institution above the Smith College campus, where he had taught for many years.

In The 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. Evoking the links between the invasion of privacy Arvin suffered and recent events, including the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Werth exposes the dangers of a society where the possibility of a "private life" no longer exists. His insights into the tangle of political and moralistic fanaticism underlying America's social landscape provide a forthright and compelling perspective on some of today's most pressing controversies.

But The Scarlet Professor is also a story of redemption. Shortly before his death, Arvin managed to come to peace with himself and publish his brilliant biography of Longfellow.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
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 Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780385494687
Publisher:
Doubleday Publishing
Publication date:
04/17/2001
Edition description:
1 ED
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
6.66(w) x 9.67(h) x 1.27(d)

Read an Excerpt


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.

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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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Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
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