ewton Arvin’s fragile world tumbled around him on September 2, 1960, when five policemen in two unmarked Ford automobiles arrived in front of his modest apartment at 45 Prospect Street in Northampton, Massachusetts. They entered the building that stood only a short walk from Smith College, a prestigious women’s college, where Arvin had taught for thirty-seven years and was Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English, the most distinguished professorship in his department. The police officers ascended two narrow, winding flights of stairs and pounded aggressively on Arvin’s door. It was eleven a.m.
Leading the group were John Regan of the Massachusetts State Police and his partner, Gerald Crowley. Regan, an imposing figure, stood six feet tall and weighed 220 pounds. When the diminutive Arvin opened the door, he saw only Regan and Crowley, but soon all five officers forced their way into his small foyer. Regan informed the timid professor that his name had been linked to organized traffic in pornography.
He and Crowley asked to search Arvin’s apartment and quickly, despite the lack of a search warrant, turned his residence inside out. The police unearthed pictures of nude or seminude males, some in compromising situations, as well as various muscle builder and physical fitness magazines, copies of One (the publication of the homosexually oriented Mattachine Society), and, most damaging as it turned out, stacks of Arvin’s journals and diaries dating to 1940.
Newton Arvin grew up a sickly child in Valparaiso, Indiana, small, frail, and unsuited to play sports or engage in “manly” pursuits, which never attracted him. His interests were intellectual. He read incessantly. He resented his mother’s domineering tendencies and never felt close to his father. Upon finishing four painful years of secondary school, he enrolled in Harvard University, where he entered a milieu that suited him better than any he had previously known.
Arvin’s happiest memories of Valparaiso were connected with his only close childhood friend, David Lilienthal, who eventually chaired the Tennessee Valley Authority during the administrations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman and was appointed head of the Atomic Energy Commission by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Although Lilienthal, thoroughly heterosexual, failed to understand Arvin’s sexual orientation when he became aware of it belatedly, he remained a supportive friend throughout Arvin’s lifetime.
Completing his bachelor’s degree at Harvard in three and one-half years, Arvin began teaching at Detroit Country Day School in Michigan. Close to nervous collapse, he resigned from the job before the Christmas break. Arvin’s fondest wish was to become a literary critic focusing on a rapidly developing new academic field, American literature.
Arvin had no enthusiasm for teaching and, largely because of his shy and retiring personality, was never the riveting or even memorable teacher that some of his close friends were, particularly Ned Stofford and Wendell Stacy Johnson. He developed a friendship with Van Wyck Brooks, who, in the early 1920’s, was being lionized for America’s Coming of Age (1915) and The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920). Brooks encouraged Arvin to produce a book-length study in American literature, which culminated in Arvin’s Hawthorne (1929), a book that established him as a critic to be reckoned with. This book, followed by Whitman (1938) and Herman Melville (1950), unequivocally placed him shoulder-to-shoulder with the most revered critics of American literature.
Barry Werth demonstrates how Arvin’s need to live a life of secrecy and, at times, deception is reflected in his critical writing, which deals with the inner, secret lives of his subjects and with the effects of secrecy upon their writing. This approach, which distinguished him as a scholar, followed naturally from the element in his life that tormented him most. He was forever oppressed by the need to be more circumspect than his heterosexual colleagues.
In 1932, in a somewhat hysterical attempt to create a smoke screen, Arvin married an ex-Smith student,...
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