The Scarlet Professor--Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal
In the middle decades of the last century, Newton Arvin was a fixture on the English faculty at Smith College, a respected critic, an outspoken political radical--and a closeted homosexual who hoarded beefcake photos that he sometimes shared with other gay men who visited his Northampton, Mass., apartment. One morning in 1960, five state troopers showed up on the 60-year-old's doorstep. They confiscated the porn, along with Arvin's diaries and love letters, and arrested him on obscenity charges--merely possessing erotica was a felony in the state then, carrying a possible five-year prison sentence. The cops asked him to name others with whom he had shared his pictures, and he obliged, pulling two more Smith faculty men into the dragnet and sparking what one of Arvin's friends described as "fires all over New England . . . as people are burning the contents of their bottom drawers."
The Scarlet Professor, Barry Werth's riveting biography of Arvin released last month in paperback, reads like a novel. Specifically, it resembles the morality tales of one of Arvin's favorite classroom subjects, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Arvin had, in Werth's words, "been condemned to wear not one scarlet letter but three--for smut fiend, homosexual, and informer."
All this could make for a breast-beating tale of a sexual martyr, but to Werth's credit, he creates something more interesting: a complex and deeply detailed portrait of a gifted but fatally flawed man. Arvin is painted as brilliant and ambitious, but also inert and emotionally fragile, a hermit who alternated manic work binges with suicidal depressions, self-absorbed to the point of selfishness. (When one of the men he'd ratted on sat next to him during a court appearance, Arvin blurted to him by way of explanation, "I couldn't go through this alone.") Throughout his story, Werth also puts Arvin and his struggles into the context of his times, from the vibrant intellectual radicalism of the '20s and '30s to the timorous conformity of the McCarthy era and its aftermath. It makes for a fascinating and terrifying read, a journey inside the mind of one odd little man and a society gone mad with morality.