What Do You Do All Day? (or "Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again")
Tuesday, October 29, 2002
What I Finished Reading Today:
The Scarlet Professor by Barry Werth
The subtitle of this book is "Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal," and it's a fascinating look at an ordinary man who should have been extraordinary only for his literary abilities and reputation, but who became notorious after a humiliating and career-destroying arrest for possessing homosexual pornographic materials in the late 1950s.
Although not a well-known name today, Arvin, a professor of American literature at Smith College for about 40 years (from the 1920s to the 1960s), was an extremely talented literary biographer and critic, and was one of the founders of the academic discipline now known as American Studies. Although he never became a very famous writer outside literary circles, he was an integral part of the American literary intelligencia during his career, and his circle of friends included people like Truman Capote (also a one-time lover of Arvin's), Carson McCullers, Saul Bellow and many other pillars of modern American literature.
Arvin was also a very quiet personality, and although he could apparently be emotionally demanding with his immediate circle of friends, he lived a very low-key life divided mostly between the Smith campus in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the high-echelon writers' retreat, Yaddo. Arvin's problem, however, was that he was a homosexual in an age when people didn't talk about such things, and men who had homosexual urges were forced to keep them hidden from mainstream society. For Arvin, like millions of others, his homosexuality was also a great source of personal shame, though he did eventually develop a small circle of academic acquaintences who shared his orientation, and with whom he was able to talk and act openly...which provided a measure of comfort in his late middle age.
During this period, in the 1950s, a new breed of men's muscle or "fitness" magazines also appeared on the scene, which weren't particularly explicit, but did feature nearly naked, well-developed men striking hyper-masculine poses that specifically appealed to other men. Arvin became a collector of these magazines, and similar photos, and enjoyed sharing them with his gay friends, both one-on-one and in small group gatherings. At the same time, however, there was a rising tide of anti-homosexual fear in the U.S., which followed close on the heels of the Communist witch hunts earlier in the decade. And when a local postmaster and sheriff went on a morality crusade, they raided Arvin's apartment and found his "pornography" collection, as well as private diaries describing his homosexuality and homosexual activities. Arvin was arrested, convicted, forced into retirment by Smith, and lost many of his closest friends and literary connections in the resulting scandal.
Author Werth does a terrific job of recounting Arvin's story, and bringing him to life as a very sympathetic character, who just happened to be living in the wrong place and wrong time (within two years of Arvin's arrest, separate Supreme Court decisions decriminalized the materials he was convicted of possessing, and made illegal the kind of seizures that got him arrested in the first place...and within 10 years of his troubles, the sexual revolution made homosexuality a much more acceptable trait, especially in the literary circles he inhabited). The book reads very much like a novel, and the various literary luminaries that pass in and out of the narrative come alive as well (it never feels like Werth is dropping names just because he can). Finally, Werth also does a great job of bringing Arvin's biographical work to life, and paralleling various facets of Arvin's life and personality with those of the authors - Hawthorne, Longfellow, Melville and Whitman - he wrote about.
"The Scarlet Professor" was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and it's easy to see why. It's a compelling and complete biography, which also does a great job of bringing its subject's subject, literary criticism, to life. Arvin's story is both unique (for the rarified world he inhabited and his honored place in it) and tragically common (his lonliness, shame and secret double life were all too usual for gay men of his era), and the combination of these two things makes for very absorbing reading, whether you're interested in American literature, the lives of modern American writers, 20th century social history, or enlightening footnote-to-history biographies.