Burning Secrets 

When American Studies was dragged from the closet

Newton Arvin, looking around him in the mid-1920s for a suitably monumental figure in American literature to make the subject of his first book, could hardly have found a more homeopathic remedy for his own inner torment than Nathaniel Hawthorne. Like Hawthorne, Arvin had retreated at an early age into the monastic seclusion of the literary life, emerging after his lonely teenage years to become one of the strongest voices in American letters. Though three decades away from his final and humiliatingly public reckoning, in writing about Hawthorne Arvin also arrived at an early personal understanding of an underlying theme in much of Hawthorne’s work: In Calvinist America, both his subject’s and his own, people were punished most harshly not for their actions, but for their secrets.

And so unfolds the central theme of The Scarlet Professor, Barry Werth’s eloquent biography of the literary critic who, with mentor Van Wyck Brooks, lent an urgent voice to establishing American Studies as a major academic field at a time when no such program existed anywhere. Arvin’s four major critical biographies, Hawthorne, Whitman, Herman Melville, and Longfellow: His Life and Work, are still regarded as among the best, if not the very best, works of critical scholarship on their enigmatic subjects. Arvin found in his own life the key to understanding the influence of early experience on the writing of each man; he also found, in their lives, keys to understanding his own.

A native of Indiana, Arvin began his literary career as a literature professor at Smith College, a prestigious women’s school in Northampton, Mass., in 1922. Just 22 years old, he was an ardent communist, a radical thinker and erudite writer on the cusp of a postwar era in which the landslide election of Northampton’s favorite son, Calvin Coolidge, would soon demonstrate what little regard the majority of Americans seemed to have for radical anything.

But more importantly, Arvin was also a closeted homosexual. From a practical point of view, of course, it was nearly impossible at the time for a male homosexual in Arvin’s position to be anything but closeted. Even at a college whose faculty generally (if quietly) tolerated the so-called “Boston marriages” between female faculty members and, in some cases, between teachers and former students, the best Arvin could hope for was to cultivate a meticulously groomed and fastidiously guarded double life.

Arvin the secret longer, the lonely diarist, the conflicted and self-doubting product of what he called his “uniquely misbegotten” childhood is the central figure of The Scarlet Professor. The concentric circles of his world, mapped here by his astute biographer, all radiate out from this governing secret. He found teaching tiresome and distracting from the “pure” intellectualism of his critical studies, but social interaction in the cloistered world of a liberal arts college, set incongruously against the strict moral climate of small-town New England, was a tonic to his private conflict. It was also in this rigidly circumscribed environment, through cautious relationships with other homosexuals among the Smith faculty, that he began to try to reconcile his private longings with the wider world.

Terrified of being found out, Arvin nevertheless did his best to lead a normal life. He even tried to be a good husband—to Mary Garrison, a rebellious society girl and former student of his, in a lopsided marriage of convenience that Arvin relished most for its appearance of normalcy. Writing about Mary, whom Arvin actually presented with certain poems of Walt Whitman in the sincere hope that she would infer from them his own secret longings for men, author Werth puts his finger on both the key misunderstanding in their doomed marriage and much of the willful ignorance of homosexuality at the time:

“Perhaps because no student wants to admit ignorance to a teacher, Mary responded with equal tentativeness. She couldn’t conceive that Arvin wasn’t heterosexual, because nothing in her experience or his behavior had prepared her for such a thought... Letting him know how much the poems also meant to her, she demurred from making comments that might offend him or cause him to think less of her. In fact, she never read them. Arvin exulted in Mary’s apparent forbearance.”

Not surprisingly, Arvin had first begun casting about for a wife while researching Hawthorne, who also found marriage salubrious for his natural nclination to withdraw. Ensconced in this semblance of normalcy, Arvin apparently felt that he had found a cure, of sorts, in his own interpretation of Hawthorne’s work:

“The essential sin [Hawthorne] would seem to say, lies in whatever shuts up the spirit in a dungeon where he is alone, beyond the reach of common sympathies and the general sunlight. All that isolates damns; all that associates, saves.”

His troubled peace came to an end—two decades after the marriage did—in 1960, when Massachusetts police raided his apartment and confiscated a stash of body-building magazines and erotic postcards. A panicked Arvin betrayed the names of several lovers and close friends who regularly congregated in his attic apartment. The ensuing obscenity trial and scandal, played out to humiliating public scrutiny, cost him nearly everything except the loyalty of his oldest friends. The uncritical support of Truman Capote (a former lover), his childhood friend David Lilienthal, critic Edmund Wilson, and almost every name in ’40s and ’50s American literature barely kept Arvin’s head above water. The three years between the trial and his death in 1963 saw him in and out of mental hospitals, alternately suicidal and finally at peace with his oldest secret.

As Arvin himself keenly understood, even the humiliating spectacle of the obscenity trial and his forced outing seemed to be presaged by another of Hawthorne’s themes: that the supreme punishment is to live out one’s disgrace in public. Arvin survived it in spite of himself—a curiously uplifting finale to the rather depressing events in this excellent bit of biography.

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