The Scarlet Professor, Newton Arvin: A Life Shattered by Scandal

Barry Werth
New York: Doubleday, 2001
325 pp., $26

Ken Egan Jr.
Rocky Mountain College

What is the relationship between our private lives and our work as teachers and scholars? Faith in scholarly objectivity has waned over the past twenty years. Literary theory argues that interpretations of texts arise from our positioning in politics, culture, and economics. A sea-change has occurred in attitudes toward sexual relations between teachers and students as well. Professors are far more circumspect about mixing personal with pedagogic relations. Administrators and trustees have also raised questions about the value, the validity of academic freedom as a defense for tenure, suggesting that professors hide behind this principle to enunciate private convictions and radical politics.

Barry Werth's The Scarlet Professor summons these issues in compelling style. Newton Arvin helped invent and legitimize the field of American literary studies from the 1920s through the 1950s. Though sending forth his scholarly books, articles, and reviews from the relatively isolated Northampton, Massachusetts, he won a National Book Award for his biography of Melville and garnered the respect of critics such as Edmund Wilson and Van Wyck Brooks. Yet he was also a political radical and homosexual. Werth skillfully traces the complex interaction between these two lives, revealing Arvin's increasingly desperate attempts to segregate political ambition from scholarly credibility, sexual desire from professional status. But in 1960 his apartment was raided and ransacked by Massachusetts State Police seeking to root out same-sex deviance. They not only uncovered soft-porn images but Arvin's explicit journal of his private life, thus exposing the American literature professor to charges of indecency. To compound the tragedy of these events, Arvin, the one-time Communist, "named names" of his sexual fellow travelers, thus betraying one of his fundamental ethical principles.

As his title would suggest, Werth invokes Hawthorne's great novel as a template for interpreting Arvin's divided life. Since Arvin wrote a distinguished study of Hawthorne in the 1920s, this move makes biographical sense. Arvin's interpretation of Hawthorne's art speaks volumes about the critic's own needs and compulsions. He asserted that the dominant theme in Hawthorne's prose is secrecy produced by shame and guilt. At a time when homosexuality was viewed as deviant, unmasculine, and un-American, Arvin labored to conceal his sexual orientation from college officials, students, and fellow scholars. Though he occasionally engaged in liaisons with colleagues at Smith and carried on a semi-public affair with the flamboyant young Truman Capote, Arvin managed to protect his private life from public scrutiny. But as he struggled with aging and increasingly powerful depression, Arvin turned boldly toward "cruising" and sharing his sexual tastes with friends. In the end these desires were put on humiliating public display, converting the shy, reticent professor into a Hester Prynne. To underscore this analogy, Werth often reminds his reader of the intolerant attitudes of small-town America. He cleverly summons the religious history of the Connecticut Valley, describing Jonathan Edwards' term as revivalist minister in the region, for instance. The biographer also reminds the reader that Northampton was the hometown of Calvin Coolidge, the conservative president who led the attack on "Reds" in the early 1920s. In context of these small-town mores, Arvin's secret life and ultimate exposure took on added horror.

While the comparison between Arvin and Hester makes sense, two other characters seem even more apt analogues for the scholar: Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth. Similar to the Puritan minister who suffers compounded agony because of his concealed sin, Arvin endured repeated bouts of severe depression, suicidal ideation, shock therapy, and occasional institutionalization. And like Dimmesdale, Arvin experienced a surprising, unexpected liberation upon the revelation of his "sin." He produced his fine critical biography of Longfellow in the aftermath of the devastating scandal. But it becomes increasingly clear over the course of the biography that Arvin also shared disturbing similarities with Chillingworth, the cuckolded husband who dedicates his enormous intellect to the task of punishing the fallen minister. Arvin comes across as an isolated, obsessed literary scholar who was unable to sustain long-term, intimate relationships. His one try at "normality" through marriage to a former student collapsed in large part because of the scholar's coldness, his need for solitude, his demand for intellectual primacy. Readers are also left with the impression that loyal friends in Northampton felt taken-for-granted and used. When one considers the often parched lives of brilliant scholars, one cannot help feeling sad about this aspect of our profession. Does our scholarly work justify such sacrifices?

The biographer is convincing when he traces the link between the critic's private life and his scholarship: "For Arvin more than most biographers, subjects were surrogates, self-reflecting entities to be puzzled out at the highest level of sympathy, intelligence, and understanding. Solving 'the problem' of another writer was an act of transubstantiation, an intimate convergence of two lives" (277). Since Arvin composed four major studies of American writers, including one of the homoerotic Whitman, Werth has plenty of source material when analyzing the self's effects on academic writing. His account of Arvin's teaching is necessarily less detailed, though it is clear that teaching was never a vocation for the intensely erudite Arvin. Werth does effectively anatomize Smith's hypocrisy on issues of sexual mores for its professors. The women's college averted its eyes from "Boston marriages" between lesbian faculty members and heterosexual colleagues' liaisons with undergraduates.

But Werth's treatment of academic freedom will speak most powerfully to readers of this journal. Though the president of Smith College was clearly torn by Arvin's case, he was unable to protect the esteemed professor from forced retirement by the college's Board of Trustees. Even more shockingly, two talented, untenured colleagues caught up in the scandal were asked to leave Smith. (To compound the irony of these dismissals, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ultimately overturned their convictions on the grounds that the police had searched their apartments illegally.) Arvin was also compelled to resign from the board of Yaddo, the prestigious writers' colony, because of fears that his public humiliation might influence donors. In our own time of budget cuts and aggressive fund-raising, academics might identify with the shamed professor who is sacrificed to the gods of expediency. How openly should we espouse our political views? What obligation do we have to our colleagues and students to conceal our sexual or political preferences? Or is it the case that academic freedom should trump all other considerations? Werth further locates these vital academic issues in the broader context of American political culture, showing that Arvin's troubled career stretched from the "Red Scare" of the 1920s to the McCarthyism of the 1950s. At the moment of my writing, during the "War against Terrorism," one might again wonder about the strength of toleration in an intensely patriotic time. Can we legitimately raise questions about the ethics of bombing civilians? Can we credibly express concern for civil liberties under pressures to combat terrorism through increasingly obtrusive laws?

The Scarlet Professor is well-written, fast-paced, and convincing. The biographer takes us inside a talented scholar's traumas and triumphs, while contextualizing those struggles in mid-twentieth-century America's social climate. As with any biography, readers may find themselves pausing to consider whether the biographer has firm foundation for some of his claims. Werth asserts, for instance, that Arvin composed a "scathing review of [F. O.] Matthiessen's next book" because he was "stung" by the success of a competing Americanist (121). How can the biographer be so sure of the cause-effect relationship here? But this is a quibble. Access to Arvin's journals and the assistance of still-living participants in the scandal provide detail, nuance, and insight. This biography makes for illuminating reading at our own moment of American retrenchment.

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