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Arvin, Newton (1900-1963)  
 
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Similarly, Arvin's study of Whitman is also revealing of both author and subject. In 1938, when Arvin's Whitman appeared, the poet's reputation had declined as the result of homophobic attacks, such as those of Mark Van Doren, who argued that Whitman's homosexuality undermined the value of his poetry. Reducing Whitman's poetry to "the unwitting expression of his own abnormal sexuality" rather than seeing it as an expression of political and social progressivism, Van Doren found nothing worthwhile in Leaves of Grass. In effect, Arvin wrote his book to rebut Van Doren and to answer the question whether "Whitman's whole prophecy as a democratic poet--and especially the poet of 'universal democratic comradeship'--is invalidated by having its psychological basis in a sexual aberration?"

Arvin reaches the conclusion that "splendid fruits may be grown in . . . bitter and unlikely soil." He forthrightly asserts that the "fact of Whitman's homosexuality" cannot be "denied by any informed reader of the 'Calamus' poems." But rather than affirming the poet's sexuality, he contends that "what interests us in Whitman was not that he was homosexual, but that unlike the vast majority of inverts, even of those creatively gifted, he chose to translate and sublimate his strange, anomalous emotional experience into a political, a constructive, a democratic program." At another point, when discussing Whitman's "Calamus" poems, he observes that "There is, so to say, a harmless, wholesome, sane 'homosexuality' that pervades normal humanity as the mostly powerless bacilli of tuberculosis appear in the healthiest of lungs."

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Arvin thus defends Whitman's value as a poet on the grounds that he (unlike most other gifted "inverts") transcended his homosexuality. In so doing, however, Arvin reveals his deep ambivalence about homosexuality (his own as well as Whitman's), likening it to "bitter and unlikely soil" and to tuberculosis bacilli. By making Whitman an exception, he concedes the assumption that their "sexual aberration" renders most homosexuals incapable of socially advanced vision.

While Arvin asserts the possibility that homosexuals are capable of creating splendid fruit from the bitter soil of their affliction and defends at least some versions of homosexuality as harmless and wholesome, he does so in terms that confirm his internalized homophobia. While his comments in effect defend the value not only of Whitman's work, but also his own, despite its also being rooted in the "bitter and unlikely soil" of homosexuality, the defense is less affirmative than negative in regards to his sexuality.

Similarly, in Melville (1950) Arvin presents homosexuality as pathology, a "malady" that Melville only dimly understood. "He was conscious enough, no doubt, of the ardor and intensity of his feelings for members of his own sex," Arvin writes, "but the possibility that such emotions might have a sexual undercurrent can only with the utmost rarity, and then fleetingly, have presented itself to his consciousness." In his reading of Melville, Arvin both downplays the possibility of Melville's acting upon his homosexual impulses--though he identifies the search for a friend as the novelist's great theme--and also projects onto his subject his own conflicted feelings regarding homosexuality, attributing to Melville a confusion that may have been his own.

As he had in Hawthorne, Arvin also discovers in Melville a fundamental gender conflict. Although Melville sought a life upon the high seas, he was, unlike Whitman, unable to "hold the feminine at a safe distance while he organized his emotional life around his male companionships." Rather, he needed to marry in order to seek a balance between the masculine and feminine within him. Before his marriage, however, the clash between Melville's needs "was terribly intense, and emotionally speaking . . . this is the central fact behind his work." Arvin, thus, locates the roots of Melville's art in his sexual and gender confusions and conflicts, and explains his puzzling marriage by recourse to the same confusions.

In some ways, Arvin's books are quite brave. At a time when homosexuality was a subject very difficult to broach even in liberal academic circles, Arvin persuasively demonstrated that same-sex desire was central to the work of major American literary figures. He helped end a tradition of silence and denial in literary discourse. He may, thus, deserve the epithet Leland Person tentatively bestows on him, "the father of gay American Renaissance studies."

At the same time, however, his characterization of homosexuality is--perhaps inescapably--couched in the homophobic terms of medical discourse and reflects the attitudes of mid-twentieth-century society. Arvin's approach to homosexuality is revealing of his ambivalence toward his own sexuality, but it also illustrates the extraordinary difficulty of writing about homosexuality--particularly in positive terms--during his lifetime. So pervasive and generalized was homophobia in the academy and in mainstream criticism that even to mention the subject was to arouse suspicion. Moreover, it was almost impossible to conceive of it outside the terms of medical discourse, especially in intellectual circles.

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