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literature

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Arvin, Newton (1900-1963)  
 
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Arvin's criticism bears some resemblance to that of F. O. Matthiessen, his contemporary who dominated American literary studies from his position at Harvard. Homosexuality was central to both men's work, though Arvin confronted the subject more directly than Matthiessen, whose approach tended to be indirect and subversive. Both men were committed leftists who saw literary criticism as essentially political. They emphasized the social, historical, and biographical contexts of literature. They, thus, opposed the influence of the so-called "New Criticism" that sought to downplay social and biographical elements in favor of textual analysis.

For all their similarities, however, the two men were extremely different in temperament. Moreover, they worked on different scales. Whereas Matthiessen produced magisterial books, especially American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), a work that almost single-handedly defined the American literary canon for decades, Arvin produced relatively small, exquisitely written, and intensely personal books. In print Matthiessen enthusiastically praised Arvin's books, but privately considered him too timid to be a major force in American studies.

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In 1950, Matthiessen, depressed over the death of Russell Cheney, his life-partner, and fearful of the McCarthy-era witch-hunts then underway, committed suicide. Many expected that Arvin would be asked to assume his position at Harvard, especially after Arvin was awarded the 1951 National Book Award for nonfiction for Melville. But Arvin, who had recently suffered one of his nervous collapses, rebuffed the invitation to teach at Harvard for a year, and thereby signaled his inability to leave his life at Northampton, however vexatious it had become.

In 1950, Edmund Wilson described Arvin as one of only two students of American literature "who can themselves be called first-rate writers." Because of the grace and power of his prose, as well as the penetration of his insights, Arvin's books are still readable. Indeed, Robert Martin has described Whitman as "one of the most enduring works of socialist criticism in American literature."

Arvin and Capote

From 1939 until his disgrace in 1960, Arvin was a frequent guest at Yaddo, the writers' colony in Saratoga, New York. He served as a trustee for many years. At Yaddo, he did some of his best work, and became friends with a number of fellow writers, including especially Carson McCullers and Truman Capote.

In 1946, Arvin and Capote fell in love when both were guests at Yaddo. The precocious twenty-one-year-old Capote, at Yaddo to work on his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), which would be dedicated to Arvin, and the forty-six-year-old professor may have been an improbable couple, but they were immediately smitten with each other. Capote found Arvin "a charming person, cultivated in every way, with the most wonderfully subtle mind," while Arvin found "Little T." utterly irresistible, describing him as "a little wizard or magician or alchemist of some wonderful Gothic kind . . . . only when you kiss me do I come to life."

The two embarked on an intense love affair, which yielded significant consequences for each. Capote helped Arvin become more open and less ashamed of his homosexuality. He introduced his older lover to gay New York and helped give him a broader frame of reference. Capote, in turn, benefited from Arvin's learning, attending his classes at Smith and meeting (and sometimes shocking) his colleagues. The young novelist, who had not attended college, would later say, "Newton was my Harvard."

Although they two men were in love with each other, their styles were probably too different for them to sustain a love affair for long. Arvin was sometimes embarrassed by Capote's flamboyance, and after the publication of Other Voices, Other Rooms made its author a celebrity, he found it difficult to play the part of soothing helpmate.

More decisively, Arvin simply needed more solitude than a full-time relationship could afford. He found it impossible to live with someone else. As Capote, who sought a permanent relationship, came to realize, Arvin was a "weekend caller," unable to maintain a long-term relationship with anyone.

Their affair ended in 1948, but the two remained friends for the rest of Arvin's life.

The Smith College Scandal

After he broke off his relationship with Capote, Arvin became more open and aggressive in seeking sexual contacts. He occasionally spent nights of dissipation at the Everard baths in New York and sometimes frequented the cruising areas of Springfield, Massachusetts, not far from Northampton. These outings left him alternately exhilarated and filled with self-disgust and shame.

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