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literature

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Arvin, Newton (1900-1963)  
 
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Arvin may have been frightened by the thuggish appearance and behavior of the policemen. He may have been so emotionally distraught as not to have been thinking clearly. He may also have been unconsciously motivated by resentment at Spofford's lack of interest in him sexually. Almost certainly, his cooperation with the police was at least partially triggered by the masochistic shame he felt over his homosexuality. In some part of his psyche, he must have regarded his arrest and exposure as a fitting punishment for his "loathsome affliction."

As a result of the scandal, Arvin was forced to retire from Smith College at half-salary.

Sponsor Message.

As the appeals on constitutional grounds of the conviction of Spofford and Dorius made their way through the courts, the question as to their continued employment at Smith came to the fore. Against the recommendation of the faculty and the President, Smith College trustees insisted that their contracts not be renewed. Since the trustees said that the instructors' dubious convictions for possessing pornography had no effect on their decision, they apparently fired the instructors simply for being exposed as homosexual.

After the trustees reaffirmed their decision on Good Friday, 1961, and departed for church, Nellie Mendenhall, the wife of the college President, remarked, "They had just crucified two guys and were going off to celebrate the crucifixion of another one."

The scandal took an enormous toll on all concerned, perhaps especially on Spofford and Dorius. Happily, the appeals of their sentences were successful. Following some key rulings of the United States Supreme Court regarding both the possession of soft-core pornography and search warrants, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed their convictions in 1963.

Despite being branded as convicts and homosexuals and being forced out of the country to find employment abroad, Spofford and Dorius eventually went on to successful academic careers, Spofford at Stanford University, Dorius at San Francisco State University. Both were deeply scarred by the scandal, Spofford later suffering several breakdowns that were delayed reactions to the events of 1960.

After the publication of Barry Werth's excellent account of the scandal in The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal (2001) brought it to wide public attention, the Smith College Board of Trustees, while refusing to apologize to Spofford and Dorius, in effect acknowledged the error of its earlier incarnation in failing to support the instructors. In 2002, the trustees voted to establish the $100,000 Dorius/Spofford Fund for the Study of Civil Liberties and Freedom of Expression and the Newton Arvin Prize in American Studies.

The scandal may be seen as one of the last gasps of McCarthyism and as a telling reminder of the precariousness of homosexuals in a virulently homophobic culture. Even in the relatively liberal precincts of academia, homosexuals in the 1950s and early 1960s were vulnerable to witch-hunts and morality crusades.

Still, as Werth observes, the scandal occurred at almost the last moment it could have, for with the election of a young, new President in 1960, the beginning of the (heterosexual) sexual revolution, and Supreme Court rulings that protected privacy at least to some degree, the country had turned a corner.

Conclusion

Before and after his sentencing, Arvin sought refuge in the Northampton state mental hospital. He was eventually released and attempted to put his life together. He received a great deal of support from friends across the country, and from some colleagues at Smith, but continued to regard himself as something of a pariah.

Arvin's last years were more productive than one could have predicted. He had just put the finishing touches on Longfellow: His Life and Work (1963), agreed to undertake the task of editing an ambitious series of paperbacks on American writers, and had begun an autobiography when he was stricken ill near the end of 1962. He died of pancreatic cancer on March 21, 1963.

It is not clear that Arvin ever acknowledged even to himself any culpability for ensnaring his friends and sexual partners in the Smith College scandal. He thus remains an ambiguous figure. As Caleb Crain describes him, "he was a victim of the closet who cooperated with its enforcers." In so doing, he caused the suffering of others.

After Truman Capote's death in 1984, it was revealed that Capote had left money in his will to establish the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin. The Capote-Arvin award (now given both for lifetime achievement and for a particular work of criticism) is by far the most lucrative acknowledgment of excellence in the field of literary criticism.

Claude J. Summers

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literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Nineteenth Century

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literature >> Overview:  American Writers on the Left

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social sciences >> Overview:  Aversion Therapy

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social sciences >> Overview:  McCarthyism

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    Bibliography
   

Cain, Caleb. "Search and Destroy." The New York Times (August 5, 2001): http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D05E2D7173DF936A3575BC0A9679C8B63&n=Top%2FFeatures%2FBooks%2FBook%20Reviews

DeMott, Benjamin. "The Sad Tale of Newton Arvin." The New York Review of Books 48.19 (November 29, 2001): http://www.nybooks.com/articles/14863

Martin, Robert K. "Newton Arvin: Literary Critic and Lewd Person." American Literary History 16.2 (2004): 290-317.

Person, Leland. "The Scarlet Reader: Newton Arvin on Hawthorne and Melville." Hawthorne in Salem Scholars Forum (2002): http://hawthorneinsalem.org/ScholarsForum/PersonTheScarletReader.html

Werth, Barry. The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Summers, Claude J.  
    Entry Title: Arvin, Newton  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2006  
    Date Last Updated July 10, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/arvin_n.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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