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Arvin, Newton (1900-1963)  
 
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Newton Arvin was one of the most gifted critics of American literature of the mid-twentieth century. Not only did he write penetrating studies of major American writers, including Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, and Longfellow, but he also helped demonstrate the persistent value of a kind of criticism that incorporates historical, political, and biographical contexts.

Today, however, he is most remembered as a lover and mentor of the young Truman Capote and as the central figure in a 1960 scandal at Smith College that involved pornography, homosexuality, and betrayal.

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He was born Frederick Newton Arvin in Valparaiso, Indiana on August 23, 1900, the fourth of six children of a businessman and his long-suffering wife. A precocious boy, he spent a lonely childhood, alienated from his father who considered him effeminate and weak and from his distant, embittered mother.

Until he developed a friendship with a boy his own age, David Lilienthal, who would go on to become a successful lawyer, chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Arvin considered himself "uniquely misbegotten." Derided by his classmates for his bookishness and lack of interest in sports, he was happy to escape Valparaiso for Harvard in 1917.

At Harvard, Arvin blossomed. There he compiled a brilliant academic record--graduating both Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude--and developed his first adult crush on another young man. He also came under the influence of literary critic Van Wyck Brooks, a socialist whose criticism was politically engaged. The idea that literary criticism could also be social criticism inspired Arvin to devote his life to being "a standard-bearer, conscience, and champion of American literature, a neophyte in Brooks's priesthood," as Barry Werth describes his career choice.

After a brief stint teaching in high school and writing for left-wing magazines, at the age of 22, Arvin began teaching at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He had planned to stay for only a few years, but wound up spending some 37 years on the faculty there.

Although he frequently complained about the constraints of living in Northampton, which was then a stodgy and conservative town, he appreciated the College's liberal traditions, especially as tested during the McCarthy era, when Smith resisted pressure to fire faculty who had been members of the Communist Party or, like Arvin himself, so-called "fellow travelers."

Although Arvin never became a very good classroom teacher, he soon earned a reputation as a distinguished critic and brought luster to Smith's American Studies program, which became one of the best in the country.

By the time he arrived at Smith, Arvin was well aware of his homosexuality. But he regarded his sexuality as something shameful, a "loathsome affliction" as he would describe it in his diary. At various times in his life, he was more or less comfortable with his homosexuality, but the shame with which he regarded it never completely dissipated.

The guilt he felt for his homosexual desires may explain his 1932 marriage to a former student of his at Smith, Mary Garrison. Predictably incompatible, the lively young woman and the reclusive professor who most valued solitude were unable to live together. She eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and divorced him.

Arvin himself was subject to breakdowns throughout most of his life. He frequently sought refuge in private sanitariums and, in several instances, at the state mental hospital in Northampton. He underwent several treatments designed to "cure" his homosexuality, including psychoanalysis, electroconvulsive therapy, and a regimen of confession and prayer.

Arvin's Criticism

Despite his emotional instability, Arvin nevertheless produced three major works of criticism. Oscar Wilde's dictum that literary criticism is the sincerest form of autobiography is especially apt in the case of Arvin, whose criticism evinces an unusual degree of identification with his subjects. His critical biographies of Hawthorne, Whitman, and Melville are extremely revealing of Arvin himself. By looking at these major figures through the prism of his own tortured psyche, he not only exposed previously unrecognized dimensions of their work, but also (inadvertently) laid bare aspects of his own consciousness, including especially his homosexuality.

Hawthorne (1929) established Arvin's reputation as a discerning critic who could probe beneath the surfaces of his subjects to discover hitherto unacknowledged depths. In this book, he explores Hawthorne's fraught relationship with Melville, thus anticipating what would become a recurrent subject in American literary scholarship and also in gay studies. He also finds in Hawthorne the same insecurity regarding masculinity that he himself felt.

Most tellingly, Arvin brilliantly (and revealingly) identifies secrecy and concealment as the keys to understanding Hawthorne's life and work, qualities that the critic--and other homosexuals in a society--knew first hand and all too well. As Werth observes, "In reading Hawthorne, Arvin identified dark strains that perhaps only someone who cloaked unwanted desires could fully detect."

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