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The Scarlet Professor

Cover of The Scarlet Professor

The Scarlet Professor

Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal
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During his thirty-seven years at Smith College, Newton Arvin published groundbreaking studies of Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, and Longfellow that stand today as models of scholarship and psychological acuity. He cultivated friendships with the likes of Edmund Wilson and Lillian Hellman and became mentor to Truman Capote. A social radical and closeted homosexual, the circumspect Arvin nevertheless survived McCarthyism. But in September 1960 his apartment was raided, and his cache of beefcake erotica was confiscated, plunging him into confusion and despair and provoking his panicked betrayal of several friends.

An utterly absorbing chronicle, The Scarlet Professor deftly captures the essence of a conflicted man and offers a provocative and unsettling look at American moral fanaticism.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

During his thirty-seven years at Smith College, Newton Arvin published groundbreaking studies of Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, and Longfellow that stand today as models of scholarship and psychological acuity. He cultivated friendships with the likes of Edmund Wilson and Lillian Hellman and became mentor to Truman Capote. A social radical and closeted homosexual, the circumspect Arvin nevertheless survived McCarthyism. But in September 1960 his apartment was raided, and his cache of beefcake erotica was confiscated, plunging him into confusion and despair and provoking his panicked betrayal of several friends.

An utterly absorbing chronicle, The Scarlet Professor deftly captures the essence of a conflicted man and offers a provocative and unsettling look at American moral fanaticism.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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  • Chapter One

    SEPTEMBER 17, 1924

    NORTHAMPTON

    It was near dusk when Arvin entered the narrow, ill-lit walk-up next to Lambie's dry goods store on Main Street. Though he was still new in town, a shy, frail twenty-four-year-old Smith instructor, he affected a jaunty contempt as he hastened past the second-floor doorway of Dr. John C. Allen, President Calvin Coolidge's dentist and closest friend. As Arvin knew, Coolidge had started his political career as Northampton's mayor, and his homestead was a wood-frame duplex a few blocks from Arvin's six-dollar-a-week room in a boarding house. Anyone with an atom of love for Dear Old Hamp proudly supported Coolidge's re-election effort. Not Arvin. Like most members of his famously Lost Generation, he reviled Cool Cal and small towns. In August, he'd offered to lead the local campaign for seventy-four-year-old "Fighting Bob" La Follette, Coolidge's third-party opponent. Now, in the lingering heat, he continued upstairs to the International Order of Hibernians' hall to preside over the opening of Northampton's La Follette Boom Club.

    Privately, Arvin leaned toward Bolshevism and dismissed La Follette as a relic of the trust-busting, pro-farm spirit that had exhausted itself before the Great War. Arvin's generation, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, had emerged from that war to "find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken." His peers were busy thronging to the profane cities, disdaining Great Causes, and baying after pleasure and art. Yet Arvin relished the subversiveness of becoming, as he would boast in his next Harvard Class Report, "president of the La Follette Club in the President's hometown." Haunted by wanting other men, doubting his ability ever to fit in, he embraced the role of political outcast. He could champion progress but not his real self.

    He took the podium and, with surprising vehemence--glee, even--flayed the two major political parties. The Democrats, he said in a high-toned, punctilious Midwestern voice--a voice the critic Alfred Kazin would call "larger than the man"--stood for "sectionalism, bossism, and watchful wobbling." He reserved harsher words for Coolidge and the Republicans, whom he called "incurably identified with economic privilege of the darkest kind."

    As a radical with no local roots--and no desire for any--Arvin ably proved his impertinence. But as a political organizer trying to enlist a conservative, nostalgic citizenry, his instincts were--and would be--less keen.

    Paddle fans beat indolently overhead as seventy-five men and women fanned themselves in the hard wooden folding chairs. With his slight build, Arvin was scarcely the picture of a rabble-rouser. He had a gentle, inviting face, pale as milk. His gray-green eyes glinted anxiously behind gold wire-rim spectacles, his prim lips hid several teeth in need of removal, and, receding above a domish, lightly pocked forehead, his soft brown hair, already thinning, lay flat. Only his clothes--a sturdy three-piece suit, soft-collared shirt, and silk tie--announced greater temerity than would have been expected of the mild young clerk who inhabited them. He raised his voice and his rhetoric. Only through the independent candidacy of La Follette, he told the crowd, could the left "lay the basis for a Progressive Party with a kick in it, and put the fear of God in the hearts of the politicians."

    Afterward, as he returned home, Arvin was reminded how much the darkened town belonged to Coolidge and the past, not to him. Directly across Main Street, past the trolley tracks and overhead wires, stood the pinnacled, rock-faced county courthouse, the fifth on the site, where Coolidge had begun his law career. Just to...

About the Author-
  • Barry Werth brought the story of Newton Arvin and the "Smith College Homosexual Scandal of 1960" to national attention for the first time in almost forty years in The New Yorker. Werth is the author of The Billion-Dollar Molecule and Damages. In addition to The New Yorker, his articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Outside. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Reviews-
  • Martin Duberman

    "Barry Werth has brought to vivid life a crucial episode in the history of American repression that is little known. The 'Smith College Homosexual Scandal of 1960,' centrally involving the famed literary critic Newton Arvin, has never before been researched and reported in such fascinating, horrifying detail. Barry Werth has a marvelous narrative gift and he tells his tale with spellbinding skill."

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