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The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal Hardcover – April 17, 2001

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; 1st edition (April 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385494688
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385494687
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,284,448 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Werth (The Billion-Dollar Molecule) begins this expos with the arrest of Newton Arvin (1900-63) for possession of pornography, then presents a chronologically organized narrative from Arvin's arrival in Northampton, MA, as a 24-year-old instructor at Smith College, to his death. Arvin became a well-known literary critic and authored biographies of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville, among others. He was forced into early retirement at Smith in 1960 after being sentenced for possession of pornography and for lewd (i.e., homosexual) behavior. The author stresses the psychological cost of Arvin's concealing his homosexuality, as well as the similarity between the prosecution of Arvin and that of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Smith College treated its homosexual professors more harshly than a heterosexual professor who was sexually involved with at least one member of the all-female student body. Through Arvin and his associates, Werth ably details the "witchhunt," first for Communists, then for homosexuals, in mid-20th-century America. Recommended for both public and academic libraries. Carolyn M. Craft, Longwood Coll., Farmville, VA
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Newton Arvin was one of the premier literary critics of his day, hailed as brilliant by such contemporaries as Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, and Edmund Wilson. A professor of literature at Smith College for much of the twentieth century, he transformed the study of American literature and saw the discipline through to maturity. Nonetheless, feelings of inferiority, self-doubt, and worthlessness plagued him. Once a frail boy from Indiana, he became a communist darling at Yaddo, the writers' colony in New York, and he was homosexual, which he kept secret for much of his life. Yet he had torrid affairs (one with Truman Capote), figured prominently in a 1960 homosexual scandal at Smith, and was arrested for possessing pornography. After the last, he started naming names, and guilt drove him to the Northampton, Massachusetts, state mental facility, in which he spent the rest of his days. Werth's wonderfully crafted biography of the brilliant, tormented critic captures the politics, social climate, and culture of fear of the America that Arvin experienced. Michael Spinella
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By John H. Flannigan on July 5, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed Werth's book very much. It accomplishes many things: it evokes the hothouse environment of American academia in the mid-20th century, it places Newton Arvin--a respected critic of American literature--in what must have been for him a bewildering nightmare of suspicions and scandal, and it chillingly recalls the hostilities and dangers endured by gay people in the 1950s. I especially enjoyed how Barry Werth explained Arvin's attraction to literary figures such as Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, and Longfellow, each of whom represented political and historical forces with which Arvin could readily sympathize. (I disagree with another reviewer who complained about Werth's suggestion of a Melville-Hawthorne "romance." Other critics and historians have explored the nature of these two men's friendship, and the suggestion that both men were gay is hardly a new or shattering idea. Anyway, Werth is primarily concerned with Arvin's interest in Melville and Hawthorne as authors and not in the possible romance between the two men.)
Arvin was lucky to be surrounded by devoted colleagues and friends, and if he comes off in this book as a cold, selfish intellectual, he nonetheless earned the respect and support of some very distinguished people, including David Lilenthal, Edmund Wilson, and Van Wyck Brooks. He certainly seems an admirable person when compared to the hypocrites in public office who regulated morality in 1950s America. Werth is to be congratulated for doing an excellent job in retrieving a seemingly irretrievable past and for restoring Arvin to the distinguished circle of critics and teachers to which he once belonged.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Vincent C. Brann on May 16, 2001
Format: Hardcover
For years ths 1960 scandal involving Smith College faculty and others has been whispered and gossiped about, rarely accurately. Finally, Barry Werth has taken the time and trouble to put all the pieces together, the ruthless behavior of corrupt police, the virtual "reign of terror" the incident engendered, the utter devastation wrought upon the lives and careers of several teachers, most notably the distinguished American literary scholar and critic Newton Arvin. Werth is a skilled researcher, a fine narrator, and above all an honorable and just writer. He makes no judgments, leaving the reader to make his own. It is hard to believe, in this relatively liberated day, that the merest suggestion, the slightest hint of homosexuality, was sufficient to destroy lives, careers, reputations. Even honorable academic institutions like Smith College did not behave admirably in this woeful tale of a monumental miscarriage of justice. Above all, set in the context of his biography, the whole incident ruined the life of a brilliant scholar, teacher, and critic whose fragility rendered him incapable of coping with the barbarism of a biased and inept judicial system. I was there and lived through it: it is, alas, all too true. This is an important book and ought to be on the MUST READ list of every American interested in the preservation of civil liberties.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 30, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"The Scarlet Professor" is the story of a rat. A man who betrayed his closest friends and thereby destroyed their careers and changed the course of their lives. Prof. Newton Arvin, when charged with the possession of homoerotic pictures and magazines, "sang like a canary," as they used to say in ganster movies. This puzzled many of his closest friends, veterans of the McCarthy era who managed NOT to name names during the Communist witchhunts of the '50s. And Arvin had many famous friends. One lover was Truman Capote, who was less than half his age. But the flaw in "The Scarlet Professor" might be that Newton comes across as a rat on every page. He was a whining hypochondriac; he was not attractive physically (at least in photos); he was not magnetic in conversation. So what lure did he have? Barry Werth does not address this. "The Scarlet Letter" is a wonderful book to read right now as a reminder of how poorly pre-1960 America treated homosexuals, communists and the mentally ill. It is also a good argument against those who would broaden police searches and seizures. It presents a nice snapshot of life in a women's college as it used to be lived.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By "ivan1138" on July 12, 2001
Format: Hardcover
September 2, 1960 isn't exactly a day which will live in infamy. It is however, the day on which Professor Newton Arvin, award winning biographer of Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman, became the most prominent victim of Eisenhower's "pink scare" and the key player in the Smith College homosexual sex scandal. "The Scarlett Professor" is an exhaustive biography of one of the nation's most influential, albeit mostly forgotten, literary critics. A mentor of Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, Arvin taught the classics at Smith for 36 years. Then, caught in a sting spearheaded by the postmaster general, Arvin plead guilty to possession of "pornographic" materials and implicated a number of his associates. Plagued by depression throughout his adult life, Arvin was forced to resign his teaching post and spent his final years in and out of pyschiatric facilities. Barry Werth has adroitly rendered, not only the world of Newton Arvin, but a tragic and, until now, egregiously overlooked episode in our nation's history. An important and impressive book.
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