A poignant, distressing portrait of Arvin (1900–63), one of our premier literary critics, whose distinguished career as a professor and writer was destroyed by the revelation of his homosexuality.
Werth (Damages, 1998, etc.) employs his considerable reportorial and narrative skills to relate the sad case of Arvin, whose 37-year teaching career at Smith College and whose trenchant studies of Hawthorne and Herman Melville (among others) had earned him a peerless reputation in the groves of academe as well as in the larger literary world. The story begins on September 2, 1960, when the police arrive at Arvin’s door in Northampton, Mass., to arrest him for possession of pornography (a felony under Massachusetts law at the time). Faced with the very real possibility of a prison sentence, Arvin became an informer and gave police the names of others involved in what became known as the “Smith College Homosexual Scandal of 1960.” Werth then leaps back to 1924—the year Arvin arrived at Smith—and proceeds to outline his swift, astonishing ascent to the very pinnacle of his profession. Arvin’s friends—Van Wyck Brooks, Carson McCullers, Edmund Wilson, Granville Hicks, F. O. Matthiessen, and Sylvia Plath—were a veritable Who’s Who of American literature. And the friendships weren’t entirely intellectual, either: One of Arvin’s lovers was Truman Capote, with whom he had a passionate two-year relationship and whose undying devotion supported him in his most trying times. Arvin had psychological problems throughout his life; he was institutionalized many times and in 1952 underwent a course of electroshock treatments. In the grim anti-gay decades of the mid-20th century, he had tried to live as a heterosexual (a marriage, a divorce) and as a closeted homosexual—decisions that shredded him psychologically. But when he could work, he worked spectacularly well (his study of Melville won a National Book Award). Werth devotes the final third of his book to the public humiliation of Arvin and some of his gay colleagues and ends with a brief update on the careers of the principals involved.
A riveting account of a gentle man overwhelmed by one of the waves of American hysteria that occasionally obliterate our national common sense.