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Barry Werth   The Scarlet Professor  
Barry Werth    
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Chances are you've never heard of Newton Arvin. You probably have heard of some of his colleagues, friends, and lovers--Van Wyck Brooks, Truman Capote--and certainly of his subjects--Hawthorne, Melville, Longfellow. But if you don't know who he is, if you've never, ever heard of him, why read a biography of him?

Arvin was one of this century's most perceptive and important American literary critics when at the age of 60 he was arrested for possessing homosexual pornography-which now seems almost comically tame-publicly outed against his will and forced to name friends and colleagues who were also "pink." Disgraced and wracked with guilt, emotionally and psychologically crushed, he retreated to a sanatorium, seemingly prepared to shamefacedly retreat from this life, only to muster one final intellectual masterpiece and redeem his career.

So Arvin's story makes compelling reading, and Barry Werth makes clear that the events of his life stand at the crux of the continuing conflict in the American psyche between privacy/freedom and a Calvinistic sense of morality and its accompanying instinct to purge and punish "deviants."

But still, no one has heard of Newton Arvin; even if the finished package makes clear why you would want to read the book, the issue begs one more curious question: why write a biography of Arvin? How does an unknown figure make it clear to a writer that he is worthy of a biography? That is what Werth addresses here in this issue of Bold Type, along with an excerpt from the book.

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  Photo credit: Marion Ettlinger

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