barry werth
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  On Choosing (Or Being Chosen By) An Obscure Literary Subject

Mar. 8, 2001

In Northampton, Massachusetts, where I live, the most intriguing pair of next-door neighbors are the elite woman's college and the moldering state insane asylum. Born of similar reformist impulses in the mid-19th century, Smith College and Northampton State Hospital share more than prime tax-exempt locations, brooding front-gates and a crusading Victorian optimism. Their campuses bear a noteworthy resemblance handsome, century-old, neoclassical brick buildings offset by sprawling grounds with exquisite views and in their heyday hosted the same number of residents, although Smith's were among America's brightest, most prosperous young women while the hospital's were chiefly the aged, indigent mentally ill of four semi-rural counties. Most remarkable from a literary standpoint, the hospital and the college mirror each other across Smith's lovely millpond, named, unironically, Paradise Pond. Seen one from the other, they literally represent "the other side of Paradise."

You can't invent material this good. That's what I told myself shortly after moving here in 1987, as I imagined finding a story that plumbed the subterranean connections between these two eerily conjoined worlds an illicit love affair between a student and an inmate, say, or a grisly murder. Then I discovered Newton Arvin. I was reading Gerald Clarke's absorbing biography of Truman Capote, in which Arvin plays prominently as Capote's first lover and mentor. In Clarke's account, Arvin was a caricature of the mousy English professor double-domed and distinguished, yet shrinking and filled with self-hate. Cruelly outed as a homosexual by the state Police at age 60, Arvin informed on his friends, then admitted himself to the state hospital, shattered by God-knows-what mixture of shame, rage, guilt and dread. With that thin lead to guide me, I decided to follow up on the story of Arvin's fall from grace, mostly to see where it might lead in my search for a gothic tale connecting Smith and its doppelganger, which, as Clarke noted, the students called "Dippy Hall. "

I was sure of one thing: I didn't want to write a "life" of Newton Arvin, who died in 1963, whose books were all out of print, and who, if he was recalled at all, registered just barely as a name associated with scholarly introductions to dusty college-level collections of Hawthorne, Melville and other dead American writers. A sad, fragile, withdrawn, forgotten professor and literary critic who betrayed his friends didn't strike me as a promising subject for a biography; and, besides, I was no biographer. At the time I was chiefly a biomedical writer, working for magazines. Still, I became hooked by one element in Arvin's story, and it stuck. With nothing left to fear or hide, Arvin apparently had found a kind of redemption, telling Capote from his deathbed: "Never mind. At least I've grown up at last." He had endured the worst thing he could imagine maybe the worst thing any American man in 1960 could imagine crossed Paradise, and learned finally to accept himself. As a heterosexual who was eight years old at the time and predisposed to a certain awe at the ways people manage to survive the worst, I wanted to know how he did it.

Twelve years later, I'm not sure I can fully answer the question or that I ought to people are mysterious and speak best for themselves. But I can affirm that Arvin hijacked my every attempt to write about anything else. How he did that, from beyond the grave and despite my considerable resistance, is a more complex matter. "But what energy the dead have," Arvin's friend William Maxwell wrote him three months after his arrest, regarding Arvin's unfashionable decision to write a biography of Longfellow. "I see him casting his eye over the field and deciding which living person is most likely to rescue him from the peculiar limbo he has been consigned to, and then the icy hand descending on your shoulder."

After spending most of my waking hours during the past two years sitting alone in what used to be Arvin's attic apartment, writing a biography of a man whose name almost no one remembers, I think I know what Maxwell meant.


First it was the letters. Arvin corresponded with 400 people during his lifetime, including many of the most celebrated writers and critics of his day Edmund Wilson, Van Wyck Brooks, Lionel Trilling, Capote, Lillian Hellman, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow and he studiously kept and filed each of their letters to him, which he left to Smith in his will. This torrent of correspondence persuaded me that Arvin's influence over Capote "Newton was my Harvard," he told Clark thirty years after their affair was no fluke, and that his obscurity was earned retrospectively, after his death. It also revealed the "molluscan" character, the need to observe, the extreme retentiveness, of a writer whose whole life was writing. I was disappointed to find Arvin!s correspondence flag sharply during his months in the state hospital, but through his friends' encouraging letters to him I thought I might be able to reverse-engineer an account of his experience there.

I knew from Clarke's book that Arvin kept an intimate diary and hoped he had confided in it in the asylum. Again I was discouraged when, in early 1997, having just finished writing my second book and casting around for a new subject, I called Ned Pierce, the widower of Arvin's favorite niece Barbara, to whom he left his journals in his will. Pierce told me that the journals stopped on September 3, 1960, the day after Arvin's arrest, but he invited me to take a look at them anyway, and in June I drove to York, Pennsylvania to make sure there wasn't some other way to use them.

This was the moment I first became aware of Arvin's "icy hand," as I sat at a folding card table in Pierce's suburban study. Pierce didn't allow me to photocopy the diaries, so I was forced to transcribe Arvin's words which densely filled page after page of the small clothbound journals with surprising fury, in an anomalously bold, slashing hand. "That paltry Richard Nixon!" he snarled on July 27, 1960, five weeks before his arrest. And: "My distaste for social relations of the usual kinds is rapidly becoming an obsession." What was this? Somehow Arvin's rage at life, not his crisis, suddenly struck me as the larger story. I found myself becoming strangely proprietary about the voice rising from those 40 year-old pages, especially when, several hours later and tired of writing, I switched to reading long, unedited entries into a tape recorder. As I replayed the tapes in the car on the way home and heard Arvin's confessions in my own voice, I forgot all about the institutional looking-glass hovering over Paradise.


But a biography? Of Arvin? Why? Who would read it? Why would anyone care? Every biographer, even first-time one, knows he is in some sense a shill that the bigger the life, the bigger the book and that an obscure subject could kill a book commercially. I tried not to think about this, telling myself to trust my instincts and my material. If I was fascinated by Arvin's life, others would be, too. In hindsight, I realize this was Arvin's energy, too, although I didn't recognize that until I undertook the inevitable next step of reading all his books and trying to-connect them to the voice I'd discovered in the journals.

It was his four full-length biographies that clinched my resolve. Here was Arvin, who had come from the Midwest to New England to escape the aridity and intolerance of a small-town Indiana boyhood, probing, one by one, the major writers of what F.O. Matthiessen called the "American Renaissance" of the 1840s and 1850s - Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, Longfellow and finding in them the keys to his own place and time. Following the urging of his mentor, Van Wyck Brooks, to transform criticism into a patriotic and socialist act by rescuing from the wastes of U.S. business culture a "usable past," he slyly identified deep strains that few others heard. The "dark connection between guilt and secrecy" in Hawthorne's CaIvinist America. Whitman's homosexuality, a "strange, anomalous emotional experience" which the Good Grey "chose to translate and sublimate ... into a political, and constructive, democratic program." Melville's Ahab, "our hatred ennobled, as we would wish to have it, up to heroism."

Mediating between Arvin's public and private writings, I discovered in Arvin an unexpected epic quality. He spent his career illuminating America's hidden longings, then, just as he figured his life was all but over, his own secret was exposed by the state. He became, in the end, a figure out of Hawthorne, who first recognized that America has a Puritanical need to persecute those it identifies as sinners, and that ultimately what it seeks to punish is not crime but secrecy and concealment.


I watched the Clinton impeachment unfold on TV in what had been Arvin's bedroom, which overlooks Smith's private elementary school. A few months earlier, in late 1998 as I was about to begin writing, I met the current tenant, a lawyer named Dick Evans, who offered to rent me his study Arvin's study. Although I was the one who proposed the arrangement and relished the prospect of working in what Arvin called his "cave" seeing the same light, hearing the same clanging radiators, watching the leaves turn on the same enormous backyard apple tree that more than fifty years ago Capote nostalgically evoked in his letters this, too, seemed an extension of Arvin's "icy hand." I don't believe in ghosts, but sitting all day in the room where Arvin sat when the police came up his stairs, shuttling frequently into his bedroom to watch a popular President nearly destroyed not for having illicit sex but for concealing the fact from zealous prosecutors, neatly framed my thinking both about Arvin's life and how America's root contradictions have changed little since Jonathan Edwards told his Northampton parishioners that the town was damned after some children were caught peeping at a midwives handbook 350 years ago. Perhaps not coincidentally, the view from my desk Arvin's view is of the house built by Edwards' grandfather.

By now, a biography of an obscure literary critic whose earliest theme was the secrecy that marked many private fives, the victim of a notable invasion-of-privacy case, one of the last prominent Americans destroyed during the country's last "purity binge," no longer seemed like a bad idea. It seemed logical, even irresistible. Arvin himself wrote in Hawthorne that the two great demands of a major literary work are that they describe some "representative drama" and that the experience "is embodied, artistically, in the idiom of personality." By those measures, Arvin's life qualifies.

And what of Smith and "Dippy," the sylvan world of woman's education and the dark underlying connections to the shadow world of the hospital? Arvin's descent was less dramatic than I imagined. He admitted himself to the state hospital because, after thirty-seven years of teaching, he couldn't afford a private facility, and because it was the last safe place he could go.

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