The Scarlet Professor

An example of the "pornography" for which Newton Arvin was arrested in 1960. Two years later the material was deemed "not obscene"--and therefore not illegal-- though "dismally unpleasant, uncouth, and tawdry" by the Supreme Court.


Newton Arvin awoke alone, as always. He pulled off his eyeshades, rubbed the exhaustion from his sallow face, reached for his gold wire-rim glasses, and pitched himself, slowly, upright in bed. Arvin fretted the cold, and the heat in his apartment was set so high that even in late summer tall cast-iron radiators, painted silver, clanged on cool mornings. The pings and steam hisses soothed him, like murmurs in a crowded restaurant. When he couldnít sleep, which was often, he imagined himself on an alien planet, the only soul from horizon to horizon. The radiators recalled him to the world. So did the intermittent clamor of church bells echoing off the wooded hills.

Arvin was weary as usual, though for no good reason, since heíd been sleeping better lately, and not drinking too much. Ten days earlier he had turned sixty, and he was feeling soft-bodied, depressed, edgy, and prey to a familiar seasonal lassitude. In a few weeks the students would be returning to Smith College, where he had taught for thirty-seven years and was the Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English, the most distinguished professor in his department. The freedom and quiet of summer, his prime consolation for a lifetime of academic servitude, were about to be shattered.

"The thought of the semester beginning again," he had written two days earlier in his journal, "makes me think of an old plowhorse being hitched up to the plow once more when he ought to be put out to grass, or an old miner after a lifetime in the pits, wearily getting in the car again to descend the shaft."

Arvin was a writer and, until the benighted 1950s, a radical. For nearly forty years his views on American literature had been highly acclaimed in literary circles, even though Arvin himself was shy, retiring, and exceptionally reclusive. His top-floor apartment under the eaves of a once-grand house a half-block from campus was his carapace, his shell. Cross-shaped, the apartment looked out safely in all directions, but no one could see in. It was like living atop a watchtower, unbreachable save for two narrow sets of steeply twisting stairs, front and back. Though climbing the stairs exhausted him, leaving him struggling for breath as he fumbled with his key and then burst, huffing, heart palpitating, into his foyer, he couldnít imagine living elsewhere.

He padded to the foyer now, across two-inch oak floorboards stained a dull coffee-brown. On one side, neatly stacked and dusted, stood his Loeb Library leather-bound Greek and Latin classics. Arvin read seven languages, and the books were well-leafed, their spines lightly worn and faded. Behind him, facing the front door, hung a framed Leonard Baskin woodcut called Tormented Man, a gift from the artist. The etching reminded the young poet Sylvia Plath, who visited occasionally, of Arvin. "Last night, weary, up the odd Gothic blind stairwell to Arvinís for drinks," she had written in her journal in 1957, three years earlier. "Arvin: bald head pink, eyes and mouth dry slits as on some carved rubicund mask."

Arvin dressed, carefully. Besides books, his other extravagance was clothes. He had two closets filled with $150 suits and nourished a fetish for linen shirts and cashmere sweaters, which he kept in great stacks in his wardrobe. In recent years, his once nimble face frequently wore a capsized expression, his skin wan, features pasty, and eyes heavy and troubled, the residue of a lonely, inward, deeply shadowed life. Alcohol and sleeping pills hadnít helped. But he never stopped dressing to perfection. This fussiness -- he wore rubbers at the least hint of rain and seldom went out without a hat, which he tipped assiduously to passersby -- had always made him seem older than he was, but now he felt old, too. The times were a part of it. Both presidential candidates, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, were more than a decade younger than he. He found the recent political conventions "a ghoulish business devoid of any real interest in social progress or the common man. Hoping Congress Would push through legislation to improve the lives of -- a new term he hated -- "senior citizens," he wished there were a Greenback Party or a Free Soil Party to vote for.

All this made Arvin feel, as an American and a scholar, that his life was overdrawn and that nothing could change it. During the summer, he appeared to resolve, with some relief, no longer to try. He wrote in his journal, "Emerson is right about old age: one of its blessings is the knowledge that there cannot be so very much more of all this." But Arvin also lived a second life, in his apartment and elsewhere, a surreptitious sexual life less easily tamed.

His faded warren under the eaves sheltered that life, too. In the years after World War II, shortly after heíd moved in, he and young Truman Capote, still all but unknown outside publishing circles, fell headlong in love. Though Arvin was forty-six, staid, balding, scholarly, and nervous, and Capote was twenty-one, glittering, blond, uneducated, and bold, it was the most formative intimacy either would ever have. Twice a month for two years, Capote traveled by train from New York to Northampton, then scurried from the station to Arvinís apartment, up the steep stairs, and into his arms. "Newton was my Harvard" he would later say.

Arvin kept a nude bodybuilder photo of Capote on his bedroom bureau, and other keepsakes of their relationship were placed throughout the apartment: folders containing their faded love letters; a colorful wooden box Capote had brought back from the West Indies for the Broadway production of his play House of Flowers; a hidden cache of homoerotic pictures Capote had sent from Greece, including nude photos of Athenian boys and an amusingly illustrated Robinson Crusoe. Arvinís first great theme as a literary critic and biographer was the secrecy that marks so many public lives. As he got older, much of his own furtive life involved collecting erotica and discreetly inviting others to view it. His apartment was a haven for younger men, including several junior faculty members, with whom he could relax over drinks, talk freely, and, occasionally, have sex.

On this September morning, Arvin thought of venturing out. Heíd never learned to drive, but cool, fair weather was forecast, and in this season, and at this point in his life, his errands tended to be small ones. Whatever its privations, this was the other great benefit of perching innocuously at the edge of small-town life -- location. Arvinís apartment was situated at almost the precise geographic center of his world. When he was in his thirties, forties, and early fifties, with his literary career at its zenith, that world stretched far beyond Northampton. But as his "tether," as he called it, had shortened during the past few years, so had his prospects -- literally. He could now see from his four eaves nearly all of the stations of his life: the campus, the town, the barricading hills. Those he couldnít see receded just beyond view, in memory and imagination. Arvin could head out on his bike, a Roadmaster with head- and taillights, and a frog-like little horn that, on rare carefree mornings, he couldnít resist tooting, and go anywhere he needed to-his office, the library, the bookshop, the post office, the tavern-in less than five minutes.

He decided to stay in and try to read a little before his eyes, endlessly strained, gave out and idled him completely. Arvin had all but surrendered hope of producing any large work at this stage, but he still had pending a few small editing projects and book reviews, although he wasnít optimistic about finishing those, either. Yesterday, after taking some notes at the office and getting a manuscript wrapped by a "very nice boy" at the bookshop, heíd been so fatigued that he went to bed in the afternoon and remained there the rest of the day. Arvin was used to such days and nights. Heíd routinely suffered them -- and much worse -- ever since he was a twelve-year-old boy growing up in Indiana in the years before World War I. With the noise and tumult of the long Labor Day weekend looming -- the annual Three-County Fair would start on Saturday, clogging Northampton with cars, people, exhibits, and livestock from throughout western New England -- he planned to spend a quiet Friday alone, indoors, which is how, with fewer and fewer exceptions, Arvin now preferred to be.


Sergeant John Regan of the Massachusetts State Police drove the first of the two unmarked squad cars, holding five officers in all. Big, burly, and loquacious, Regan, an Irish Catholic, was a former Marine with a blustery laugh who had been hired off the street after World War II to help meet a shortage of "boots"; he had risen to become a star of the force, the first recipient of the former troopersí associationís Outstanding Public Service Award. The state, having recently made it a felony to possess obscene pictures with the intent of showing them to others, had created a new unit to enforce the law and had put Regan and his partner, Gerald Crowley, in charge. Since May, Regan and Crowley had made more than forty arrests, placing them in the vanguard of a national crusade that was now cresting with the adoption of broad new federal powers to fight mail-order filth. Troopers in Massachusetts, as elsewhere, thought themselves a special breed, though they lived like conscripts, stationed away from their families, working shifts measured in weeks, not hours. At Troop B Barracks in Northampton, "Dirty Pictures" Regan was already well known as the hard charging vice investigator from Boston who kept barracks around the state supplied with pornography.

It was around 11 a.m. when the matching Ford coupes pulled up in front of the red brick house at 45 Prospect Street. From the quiet, maple-shaded sidewalk, the century-old residence brooded like a rectory; gloomy, stony, quasi-religious, the color of dried blood. Regan, wearing street clothes, led the four officers up the worn brownstone steps and into the building. He was forty-two, six feet tall, weighed 220 pounds, and exuded toughness -- lumbering, bullnecked, bulging under his suit, up on the balls of his overburdened feet. Heíd fought at Iwo Jima, and the other officers thought him fearsome.

Regan and Crowley had told the three other officers that the suspect was "a pretty important man on the Smith campus," a "fag," but otherwise, as Crowley put it, "Just another flyspeck on the wall" -- a routine suspect. Contrary to public opinion, they knew most obscenity suspects to be meek, educated, guilt-stricken loners. They anticipated no resistance now.

The air inside the stairwell was cool and still. The narrow stairs coiled tightly to the left, and the men had to file up singly, seventeen steps to the first landing, twelve to the next. The floors became shorter the higher they rose. Regan, who had flat feet and bad ankles, was out of breath by the time they reached the tiny third-floor landing, where, stopping, then climbing two more steps to the right, he stood and knocked. The door, with recessed panels and brass fixtures, was scarcely wider and higher than he was.

Arvin answered tentatively. He wasnít expecting anyone. His most intimate friend and frequent guest, the young classicist Ned Spofford, was out of town. After opening the door, Arvin saw on the landing only Regan and, positioned behind him, Crowley. The appearance of two large men in inexpensive suits could have meant anything or nothing. Perhaps they were door-to-door salesmen, missionaries, supervisors from the gas and light departments. When Regan introduced himself and asked whether they could come in, Arvin said they could.

Jammed in the foyer, the officers towered over Arvin, who was five feet seven inches, physically unventuresome, and slight. At least three of the police could touch the ceiling flatfooted. It was Regan who spoke. He told Arvin that his name had come to their attention as a result of a postal investigation and that police had evidence linking him to organized pornography traffic. Regan, looming over suspects, had a way of making them feel he knew everything about them. It was unclear whether he had a warrant, but he asked whether the police could search Arvinís apartment, and Arvin said yes to that request, too.

The officers fanned out, brusquely. In Arvinís study, near the neatly shelved copies of the celebrated biographies he had written of American classical writers, lay several issues of One, the Mattachine Society publication, which Arvin had picked up at a newsstand in New York and dismissed, disappointedly, in a letter to a friend as "pretty tame." There were muscle magazines, with titles like Adonis, Tomorrowís Man, and Physique Pictorial, that had black-and-white pictures of seminude male models, their genitals covered by posing straps. Arvin could hear the officers ransacking his furniture, turning over his mattress, couch, chair cushions; opening books and mail; rifling his drawers, closets, briefcase, even his wallet. He knew they would soon find harder evidence.

For Arvin, it was hellish, all of it. He had always known that something like this could happen, yet as four of the men penetrated his rooms, leaving him with Regan, he was paralyzed, beyond fear. What would they do with him? He had retreated to the far margin of life, and still they had found him out. He felt helpless, a mollusk without its shell. And yet he had been through so much unreality before this, ages of it. His panic was nothing new. And so although he was terrified, he maintained a certain well-developed detachment and resignation His attitude one of the arresting officers would recall, was "Iím caught." He answered quietly, cooperating with each of Reganís requests.

As the police kept searching, Regan told Arvin he was under arrest. Massachusettsís harsh new obscenity law, which made possession of pornography a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, distinguished between merely owning erotica and sharing it, but Regan was unlikely to have clarified the difference, nor would Arvin have been calmed by it. His whole life had been against the law. So whatever happened now would not, he felt, be a product of his possessing sexual pictures, but of what had led up to it, his entire history, starting with his "uniquely misbegotten" childhood and scrolling through his tumultuous adulthood in town and at Smith. Indeed, Arvin had forecast such a reckoning more than thirty years earlier, not long after moving to Northampton. Writing about Hawthorneís The Scarlet Letter, he observed that in America, particularly the Calvinist America in which Hester Prynne was branded with an embroidered A on her bosom, people were punished most severely not for their crimes but for their secrets. "It is not for the intrinsic flagrance of the sin she has committed, but for the waywardness and irregularity of all wrongdoing that she is punished," Arvin wrote, "and the penalty is made to suit the offense."

But what was the punishment when the sin was being oneself?

Just as he had come to accept that his life was all but spent and that nothing else could hurt him, Newton Arvin was about to learn.

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Excerpted from The Scarlet Professor by Barry Werth. Copyright © 2001 by Barry Werth. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.