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American Literary History 16.2 (2004) 290-317

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Newton Arvin:
Literary Critic and Lewd Person

Robert K. Martin

On the evening of 2 September 1960, three academic careers were brought to an abrupt end. On that evening local police in Northampton, Massachusetts, in a raid organized in conjunction with the Massachusetts State Police Bureau of Pornography (founded only three months earlier) and the US Post Office Department, raided the homes of two faculty members at Smith College and charged the two with "possession of obscene pictures" ("2 Smith Teachers"). In addition, Newton Arvin, one of the most distinguished members of the college's English department, holder of the Mary Augusta Jordan chair in English, and the winner of the National Book Award for 1951 for his biography, Herman Melville, was charged with being "a lewd person" ("2 Smith Teachers"). Within a month Arvin had been forcibly "retired" from Smith and committed to a state mental hospital, while his junior colleagues were placed on leave and ultimately refused reappointment.

There are a number of reasons for examining these events here. One of them is a desire to restore Arvin to the position he deserves in the history of American literary criticism, a position that has been denied him in part as a result of the scandal that ended his career so suddenly. An understanding of Arvin's professional work requires us to look at the history of American criticism from the 1920s to the 1950s, a period that saw the reshaping of the field by the New Critics and their American allies, the Agrarians. They displaced the social critics of an earlier generation who had first established the field of American literature. Arvin was a consistent and strong opponent of the dominant New Critics. His resistance to the influence of T. S. Eliot's critical positions on the irrelevance of biography (a position that is itself filled with irony, as we have since learned) was a crucial part of his contribution to American literary criticism of the twentieth century. As Arvin wrote late in life, it was not merely the New Critics' refusal of biography, but even more their narrowness and meanness of vision, that made him resist their influence: "I am against all critical theories that have the effect, in practice if not in [End Page 290] intention, of contracting the boundaries of estimable literature, of impoverishing the quest for literary variety and manifoldness. This has been the effect of Eliot's and even of Richards's views, and they were broadly and humanely catholic compared with some of their followers. . . . It is not a characterless eclecticism I am demanding, but an open. . . . literary universe" (Journal Entry, 6 Jan. 1962). But the events of September 1960 give Arvin's own life a significance like that he claimed for his biographical subjects. For although Arvin spoke for, and practiced, a form of criticism that was engagé, it seems that it would take such tangible evidence of state hostility to make it clear that Arvin's own life as a gay man could not be successfully separated from his life as a respected scholar of American literature. The arrest of Arvin comes as a striking reminder of the interrelationship of life and art, politics and aesthetics, for which he himself had always spoken. We are only now emerging from the deconstructionist interest in the life behind the text.

It is possible, of course, that Arvin was a random victim of a raid that could have happened to anyone. Indeed it is important to bear in mind that what happened to Arvin could, and did, happen to many other people with regularity. In fact, a total of seven people were arrested as a result of the Northampton raids, including a salesman, an auto mechanic's helper, and an installer of aluminum siding. The account of the raids in Newsweek magazine seemed to take particular delight in reporting the social discrepancies among those, as it put it, "rounded up" by the police ("Scandal" 43). But a raid that trapped only working-class men would hardly...


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