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The Scarlet Reader: Newton Arvin on Hawthorne and Melville

by Leland S. Person
University of Cincinnati

Dr. Leland S. Person, Professor of 
English and Department Head at the University of Cincinnati
Dr. Leland S. Person, Professor of English and Department Head at the University of Cincinnati
 

I thought it appropriate, given the setting for our meeting, to do something to acknowledge Newton Arvin's contribution to Hawthorne studies. Arvin was a professor here at Smith for 40 years-from 1922 until his death in 1963. His book on Melville was one of the first books I remember reading when I started graduate school; his chapter on Moby-Dick is still a tour de force. But I was ignorant then, as I was ten years before that, of Arvin's story, which I found terribly moving in Barry Werth's retelling, The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin-A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal. Arvin was arrested here in Northampton on September 2, 1960 on pornography charges-targeted, as Robert Martin has argued, because he was a practicing homosexual. He ultimately pled guilty to the charge against him, paid a $1,000 fine, and received a one-year suspended jail sentence. Worse than such tangible penalties, as Werth observes, was the Hester Prynne-like condemnation to live out his disgrace in public (229). "Sitting in the courtroom," Werth notes, "he had been condemned to wear not one scarlet letter but three-for smut fiend, homosexual, and informer" (230). Newton Arvin, in other words, was branded a scarlet reader.

As members of the Massachusetts obscenity task force climbed the stairs at 45 Prospect Street to rifle through Arvin's apartment and arrest him, I was living in Ware, 30 miles east of here, and getting ready to start 8th grade. Three years later, I would come to Northampton to take my driving test from a state trooper who was the biggest and coldest man I had ever seen-surely one of the goons who had arrested Arvin. In some minor way, I've been in Arvin's place, even if I didn't know it at the time.

I've had reason to appreciate Newton Arvin's contributions to American literary criticism more recently in co-writing an Afterword with Robert Martin for a special issue of ESQ on the Hawthorne-Melville relationship. For one of the vexing questions about that relationship-the more vexing because Hawthorne's letters to Melville do not survive-involves Hawthorne's response to his ardent friend. The friend who felt that Hawthorne "has dropped germinous seeds into my soul," who wrote that Hawthorne "shoots his strong New England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul." The friend whose understanding of Moby-Dick caused Melville to feel as if "your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours." These are remarkable passages-the linchpins of many interpretations of the Hawthorne-Melville relationship that form a wide spectrum. And we continue to worry the scant evidence-as Hershel Parker has done in a remarkably inventive way in his recent Melville biography, and as Arvin did in his studies of the two writers, published in 1929 and 1950.

Arvin in fact probably qualifies as the father of gay American Renaissance studies. He explicitly analyzed Walt Whitman's homosexuality in his 1938 book on the poet, and Robert credits him with being the first scholar to suggest Melville's "fundamental homosexuality" (Hero 63). Even more pertinent for this occasion, I want to suggest that Arvin offered the first gay reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne. A gay reading of Hawthorne? Well, yes and no. Arvin was a gay male, although still in the closet when he wrote his Hawthorne book. But as Werth argues, he read Hawthorne through the "prism of his own torments," identifying "dark strains that perhaps only someone who cloaked unwanted desires could fully detect" (Werth 37). Reading Hawthorne found Arvin, to use the phrase he himself employs to characterize Melville's reaction to Hawthorne, in a "state of quite special responsiveness" (Melville 136).

Reading, like the subjectivities that read, is historically and culturally constructed. The official police action that shattered Newton Arvin in 1960 was preceded inevitably by other police actions at the site of his reading and writing practices-and is succeeded by police actions at the site of our own. What kinds of readings are possible, in fact, at any given time? While avoiding any sense of homosexual determinism, I want to explore Arvin's reading of Hawthorne within its historical and historically personal context. Why does Hawthorne become such a meaningful figure for Arvin-such a kindred spirit, who offers a kind of two-way mirror in which Arvin can reflect and reflect upon his own personality and career? At the same time, what can Arvin's book on Hawthorne tell us about Hawthorne and about 19th-century sexuality? Is a gay male's reading of Hawthorne in 1929 bound by its own historical moment? Do all of our reading practices reflect our own scholarly desires?

If Arvin's book on Hawthorne has what Norman Holland calls an "identity theme," it manifests itself in his emphasis on a Hawthorne who dares not reveal himself and his deepest imaginings-a Hawthorne who, like Arvin himself, is "in the closet." Werth marks out this shared subject position as he reports Arvin's arrest. After describing the hard-core photographs and diaries that the cops found in Arvin's study, Werth refers to the scarlet letter's effect on Hester as the most appropriate analogy for Arvin's situation. Hawthorne had described the letter as "taking [Hester] out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself." "Arvin knew, had always known," Werth comments, "that the price of his secret life was extreme, enduring isolation. He had been locked in a sphere by himself his entire conscious life" (196).

In attributing similar subject positions to Hawthorne and Arvin, I am not suggesting that Hawthorne was gay or homosexual-whatever those terms could mean for a 19th-century male. I would suggest, however, that Hawthorne was deviant in his sexuality-in his sexual desires and imaginings-and that Arvin recognized and responded to that deviance. More important, Hawthorne could not fully articulate or act upon his imaginings, and his inability to do so placed him in the 19th-century equivalent of the closet as surely as Arvin's own deviance placed him in a 20th-century one.

We can get a better fix on that closet and on the difficulty of writing gay criticism in the early 20th century by looking at Arvin's second book-the study of Walt Whitman he published in 1938. The "fact of Whitman's homosexuality" cannot be "denied by any informed and candid reader of the 'Calamus' poems . . . ," Arvin wrote; "the fact stares one unanswerably in the face" (274). But what stares Arvin in the face is veiled-as with a black veil-by the dominant social and medical views of homosexuality. Is Whitman's "prophecy" "as the poet of 'universal democratic comradeship'-invalidated by having its psychological basis in a sexual aberration?" Arvin asks (275). "No," he answers-but not exactly "No, in thunder." It "would certainly be uncritical," he explains, "to dispose of the ideas in the Republic because there is a homosexual strain in Plato, and homosexuality is only one of the eccentricities or pathologies that may give a particular bias to a writer's work" (275). Aberration, eccentricity, pathology-Arvin polices his reading even as he celebrates Whitman's achievement, which he finds superior, in another telling figure, to that of the "vast majority of inverts" (275).

When Werth describes Arvin's writing of his Hawthorne book, he says that Arvin "discovered himself in Hawthorne, even as he recoiled from what he found" (35). Again and again Arvin stresses Hawthorne's love of solitude and the guilt that love provoked. He promotes the long-lived theory of a monkish Hawthorne, "shutting himself up in his third-story room on Herbert Street." It "would have been really amazing," he concludes, "if he had done the writing in anything but loneliness and with anything but the most jealously guarded secrecy. To such an end all the forces of his childhood and adolescence had converged" (6). Even when he takes up Hawthorne's marriage, he emphasizes the way it fulfills Hawthorne's "passion for isolation" (105). In accounting for Hawthorne's interest in marriage at all, Arvin suggests that a desire to cure some ailment within himself was a key motivation. "The conviction had . . . been growing upon him that . . . the incurable emptiness of his life was due largely to his ignorance of so deep a human experience as the love between the sexes" (76-77). Arvin, moreover, offers an ingenious speculation on Sophia's unique appeal to Nathaniel, who felt "diffidence in the presence of all women, bred of a dozen years of the strictest celibacy" (78). Sophia was

the one woman who could have overcome the special reluctances he would have felt. How fearfully he would have shrunk from intimate relations with a woman of large physical vitality and robust emotional needs! How difficult it would have been to turn from the shadowy feminine figures of his lonely fantasies to a woman with a vigor comparable at every point with his own! And how intolerant he would have been . . . of an assertive intellect, a temper capable of disequilibrium, a tough and independent will! Sophia threatened him in none of these disastrous ways. She was, physically, of an extreme tenuity, and shivered in every wind from the east. (79)

Such apostrophes to conflicted desire reveal as much about Arvin's own personal conflicts as they reveal about Hawthorne--or Sophia. The perfect woman? The slightest woman possible--that is, a woman of "extreme" physical "tenuity," with no "robust emotional needs," a woman less substantial than one of Hawthorne's literary creations, a woman who cannot rival his "lonely fantasies," which are consequently left to their own devices. A woman, in short, who is not an object of physical or sexual desire--a woman and wife in name only. This is Hawthorne in the closet--covered by a marriage that does not draw upon his real desires. Three years after publishing Hawthorne, Arvin married Mary Garrison. Werth even speculates that he was inspired by Hawthorne's example, having seen "how marriage had been a tonic for Hawthorne" and, feeling "desperate to find a 'normal' life," hoping that Mary might provide it (Werth 57). But the marriage failed quickly, becoming a "nightmare" for Arvin and a "horror" for Mary. "Real intimacy with anyone was more than Arvin could achieve," Werth concludes. "Like Hawthorne in his solitude, he was locked miles deep in guilt-filled isolation" (Werth 63).

Arvin treats Melville's marriage to Elizabeth Shaw in much the same way-as a puzzling event that masks other desires. "It is not easy," Arvin admits, "to believe that Melville entered upon marriage without the most disturbing, even if unconscious, conflicts." The "truth is that the masculine and feminine elements in Melville's own nature were far too precariously balanced, far too unreconciled with one another, for marriage to be anything but excruciatingly problematic both for him and his wife." Understanding homosexuality through a still-current theory of gender inversion, Arvin also sees it as a pathology--a "malady" that Melville did not understand. "He was conscious enough, no doubt, of the ardor and intensity of his feelings for members of his own sex, but the possibility that such emotions might have a sexual undercurrent can only with the utmost rarity, and then fleetingly, have presented itself to his consciousness" (Melville 128). Melville had homoerotic feelings, in Arvin's tortured view, but policed even his own fantasies in order to repress the thought of their sexual expression. As he had done in characterizing Hawthorne's marriage and the secret desires and guilt that Hawthorne experienced, Arvin projects not only his own internal confusions but also his socially constructed efforts to understand and express his own sexual identity.

As Robert Martin has remarked repeatedly, the issue for Hawthorne was not sexuality, but gender-the question of his masculinity in relation to other masculinities-and insofar as Arvin felt a similar conflict he emphasized that aspect of Hawthorne's experience. "It must have been clear fairly early," he observes, "that the only son and second child of Captain Hathorne was not cut from quite the same stout fabric" (8). "It was a queer changeling," Arvin concludes, "that these pragmatic Hathornes and Mannings . . . must have been bewildered to discover in their family circle" (9). He quotes one of Hawthorne's Bowdoin professors, who had noted the "girlish diffidence" with which he had submitted a composition (22). Werth quotes a very similar self-assessment from one of Arvin's diaries: "I was certainly a girlish small boy, not a virile one, even in promise," Arvin noted. "I was timid, shrinking, weak, and unventuresome" (Werth 16). Still resorting to an inversion paradigm, Arvin discovers sexuality behind the veil of gender characteristics. He posits a similar gender conflict in Melville, although he diagnoses the writer's dis-ease in more explicitly sexual terms. Melville, Arvin writes, prefers to "leave the land and the world of women quite behind him and launch himself upon the high seas in the midst of men and boys exclusively." Arvin explains these "masculine" impulses in strained psychological terms:

if this [escapist tendency] is true for him as a writer, it is not the whole truth for him as a person: the masculine element in his nature was too strong for that, and he could not, as Whitman could, hold the feminine at a safe a simple distance while he organized his emotional life around his male companionships. . . . Marriage was doubtless inescapable for him, and in the long run it was to prove a healing and preservative force. . . . In the mean time, however, the clash between one group of needs and another was terribly intense, and emotionally speaking . . . this is the central fact behind his work. (Melville 131)

As he had done with Whitman, Arvin explains Melville's sexuality and sexual conflicts by appealing to a theory of gender inversion. Melville cannot balance his masculine and feminine elements, and this failure leads to his puzzling marriage and to the central tensions in his writing-to Ahab's castration, for example, and with it his loss of "capacity for heterosexual love" (Melville 174).

In encouraging Arvin to undertake his Hawthorne book, Van Wyck Brooks was convinced, Werth observes, "that the retiring young Smith instructor" would surely "be able to do something with the relations between Hawthorne and Melville" (Werth 35). Arvin's treatment of that relationship changes somewhat from 1929 to 1950-reflecting his coming out of the closet during the two decades between the two books-but its erotic dimensions remain somewhat veiled. In the Hawthorne book, for example, Arvin observes, "During the first summer in Lenox a friendship sprang up between the two [writers] with a suddenness and warmth unique in Hawthorne's record" (167). From Hawthorne's point of view, Arvin expresses surprise that the friendship developed at all. "Why, of all the men of letters in the world . . . did Melville seize upon Nathaniel Hawthorne as the one human being to whom he could utter his deepest intentions and betray his secretest fears?" Arvin's answer: Melville shared Hawthorne's love of solitude. He had "gone about locked up in a solitariness no whit less bleak and overcast than Hawthorne's own; had suffered from as acute a sense of incurable isolation from his kind" (Hawthorne 168). But in this 1929 version, the basis of friendship is largely intellectual and only somewhat emotional. The two men stand in similar, isolated relationship to the public world. Similarity of position breeds identification. Feeling "parity and sympathy," Melville expands in the "warmth, however moderate, of Hawthorne's friendship, and poured out his doubts and anxieties and mutinous impulses to him as he would have scorned to do to any other man" (Hawthorne 171). The word "moderate," modifying Hawthorne's "warmth," indicates Arvin's reluctance to imagine hotter possibilities. More revealingly, Arvin elides one of the most suggestive passages in the letter Melville wrote after receiving Hawthorne's response to Moby-Dick. He quotes the well-known passage in which Melville expresses his elation, but he omits these telling sentences: "In me divine magnanimities are spontaneous and instantaneous--catch them while you can. The world goes round, and the other side comes up. So now I can't write what I felt. But I felt pantheistic then--your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God's." Eliding Melville's fantasy of physical interpenetration, Arvin largely dismisses Melville's likely effect on Hawthorne. What "role did this quick-flowering friendship play in his spiritual affairs"? No "full answer" can be given, "since Hawthorne's letters to Melville have been destroyed, but it is hardly likely that at this stage Hawthorne's spiritual course could be altered by any such deflecting pressure" (Hawthorne 172). Whether he thinks that Hawthorne's emotional or sexual "course" could have been altered by Melville's behavior--or his imagination enkindled in some new way by Melville's suggestive language--Arvin doesn't say.

When he revisits this "quick-flowering friendship" in his Melville book, on the other hand, Arvin goes a little further in noting its erotic dimensions--at least from Melville's point of view. He notes that Melville's August 1850 "meeting with the older writer" found him, as I have noted, in a "state of quite special responsiveness; it was a cardinal [oh, would that he had written scarlet!] moment, intellectually and emotionally, in his life" (Melville 136). Arvin still writes somewhat euphemistically, tantalizing us with the implications of "quite special responsiveness" and, a few sentences later, with the observation that "the current of sympathy and mutual interest had passed between them like a magnetic force" (Melville 137). Turning to the still eye-popping passage in Melville's review of Mosses from an Old Manse, in which Melville reports that Hawthorne has "dropped germinous seeds" into his soul and "shoots his strong New England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul" (Melville 138), Arvin calls attention to this "astonishingly sexual image," the only kind of image, he says that "could adequately have expressed Melville's feeling . . . of receptiveness and even passivity in the acceptance of impregnation by another mind" (Melville 138). But Arvin goes no further in exploring the two writers' interactions, and he does not interest himself in the question of why Hawthorne left Lenox. It is a fair guess, however, that if Arvin had taken up the question of Hawthorne's response to Melville's friendship, he would not have beaten Edwin Haviland Miller to the punch in promulgating a theory of Hawthorne's homosexual panic. The readings possible or likely at any given moment are as much a product of the politics of experience as they are a function of reader psychology, and Newton Arvin's critical studies of Hawthorne and Melville reflect a fascinating tension between political possibility and personal urgency. Arvin's Hawthorne's would not necessarily have welcomed Melville's alleged advances, but he would have entertained them, as Arvin did, in a "state of quite special responsiveness." Wouldn't we all? Haven't most of us speculated about the various possibilities expressed in Hawthorne's lost letters to Melville? Aren't we all scarlet readers--responsive in our own "quite special" ways? Isn't that what reading is? Isn't that what Hawthorne meant when he encouraged us in "The Custom-House" to put the scarlet letter on our own breasts as a way of reading it? We either say "yes," it seems to me, or we invite the police to pay another visit to this campus.


Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/10226/


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