Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Placing Newton Arvin in Queer History

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Placing Newton Arvin in Queer History

Article excerpt

Born in 1900, Newton Arvin felt a sense of "radical difference" as a "girlish small boy" growing up in Valparaiso, Indiana. When he was thirteen, he wrote to his best friend, David Lilienthal, "I feel so lonesome for an intimate friend," signing off with a daring bid for intimacy jokingly covered by an assertion of masculine camaraderie, "with barrels of love and ki--handshakes." (1)

In The Scarlet Professor, Barry Werth refers to Arvin's "lonely, inward, deeply shadowed life," a characterization that echoes the most popular representational trope of homosexuality during the period, and one that certainly had some truth to it. (2) But that depiction elides the intimacy and queer community that Arvin found as an adult, perhaps because they didn't always appear in the guises we might expect. About his relationship with his roommate at Harvard, Arvin wrote to Lilienthal of the "very beautiful, very fine, and very precious thing that has come into my life, and very nearly changed the whole seeming of existence to me." Arvin declined to name that transformative connection, perhaps lacking words for it himself ("damn the English language!" he remarked), but he trusted that his oldest friend would understand at least some of his meaning and more, that his relationship might be accommodated within the flexible bounds of male intimacy that extended into the early twentieth century. (3) "It may be a funny thing to say," Arvin observed, "but--this person stands to me in somewhat the same relation" as he imagined Lilienthal's fiancee, Helen, "does to you and with much the same degree of good feeling (as I guess). You might easily misinterpret this, but I don't think you will, or I wouldn't have said it." (4) The world in 1920, when Arvin was an undergraduate exulting in his first romance, was in some ways less sexually circumscribed than it would be just a decade or so later, when the modern homo/heterosexual binary would take firmer shape. That new world, with its growing compulsion to align oneself according to sexual type, would become in some ways more habitable for Arvin and in other ways less so. Decades later, at a writing residency at Yaddo, he met Truman Capote, with whom he would have a love affair for several years and a friendship for the rest of his life. Capote visited staid Northampton on alternate weekends in the 1940s and sometimes sat in on Arvin's classes, an image of flamboyance and courage that stretches the imagination unless we listen to historians who tell us that queerness was not simply closeted at midcentury, that it could be both seen and not seen. Arvin found love, however fleeting, and certainly sexual connection; he also found sociality in what we might call queer community. At Yaddo, he dined with Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who regaled his colleagues with stories of his love for Balinese men. He took drunken road trips with tomboyish Carson McCullers, who was besotted at the time with Katherine Ann Porter. Arvin cultivated a community of gay friends at Smith College too, especially Ned Spofford, who joined him at his apartment for dinner and to listen to music, to discuss writing and work, and to talk about sex, giving lie to what George Chauncey called the myth of the inevitable loneliness and isolation of midcentury gay life. (5)

Scholarship in queer history, especially historians' documentation of the vibrancy of the postwar gay male urban world, helps us to track Arvin's sexual adventures in New York City in the 1950s and to appreciate his discovery of the lively bar and bathhouse scene there. (Arvin wrote to Lilienthalin 1950 that he looked forward to a trip to New York, to "find[ing] a furnished room somewhere there, and just play[ing] around rather irresponsibly for once in that Babylon.") (6) Later, he found his way to cruising spots closer to home in Springfield, Massachusetts. Historians also chart the rise in gay publishing and print culture newly available at newsstands, drug stores, and corner shops that made it possible for Arvin to assemble his incriminating collection of muscle magazines and erotica such as Adonis and Physique Pictoral. …

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