THE SCARLET PROFESSOR
Newton Arwin was a prominent American literary critic of the 1940s and '50s who was vilified for his homosexuality. Werth employs measured, cautious phrases in his new account of Arwin's life. He avoids extended analysis, as if afraid the tactic might disturb the fragile balance between daring and cowardice, brilliance and reticence, sensuality and propriety that he finds at the core of Arwin's sporadic sexual experimentation, debilitating mental disorders and exquisite prose. Werth (Damages; The Billion-Dollar Molecule) argues that the oppression experienced by Arwin had implications far beyond the ruin of an academic's career. Through stark illustration of Arwin's personal disgrace, Werth exposes the paradox that, while driving those it considered culturally deviant from public life by declaring their proclivities obscene, postwar American society simultaneously preyed upon the very secrecy it demanded. The fact that Arwin himself first unearthed the historical roots of this paradox in his landmark biographies of Hawthorne, Whitman and Melville only serves to underscore the resounding simplicity that was the critic's most remarkable feature. Here was a man who wanted nothing but the opportunity to think and love with all the breadth his spirit would allow, and who had known since adolescence that his one desire constituted the essence of crime and sin in the society that enveloped him. When the police discovered pornography in Arwin's apartment, it was with disconcerting reserve that he revealed the names of several friends and fellow homosexuals. Werth's obvious sympathy for his subject prevents him from adequately confronting Arwin's climactic treachery, but the biography remains a moving portrait of a man racked by the pain of his own identity. (May)
Forecast:This book originated as an article in the New Yorker and will undoubtedly receive wide review coverage, supplemented by local publicity by the author in New England. Still, it's not clear that a book-length treatment of Arwin's life will resonate with a lot of readers.
Release date: 04/01/2001