I’m in Northampton, MA today, at the Smith College archives, where I am researching the life of Newton Arvin. My partner Dustin Schell and I are adapting Barry Werth’s biography of him, The Scarlet Professor, into a screenplay. Much of the story of him that is known is of a few shattering moments in 1960, when he became the center of a scandal after his arrest by the local police’s Pornography Squad. But here, among his papers, the celebrated critical mind that fostered writers as varied as Truman Capote, Carson McCullers and Sylvia Plath comes into view. I was struck by this paragraph from an article of his, “The New American Writers”, published in Harper’s Bazaar, March 1947:
“The literature I can foresee coming into existence here may well be a profoundly realistic and even, in a better sense than the old one, a naturalistic literature. It would not be realism in the rather plodding and prosaic sense; it would be, I think, a form to which we could apply some such phrase as the one painter’s use—“Magical Realism.” It would not be naturalism in the old biological and documentary sense; but it might very well be–I believe it will be–naturalistic in a deeper and more genuinely human sense. I mean by this that it would be essentially faithful to the nature of things as we know them to be—to physical nature, of course, and to biological nature, but also to the nature of man himself, who, if he is an animal, is an animal of a very special sort, an animal whose mind deals most characteristically in symbols, and who can master his experience only when he has transmuted it in emblems, in allegories, in myths. A neo-naturalism, then, if you wish, a humanized and poeticized naturalosm, a naturalism not of the document but of the myth—such may well be the literature that the near future has in the making for us.”
Probably the same pornography police that arrested Jim Morrison a few years later, cousins of the new book censors on Paypal and Smashwords.
Thank you for the update on your work. As well as the side reminders that Chee is a fucking genius.
Ha. Thanks Yvonne!
‘…an animal whose mind deals most characteristically in symbols, and who can master his experience only when he has transmuted it in emblems, in allegories, in myths’ That’s a beautiful statement, one that in retrospect, kind of situates Arvin himself as a Lucifer figure in the downfall of all the professors. I saw a documentary on this a few years ago on PBS, The Great Pink Scare, and always saw it as true but tragic that one of the other profs angrily denounced Newton for dragging them down with him. They were all in the same isolated boat of trying to live their lives/desire in a hideously warped climate of fear. The best to you and Dustin in this awesome endeavor.
Thank you, Chris. Newton Arvin was a complex man and his actions make him a complex figure, historically. On the one hand, he did a great deal for the cause of American literature. On the other, his personal life, and the impossible climate he—and they all—lived in—deserves more than an angry denunciation or a dismissal. We’re interested in telling the story behind all of that.