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John Leonard | The Nation

John Leonard

Author Bios

John Leonard

Contributing Editor

John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS
Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation, is the author, most recently,
of When the Kissing Had to Stop: Cult Studs, Khmer Newts, Langley Spooks,
Techno-Geeks, Video Drones, Author Gods, Serial Killers, Vampire Media, Alien
Sperm-Suckers, Satanic Therapists, and Those of Us Who Hold a Left-Wing
Grudge in the Post Toasties New World Hip-Hop (The New Press 1999),

He has been editor of the New York Times Book Review and literary co-editor
of The Nation. Other recent titles include The Last Innocent White Man (The
New Press, 1993) and Smoke and Mirrors (The New Press, 1997).

Articles

News and Features

Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, blasphemes not only Islam and Hinduism, but Thatcherism and the advertising industry. He's unkind, too, to V.S. Naipaul. For this they want to kill him?

John Leonard, former literary editor of The Nation, died November 6 at 69. From the archives, his iconic piece on Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize win, in his honor.

John Leonard, noted critic and former literary editor of The Nation, died Wednesay at 69. This review of Don DeLillo's Falling Man was one of his last pieces published in the magazine.

Kurt Vonnegut, who passed away Wednesday, will be remembered for his brilliant, cynical and often depressing humor.

Celebrating the eloquence of the feminist, activist and writer in whose work memory, history, poetry and prophecy converge.

Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day is actually four stories, each replete with brilliant patter, fancy footwork, wishful thinking and a
plaintive ukulele.

John Leonard edited and wrote the introduction to These United
States: Portraits of America
(Nation Books).

John Leonard reviews The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, edited by Nathalie Babel.


Every good hunter is uneasy in the depths of his conscience when faced with the death he is about to inflict on the enchanted animal. He does not have the final and firm conviction that his conduct is correct. But neither, it should be understood, is he certain of the opposite.

         (Meditations on Hunting
         José Ortega y Gasset)

My bloodthirsty stage, the warrior phase of a developing manhood, lasted from age 6 until age 12. At 6, I was the first little boy on my block, in Washington, DC, to have a Lone Ranger atomic bomb ring. You peeked in at a color photograph of the mushroom cloud. In fact, owing to a mixup of breakfast cereal boxtops in Battle Creek, Michigan, I had four Lone Ranger atomic bomb rings, one for every other finger on both hands. I only wish I could have quoted Sanskrit.

At age 12, in 1952, I found myself wearing a WIN WITH KEFAUVER T-shirt in Joe McCarthy territory, at a hunting and fishing lodge in northern Wisconsin, when one of the black Labrador retrievers came back with a nose full of porcupine quills. Grim men in checkerboard motley took up arms in the forest primeval. I found the fierce porcupine, hiding up a tree. I shot it twice with a .22 rifle. It fell at my feet, not exactly a sweet kill. I can't remember if we ate it. But no bird sang, and neither did a Hemingway.

Robin Williams has since explained: "Kill a small animal, drink a lite beer." My son, who was born so fortuitously in 1962, describes himself today as the first Berkeley antiwar protest, or a draft dodge. I tell you this so that you will know just who's thinking out loud about Weatherman, the Days of Rage and the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion. In my opinion, they were all a bunch of Lone Ranger atomic bomb rings.

Bill Ayers takes a different view. He was himself a street-fighting Weatherperson, a rock-and-roll Tupamaro, a social bandit out of Hobsbawm, like Rob Roy, Pancho Villa, Jesse James and the Opportune Rain Sung Chiang. He was in love with another Weatherperson, Diana Oughton, a former Peace Corps Quaker, who died making bombs on West 11th Street. He then married a third Weatherperson, Bernardine Dohrn, a University of Chicago law school graduate feared by J. Edgar Hoover ("the most dangerous woman in America") and American Rhapsodized by Joe Eszterhas ("our real babe in bandoliers"). And he's foster father to the child of a fourth, Kathy Boudin, who remains in prison for the 1981 stickup of a Brink's truck that killed four people. How he got to American Berserk, carrying a poem by Ho Chi Minh in his pocket, tattooed on his neck with the rainbow-and-lightning logo and playing with the sticks of dynamite they nicknamed "pickles," is the subject of this unrepentant retrospection.

Up to a point, Fugitive Days is the frazzled story of almost any white middle-class 1960s activist in the civil rights and antiwar movements, written with a speed-freak rush between embarrassing apostrophes to Mnemosyne--memory "is a delicate dance of desire and faith, a shadow of a shadow, an echo of a sigh" when it isn't a twig "tossed like a toy from crest to trough" on a murky "wine-dark, opaque, unfathomable" sea, or the "ghosts and fears that haunt us, floating desires and falsifying dreams more powerful and more compelling than hard reality will ever be," or "a mortuary," or a "mystification," or maybe even "a motherfucker"--but at least true to the kids we were. At that OK Corral point, however, when a movement devolved into a vanguard,when participatory democracy turned into a tantrum of the Leninist cadres, when Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry started looking like Don DeLillo's alphabet killer cult, Bill Ayers blinks.

Such swaddled beginnings: The middle child of well-heeled Midwesterners--his "rising executive" father became CEO of Commonwealth Edison of Chicago--young Bill grew up in comfortably suburban Glen Ellyn, Illinois, playing football almost as soon as he could walk, catching crayfish and sticking frogs in the Du Page River, summering at YMCA camp or on Cape Cod, reading books like The Runaway Bunny and Catcher in the Rye, going to movies like Flying Leathernecks, prepping at Lake Forest Academy and, upon discovering in Ann Arbor that he was too small to cut the mustard on Michigan's Big 10 football team, dropping out to play instead for social justice.

Well, not immediately. He auditioned in Detroit for the Rev. Gabriel Star, who sent him to New Orleans, where Father Peter Paul Streeter couldn't figure out what to do with him, so he signed up as a merchant seaman on a freighter to Piraeus full of "Food for Peace." Rome was where he first read about Vietnam, in the International Herald-Tribune. Back then to Ann Arbor and Students for a Democratic Society, being radicalized by his first bonfire, teach-in, sit-in and jail time: "anarchists and street people, radicals and rockers." Not to mention Diggers, Wobblies, dope, hair and his first tattoo, a red star on the left shoulder. Like his heroes Bob Moses and Martin Luther King Jr., he would be "a nonviolent direct action warrior, in the spirit of the civil rights struggle. I was about to personally disrupt this war, and I tingled all over."

What this meant, at age 20 in 1965, was teaching young children in a freedom school and learning from a local leader of Women's Strike for Peace "the fine points of female orgasm." By age 21, he was director of the Ann Arbor school and setting up a similar one in Cleveland--food and lodging paid for by church groups and labor unions, $2 a week in spending money and an expanding agenda that included a rent strike committee and a healthcare project--when he met his first urban riot: "The strange thing was to live in an atmosphere simultaneously terrifying and deeply energizing." Alas, when Stokely Carmichael and Black Power came along, "I [had to] get out of the way"--which meant leaving both Cleveland and Jackie, the young black woman with whom he slept. (Among other things, Fugitive Days is an anthology of ass. This aspect of Ayers got a turgid airing in a Weather Underground communiqué from Jane Alpert in 1974; you can look it up online in the Duke University archives.) But he had seen enough:

Night after night, day after day, each majestic scene I witnessed was so terrible and so unexpected that no city would ever again stand innocently fixed in my mind. Big buildings and wide streets, cement and steel were no longer permanent. They, too, were fragile and destructible. A torch, a bomb, a strong enough wind, and they, too, would come undone or get knocked down.

So it was back to Ann Arbor, where he met Diana, just returned, herself, from Guatemala. Not only could she worm dogs, can fruit and drive a motorcycle, but she was as blond as Bill. About Bill, Diana wrote to her sister: "I'm afraid he's going to be a boy forever--he's got a Peter Pan complex, and no Wendy Girl in sight."Together, they "wanted to teach the children, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, fight the power, and end the war." And yet, as the war worsened, so did their behavior. If Diana began to identify with Simone Weil, longing to parachute behind enemy lines, even cutting her long hair, Bill seemed to channel the BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY Malcolm X poster on the wall in their kitchen. In Washington for the 1967 demonstration, he told TV reporter Peter Jennings, who had paid for the steak he ate: "I'm not so much against the war as I am for a Vietnamese victory. I'm not so much for peace as for a US defeat." Even before the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, the Mexico City Olympics or the Chicago Democratic Convention, "everything seemed urgent now, everything was accelerating.... It fell to us--and we were just kids--to save the world."

You already know more than you want to about Chicago 1968. But Ayers makes clear the determination of student radicals, wearing red headbands, toting backpacks with Vaseline and goggles to protect themselves against tear gas, hammers to smash windows, slingshots, blackjacks, cherry bombs and marbles (for scattering any cavalry charge), to bring down capitalism, racism and imperialism by kicking butt. After which "smoke and rage," there was "fear, then naked panic," and, finally, "sheer joy and wild relief to be there cherishing every lovely blow." For those in need of an epiphany:

The serpent of rage was loosed in the wide world, and it sank its passionate fangs deep into our inflamed hearts, power and corruption lying in the tall grass side by side along the pathway of wrath.
      Uncontrollable rage--fierce frenzy of fire and lava, blowing off the mountaintop, coursing headlong, in an onslaught of unstoppable chaos--choking rivers, overwhelming the living things in its disastrous path, consuming to exhaustion.
      Purifying fury, white-hot and cutting laserlike through illusion, burning a fine, straight tunnel to the very soul of things. Illuminating anger, passionate and perceptive, eliminating all distraction and doubt, our bright shining pinpoint of lucid, absolute certainty at last.

This doesn't sound to me much like Bob Moses, Grace Paley, Allen Ginsberg or Joan Baez. It sounds more like Big 10 football.

The sky was blue and the whips were black. (Isaac Babel)

Nor, trust me, do you really want to hear about the takeover of SDS by its Maoist faction, Progressive Labor, which scowled upon the "revisionism" of the North Vietnamese. It wasn't necessary to be a member of any wing of the Revolutionary Youth Movement, all of them waving their Little Red Books, to want to secede in 1969 from a lunatic state of mind. But Ayers and his buddies took up citizenship in a system almost equally delusional--with its rhetoric of "wargasms" and "an American Red Army," its ideology of pothead group sex and rubbishy machismo, and its dorky four-fingered fork salute. They brought the war home by invading high schools, trashing supermarkets, going to kung fu movies, hassling autoworkers on a beach, passing out leaflets at a Hell's Angels rally, burning an effigy of Henry Ford III at a Davis Cup tennis match, springing Timothy Leary from prison, accusing one another of reading poems or eating ice cream, blowing up statues and each other.

Diana had to be identified from the print on a severed fingertip.

This isn't hindsight. Even at the time, and much quoted since, the Wisconsin SDS observed, "You don't need a rectal thermometer to know who the assholes are." Ayers quotes a friend fed up "with what he saw as our increasingly self-righteous pose within the movement, and especially with our newfound appetite for sharpening the political line. Fuck your political line, he'd say, laughing. A fishing line might feed someone, a line of poetry might fire an imagination here and there, but a political line?" Don't tell me, as Ayers does, that you had to be there to feel Weather's rage. We were there, and most of us thought they were bonkers. Renegade splinters of the fractured New Left, imagining themselves to be samurai or Sioux, Boxers or Bolsheviks, turned violent at the end of the 1960s,and the media adored them for it. It meant that everybody underneath, in the rice paddies or on the streets, was the same sort of Crazy Horse, sun-dancing himself to death after a dusting of wild aster seeds and a chaw of dried eagle brain. Ever since, the 1960s have been written off as nutcase excess.

Ayers might have told us why, looking back, he now thinks so many smart kids shape-shifted their shamanic selves from Dr. King to Dr. Strangelove or Baader-Meinhofs and the Red Brigades. There is even reason to suspect that he knows things about himself he would prefer to blame on Harry Truman and Hiroshima than to analyze out loud. For instance, even before he read Dickens, Twain and Hemingway, Ellison and Kerouac, Rousseau, Thoreau and Marx, even before his favorite films turned out to be The Battle of Algiers and Bonnie and Clyde, he seems to have had a crush on boom-boom. The Fourth of July was his favorite holiday because of cherry bombs--"and the rocket's red glare." At age 14, hanging with the neighborhood pool sharps and bumper tags, he proved himself an honorary "Italian" by keeping silent after he was accidentally set on fire by an exploding zipgun/pipe bomb, whose ingenious construction from match heads, firecracker fuses, threaded bolts, cotton wadding and ball bearings he lovingly describes. To pass the time at Lake Forest Academy, overprivileged preppies "trapped small animals in the woods and blew them up with candle bombs late at night." As early as page 21 of Fugitive Days, young Bill has already asked a poignant question:

Could there ever be a really good bomb? It could not be built to hurt or kill. Maybe it could extract minerals from the ground. Maybe it could knock over an abandoned building, or maybe the Pentagon after everyone goes home. Simple earth-works, performance art, everyone standing back. Bombs away.

But Looking for Mr. Goodbomb will not entirely explain his memoir's prurient interest in pressure-trigger, alarm clock, magnifying glass and nipple time bombs, in Bangalore torpedoes and homemade grenades, in nitroglycerin, ammonium nitrate, mercury fulminate, chloride of azode and dynamite, not to mention hat pins, brass knuckles, garrotes and saps, or, even after the death of Diana, his training in the desert with high-powered rifles and 9-millimeter pistols. The once-upon-a-time "nonviolent direct action warrior" has become his very own free-fire zone.

Now listen to his Days of Rage paean to army surplus helmets, gas masks, heavy boots, steel pipes, war whoops, piercing whistles and "rolls of pennies to add weight to a punch"; the hot blood, the ice-cold forehead and the sparks leaping from his skin: "I'm not kidding--I looked at the backs of my hands then and little blue and white electric currents danced wildly across them." Breaking the windows of hotels and cars, "we shrieked and screamed as we ran, ululating in imitation of the fighters of the Battle of Algiers. I saw us become what I thought was a real battalion in a guerrilla army, and it felt for that moment like more than theater, more than metaphor. I felt the warrior rising up inside me--audacity and courage, righteousness, of course, and more audacity." And: "My feet were a spinning blur, and I hardly touched the ground. I saw fire in the firmament, and vengeance in the faces of my pursuers." And: "I was scared but still exhilarated, swept along in the darkness, hunched over, gliding with a cosmic energy coursing through me, something large and mysterious powering my fateful rush." Until, finally, a Chicago graveyard, "a fugitive city" of wrecked and abandoned cars and buses:

This bizarre and violent time, this ritual of combat, this surreal setting combined with ferocious demons vomited into the dark-eyed night, pursuing me now with anonymous, deadly hatred. I was sure of only one thing: whatever happened next, I was choosing with eyes wide open, and while I might be wrong or foolish, limited and inadequate, mine would not be the suffering of the hapless victim. I might get crushed, but I would never complain and I would never bring suit. Life's tough. Get a helmet.

This is the cuckoo sprung from the clock of a Sumerian warrior-king, a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid psychology of masculine triumphalism. So it's no surprise, just lousy timing, that on the very morning of the terror bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bill Ayers should be quoted, in a smirking interview in the New York Times, as saying of his Weatherman days: "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough." Maybe he's joshing again, as he assures the Times he must have been if he actually said in 1970, "Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home,kill your parents, that's where it's really at" (intended, he now says, as "a joke about the distribution of wealth"). His wife, Bernardine Dohrn, must likewise have been joking when she said in 1969, after the Manson gang murders: "Dig it! First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim's stomach. Wild!" (Dohrn hastens to tell the Times that "we were mocking violence in America. Even in my most inflamed moment I never supported a racist mass murderer.") And Jerry Rubin told me in 1977 that he'd only been joking in 1968, after Robert Kennedy's assassination, when he declared that "Sirhan Sirhan is a Yippie!"


We Fascisti are violent when it is necessary to be so, but this necessary violence of ours must have a character and style of its own; it must be aristocratic; it must be surgical.

         (Benito Mussolini, April 3, 1921)

After the Village townhouse explosion, when all the Weather balloons went underground, they resolved to be more careful: "No one at that safe house in those white hot days wanted to surrender, and no one argued for surfacing or disbanding. No one even thought that we should turn away from violence on principle. There was, however, a consensus growing that our actions would be strongest as symbols...a kind of overheated storytelling." So, while the last half of Fugitive Days is devoted mostly to the tradecraft of hiding out from the FBI--the "doubleness" of collecting dead-baby birth certificates and switching identities, the code names from rock songs and rules against food stamps, the odd jobs building swimming pools and slaughtering chickens, writing Prairie Fire, reading Amilcar Cabral, being filmed by Emile de Antonio, the Che posters, the chopsticks and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap--mention is also made in passing of the occasional bombings of ROTC buildings, Selective Service offices and the "corporate giants most clearly identified with U.S. aggression and expansion," like Standard Oil, United Fruit, Chase Manhattan and IBM.

Each, Ayers tells us, was "hugely magnified because of the symbolic nature of the target, the deliberate and judicious nature of the blow, and the synchronized public announcements suggesting the dreadful or exhilarating news that a homegrown guerrilla movement was afoot in America." He insists that "I thought about the justification for each action.... [We] did our best to take care, to focus, to do no harm to persons and no more damage than we'd planned." I'm sure that all the other kamikazes of Kingdom Come say pretty much the same thing just before they bomb another abortion clinic. Later, speaking of the Pentagon, Ayers tells us: "Because nothing justified their actions in our calculus, nothing could contradict the merit of ours." We've heard this before, too, from everybody in Belfast, Sarajevo and Beirut who ever killed a child because his Higher Power told him to.

Somehow, it all just happens: Bill dreams of falling overboard while crossing the Atlantic, the ship steaming off without him and his feelings "of total abandonment, of utter loneliness," as the waters close overhead. He is overcome by a sensation that "the train was racing headlong downhill without regard to flashing lights or warning bells as the locomotive of my heart switched tracks. I didn't know where I would stop, or where I might be stopped, but there was already blood on the tracks and you could see it." He feels himself "drawn to the escalating fight, to the need to hurl myself into war in solidarity and in sacrifice" but also "evicted...we could never go home." Finally: "Circuit complete, compass in motion, disruption under way. Upside down. And so it ends, and so it begins, and we were, all of us, short-circuited, going under." Notice how passive this is, so innocent of will or choice, all momentum or inertia, all drag, all fall, never my fault.

In his terribly moving last pages, Ayers imagines that Diana in the townhouse had a change of heart and was moving to disconnect the bomb when it exploded. Of course, he thinks this wishfully, but one likes him for it, as one likes him for returning, after the underground years, to the teaching of children, with which he began. I was going to argue that it's too late, after so many pages of slimy apologetics. And then I would razzle-dazzle the somnolent with the quaint warrior ways of the Dani, the Yanomamo and the Jivaro headhunters of Ecuador; the blood sacrifice of the Scythians, the ritual pederasty of Sparta and Crete, and the agaric mushrooms and fermented honey of the carnivorous Celts; Boudicca, Scathach and Chang San-feng, who left no snowy footprints; bombs in Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover; and, of course, Gilgamesh waiting around till the worm fell out of the nose of his dead buddy Enkidu. But then bombs really did come down, and I no longer have the heart.

Let's leave it simple. Let's valorize, instead of Weatherman, those who strung along with Gandhi on his Salt March to decolonize the Indian mind in 1930. And the Dutch doctors who refused, during the Nazi occupation, to screen for genetic "defects." And the Danes who declined to build German ships, feed the German Army or honor the Nazi racial laws, while whisking away their Jewish fellow citizens to Sweden. And the Fisk students who desegregated Nashville's downtown lunch counters in 1960 and thereby launched a second American revolution. And the Polish workers in Solidarity who occupied a shipyard in 1980and, by insisting on their right to strike, began, without firing a single shot, the dismantling of the nonprofit police states of Eastern Europe. And those disenfranchised citizens of martial-law South Africa whose economic boycott spread from the black townships to the conscience-stricken West, paralyzed the apartheid state and led eventually to free elections. And those Chileans who ended Pinochet's dictatorship with street festivals, protest songs, union activity, vigils by the mothers of the disappeared and a surprise plebiscite. Not to forget the women of Manila who shamed the tanks of Marcos with a fusillade of yellow flowers, the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square or what Daw Aung San Suu Kyiis apparently accomplishing under Rangoon house arrest.

Everywhere it is written--in bullet holes and amputations, in shell shock and mushroom clouds, in brainwash and shrink-wrap--that political science is a clenched fist, that power flows from the mouths of guns, that bloodlust and servitude are coded in our genome and that obedience or death is the inevitable trajectory of narrative. But there is another way to read this atrocious past century: the view from Gandhi's spinning wheel, in which, against tyranny, exploitation, occupation and oppression, popular movements of tens of thousands withhold their consent. They refuse, secede, mobilize, challenge, humiliate, disrupt and disobey. And their principled civil disobedience--tactical, strategic, improvisatory, sometimes even whimsical--creates the very wherewithal of a civil society. When Vaclav Havel and his friends wrote a new social contract in 1989 in the Magic Lantern Theater in Prague, on a stage set for Dürrenmatt's Minotaurus, they weren't reading Prairie Fire. Nor were the students from Charles University, dressed comically as Young Pioneers in red kerchiefs, white blouses and pigtails, calling themselves the Committee for a More Joyful Present, who joined these jailbird intellectuals when they were weary and depressed: "We have come," the students said, "to cheer you up--and make sure you don't turn into another politburo." And the students gave to all the members of Havel's plenum little circular mirrors to examine themselves as they wrote the future of the Czech Republic to the music of the Beatles--in order to be on the lookout for you know whom.

When they came for Newton Arvin, as he had always known they someday would--the sex cops, the truth squad, the Cossacks, fathers and philistines--he spilled his beings. In the cross-shaped top-floor apartment of his Northampton tower, "unbreachable save for two narrow sets of steeply twisting stairs," the 60-year-old professor of English at Smith College was listening to Mozart, reading Proust and drinking Scotch. He didn't own a TV set. (Nor had he ever learned to drive.) But there were drawers full of linen shirts and cashmere sweaters, shelves stocked with leather-bound Loeb Library Greek and Latin classics, a Leonard Baskin woodcut (of Tormented Man) and the journal to which he had recently confided: "Emerson is right about old age: one of its blessings is the knowledge that there cannot be so very much more of all this."

There were also, alas, muscle magazines like Adonis and Physique Pictorial, photographs of Athenian boys at homoerotic play and, on his bedroom bureau, a bodybuilder snapshot of a nude Truman Capote. Yes, Truman Capote, the one great love of Newton Arvin's life and the only hero in this dreary tale, which is otherwise a parable of the Closet and the Snitch.

Although his criticism was admired by both H.L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson, Arvin had all but vanished from our sonar till three years ago, when The New Yorker published Barry Werth's "encapsulation" of this book. He might turn up occasionally in memoirs of the 1930s and 1940s, back when he was still a radical, before giving it up for Harry Truman, as he gave up writing for The Nation in favor of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, but those suggestive biographies in which he looked at the secret lives of Hawthorne, Whitman and Melville through binoculars of Marx and Freud were out of print, waiting for queer theory to catch up. He was a regular, and even a trustee, at Yaddo, the Saratoga Springs Bomarzo of writers' colonies, before they dumped him at crunch time, just like Smith. And he is also mentioned in the journals of his former student Sylvia Plath, who, maybe because he had so disliked Ted Hughes, describes him as "fingering his keyring compulsively in class, bright hard eyes, red-rimmed, turned cruel, lecherous, hypnotic, and holding me caught like the gnome Loerke held." But until Werth got interested, the rest was fuzzy. Didn't he die suddenly at age 63, coincident with the publication of his book on Longfellow, during a New York newspaper strike, after some hushed-up smut-ring scandal?

Whereas we tend to recall the worst of Truman Capote: the performing seal and celebrity pudge of the talk shows, gossip columns and police blotters, devolved back into a caterpillar from the monarch butterfly on the jacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms; the neogothic parajournalist who propagandized for capital punishment before and after his masked ball at the Plaza Hotel; the corrupted choirboy who traded in his bamboo flute and his marzipan sweet tooth for a cold-blooded, bestselling Grant Wood grotesque (and still his boozy mother couldn't stand her sissy son); the society poodle who stopped licking and started biting the hands of those who used to pet him, only to end up with a bottle for a mother, never delivering that so-much-blabbed-about great novel, guzzling vodka in a dirty bathrobe and hallucinating assassins from whom he could only be saved by Liz Smith. Of this Truman Capote, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote that he "never showed an interest in political or moral debate and perhaps this was prudent since ideas, to some degree, may define one's social life and could just be excess baggage he didn't need to bring aboard; and, worse, boring, like the ruins and works of art he declined to get off the yacht to see."

Yet only one of these two men was brave, loyal, free or even liked himself. After Newton Arvin named every name he could think of to the Massachusetts State Police in September 1960, he would explain himself to one of those he fingered: "I couldn't go through this alone." We are reminded not only of Whittaker Chambers, Elia Kazan, Linda Tripp and David Brock, but of what Marianne Moore once said about Jean Cocteau:

One has...the sense of something submerged and estranged, of a somnambulist with feet tied, of a musical instrument in a museum, that should be sounding; of valor in a fairy tale changed by the hostile environment into a frog or carp that cannot leave its pool or well. In myth there is a principle of penalty. Snow White must not open the door of the dwarf's house when the peddler knocks. Pandora must not open the box. Perseus must not look at the Gorgon except in his shield.

Newton Arvin's stereotypical story is almost as depressing to read about as it must have been to live through. From his unhappy, bookish childhood in Valparaiso, Indiana, he recalls an ominous incident with a secondhand bike when he was 12. Noticing that the seat was too low for him, his father raised it. After a long July afternoon of riding, the boy developed a painful limp. During the next few days of "nervous anxiety, irritability, and dejection," he suffered what he would come to believe was his first nervous collapse. His subsequent propensity for "crackups and breakdowns," his physical weaknesses and cowardice, his hypochondria and hysterical self-absorption, even the symbolism of the sexually injured, father-hating hero in the Ahab section of his Melville book, could all be traced back to this Philoctetes trauma, as if a bicycle seat were a pineal gland. Still, "I had succeeded in getting attention of a concerned and kindly sort from my father, and that, no doubt, was enough."

He was, he thought, "uniquely misbegotten": "I was certainly a girlish small boy, not a virile one, even in promise. I was timid, shrinking, weak, and unventuresome. I had no skill in boyish games and sports, and no interest in them, and I was quickly penalized as a result." But at Harvard, although they drummed him out of the Student Army Training Corps for failing a physical, Arvin by age 19 had already read everybody from Freud to Lenin, from Emily Dickinson to William James, plus, decisively, Van Wyck Brooks, whose Letters and Leadership persuaded him that "literary criticism was social criticism, a nobler calling" than the business culture he despised. He had also discovered a crush on his roommate.

Van Wyck Brooks was more obliging than the roommate. So impressed was the literary editor of The Freeman by Arvin's Phi Beta Kappa book reviews that he offered Arvin a job. When that fell through, Arvin taught briefly at the Detroit Country Day School, where "the strain of working with boys just a few years younger than he while concealing his ambiguous sexual longings unnerved him." He didn't finish the year. Fortunately, an all-girl student body at Smith College needed an instructor in English composition, and he fell spellbound into his lifelong locus, like a frog in a pool or a carp in a well. While he would leave Northampton--to Europe on one fraught occasion, to Yaddo whenever they said yes and to mental hospitals almost as often as Yaddo, as if they were weight-watcher spas with electroshock--Northampton was the only home that Arvin knew for the next thirty-seven years. He was afraid of Harvard, afraid of New York and afraid of himself. It is hard to imagine his ever voting for William Z. Foster in 1932.

But in the Smith library, Arvin found the clue to Hawthorne, a "queer changeling" like himself: "It was an ill thing to have a poetic imagination." Worse, "to be a writer of storybooks was little better, little less degenerate, than to be a fiddler." The indifference of the world was a punishment for "the very act of withdrawing into himself." The essential sin, Hawthorne seemed to say, "lies in whatever shuts up the spirit in a dungeon where he is alone, beyond the reach of common sympathies and the general sunlight. All that isolates damns: all that associates, saves." The "A" embroidered on Hester's breast obsessed Arvin as much as Hawthorne: "For how deep a wrong might it not be the expiation, and how terrible loneliness the cause!" Werth sums up both of them: "The root sickness of America...wasn't exploitation or deviancy. It was repression and self-hatred--shame."

And at Smith, in 1931, he met the woman who would be his wife. Poor Mary Garrison, a college swimmer with "a full face, bobbed hair, long limbs, and sumptuous breasts." If it worked for Hawthorne... Before their marriage, he asked her to read Walt Whitman's Calamus poems, hoping she'd guess his secret. Mary didn't. She was no more use to him than electroshock, morphine or tranquilizers. "Real intimacy with anyone," says Werth, "was more than Arvin could achieve." If he emerged from his "guilt-filled isolation," it was to consort with male friends, whether heterosexuals like Granville Hicks and Daniel Aaron or homosexuals like Oskar Seidlin, Howard Doughty and, later on, untenured faculty like Ned Spofford and Joel Dorius, whose names he blurted to the cops in 1960. Not even his oldest boyhood pal, David Lilienthal, busting trusts all the way up to the Atomic Energy Commission, ever guessed that Newton was a Calamus until he read it in the papers. There was room in this closet for only one hanger.

Yaddo was another story. In that magic castle, not only did he write the Whitman book that faced up to the poet's "manly attachment" and self-celebration, if not his own, but he also met Katherine Anne Porter, Louis Kronenberger, Eudora Welty, Marguerite Young, John Malcolm Brinnin, Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, age 21 in 1946, after which many meals, movies, moonlit walks and, Werth tells us, a two-year love affair that was "the happiest, most productive period of Arvin's life," including most of the hard work on Melville. About this furtive scholar, Capote said: "He was like a lozenge that you could keep turning to the light, one way or another, and the most beautiful colors would come out." And later added: "Newton was my Harvard." To "Little T," Newton wrote:

Only I am not a bad boy, and neither are you; we are very good indeed and we shall be better and better as time wears on--for we are at the source of good, and we are drinking the water of truth, and what we are making between us is purely beautiful. Is it possible to be better than that?

More amusing, so much so that it breaks the heart, is a note from Newton in Northampton to Truman in New York: "LOST probably in Manhattan, one peppermint stick, beautifully pink and white, wonderfully straight, deliciously sweet. About a hand's length. Of great intrinsic and also sentimental value to the owner."

But they couldn't live together: Not in New York, where Arvin was as terrified as he was fascinated by drag queens in Harlem. Not even in Nantucket, which was all right in the mornings when Arvin worked on Meville and Capote wrote Other Voices, and also in the afternoons, when Arvin read Pascal and Capote sunbathed. But over dinner, F.O. Matthiessen and the Trillings were not impressed by Truman. (Said Edmund Wilson: "A not unpleasant little monster, like a fetus with a big head." Said Capote: "I must have looked like a male Lolita to those people.") And surely not in Northampton, where Arvin "lived under more or less strict protective cover as a faculty bachelor." It was, Werth tells us, "unthinkable that a staid New England townsman, even a reluctant one like Arvin, would cohabit with someone as flagrantly undisguised as Capote," who showed up on alternate weekends, "raced through town on his visits trailing a signature long scarf" and even sat in the back of Arvin's classes on Proust, James and Shakespeare.

Moreover, Arvin didn't want to live with anybody. Not for the first time or the last, he undertook to sabotage himself. Putting off Capote, who couldn't write at home with his alcoholic mother and wanted to spend time up north, Arvin cautioned him: "It is as if something physical like blood were ebbing out of me--not always, but much of the time--when I am not alone; and the point comes when my identity begins to slip away from me, and I cease to be a whole person even for someone I love." And no sooner had Capote sailed for Europe in May 1948 than Arvin entered into an affair with one of the young novelist's best friends in New York. Capote, as it happens, didn't find out about it from the friend himself, although he would have. He found out about it by reading Arvin's journal.

Which would have been the end of it, except that twelve years later when Arvin was sick, broke and besieged, abandoned by Smith and Yaddo, arrested and facing a trial for trafficking in pornography in a state in which sodomy was still against the law, it was Capote who phoned and wrote from New York and Europe, Capote who made repeated offers of money to help out, Capote who stuck to a friend who hadn't even liked his books, Capote who left funds in his will to endow an award for Lifetime Achievement in Literary Criticism in Arvin's name, Capote who may have been out, flagrant and undisguised, but understood his loyalties enough to stand tall and fast. One of many slogans in Alcoholics Anonymous--we call them bumper stickers--is that you're only as sick as your secrets. Like many AA bumper stickers, this one is smarter than it looks.

I see that I want to fast-forward through the rest, speed-read the writing on the wall, past behaviors simultaneously more reckless and clandestine--the blue movies, the readings from Propertius and the seducing of junior faculty; the trips by bus to Springfield to cruise the Arch and to New York for the Everard Baths; the Etruscan dancers and the public restrooms--unto hospitals (McLean's was his favorite) and suicide attempts (two, both featuring sixteen Nembutals). Of course, Arvin suffered from depression. Of course, he medicated that depression with alcohol, which is a depressant. Of course, if you are serious about suicide, try jumping like F.O. Matthiessen from eleven stories up. And, of course, he died of pancreatic cancer complicated by diabetes, both of which are associated with alcohol abuse. But, at a certain point of muddled vehemence, all these ailments conspire with one another, transcending any one origin myth. Even after Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe raved about his Melville book, he still left the light on all night long. Equally, of course, as Werth observes, "his whole life had been against the law." Death by misadventure in the closet.

How can he be read with respect, or perhaps at all, in a time when we all seem agreed that anguish, inquietude, the experience of guilt, and the knowledge of the Abyss are the essential substance of which admissible literature is made?
      (Newton Arvin on RalphWaldo Emerson)

Oh, come off it, Newton.

Still, when the cops came to ransack his tower and then asked him who his friends were, who else had looked at the dirty pictures so ferociously objected to by the Postmaster General of the United States, whatever possessed him to rattle off their names and ruin their careers? Werth doesn't have a theory, any more than he has time for more than a cursory look at the scholarly books, any more than he has bothered to talk to any of the women who worshiped Arvin at Smith in the 1950s and who speak of him, even today, as "a tragic figure," any more than he has done any comparison shopping among brave and craven behaviors by literary intellectuals at moments of stress or witch hunt, even before they started mortgaging their skepticism, their intellectual property rights and their firstborn children for a think-tank sinecure, a corporate canary cage, an Op-Ed parking space, a cable-television camera and an invitation to a way-cool party. He is just relieved to be able to tell us that 1960 was the last time such a thing could happen here.

Are we so sure? I'm as pleased as anyone else that Northampton elected a lesbian mayor in 1999 and that the Empire State Building turns lavender on Friday nights before Gay Pride parades. But the blood-dimmed tide has reversed itself before, even in the ancient world, where you'd think Alexander the Great taught us something about gays in the military. And in the Renaissance, where Michelangelo proved to be a credit to his race. And in prewar Vienna, postwar Weimar and merry old England, which chose to crush its very own Enigmatic thinking machine, Alan Turing. From Harvey Milk to Matthew Shepard, the signals are scary. And the same sexual hysterics are also busy going after stem cells and French contraceptives. Meanwhile, people lose their jobs for logging on to the wrong website.

I sometimes wonder if the Closet doesn't create the Snitch; if, according to another principle of penalty, outlaw desires encoded like A.E. Housman's in Latin poetry, or Alan Turing's in cryptanalysis, or Newton Arvin's in symbolic literature, or even in the superstructure of Marxism and the manifest content of psychoanalysis and the deconstructive text, don't elaborate a psychology of secrets--a kind of underground, spycraft and espionage of false-bottomed narratives, counterfeit identities, microdots, camouflage and disinformation; the closet as deep cover and the snitch as counterintelligence. Are we all hiding? Will we all betray ourselves...and others? If any of this is true, then "outing" may contain an element of self-hatred. On the other hand, without snitches, there couldn't be a War on Drugs, nor would we need the Witness Protection Program. On the third hand, Truman Capote was transparency itself.