Music for Chameleons

Music for Chameleons


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.

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