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.”