Arvin joined the English department faculty at Smith College in 1922 as an Instructor. He was born, Frederick Newton Arvin on August 9, 1900 in Valparaiso, Indiana. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1921 graduating summa cum laude. After graduation, Arvin taught for a year at a private school in Detroit before joining the faculty of Smith. Arvin was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935, and was named a full professor at Smith in 1940. He was acclaimed for his biographies of Melville, Whitman and Hawthorne. Newton was awarded the National Book Award for non-fiction in 1951. As a professor and a writer, Arvin specialized in 19th Century American Literature. Arvin was a member of the Corporation of Yaddo, a writer’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York.
As Margot Cleary said in an article which appeared in Hampshire Life in 1991, “Newton Arvin’s life was a Jekyll and Hyde affair, a mixture of professional acclaim and personal scandal.” Despite a brief marriage to Mary Jordan Garrison from 1932 until 1940, Arvin was living as a closeted gay man. On Labor Day weekend in September of 1960, police raided Arvin’s home and confiscated thousands of pictures of male models that were considered pornographic at the time. Newton Arvin was charged with possession and distribution of pornographic materials, and though he pleaded not guilty, he later accepted a finding of guilty, which led to a $1,200 fine, a one year suspended jail sentence, and two years of parole. His arrest and the confiscation of his journals led to the arrests of several other men in the community, including two of Arvin’s colleagues at Smith. Arvin retired from the faculty in 1960. Newton Arvin was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas in early 1963, and died on March 21st of that year.
In 1984 Truman Capote, whom Arvin had met at Yaddo, on his death established an award and prize in the field of literary criticism in Newton Arvin’s honor.
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