Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Arvin, Newton (1900–1963)
Author:
Martin, Robert K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

One of the most important American literary critics on the left, an exponent of biographical criticism, Newton Arvin spent virtually all of his career as a professor of English at Smith College. A homosexual, Arvin was forced to retire from Smith in 1960 after a scandal in which he was convicted of the possession of gay male pornography. His death came just after the publication of his last book, a biography of Longfellow.

Widely published as a critic and reviewer, Arvin wrote two major essays on Whitman prior to the publication of his book Whitman in 1938. "Whitman's Individualism" (1932) is a critique of "pastel" portraits of the poet that make him appear to be a liberal democrat. Against such views, Arvin insists on Whitman's interest in the masses, the working people of America. Although Arvin grants that Whitman was an individualist in the American tradition, he sees this individualism profoundly modified by Whitman's concept of comradeship.

Whitman carries the argument further; it begins dramatically by evoking a conversation between Whitman and Horace Traubel in which Whitman asserts his fundamental socialism. Arvin addresses the question of Whitman's politics by insisting on his own critical method, that of reading the author in the context of his or her time and place. Arvin stresses the republican enthusiasms of Whitman's youth, with its idealization of Thomas Paine and Frances Wright, as well as his attraction to Quakerism, embodied in the Quaker reformer Elias Hicks. He traces the decline of Whitman's faith in a strong executive and shows Whitman's disgust at post-Civil War politics of greed and corruption.

Arvin's mode of intellectual biography passed out of favor in the years of the New Critics, who saw little merit in Whitman's work other than in some of his lyrics. Because Arvin rarely practiced explication de texte, few if any of his readings have passed into the body of accepted Whitman criticism. His significance lies in his identification of a radical Whitman whose work emerged directly from the reform movements of the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

Bibliography

Arvin, Newton. Whitman. New York: Macmillan, 1938.

———. "Whitman as He Was Not." The New Republic 14 April 1937: 301–302.

———. "Whitman's Individualism." The New Republic 6 July 1932: 212–213. Rpt. in American Pantheon. Ed. Daniel Aaron and Sylvan Schendler. New York: Delacorte, 1966. 43–50.


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