By Edward Shanahan
It was an event than spanned several generations, and brought together
diverse communities in a large sun-filled space on a Sunday afternoon
that was bursting with spring's promise.
Sponsored by the Smith College Archives and American Studies Department,
the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the Meekins
Library of Williamsburg, the gathering of more than 200 turned out
to honor Helen Bacon of Williamsburg, a retired academic, probably
unknown to many in this area.
Seated in a wheelchair in the first row of the assembly, Helen Bacon
was there to receive the David Burres Award for Civil Liberties
for her advocacy more than 40 years ago on behalf of two Smith faculty
members who were fired by the trustees for their involvement in
the celebrated Newton Arvin case. A distinguished literary figure,
leftist and homosexual, Arvin helplessly stood by in 1960 as his
apartment was raided by state police who seized what they deemed
to be pornographic material.
In the wake of the raid, Arvin's world and those involved with him
were all but ruined.
That story is now the subject of a new book, "The Scarlet Professor,
Newton Arvin: A literary Life Shattered by Scandal" by Northampton
author Barry Werth.
Those on hand this April afternoon were of an age perhaps not to
personally remember Arvin and others in the case, although the basic
outlines of the scandal have been handed on through the years by
word of mouth. Most in the white-thatched audience almost certainly
sympathized with Arvin's left politics and were outraged at his
treatment by political and academic authorities.
My wife, Ann, relates that she took courses with both Arvin and
Bacon, and Helen Smith, freelance editor and writer who I knew from
my days at the Daily Hampshire Gazette, brought with her to the
event three actual texts that she has used in classes she had with
George Markham and Samuel Freedman, who were in the audience, understand
well the long struggle by the ACLU to protect first amendment rights
and why the Arvin case and Helen Bacon's role demand our attention,
even at this late date.
Among those who spoke were Donald Robinson, acting director of the
American Studies Department, and Christopher Loring, the college
librarian, who emphasized the importance of maintaining library
archives. "Archives collect for the future and establish the record
for the future," he said, which make possible a book such as Werth's.
In her statement, Lisa Wenner, director of the Meekins Library,
said: "Libraries are the physical embodiment of the First Amendment's
free speech dictum, but without writers to create the books and
civil liberties advocates defending the free flow of ideas, we would
be out of business."
She recalled the controversy that swirled around the Meekins Library
a few years back when a young person was allowed to check out a
biography of Madonna. "Letters were written, opinions, pronounced,
lines drawn," Wenner said. "Helen cut to the essence of the matter
when she said very simply and seriously to me: 'You know books are
dangerous things and that's why people are frightened.' "
Werth said that he could not have written the Arvin book without
the support of Helen Bacon, who retired as professor of classics
at Barnard College where she went after teaching at Smith for the
previous eight years.
When he first decided to do a book on the Arvin case, Werth said,
Mary McFeely, who then worked at the Smith library, said: "Talk
to Helen Bacon." Later when Werth told Diane Garey of Florentine
Films about his idea for the book, she said: "Terrific idea. Talk
to Helen Bacon."
And so he did and, according to Werth, she paved the way for him
to talk to Joel Dorius and Ned Spofford, the two faculty members
involved with Arvin, who were subsequently cashiered by the Smith
trustees and whose professional and personal lives were nearly destroyed.
Their willingness to cooperate with him was crucial, Werth said.
"They said she had saved their lives, she refused to be intimidated
and silenced" in trying "to save their jobs," Werth reported. He
read testimonials to Bacon that both men had prepared and sent to
In today's environment, it does not seem particularly courageous
to defend the rights of homosexuals, but 40 years ago homosexuality
was a taboo subject, equated often with the evil of international
communism, whose taint could also destroy a career.
Also speaking were two Boston lawyers whose partners in the early
1960s had come to the defense of Spofford and Dorius because of
the civil liberties issues at stake.
Finally, making the presentation of the award was Bill Newman, head
of the ACLU in Western Massachusetts, whose dogged mission to right
civil liberties wrongs in this area continues unabated.
And it should be said finally that Newman's work owes much to the
man whose name is on the award given to Helen Bacon. That, of course,
would be David Burres, who died at a relatively young age in 1985,
but whose legal work on behalf of the First Amendment was indefatigable
We should not forget him either.
Meanwhile, for the fuller story and deeper understanding of the
Arvin case and its manifold implications read the "The Scarlet Professor."
This is a riveting book that will inform you in ways that will surprise
you about your hometown.