The Cant of Pessimism and Newton Arvin’s Queer Humanism
This chapter examines the career of Newton Arvin’s creation of queer humanism, combining the progressive socialism of the 1930s and the experiential innovation of an ethics of enhancement. In his readings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville, Arvin conjoined creative imagination, social idealism, and human solidarity, generating a vital critical alternative to a disenchanting “cant of pessimism.” In the works of American Romanticism, Arvin found examples of practiced movements from pain to wonder, generating both personal and social dissatisfaction (generating critique) and endurance (ensuring the perpetual life of ideals). Arvin endorsed the socialist humanism he found in literary depictions of erotic fraternalism. Within those queer social visions, the conventions of prescribed life give way to the fantastic, extraordinary, and unprecedented. In such moments—the moments that Arvin recognized as central to the romance—new assemblages are worked out in the service of human possibility. Throughout his scholarship, Arvin combined imagination, sexuality, and humanism, placing the hybrid—the dispositional ethics of hope—at the center of the American literary canon and of a critical practice still available today.
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