North American Scholar

SPOFFORD, Edward Washburn

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1931-04-12
  • Born City: Lee
  • Born State/Country: MA
  • Parents: Roscoe, treasurer for his brother-in-law’s sand and gravel company, & Harriet Washburn S.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 2013-02-17
  • Death City: Stanford
  • Death State/Country: CA
  • Education:

    A.B. Amherst, 1954; A.M. Cornell, 1958; study at Harvard; AAR.

  • Professional Experience:

    Instr. classics, Smith, 1956-60; asst. prof. classics, Cornell, 1964-70; visiting lectr., Stanford 1974-1988.

  • Publications:

    “The Georgics of Vergil,” with Harold Arnold Hedges CW 53, 3 (1959) 90; Rev. of Richmond Lattimore, Hesiod: The Works and Days, Theogony, the Shield of Herakles”, CW 53,1 (1959) 17; “Theocritus and Polyphemus,” AJP 90, 1 (1969) 22-35; The Social Poetry of the Georgics (New York: Arno Press, 1981).

  • Notes:

    “Ned” Spofford is chiefly remembered for his association with noted English professor and critic Newton Arvin (1900-63) and the scandal Arvin provoked at Smith College in 1959-60.

    A brilliant student at Amherst, from which he graduated summa cum laude, Spofford was offered a position at Smith by Helen Bacon in the spring of 1956. He was beloved by students who, on his 29th birthday filled his office with forsythia and flowers. He completed his master’s thesis, “Suggestion and Didacticism in the Georgics of Virgil” in 1958 and in 1959 was accepted for graduate work at Harvard beginning in the fall of 1960. 

    In the meantime, Arvin, twice Spofford’s age and a former lover of Truman Capote, pursued Spofford in hopes of establishing a relationship. Spofford could not return Arvin’s desire, but the two maintained a civilized and sympathetic relationship. When Arvin’s apartment was searched by three Massachusetts state troopers, a local police officer, and a United States postal inspector (Postmaster-General Arthur E. Summerfield was on a crusade against pornography) they found gay-oriented magazines and Arvin’s diaries detailing homosexual encounters. When Arvin was arrested by the Massachusetts authorities for the possession of homosexual pornography, he panicked and gave up the names of other gay faculty friends, including Spofford. Spofford’s apartment was searched and he was promptly arrested. He and Arvin shared a jail cell overnight. Helen Bacon, herself untenured at the time, immediately raised Spofford’s bail by cashing in her war bonds, brought him home, and accompanied him at his hearing the next day. At his September 20 trial, he accepted along with the other defendants a plea bargain of suspended jail terms and fines but no prison time and no trial. Spofford and his English colleague Raymond Joel Dorius (1919-2006) were allowed to accept the deal and yet still plead “not guilty” in order to appeal his case. 

    Spofford was sentenced to one year in the Massachusetts House of Corrections and fined $1000 for possessing obscene photographs and literature. Again, Helen Bacon paid his costs as he was released upon appeal. Angry at the invasion of her colleague’s apartment without warning, she encouraged Spofford to make a public fight.  The Smith Classics Department and the college tenure and promotion committee voted to retain Spofford, despite the concerns of other faculty at the notoriety the case had caused and frankly the sexual behavior. On February 17, 1961, the trustees allowed Arvin to retire at half-pay, but despite the public protests instigated by Bacon and other faculty and students, Spofford and Dorius were not retained. Bacon continued to work on their behalf: She sponsored a faculty expression of regret at the trustees’ action, which passed unanimously and she employed the AAUP to secure a full year’s severance pay for both Spofford and Dorius. Given tenure in 1961, she nevertheless moved that year to Barnard.    

    Spofford soon left Northampton for Cambridge. Cedric Whitman, the chair of the Classics Department, told him “If you are guilty, we will set up a committee to deal with it. No guilt, no committee.” (Werth, 235)

    The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned the convictions of all three defendants in 1963, ruling that the searches were unconstitutional because the authorities had no warrant and failed to define obscenity.

    Spofford won a Harvard fellowship to Italy to work on his dissertation, but he returned to America in 1964 without completing it. He was given an appointment by Cornell and tenure there in 1970 as an ABD but abruptly quit and moved to San Francisco, where Dorius had taken a position at San Francisco State. Spofford was appointed a visiting lecturer but in 1974 he suffered a nervous breakdown, “a delayed reaction to the events of 1960” (Werth, 302). He was hospitalized three times in the 1970s but in 1981 fashioned his dissertation work on the Georgics into a 63-page book that went largely unnoticed. Spofford retired in 1988 to live the rest of his life alone in Palo Alto, reading, listening to music, and enjoying the company of friends until his death at 81. 

    In 2002, Smith recognized but did not apologize for the injustice to its professors and created a lecture series and a small scholarship: The Dorius-Spofford Fund for the Study of Civil Liberties and Freedom of Expression and the Newton Arvin Prize in American Studies. 

  • Sources:

    Barry Werth, The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal (New York: Doubleday, 2001); Joel Dorius, My Four Lives: An Academic Life Shattered by Scandal (San Francisco: Joel Dorius, 2004).

  • Author: Ward Briggs