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Telling All

The Inman Diary: A Public and Private Confession

by Arthur Inman, edited by Daniel Aaron
Harvard University Press, 1661 pp., $50.00 thereafter

When Arthur Inman committed suicide in 1963, aged sixty-eight, in the apartment hotel in Boston’s Back Bay where he had lived, an invalid and semirecluse, since 1919, he was known, if at all, only as the author of a few volumes of sentimental poetry. He left behind him, however, a formidable bid for literary immortality: 17 million words of a combined journal and memoir which he hoped would constitute nothing less than a history of his times. His trustees were authorized to show the work to Harvard and to arrange for its publication in some edited form with the financial assistance of his estate. Twenty-two years later, as a result of the indefatigable labors of Daniel Aaron, Harvard University Press has issued the two bulky volumes of what it calls the author’s “public and private confession.”

I want to picture myself,” Inman wrote.

I want to picture America. If I have been whittled down to a mind provocatively alert to protect a cringing nervous system, I have at least endeavored with a sort of head-down, push-ahead pertinacity to make full use of my sensitivity to accept and record my reactions to the contemporary world about me. If the mind of a Casanova, a Pepys, a Gramont, a Murasaki, a Strabo, a Rousseau, a Barba has proven interesting to those who delved in after years, why will not my mind be of interest to other delvers in years to be?

I am afraid that the answer to his question is that the writers whom he cites recorded what they had seen and experienced, whereas Inman records mainly what other people have seen and related to him and what he has read in the morning paper. And who were the persons whom this would-be historian chose as his windows on the world? Those people who elected to answer his ads in the newspaper for “readers and talkers” at a dollar a visit and came to his darkened bedchamber to discuss their lives and sexual histories and to expose themselves (in the case of women, largely selected by the diarist’s all-compliant wife) to his stroking and searching fingers. In a pre-Kinsey world his discoveries might have had more interest, but there are few surprises to the modern reader. The sadness is that when Inman writes directly of his own life, hideously curtailed as it was by constant, painful illness, or of his southern childhood and unhappy boarding school days, or of the early collapse of his health and his remarkable marriage,he can be vivid, even fascinating. And when, all too rarely, he records his impression of a known person, he shows what a good journalist he could have been. Here, for example, he is quoting Walter Damrosch, struck by the young Inman’s ambition to build a castle on top of Terror Mountain in Maine:

If you must have a castle, you must. And when you have your first tourney, I shall come on a white charger, clad in silver armor, with a silver helmet, a silver shield, a pennoned lance at rest. And I shall have four trumpeters all in white to ride before me and announce my coming. And they shall blow like this.” He puffed out his cheeks, emitting a martial fanfare. “Then you shall say: That’s Damrosch.”

Indeed I can say it. It is Damrosch to the life. But the great mass of what Inman offers us is the stories of his often pathetic visitors, glad enough, no doubt, in Depression years to pocket his dollar, and the record of his own petulant and racist reactions to the morning headlines. I would not choose as my historian the man who believed that American blacks were inferior because descended from tribes already enslaved in Africa, that Jews were the curse of America and Hitler the savior of Germany, and who wrote in 1944: “Devoutly do I hope for the further illness and possible death of Roosevelt,” and in 1945: “Roosevelt is dead. Thank God! Thank God! Thank God!” and who wept at the death of Joseph McCarthy. I can only ponder bemusedly how his words ever persuaded Harvard that his goal as a historian had been even remotely approached.

How did the diary come into being? Arthur Crew Inman was the only child of a rich couple in Atlanta, Georgia, and a grandson of Samuel Inman, the largest cotton dealer in the world. Arthur grew up in the South, but with long summers on the Maine coast and after an unhappy time at boarding school where his health began to collapse, he settled permanently in the North, probably at first to be near his doctors. He became well enough to marry a woman who remained unaccountably devoted to him for the rest of his life, but he was never able to take any sort of job, resigning himself early to the life of an invalid in a wheelchair, with bandages over his eyes when he left his darkened room, quarreling ceaselessly with his secretary, his chauffeur, and the long-suffering hotel staff.

What was wrong with him? Possibly very little—in the beginning. The many doctors and specialists who examined him were almost unanimous, even in that less psychiatrically minded era, that his complaints were imaginary. But Inman himself, who was all his life violently anti-Freudian, insisted passionately that his troubles were physical and that the doctors were idiots. He paid a heavy price for his stubbornness, for the quacks to whom he turned in his desperation may have actually given him the ailments that he subconsciously craved. Certainly the account of deadly enemas inflicted on the wretched patient by a doctor who conceived a theory that he was suffering from poison accumulated in the walls of his intestine is hair-raising. And it is curious that in all the documentation of his early years there is no real clue to what may have caused his emotional imbalance.

His father was occasionally harsh and dogmatic and his mother at times self-centered and dominating, but both were concerned and supportive. Why Arthur should have hated his father so much is never explained satisfactorily. His dislike of boarding school seems almost normal, and his few college years were pleasant enough. Most people he was thrown with seem to have liked him; indeed he must have had considerably more charm than is shown in his journal. His hatred of those who loved him and his violent rages, such as that in which he pulled a knife on a servant who accidentally broke his spectacles, must remain a mystery. But there are moments when the reader feels some sympathy for the man who, in turning down Inman’s offer of secretaryship, offers these reasons to his would-be employer:

I have this on my mind, and I may as well tell you for your own good. You’ve been brought up in the lap of luxury. You’ve had everything you wanted all your life. You’re spoiled. God—how spoiled you are! You have everything, and what do you make out of it? Nothing. You’ve persuaded yourself, or you’ve let some doctor who didn’t know his business persuade you, that you have to stay here in a dark room this way. It’s all tommyrot, of course. But you refuse to help yourself. And furthermore, you keep a wife who’s so far above you that I can’t express it, tied up with you under these horrible conditions. You’re selfish…. What do you, protected, pampered, indulged, know about the world and its hard knocks? Nothing…. But I tell you this, I would rather split stones on the road than take this position.

Inman explains this outburst as the kind of irrationality that can be expected from people with blue eyes.

At any rate, psychoneurotic or the victim of some purely somatic disease, Inman made an early resolution that he would salvage one thing out of the wreck of his life: his diary “I would commit murder for my diary,” he wrote. He had it typed, even printed; copies were placed in different strongholds. Editors were approached, always unsuccessfully, to ascertain if there was any interest in partial, present publication. And when, in 1945, he learned the fate of Hiroshima, his first thought was of the effect of the bomb on his diary.

September 30 I am writing out of habit and for something to do. The heart has gone out of it since the atomic bomb. If mankind is to destroy itself and its culture, what is the point of laboring with might and main to put into words a chronicle that may either be incinerated in an instant or else be useless to what is left of mankind and culture? Why should I work myself to the point of sickness to put together a picture that may be of service to no one? It seems bootless to keep on if my conviction has any merit. So why write?

It is ironical that the audience for which Inman was waiting and that he ultimately decided would have to be a posthumous one, may actually have been his contemporaries. For he lived at the tail end of the last era in which it was possible for the managerial classes to nurse the illusion that the mob in the darkness below was guided by the same moral precepts as were supposed to operate on high, a belief satirized by Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest when Algernon says of his butler:

Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.

Inman’s contemporaries might have been startled by an entry in which one of his “talkers” tells of a black father and two sons on an impoverished southern farm who take turns having sexual intercourse with their wife and mother; but today most of us have been too well educated by statistical and demographic studies to blink an eye.

It is a bit difficult to make out Inman’s standards in determining which of his talkers were best qualified to be recorded in his diary. He believed that he had acumen in evaluating truthfulness, but I suspect that he was more interested in the dramatic quality of a narrative, for there must have been a lot of dull ones that he suppressed. His people almost invariably talk about their sex lives, which gives to his book some of the atmosphere of an agony column, and we know that the editors of these are more interested in amusing the reader than in creating a social document.

Inman’s “Juliette” may be a fair illustration of how the diarist works. She is of course unsatisfied by her husband. “My sex life with Clarence was so miserable. Night after night he, oh, you know, tried to make a success of our marriage but couldn’t. I was wild.” So she has an affair with Dr. Sillitoe. But this results in Dr. Sillitoe’s becoming impotent. “I’ve never had a man grovel to me before, Arthur. It was terrible. He had been to some of the biggest specialists in the city, and they had told him that the trouble was purely mental. He was afraid of losing me.”

With the doctor so incapacitated Juliette resumes sexual relationships, now more happily, with her husband. But Dr. Sillitoe, wildly jealous, writes Clarence a letter to denounce his “brassiereless, perfumed, overdressed slut of a wife.” Juliette, much upset, asks Arthur if she could really be a slut. Arthur shows this passage in the diary to his wife, Evelyn, who simply exclaims: “Jews!” In 1943 Juliette follows her husband to Vermont where he develops a successful business. She now rides horseback, buys woolens in Canada and smuggles them home, takes care of a refugee child, and is “too busy to have a sex life.”

When Inman is not concerned with his talkers the diary alternates between his reactions to world news as derived from the newspapers and the continual infighting that goes on between the members of his small but restless household at Garrison Hall. The following are characteristic samples of each, both from the month of October 1942. The first is a digest of the news, exact but pedestrian:

October 17 In the Solomon Islands, the Japanese, after having landed additional forces on Guadalcanal Island (about one-third the size of Massachusetts, mostly mountains higher than Mt. Washington), are attacking by land, sea and air the American foothold (about the size of Boston, including the seized Japanese airfield). I cannot perceive how our marines and soldiers can hold out if the Japanese effort is relentlessly pressed.

The second is a peep into the daily round at the hotel:

October 20 On her way back to Boston, Evelyn stopped at the hat shop to say hello to Hassie. “Hassie’s hair is getting gray and she looks older. Her little shop is just as neat and efficient as you could wish. ‘Hassie,’ I said, ‘you seem gloomy. What’s the trouble?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I’m getting divorced from Johnny today at two o’clock.’ ‘Whatever is the matter?’ I asked. ‘Oh,’ she replied, ‘everything. He didn’t do right by Hassie.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘why not? What did he do?’ ‘What did he do?’ she said. ‘Why, he cheated, he gambled, he wouldn’t work, he practiced adultery, he courted women, and all the rest.’ ”

I suppose there must be an audience for this kind of thing. Some people have an inexhaustible appetite for details, any details, and have the patience to try to piece together America from all of its parts. Inman is the man for them. He constantly emphasizes that he has rigorously trained himself to “tell everything.” “I know this,” he solemnly affirms. “If any man ever strove to be absolutely honest and do it within the bounds of social palatability and artistic acceptability, that man has been myself.” But honesty is not insight. The man who could write coolly of his own attempted suicide was still unable to face the neurotic origins of his malady. Illness was his only religion.

Toward the end of the diary Inman makes much ado of the anguish caused him by his jealousy over his wife’s affair with his longtime osteopath, Dr. Pike, who has just died. But Inman has made no secret of his own adulteries, in the promotion of which Evelyn has acted as a kind of pimp. Nor does he hesitate to admit that he has urged his wife to experiment sexually with Pike. What he seems to have objected to is that she enjoyed it and made no bones about telling him. There may be readers who will try to read into these passages some of the intensity of La Prisonnière and Albertine disparue, but to me there has to be some diminution of sympathy when the weeper has brought it all on his own head. Harvard University Press has given us the cork-lined chamber without Proust.

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