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 …

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