In Boston: Inside a Tortured Mind
On Thursday, Dec. 5, 1963, Arthur Inman, one of the most bizarre Americans in the history of the Republic, went into his toilet carrying a Colt revolver. The latest in a lifelong string of cases, real or imagined, to cause Inman to despair was rising outside his old haunt in Boston's Back Bay. "The Prudential Tower," he had told his diary, "is 28 stories into the sky, soon will be goosing God." He had fled to Brookline to escape the din of construction, taking with him the noises in his head, and now he was over the edge. "This is being horrible beyond the credible," he wrote on Dec. 5. "Twelve divisions of migraines." Then he killed himself.
For Inman's widow, Evelyn, settling the man's affairs was a trying task. More than anything else, he had wanted his diary published. He had commenced iton Dec. 27, 1918. It began, "Am I now very much interested in Genghis Khan?" Inman had a soft spot for brutes, his diary would reveal - all 17 million words, all 155 volumes. It took the late Evelyn Inman (she died last June) and two other trustees of his estate until 1977 to secure a publisher. Harvard University Press accepted the diarist's tonnage, then engaged Daniel Aaron, professor of English and American literature to make sense of it. Aaron's distillation is just out; it runs to 850,000 words, costs $39.95 and weighs 5 lbs.
What an odd duck to have legs, as Madison Avenue puts it when a product moves briskly. The two-volume set, entitled The Inman Diary: A Public and Private Confession, has had steady sales and is going into a third printing, which for a book this size and cost is unusual. It has been reviewed favorably all over the block. David Herbert Donald, aPulitzer-prizewinning historian, calls it "the most remarkable diary ever published by an American." The thing puts people in minds of Pepys, Proust, Rousseau, all manner of citadels of personal penmanship. There is movie talk.
What is not mentioned enough, however, is Professor Aaron, who spent these past seven years inside the tortured mind of the megalomaniacal bigot misogynist Peeping Tom hypochondriac called Arthur Inman. In his fulminations, Inman addresses the editor who would not come along until twelve years after his death; he bullies, wheedles, whines, pleads. Then along comes Aaron, who responds to the dead diarist - and in so doing becomes a flesh-and-blood character. Inman says at one point that "a diary expurgated and deleted is a eunuch of a diary." Aaron says at another, "Oh, for God's sake, Arthur, SHUT UP!"
Aaron, 73, a bike in his office, pipe in his mouth, tweeds on his back, speaks in perfect paragraphs: "I took it on at first for the money. Then I became stuck, absorbed, caught up in it. I got to know him and his world in a way I know of nothing else, no other society. And while I disliked him intensely - I couldn't be further away from his political, economic, nearly all his attitudes - I became fascinated by his unique opportunity to indulge himself in a way no one else could. He was a voyeur, yes, a sadist, among other things, but he had his humanities, his generosities. You have to read the whole diary through. You begin by despising him and end up sympathizing, even admiring him -while not embracing his attitudes."
Arthur Crew Inman was born in Atlanta in 1895, the son of old money (cotton). Midway through Haverford College, in 1916, he collapsed, mentally and physically. "Slipping joints" wasprominent among his litany of miseries, and his search for osteopathic relief led him to Boston. Eventually he settled into Garrison Hall, a seven-story residential hotel in St. Botolph Street. Back then it was the sort of place where you could hire a room and a woman instead of having lunch.
Inman took an apartment, then another, then another. At one time he had five. He needed the flats above and below to shield himself from noise (once he tried swapping urban sonic torture for the sounds of nature and wound up shooting songbirds). Bright light he considered poison, so he restricted himself to a heavily draped bedroom. To this room he beckoned "talkers," people he advertised for in the newspapers, saying he would pay them to tell him of their lives. And he wrote. A failed poet, for good reason, he aimed at capturing his life, the lives of others and his part of the 20th century in an unembellished account that would bring him fame.
Inman fondled the women talkers who allowed him to and had sex with the women who allowed it. His wife Evelyn allowed him to do so. His document was not simply a wenching man's laundry list; it became in part a repository of American sexual habits from World War I into the 1960s. On another level, a man who hated Jews, Italians and Roosevelt while admiring Hitler managed, according to his critics, to capture just about every significant thing that happened in this country -culturally, socially, politically and economically - during the frame of his obsession. Professor Aaron says the 1,000 or so characters Inman debriefed, so to speak (the more lurid the accounts, the better, Inman felt), "disclose aspects of American life only sporadically touched upon in contemporary fiction." In a way, the diary can be seen as a nonfiction novel. The nut wroughtsomething important.
By the time Aaron came on the case, the survivors of that old gang of Inman's had long since scattered. But the professor soon came to find interviews unnecessary. "Nobody can tell me anything I don't know about him," he says. "I just know him. I can predict his response to anything. Anything. I don't think many people have had such an experience. I certainly know him better than any member of my family."
|Inman, whom Aaron calls Arthur as affectionately
as you would an old uncle just stepped away for tea, seems to have won his editor's
respect with his lifelong refusal to pretty himself up, much less anyone else. The diarist
would look at scribblings 20 years old, realize what a creep he had been when he had
written that, yet reject his right to excise a word. His own wife was "a pathetic
little wren," though at another time she was his "treasure girl with a heart of
gold," but then again she was "homely as a stump fence built in the dark."
Let the diary fall open of itself to any passage, and most likely something reprehensible lives upon the page. Yet, Aaron says, read as a whole, one findsthe self-deception. Arthur contradicts himself. He is a blowhard. He knows it. Then something happens. Bam! He blows harder.
To put the tale together, Aaron worked up a 1,200-page, single-spaced outline. He wrote notes to himself. "McQuistons coming to dinner: A. I. doesn't know how to behave with that lumpish bozo coming, so finicky about food. Use." Aaron was not done until he had written the late Arthur Inman several angry letters. In one, the professor bellows, "Arthur, you are a comic figure finally, and you are disgusting and sick, an embarrassment; you make your readers at times want to avert their gaze from your public writhings; and you are 'great' too in your persistence, which you call 'pertinacity.' You go on like some petty pharaoh building your pyramid, no matter what the cost in human felling. So hail, Arthur Inman (I say this more than merely facetiously), the Genghis Khan of Boston."
Arthur himself asked, "Do you find me repellent, sordid, amusing in a reverse sort of way? I shall never know. But reader, I do not want to lose your affection or your respect ... Do not esteem me less now that I have written truth in black and white."
Inman's overweening desire was for literary immortality. Today his 155 volumes are in the vault beneath the Houghton Library at Harvard. A yard or two away are the handwritten works of Emerson, Melville, Thoreau. It is interesting, though pointless, to ponder whether Arthur's last companions would make him feel at home there - or whether they would regard him as the whore in Church.
- by Gregory Jaynes