Seventeen Million Words

Richard Poirier

  • The Inman Diary: A Public and Private Confession edited by Daniel Aaron
    Harvard, 1661 pp, £35.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 674 45445 6

On 5 December 1963, the day Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, a man in Boston named Arthur Inman, having made several earlier attempts on his own life, managed to put a bullet through his head. A variety of chronic ailments and complaints had made him an invalid for nearly all of his 68 years, and except for brief excursions in his ancient chauffeur-driven Cadillac, he had since 1919 confined himself to an apartment building in downtown Boston named Garrison Hall. For as many as sixteen hours of a normal day he would stay in bed, when not sitting or reading in the bathroom. The rooms he frequented were kept shaded for the same reason his car was painted a dull black: to protect his eyes from glare. He suffered periodically from nose bleeds, hay fever, arthritis, influenza, a slipping rib cage, migraine headaches, pain in the testicles, pains in the neck, collarbone and shoulder, chills, cold sweats, canker sores, skin rashes, trouble with his stomach, which required frequent pumping, trouble with his throat, which required ultra-violet treatments, trouble with his coccyx, which was ministered to by a succession of osteopaths. He was especially dependent on Dr Cyrus Pike, who much of the time was having an affair with his wife Evelyn.

Inman was visited daily by an assortment of doctors, nurses, prescribers and quacks, and by people off the street, easily a thousand of them over the years, who answered his advertisements in the newspaper for anyone willing for a fee to talk or read to him or otherwise make themselves useful. One such was Eddie Simms, chauffeur, manservant, confidant and raconteur, who claimed to have been a professional ice-skater, and a baseball-player, and to have driven for Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell. Many of those who answered the advertisements became for periods of time a part of Inman’s extended household, charmed into telling their stories to a man who listened eagerly in the half-light, gave them straight forward advice, and was clearly in no position to be moralistic or condescending about anyone else’s confessed behaviour, however bizarre. Pubescent girls and young women particularly appealed to him. He took a shine to Alma Bush, for example, because ‘her feet, those subtle indicants of a woman’s character, were exquisitely kept.’ He would invite them to undress, admire their finer parts, fondle them and often as not cajole them into bed. Some nearby colleges did not approve, but his wife, who had attended Wellesley, not only befriended but recruited some of his female attendants.

Such a household required a sizeable yearly income, which was supplied, not without grumpy conditions, by his wealthy family in Atlanta, where he was born, and later by trust funds. It also required a lot of space. He rented five apartments in Garrison Hall, which, though run-down, was inexpensive, cosy, and with a generally tolerant management. One apartment was occupied by Evelyn, who, with her need for independent space and her taste for travel, often incensed him. She left on several occasions and came close to divorce, but remained his wife for forty years, until his death. Another was used by his secretaries and handy persons; and still another was occupied now and again by some favoured girl, like Kathleen Connor. He met Kathleen in 1958 when she was 16 and sometimes thought of adopting her. A fifth apartment, in addition to the one occupied by Inman himself, was rented and then sublet on the floor below to ensure quiet. He was hysterically sensitive to noise, which was a strong factor in his attempts at suicide. The horrendous noise, dirt, and certainty of disruption, became especially acute in the early Sixties with the construction of a building complex in the nearby Boston and Albany Railroad Yards. This spelled the end of the elaborately buttressed existence he had meticulously set up for himself, and like one of his heroes, Adolf Hitler, he took his life in his own ‘garrison’ as the enemy closed in.

Kathy was able to spend an hour alone with Inman’s open casket in the funeral home, and even though as an Irish girl from Charleston she had witnessed a number of wakes she was appalled at his appearance, as we learn from the editor’s coda to the diary:

‘Joseph, Mary and Jesus,’ she says she said, ‘what have they done to you?’ The Arthur who loathed perfume and powder and who more than once had ordered his girls to scrub the paint off their faces was gussied up with cosmetics, It made her laugh and cry. She told him he looked terrible. She reminded him of her promise not to abandon him – and straightened his tie. As she got ready to leave, she spied a bit of blood in his ear and removed it with a moistened corner of her dress.

We sense in such reportage, with its easy modesty and directness, almost no distance between the words and the things they describe. It is as if there were no style interceding between us and life, as if the writing were produced by the experience, and not the other way round. It is thus an especially appropriate ending to Daniel Aaron’s edition of the Inman Diaries and evidence of the deftness, imagination and tough economy which mark everything he has managed to do with this amazing sprawl of a document. During those 44 years in Garrison Hall the diary was Arthur Inman’s obsession, day and night. Every ride he took, every tiff with his father about money, every stock and real-estate manipulation, all of his tenacious involvements in the lives of people who worked for him or visited him, the personalities and public events of the interval from the great crash of 1929 to World War Two and the emergence of the American empire – everything found its way into his writing. Everything existed in order to be written down. In the end the diary totalled 155 volumes with as many as 17 million words. Proust, in the Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, runs to about one and a half million, or 11 per cent of the Inman. He left instructions with his trustees – for some reason, no more detailed information about his will is disclosed here – that they should show the diary to Harvard University in the hope that, with financial support from the Inman estate, some version of it might be published. David Donald read the manuscript – he says on the dust-jacket that it is ‘the most remarkable diary ever written by an American’ – and recommended it to Harvard University Press, along with the suggestion that Aaron, of the Harvard English Department, be invited to do the job. It took seven years, and involved the reduction of the 17 million words to less than one-tenth and of a thousand ‘characters’ to about forty-five.

Very late in life, and then only reluctantly, Inman faced the fact that in its original form the diary was unpublishable, and that all he could hope for was ‘a sensitive and judicious editor’ who might do for him what had been done for Thomas Wolfe. ‘Without the large editing of Thomas Wolfe’s work,’ he asks, ‘would he have achieved a place in American letters?’ Most of the time he had enormous ambitions for his diary. How could he not when it was the only excuse for living which he could make to himself and to others? Under these circumstances it is impressive that he was not particularly bothered by his failure to get anyone to publish excerpts in his lifetime, that nearly all of those to whom he showed parts of it were only politely enthusiastic, and that he himself was often severely critical. Aaron shrewdly prints parts of the diary in which Inman, by what seems to me only a few seconds, precedes the complaints a reader is ready to make: that it is ‘shapeless’ and ‘formless’, that much of it is ‘ “filling”, boring, complaining’. Though not an especially witty man, Inman refers at another point to ‘a worthless, unfruitful business, this writing, like knitting off-size socks for children without feet’.

The editor’s interpolated commentaries are invariably useful, and he mentions several ways in which the diary might be read: as the story of a ‘son of the south’ transplanted north and obsessed with his ancestors; as a social history of America, an autodidact’s story of life there from 1919 to 1963; as a ‘non-fiction novel’ – an idea that appealed to Inman – about real people and happenings, punctuated by dramatised occasions and epistolary narratives. It could be argued, however, that these extemporised alternatives only prove that Inman did not in fact know what form his writing should take or how the reader might be asked to take it. Without Aaron’s interventions the diary would not exist as a book, and its unique virtues are to be ascribed not only to Inman’s persistence but to Aaron’s literary skill and intelligence. Reading over some of his pages in 1945, Inman admits that

I sometimes reflect that this diary is one of the strangest documents of autobiography ever written by anyone. In its pages is an agglomeration of subject-matter only a catholic taste will wish to absorb – or so it seems to me. There is virtually no physical motion to sustain interest through shifts of environment. An unwilling celibate pens it. Philosophy and pages of history walk side by side with emotional outbursts and sentimental encounters. There is some beauty now and again, a facility of expression, a vehement earnestness but likewise not a little crassness here and there, much awkwardness of concept, as much juvenility as sapiency ... Hate living I may, disdain people I may, long for oblivion I may; nonetheless I find existence exciting, people stimulating, oblivion not near. If I pass on to a small section of posterity the excitement, the tension, the bewilderment, the suspense, the confusion of these years, I shall be satisfied. The people in the chronicle are not great people, save certain of those in the historical background; the events close to me are not startling events; my days are passed, as it were, behind plate glass. Yet it may be that in this strange document I will have succeeded in perpetuating the beating pulse of an era.

When this entry was written, World War Two had just come to a close in Europe, and the ‘beating pulse’ of the era, of the last ‘good’ war, was felt by everyone. But scarcely in synchronisation with Inman. For while at the time a good many of his countrymen shared his antipathy to Jews, Boston Irish and Negroes, they would have found his admiration for Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese offensive if not disloyal. So too, by then, his detestation, tinged with envy, of Roosevelt – Roosie the Rat, as he called him. Not surprisingly, he later became a fan of General MacArthur and Senator Joseph McCarthy. His opinions about public figures and events are for the most part so loony as to be harmless, and this, along with his more general oddities and his willingness to modify his prejudices when he has to deal with individual Jews, Irish or blacks helps take the curse off the diary as ‘public confession’. His hatreds are, besides, usually softened by self-condemnation, as when in 1943 he says: ‘I hate Jews, English, Roosevelt, life, myself.’

Inman’s social and political rantings tell us very little of consequence about the period, and the value of the diary as social history lies elsewhere. They tell us a great deal, however, about Inman’s curious obsession with power. There are hints throughout of a remarkable person who early on became afraid of his own intensities and of the dangerous transgressiveness into which these might lead him. He disguised himself to himself and to others, notably his father, by induced fears of persecution that necessarily verified themselves by his success in finding persecutors, and it is symptomatic of his confusions that his loathing of persecuted minorities gives way now and then to far more interesting associations of himself with them. He welcomed the circumscriptions of his life because these precluded any public test of his feelings or of his desire for power, even while he projected these onto autocrats, rabble-rousers and conquerors. He created a safe and wholly controlled environment in which to express his immense energies. The diary itself, like Garrison Hall, gave his life whatever form it had.

Little glimpses of his life before the onset of his illnesses offer some clues to his peculiar nature, as in his recollections of a night when he went to the privy behind the Donald Fraser School for Boys near Atlanta, where he says he spent ‘the best winter of my life’:

A very bright moon. Moonlight running down the roof of the big house. Fences, dark. In black silhouette the big water tank. The old stable empty, mysterious. Utter silence, myself, alone, moving in an otherwise motionless world. Beautiful.

This was written in 1937, thirty years later, and in a sense it describes the singularity of his lifelong ambition: to move unimpeded in an otherwise motionless world, or to imagine a world that could be made to move at his bidding while he remained motionless. How appropriate that he envied and at times grudgingly admired Roosevelt, an immensely powerful President in a wheelchair.

Garrison Hall and the diary were evidences of power that depended paradoxically on invalidism, and it is characteristic of his writing, too, that when it becomes most assertive or hyperbolic it almost immediately tapers off into disclaimers or conciliatory expressions, just as in his treatment of those around him he is often simultaneously peremptory and pleading. It is impossible to dislike him because it is impossible to know him, even after 17 million words. It is impossible to determine, for example, if he was really ill, and to what extent. Aaron invited a medical report based on the diary from Dr David Musto of Yale University School of Medicine, and prints it as an appendix to the second volume. Musto is of the opinion that Inman’s life was ‘cruelly complicated by medical maltreatment and by excessive, chronic ingestion of bromides, alcohol, and other powerful chemicals. These attempts to cure had almost without exception a destructive effect on his emotional stability, judgment, and physical health.’ He concludes his findings with the speculation that

his illness in late adolescence allowed him to create a secure environment in which he was able to be productive along the lines he chose. Whether his initial illness could have ended without a life of invalidism is difficult to say. The secondary gain was so great and solved so many of his emotional problems that he had little incentive to change his style of life. He persisted in his goal to write a response to the times in which he lived, and he succeeded. Under the envelope of illness Arthur Inman had an indomitable will; it is in this interplay between sickness and creativity that his fascination lies.

I think Inman is an instance where we can afford to go beyond Dr Musto’s familiarly benign notion of the ‘interplay’ between sickness and creativity. Literary ambition, the ambition to be a writer, seems to me in most cases to involve an attitude toward life which is usurpatory, autocratic and brutal, all under the mythology of literature as a source of redeeming value. One reason Inman’s diary is remarkable is that by being essentially formless, being without the mediating effects of an elaborated style or of set patterns, it brings us flatly face to face with Inman the writer, or rather with the appetites and connivances, the wilfulness and the pathos of his literary ambition and its effects on those around him. He never disguises the fact that his life is dedicated, not to the free exploration of life, but to those highly structured and regulated provisions for the reception only of such life as will serve his diary. The diary went on for 17 million words because there was no limiting discipline of form operative in the work – any more than there was in Thomas Wolfe. No principle for modulation, subordination, highlighting, suspense, none of the things that would allow us to call this by as fancy a name as he wished for it, a ‘novel diary’. The important point is this: that the only form for the diary, before Aaron’s redaction, was antecedent to the writing of it. The form was the set-up at Garrison Hall and the blank volumes waiting to be filled.

Inman might have become the writer he dreamed of becoming – he admired Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and Parkman, the great historian of France and England in North America who also had a number of debilitating illnesses – and he had good taste in poetry, though his own verse was quite bad. He might even have written the kind of diary he sometimes envisaged: ‘to do in non-fiction what Balzac did in fiction’. But to do any of this he would have had to take the risk of sacrificing the very conditions he contrived, conditions that allowed him to receive the materials for writing in a manner that gave him a flattering sense of power over them. He exercised his writerly power merely in the provision of materials, not in their disposition. Without Garrison Hall and its entourage he would have had to exercise power through the contrivance of formal literary arrangements, which in turn would have given him at least a clue as to who or what he was. But this he would not do.

My point is literary, not moral, since we should all by now have accepted the evidence that ‘life’ in any work of literature exists thanks only to a murderous economics of exclusion and inclusion. Inman was able to be unfair only in the preparation, not in the execution of this work. For all his manipulations of people, his outrageous opinions, his flirtations with dictators and toughies, Inman paid too high a price, psychologically and spiritually, for the life that came to him in the only ways he allowed it to come, and by the conditions he set for himself forfeited the power to do much more than record what came along, excusing even that process by constant oscillations between praise and dismissal of his own work. Some of the best-written and shaped parts of the diary are not his at all, but letters from his correspondents. This is especially true of Patricia Caffree, who started as one of his readers and talkers in 1931. She writes at length about her brief career as a Broadway dancer, about Hollywood and her disastrous marriage there to a man whose boyfriend, whom she quite liked, spent every Saturday night with them, about Germany and army camps where her second husband was stationed as a military policeman. There are good letters from Evelyn when she was sent by her husband to report on conditions in the Midwest, and from Anthony Abruzzo, sometime hobo, thief, drunkard and Communist Party organiser whose remarkable accounts were solicited and paid for by Inman. These, along with transcripts of conversations with any number of other equally colourful figures, are filled with the minute details of quite ordinary daily existence, and they make Aaron’s edition of the diary an invaluable annaliste history of life in America during the middle third of this century.