WHY are we
being asked to read some 1,600 pages from the diary of an unknown writer? Who cares about Arthur Crew Inman? During the 1920’s he published several volumes of forgettable verse, if the excerpts he quotes in his diary are any indication. His only other career, besides a brief spell of dabbling in the
stock market with his father’s money, was to write down daily for more than 40 years every twist and turn of his experience, every tremor of consciousness. By the time of his death – he shot himself in 1963 after decades of wishing he had the courage to commit suicide – his diary ran to some 17 mil
lion words contained in 155 volumes.
It turns out that there are good reasons to contend with this book. The distillation of Inman’s sprawling opus by Daniel Aaron, a professor of English at Harvard University, shows Inman to be an exemplary sufferer, a man who traumatically crossed the b
order from a past era into our own times. He was launched suddenly from Victorian sexual repression into the freewheeling sex of the 20th century. Growing up in a well-to-do household with servants in an orderly Southern city, he ended up an underground man in a Northern city, which he experienced a
s chaotic and rapidly growing; hiding from its dazzle and commotion, he clung for security to a grotesque parody of an upper-class life. He traveled this distance in spasms of pain, about which he complained continually. He manipulated people at every turn to gratify his appetites, although he was n
ot without moments of generosity. Ridden with symptoms, Inman indulged himself furiously, yet saw himself as a perennial victim – of his well-meaning parents, his upbringing and his culture. He is not an attractive figure, but he is an oddly captivating one.
And in Mr. Aaron’s adroitly ed
ited version, Inman’s diary is a fascinating document, by turns bizarre and illuminating, poignant and obscene. It is an epic record of obsessive preoccupations and flamboyant pathologies – an idiosyncratic sexual life graphically depicted and of multitudinous aches and pains, physical, psychologica
l and spiritual. When he is not scrutinizing himself, Inman draws shrewd, incisive portraits of everyone around him and then elaborates them with the most intimate, often malicious revelations. The cast of characters – flappers and con artists, truck drivers and chorus girls, Southern cotton brokers
and Northern lawyers, college students and matrons, adulterous osteopaths and evil-eyed psychiatrists, actresses and prizefighters – is worthy of a German Expressionist painting. Above all, there are women of every age and type, in costume and in various states of undress. Right-wing political spee
ches, wildly racist, frequently heating up to the point of tantrum, burst forth amid all the personal material. And as if to calm himself, Inman sets down just about everything that happened in American social, political, economic and cultural history from the end of World War I to the early 60’s.
Delving into Inman’s diary is like being able to eavesdrop on the conversation in a priest’s confessional or a psychotherapist’s office. You see what outwardly respectable people have been doing behind closed doors; Inman plucks all their skeletons out of the closets and parades them before our eyes against a backdrop of news bulletins and editorial commentary on world events, political elections, changing styles and fashions.
But what kind of book is this? At the very least, it’s of considerable clinical interest; one could hardly hope to find a more unusual or thoroughgoing case history. It also presents the social historian with a panorama of the 20th century viewed from an exotic angle. Is it a work of literature as well? Mr. Aaron ponders the question in his introduction and concludes that Inman’s diary might be, among other things, a nonfiction novel, although ultimately ”too huge and amorphous to classify.” I agree with the last part of the assessment, but I don’t see much that is novelistic. The diary displays little discernible narrative structure or application of other formal principles of fiction. And although Inman’s writing often has descriptive power – landscapes lyrically rendered, epigrammatic characterizations of individuals – his prose at its worst sinks to the level of an off-color gossip column. Nevertheless, I think the diary has to be taken seriously as a work in which the case history used to study psychopathology intersects with darker themes of literary modernism, reflecting social dislocation, moral confusion, and struggles with self-definition. In this sense, Inman’s diary has the flavor if not the shape of a modern novel.
Born in Atlanta in 1895, the only child of a prominent family of cotton merchants, Inman grew up in a large, comfortable house in the city, surrounded by relatives and servants. He spent happy summers with his family in Maine. Judging from his vivid recollections, his early childhood was rather pleasant and ordinary, except for what seems to have been an unusual vulnerability to headaches and other physical afflic-tions. Even the latter, however, is not enough to account for the extravagant symptoms or peculiar design of his later life.
Things began to sour when Inman turned 13. His parents sent him north to a private school in Haverford, Pa., where he felt disoriented and miserable. His life improved when he entered Haverford College, but he never forgave his parents for sending him away in the first place. They dealt him a second unforgivable blow, as he tells it, by pumping him full of their attitudes toward sex. On the way to the train back to school after Christmas vacation, his father warned him that if he masturbated, he would wind up in the madhouse, a prospect that Inman took to heart and tortured himself with. In other words, Inman received a typical late-Victorian sexual education.
Of his mother he wrote bitterly, ”She mixed me up at times as to whether I were I or she were I.” When she died in 1933, he expressed relief because she was ”a too-heavy moral tail to my kite of life.” He considered his father, who lived nearly as long as he did, ”the man I hate and pity, cringe before and rail against.” Yet he never severed his emotional or financial ties to these two. Perhaps this dependence was his revenge. He reminds me of a patient in a therapy group I conducted who looked around at the rest of the members during the first session and said, quite spontaneously, ”I’m going to depend on all of you – out of spite.” HALFWAY through college, Inman suffered a nervous collapse. It was as though his entire body went awry. He ended up in Boston for medical treatment and never left. From that time on he spent the better part of his waking hours in a completely darkened room in a Back Bay residential hotel because he could no longer tolerate light. Through newspaper advertisements for ”talkers” and ”readers,” as he called them – men and women he hired to run his household, serve as an extension of his eyesight, provide a substitute for social contact by telling him their life stories and drive him around so he could peer at the world through the windows of an automobile -Inman created his own miniature society, an entangled coterie that he controlled by keeping its members emotionally as well as financially dependent on him. As the diary grew to play a more and more significant role in Inman’s aspirations, he came to think of the people he endlessly recruited as ”diary-fodder.”
Modern sex caught up with him not long after he had the breakdown and moved to Boston, and he wasted no time catching up with it. From the women among his talkers and readers, Inman was able to obtain with surprising ease the languorous, exploratory sex he came to favor. He also followed avidly their erotic intrigues and marital problems, frequently acting as a go-between in the dramas of their lives. Once in a while he tried to remake their personalities.
In 1923 he married Evelyn
Yates, a Wellesley College graduate, whom he alternately raged at and idolized for the next 40 years.
She seemed to be remarkably without jealousy and allowed him to go on with his numerous sexual investigations. As a result, the diary is an archive of information about American sexual habits during the 20th century, drawn both from Inman’s own experience and from what his ”talkers” told him. There is a charming early section in which the girlfriend of one of his employees describes in a kind of working-class mystical poetry what an orgasm feels like to an eagerly attentive Inman, who has not yet had one. ”When you were a kid did you ever get shocked by one of those little electric batteries they used to fool you with? That was the way it felt,” she told him as he scrupulously wrote it down; ”you don’t care what happens.”
His life was full of contradictory impulses. He cloaked himself in darkness, sealed himself off from society, but his activities made him the subject of widespread rumor, so much so that he was often forced to negotiate his way out of scandal. Like a mole, he couldn’t stand the light of day, the brightness of the present moment, yet his diary is filled with brilliantly lighted landscapes and sharply perceived sketches of individual personalities. In fact, Inman’s best writing is based in descriptive imagery. His visual recall of childhood borders on the uncanny, as though he could retrieve every particle and spore of early experience. O NCE he gave up poetry, Inman chose to embody his literary aspirations in a medium most people regard as intensely private. He makes it clear that he is writing to show himself to the world. His diary is a monologue before a prospective audience, which he increasingly pleads with and to which he explains himself and apologizes. The complete honesty he demands of himself is admirable, but it is also an act of total self-display. Over the years Inman dreams more and more of his diary as becoming a pathway to literary glory. As Freud was first to point out, behind every peeping Tom there lurks a flasher.
Without reducing the pain in his eyes, his migraine headaches, gastrointestinal problems, back trouble and aching limbs entirely to psychology, one could say that Inman’s vast array of ailments reflects Freud’s idea that a healthy person feels his emotions, whereas the neurotic feels his body. Inman himself was convinced that all his problems stemmed from a defect of the bones, exacerbated by the strain of coping with his parents and school. Though his parents urged him to see a psychiatrist, he refused, placing his hopes in the osteopaths who treated him for the rest of his life.
However, neither organic nor conventional psychological diagnoses go far enough to explain Inman’s originality in the fashioning of symptoms. The whole panoply of Victorian neurotic behaviors can be found in the diary – hysterical outbursts and self-dramatizations, neurasthenic withdrawals, paranoid terrors, obsessive-compulsive fretfulness and insistence on precise routines. But on other counts Inman doesn’t fit the mold. The neurotic burns with unfulfilled desires and usually doesn’t know it; Inman gratified every erotic whim. The curiosity of the typical neurotic personality is blanked out or constricted; Inman was openly and avidly curious. The neurotic’s symptoms tend to be limited and specific; Inman’s entire way of life seems like a symptom. If Inman was suffering from some peculiar neurotic disorder, it was on a grand scale – an ontological neurosis, so to speak, a hysteria of being.
But even examined as case history, Inman’s life points beyond itself to an important cultural transition – from the classical neurotic types who blossomed in Victorian times to the existential character disorders that seem to be replacing them in our day, according to the latest psychoanalytic literature. Inman’s symptoms seem almost arbitrary, lacking in causality. Despite his bitterness toward his parents and school, there is no sequence of abuse, no crippling trauma set forth in the diary that lives up to Inman’s imagination. His strangeness exists on another level, transcending even his struggle with his father, a famous developmental battle that orthodox psychoanalysis has told us implants the limitations of social reality in the boy’s soul. It might be that Inman’s life looks forward to the end of the Oedipus complex and thus the shaping of individual personality as we have come to understand it. If so, literature anticipated this change long before psychology, which has barely begun to understand it. Perhaps only a literary diagnosis would be encompassing enough to comprehend Inman’s uniqueness. Reading him is like watching the well-defined lineaments of characters in Victorian novels blur into the modern alienated antihero.
For example, between worries about a pending landslide for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Presidential election of 1932, bouts of bedding Flossie Bert (one of his hired women, whose heavy sexual response he found unsettling as well as exciting) and his ever-present longing for suicide, Inman announced, ”I am a shell, a bluff, a walking shadow.” In another passage of the diary, he wishes both his own parents and his wife’s would die and leave him their money before it was too late to enjoy it. Then he asks, ”After such a confession, 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.”
Certainly those passages sound familiar to any reader of modern fiction from Dostoyevsky’s ”Notes From the Underground” to Ralph Ellison’s ”Invisible Man,” from the so-called black humor novel to the minimalist, entropy-ridden stories of Samuel Beckett. This is the voice of the underground man, defined by Irving Howe in an essay on Celine as ”a creature of the city,” who ”lives in holes and crevices, burrowing beneath the visible structure of society . . . recognizable through his unwavering rejection of official humanity.” He is the modern literary hero, often appearing in the guises of criminal, madman, victim or sensitive soul yearning for love, walking at the thin edge where culture drops off into the abyss. He tells us his forbidden thoughts and outrageous deeds as though his confessions might make us aware that all our social arrangements for meaning and security are dangerously precarious. I
* HAD a patient once, a failed painter, who told me she could no longer work at her craft because she found it ”disturbing” to see anything sharply. Perhaps, like this woman, Inman’s inability to stay in the light bears out the early psychoanalyst Hanns Sachs’ maxim that ”the difficulty is not how to understand beauty, but how to be able to stand it.” Inman experienced light as pain, maybe even as pure anxiety. When he collapsed at college, light seemed to blast his whole being, as though he had just emerged from Plato’s cave.
If you think of an allergy as an exquisite sensitivity to some portion of the environment, you could say Inman was allergic to light, or even to life. But he was also an infinitely curious man. Out of his painful retreat he designed an almost completely vicarious life, a life that dissolved into literature and took the form of his massive diary. To experience and record became indistinguishable. Thus Arthur Inman was in some sense the absolute literary man, although a highly uneven writer. He was the ultimate bystander, a random man who lived unmediated by necessity, a voyeur in the dark. At last, even writing it all down in his room with the curtains drawn no longer provided enough relief from the glare of the human condition. He pulled the revolver that he had kept nearby for years from its hiding place in order to extinguish the light once and for all.
A ‘READER’ REBELS
August 9  Millicent came to read to me. . . . Her eyebrows are to all intents invisible. Her eyes are an unpleasant blue with red-rimmed eyelids. Her nose is coarse and her mouth stamped with passion-indulgence. She looks, in all, hard. Yet despite her face I have grown to love her. She has a pleasant voice with a lilting quality in it. She seems genuinely fond of me, listens to my troubles, tells me her secrets, calls me motherly ”dear.” Being of an affectionate disposition, I have for many months caressed Millicent. Her skin is soft and I am fond of her. Last night, she broke out suddenly with, ”For Pete’s sake, Arthur, quit pawing me. If there’s anything I hate, it’s to be pawed. There’s only one man in the world I like to have handle me – and that’s not you.” I felt as though suddenly a mask had been ripped from something I had treasured as beautiful. ”Very well, Millicent,” I said, and I suppose I sounded as small as I felt and as hurt, ”I won’t paw you any more. I don’t think there was any need to be so cruelly blunt, was there? I’m sorry.” ”Oh Lord,” she observed, ”now I suppose you’ve gone and got your feelings hurt. There’s no need of that. If I didn’t feel about you as I do you can well believe it would have been hands off long ago. I get as much as I can stand, and then I can’t stand any more. That’s all.” She laid her head on my arm. I didn’t budge. ”I’m sorry,” she said. ”That’s all right,” I said. But I knew it wasn’t, and she knew. It certainly did hurt. I wish I wasn’t what Millicent calls ”so gosh-darned sensitive.” Are other people so sensitive to rebuke? It will be, I fear, a long time before I ”paw” Millicent again. – From ”The Inman Diary.”
Photo of Arthur Inman, 1939
By Michael Vincent Miller; Michael Vincent Miller is a psychologist and psychotherapist who practices in the Boston area and in New York City.