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Richard Eder

The Inman Diary: A PUBLIC AND PRIVATE CONFESSION, edited by Daniel Aaron (Harvard: $39.95 until Dec. 31; $50 thereafter; 2 volumes; 1,661 pp., modestly illustrated)

September 29, 1985|Richard Eder

In 1916, Arthur Crew Inman, a 20-year-old junior at Haverford College, and scion of a well-to-do Southern cotton family, had a physical and nervous collapse. Thirty-four doctors examined him over the next few years, and none could find anything very wrong. The only one who suited his complaint--which he described as loose bones, aversion to light and constant pain--was a woman osteopath. Besides manipulating his joints, she responded to his plain state of longing by cuddling him, undressing and allowing him a more or less chaste exploration of her body.

Arthur, who had felt himself abused since childhood, found in this arrangement what he considered his first real happiness. In 1919, supported by his father's money, he holed up in a Boston apartment building where he remained until just before his death in 1963. There he established his private kingdom.

Materially, the kingdom consisted of three or four separate apartments, two 1920s vintage touring cars for brief outings, and a considerable if overstrained bank account. The overstraining was understandable. Arthur's kingdom was populated by his wife, a cadre of doctors and osteopaths, and a 44-year procession of secretaries, drivers, assistants and paid companions, the latter mostly young women or girls. They came to read, to tell him about their life outside and to maintain in his darkened bedroom a uxorious nimbus whose erotic dimensions ranged from loving speech to a fondling middle ground to outright sex.

But the ruling passion of this "vulnerable and perverse" man--the adjectives belong to Daniel Aaron, editor of his diaries--was what might be called the immortality of the word. For 43 years, he kept a record of his days, his relations with those around him, his reading, the tales brought in by those he called his "talkers," and his thoughts about the world revolving outside his apartment and the toy world--but a potent one--that he kept within.

"The Inman Diaries" originally ran to the equivalent of some 50,000 printed pages. Turned over to Harvard University Press by his heirs, they were in turn turned over to Aaron, a retired professor of American literature. For seven years, Aaron has worked on them, boiling them down to a mere 1,600 pages and becoming, in the process, the one-man interlocutor that Inman imagined he was writing for.

With an expectant institutional tremor, Harvard has brought out the exotic fruit of Inman's 43 years and Aaron's seven. In two handsomely bound black volumes, with red silk ribbons to mark the place--an Edwardian touch--the result is an extraordinary record of how a man turned not part but the whole of his life into an artifact. It is the literary equivalent of the Tin Woodman whose original body, entirely chalked away, has been entirely replaced.

When he was a child, Arthur recalled, he preferred to play alone. "With other children about, they muddle things and break my toys." Arthur arranged his extraordinary life so that nobody should muddle it. Everything came filtered to him through his entourage. As for the outside world, it came through his reading, and above all through his talkers, among whom were working-class girls, a small-time political racketeer, a communist hobo and other exotics. Sometimes, he would dispatch a talker to visit Iowa or some other remote place so that they could write him reports.

Inman's childhood was both privileged and bereft. Grandson of one of the nation's biggest cotton merchants, he was brought up with what he felt to be a Puritanical sparseness of both indulgence and privilege. It is not an unfamiliar combination. Much of our plutocracy felt it a duty to make its children, as it were, start from scratch. In Arthur's case, the result was a temperament that combined the arrogance of the rich with the resentments of the poor.

Certainly, lordliness and grudges dominate much of his world. "She can burn in Hell for all of me," he writes of his mother after he was disappointed in the terms of her will. He repeatedly hopes that his father will die, for the sake of his money, though the old man perversely lived on until 1951. In public affairs, Arthur made Ubu Roi look like a philanthropist. He approved of Hitler and Mussolini; thought that Jews should be, if not physically eliminated, at least barred from public office; and despite a Southern-style affection for black people, uncertain that they were suited for anything but menial labor and "making whoopee in nightclubs."

His domestic arrangements were, on the face of it, even more of a horror. He married a docile young woman so he could shape her to his demands. "I talked, I petted, I beat," he wrote; and felt violently sorry for himself later on when she grew chilly and conducted a 12-year love affair with one of his doctors. As for his dozens of young talkers and playmates, some of whom he fell seriously in love with, he couldn't understand why sooner or later they all left.

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