Thursday, December 5, 2013

Consuming concentration

‘I’m wondering if perhaps there isn’t some mean between the consuming concentration I formerly directed to the keeping of the entries and the comparative laxness of attention I have devoted to the diary since the atomic bomb fell upon history.’ This is a 1947 diary entry by Arthur Crew Inman, a rich, eccentric and obsessed diarist who died half a century ago today. His diaries - all 155 of them held by Harvard University - were edited for publication in the 1980s; and, since then, have proved a compulsive inspiration for Lorenzo DeStefano’s plays and films.

Inman was born into a very wealthy family in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1895. He studied at Haverford College, Pennsylvania, but had some kind of serious breakdown at 21. He published several volumes of poetry without any success. In 1923, he married Evelyn Yates. They moved to Boston, where Inman rented several apartments in a residential hotel. He became increasingly obsessed with his health, and had his rooms darkened and soundproofed - his
 inherited wealth allowed him full rein to indulge the hypochondria. He employed individuals to talk to him (‘talkers’), tell him about their lives, and sometimes he seduced them. He attempted suicide on several occasions, and finally succeeded with a revolver on 5 December 1863. Further biographical information is available from the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Harvard Gazette or Wikipedia.

From his mid-20s, Inman began to keep a diary, somewhat obsessively, thinking it would bring him immortality. By the time of his death, he had written 155 volumes, making it one of the longest diaries on record. According to David Herbert Donald, a Pulitzer-prize-winning historian, it is also ‘the most remarkable diary ever published by an American’. An edited version was painstakingly put together by Professor Daniel Aaron, and published in two volumes by Harvard University Press in 1985 as The Inman Diary - A Public and Private Confession. Some pages from the first of these can be browsed online at Googlebooks; as can some pages from an abridged one volume edition in 1996 called From a Darkened Room.

Most publicity about Inman’s diaries in recent years has been focused on, or through, Lorenzo DeStefano, who states this: ‘I first discovered The Inman Diary through a New York Times book review. What began as a fixation has grown into a deep exploration of the American psyche. Through Inman’s obsessive efforts to capture time I have encountered a literary milieu and aspects of American and world history I had no inkling of before. As a result I now hold exclusive dramatic rights to the Inman Diary from Harvard University Press.’ DeStefano’s projects include Camera Obscura, a play about Inman, which has also been turned into a chamber opera; a documentary, From a Darkened Room; and a film, Hypergraphia. DeStefano’s websites contain a lot of information about Inman, reviews of his diary, for example, and taped audio extracts.

The following extracts are taken from The Inman Diary - A Public and Private Confession.

5 September 1944
‘I am forty-nine. There is no hope in my heart that I shall ever recover from a state of limited semi-invalidism.

My day is divided somewhat as follows: The curtains in my bedroom are dropped some fifty minutes before sunrise to keep the room dark so that I may avoid headaches. Breakfast is at 6:30am, after which I wash and go back to bed unto 8:10am, when I get up. I ride at nine or ten for varying amounts, after having scanned the newspapers, listened to the news and waltzes on the radio, perhaps written in here without using my glasses, though I use them when driving. On returning home, I eat something, work, dictate, write in here. Lunch comes shortly after noon. I nap in my darkened room for a few minutes around one o’clock. Then Janice massages the soft tissue in my neck. With myself still in the dark and Evelyn or Janice on the other side of a curtain where the light is, I correct from three until shortly before six. Then I play the talking-book and the radio until 7:15pm, when Fulton Lewis’ talk ends, when I eat my supper. Thereafter, I listen to the radio, the talking-book or am read to or talked to for the evening, which extends until midnight or twelve-thirty.

My principle pleasure consists of writing in here, correcting, studying. I cannot work a tithe of the time I would wish to. I have no faith in God, the reality of progress, the predominance of good. I feel myself born under an unlucky star. I value my friends. I place more value upon money than formerly. I fear many things up to a certain point - always anticipating trouble and usually getting it. People, by and large, are very good to me, and I strive to return as I am able their affection and their efforts in my behalf. I am bitter and disillusioned with existence and wait for it to end but until it does attempt to achieve some measure of normality, to be cheerful and equable.’

24 September 1947
‘I’m wondering if perhaps there isn’t some mean between the consuming concentration I formerly directed to the keeping of the entries and the comparative laxness of attention I have devoted to the diary since the atomic bomb fell upon history. I have often thought about cooks. They plan; they work. In a trice the result of their efforts vanishes down the red lane, and if a remembrance of their culinary art remains in the mind of the one who has eaten, that is generally the apogee of reward any cook can expect. Cooks come and go, and people eat on, and very seldom in history does a name or reputation survive. Yet often the most inconspicuous and unappreciated cooks take real pleasure in their remunerative labour.

So it should be, perhaps, with the keeping of a diary. If the long record of private thoughts, emotions, experiences, observations ends by being annihilated, the mind should not dwell upon that probability but permit itself, as a traveler journeying to no destination yet enjoying the act of traveling, to enjoy the simple daily exercise.’

25 September 1947
‘Could I quite surrender to the idea that some historical and psychological value attaches itself to my efforts and believe accordingly that they were absolutely vain and trifling, I could at least be more at peace with myself, consider each entry a pleasurable venture in idle scribbling only. But I can’t, and for the simple reason that, when I come across a record such as this, I’m enraptured by it. The New York Times Book Section of week before last carries a front-page review of the journals of AndrĂ© Gide. I must read them. “My mind is becoming voluptuously impious and pagan. I must stress this tendency.” Did famous persons march across my pages, their merit might be differently weighed. Well, they don’t. Only nonillustrious persons of no consequence artistically or historically. Myself, I detest reading about the famous in memoirs and journals. Is that sour grapes?’

The Diary Junction

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