The Inman Diaries

When chronic illness confined Boston poet Arthur Crew Inman to a darkened room, he turned inward, scribbling his thoughts and feelings into an enormous diary that eventually filled 155 volumes with 17 million handwritten words — most of them peevish:

A Lithuanian came to read to me. I disliked her at once. She was common. Her voice sounded like an ungreased axle. She spoke with a pronounced accent. She would start to read fairly well, but in short order she would become interested in the book, forget me, let the reading go as it might. I began to ask her questions. She answered in monosyllables. She used gutter slang. Her father, she said, had fled from Poland to escape the Russian term of army service. He had come to America where he had stayed for a while in Elizabeth, New Jersey. After saving some money, he took his family to Amsterdam, New York, and started a dry goods store. The girl had been one of six children. She had not learned to speak English until she was thirteen. She had gone to public school. Now she is studying music at the Boston Conservatory.

Harvard professor Daniel Aaron, who edited the diaries for publication in 1985, called them “surely one of the fullest and largest diaries ever kept by any American.” Inman would have agreed with him. “I trust to do in nonfiction what Balzac did in fiction,” he said. Perhaps he succeeded — the diaries were turned into an opera in 2007, and a film version starring John Hurt is in development.