Published April 17, 2019
“I admit defeat. I am a coward at life, a quitter, a contender whose hands have grown listless. O reader, you who may have followed me so faithfully through so many ups and downs, pity me! I, who might have been so much and am so little, salute you. I pass into the limbo of mental and spiritual oblivion.”
— Inman’s diary, December 22, 1924.
The internet, which, until recently, consisted of dank and musty crevices, has been abundant in the fungal crop of human strangeness, and those of us afflicted with the morbid and indecent appreciation for the stranger expressions of human opinion should be thankful for the yield that this forest floor of mental decay has provided. There is no woodland cabin as damp, musty and richly fungal as the typical internet forum devoted to fringe politics, or indeed to any subject exclusively the interest of men. It would be lamentably naive, however, for any mycologist of human strangeness to assume that the oddity so well adapted to the internet’s dampness is aboriginal to it, and that the spores which bloom so profusely in obscure forums had not bloomed first in ink and paper, and in the thought and deed of extinguished generations. If we are to be up to the noble task of history, and its call for us to escape the provincialism of the present, and address our intellect to the total life of mankind, we are obliged, in this dubious field as in others, to be able to speak of that which came before us, and of those who walked it before us. In this series, I will attempt to rescue, from the damp oblivion of time, the strangest pages of ephemerality’s leaf-choked gutter, and present to you, from deserved obscurity, these undeserving monuments, that we may enter into a kind of damned communion with those responsible for their production and survival, and become who we are, through knowing that we are damned, and have condemned our brains to fungal contamination, and are barred forever, as were the objects of our study, from the fresh air of normality.
Let me begin with Arthur Crew Inman, a man whose life not only prefigures that of the forum-dwelling political extremist remarkably, but anticipates, in a strange way, the spiritual character of the twenty-first century in general. Inman (1895–1963), an untalented poet and idle recluse, whose ill-health, hypochondria and general eccentricity, facilitated by his inherited wealth, confined him to a darkened room for most of his adult life, was the subject of his own massive chronicle, which, running from 1919 to 1963, and over seventeen-million words, amounts to one of the longest diaries ever kept. It is thanks to Daniel Aaron’s editorial work in producing The Inman Diary: A Public and Private Confession (1985)and From a Darkened Room: The Inman Diary(Harvard University Press, 1996) that we may experience this singular work ourselves. Sensitive and scholarly writing has been done on Inman by Aaron himself and Lewis P. Simpson (‘The Last Casualty of the Civil War’ Sewanee Review, 95. [Winter, 1987]) among others; this piece will not be in that lineage. Inman, a suffering soul, is a figure amply worthy of charity, but he is also a figure of great curiosity, and a decent amount of charity would be excessive for the purposes of this article, which is in the spirit of indecent curiosity.
In common with his successors, the residents of decaying forums, Inman’s contact with other human beings occurred entirely within the confines of his darkened room. His wife, Evelyn, like the mother of a tyrannical and parasitic son, was virtually enslaved by Inman, and disdained and adored by him in turns. He hired servants to spare himself the burden of contact with the outside world, and advertised in the paper for volunteers to entertain him. By his own account, he bore a paternalistic sense of responsibility for those he enlisted into managing his strange plantation of solitude, and considered the outrageous demands he imposed on his servants a kind of moral education. If his diary is to be believed, he succeeded in seducing many of his female visitors, some as young as their early teens, and considered this a form of education as well.
Though his adult life was spent in Boston, Inman was the son of a prominent Atlantan family, and his family history, in particular its involvement in the confederate cause, preoccupied him throughout his life. His relationship with his parents was cold, and he blamed his father for having ruined his life with a single terse, stern speech on the dangers of masturbation. He possessed, like his contemporary Lovecraft, that truculent racialism which sometimes appears in dilapidated gentry upon the obsolescence of aristocratic pride, and his journal teems with remarkable litanies of ethnic slurs. His admiration for Hitler, until around the time America entered the war, was immense, as was his contempt for the very large number of people he considered racially inferior. He denigrated almost every non-Nordic race, except for the Chinese and Japanese, whose rationalism, productivity and ancient culture impressed him. His Nordicism, Nazi and Confederate sympathies, and aggrieved sense of superiority are of a particular type very recognisable to those familiar with the more venerable right-wing colonies of the internet, where his spiritual brethren still abound, in all their splendid variety and general tragedy, clinging to causes both lost and unworthy.
By producing this vast unblinking chronicle, Inman sought to gain immortality through historical witness, and to subsume his age into his own legacy. Unfortunately for him, his diary has amounted to a mere curiosity of literature, a monument to a single eccentric’s neurosis and disagreeableness. While his chronicle, strangled in the pondweed of his self-obsession, failed as a sweeping depiction of his time, it has anticipated the spirit of our own time remarkably. Inman’s life of lonely vanity, in its resemblance to that of an internet-casualty, suggests the obscure pits of our society, and thereby anticipates the lonely vanity of our time in general. The spirit of an age is a strange thing, and thicker in the crevices than the open air. What is the unemployed forum-dweller, stranded in a dead society, but the representative man of our time?
Inman, a sinkhole of narcissism, into whose obscure cause for egotism all the world was swallowed, is our distant mirror, a black hole reflective of our vacuity. Yet Inman, a victim of his life, has, along with all suffering creatures, the unassailable right to a certain sympathy, whether we like him or not.
What does this all ‘mean’? It means very little. Inman’s resemblance to a certain type of mid-2000s right-wing forum veteran is curious, and amusing to me, and that is the motive force behind this ‘essay’. I have not written this to belittle anyone, even Inman. My allusions are to an obscure and vanishing breed, men of a different time, who linger only as phantoms in crumbling redoubts, as Inman lingered like a ghost in his own time. In truth, I am only chasing after these ghosts. I am trying to extract some deeper, broader meaning from this, but I am straining, and some of my previous paragraphs are a result of this straining. I suppose you should disregard them. Inman, I think, saw his work as a rambling triumph of failure, vindicating itself by the stubborn valiance of its floundering, and I would be grateful, I suppose, if this article could be seen in the same way, but I admit defeat.