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Essays

"ON KNOWING DANIEL AARON"
by Lorenzo DeStefano

When Christoph Irmscher first asked me to try and set down my own experience of knowing Daniel Aaron I felt daunted by the task. My admiration for what Christoph is doing to keep Dan's place in American letters alive has made this task a bit easier, a pleasure in fact.

 

I have so many impressions of Dan over the 30 years of our friendship and literary association related to the Inman Diary, ranging from our first meeting in 1986 to Dan's death in 2016 at the age of 103. He became a very important influence on me since I first wrote him a fan's note about the diary in 1985 and received a friendly postcard back. This was at the very start of my becoming totally obsessed with Arthur Crew Inman (1895-1963), one of America's strangest and most compelling eccentrics.

 

The year before I met Dan was a momentous one for me. It was 1985 and I had just read a book review of The Inman Diary–A Public and Private Confession, the brilliant 1.7 million word chronicle published by Harvard University Press and edited by Dan from the 17 million word diary Inman left behind. In a rather demented process that's been going on for over thirty-five years now (a fact I find somewhat unbelievable), I read that first of many reviews in the age before the internet. Despite this handicap I found a way to learn as much as I could about Inman, an Atlanta-born Bostonian who set down his view of mid-20th century America as seen from the confines of apartment 604 in a relic of an apartment hotel called Garrison Hall, still extant in Boston's Back Bay. The two-volume set cost me $65 hard-earned dollars, a veritable fortune to me at the time. But it was well worth it, that book, which I have read so many times since and studied as if it were the Holy Grail of one man's loneliness, despair, and obsession with connectivity decades before that word was even invented.

 

Dan's achievement over the nearly eight-year period, starting in the late 70s, during which he served as Inman's agent in the afterlife, was all about the joy of discovering the inner workings of not just one man's life but that of his long-suffering wife of forty years, Evelyn Yates Inman. She emerges, through Dan's beautifully sympathetic treatment of her, as one of the great female figures in contemporary non-fiction. Her long-suffering roles as nursemaid, cajoler, and loyal friend to her ill-chosen man bring to the diary a much-needed domestic reality without which it would lose much of its appeal. Arthur's opinion of his bride, alternately scornful and full of praise, chronicles one of the most strangely functional marriages, real or imagined, ever set down on paper. "Ambivalence aside, Evelyn is the sweetest child in all the world. I am, in fact, of the humble opinion that my wife is a treasure among treasures, the hub of the wheel of my existence. I guess I love her more than I had any idea. Admitting it is not unlike having a tooth pulled. Funny thing, love."

 

I later learned that Evelyn hand-picked Dan for the job of editing her late husband's life's work. He let me read the letters he exchanged with her before her death, just weeks prior to the diary's publication. "What a pale personality Evelyn has," Arthur once wrote of her, "so many predictable little gestures of speech and action. And homely as a stump fence in the dark.... Is it possible to live with any degree of closeness to someone and not hate them on occasion?" And yet, that "pale personality" came to accept her prickly husband for the difficult but lovable creature he had become. She truly believed in his mission and was a willing acolyte. More than that she was, despite her infidelities (and his), the best life partner Arthur could have wished for. Despite his manipulation and occasional cruelty to her, he came to accept Evelyn as the perfect woman for him, the ideal co-conspirator.

 

But The Inman Diary is not just about some odd, nondescript couple existing on the fringes of society. This epic of collective memory contains a motley army of real life characters that came to populate Inman's 155-volume diary world. By placing personal ads in the city's papers for over 40 years, Arthur and Evelyn collaborated on what seems now to be a bold social experiment not unlike the Kinsey Report, the investigations of Masters & Johnson, and Studs Terkel's groundbreaking insights into the lives and aspirations of America's neglected working class. Reaching well beyond the confines of apartment 604, the Inman's cast their net out to a surprisingly diverse and fascinating range of fellow humans: "Wanted: Talkers & Readers–Have you imagination? Can you read or talk rapidly and interestingly? Have you had unusual, dramatic or exciting experiences? $5.00 per hour to amuse an invalid author (more if your speech is superlative)."

 

While one quickly tires of Arthur's endless hypochondriacal moanings ("right thumb sprained, coccyx badly bruised, both arms a constant useless agony. What a bruised, squirming semblance of a thing I am"), it is the truly democratic nature of his diary that still impresses me and, I'm sure, impressed Dan as well. Instead of the self-centered epic of the mind that it threatens to become, the work is radically transformed by the people Arthur met after moving to Boston in November 1919. By including the hopes and dreams of these anonymous shopgirls and clerks and travelling salesmen and taxi drivers who responded in great numbers to his ads, Inman broadened the scope of his work without a thought for race or social rank or educational accomplishment. What interested him most was a cracking good story well told, the big parade of people whose existence he could barely have imagined without their complicity. "At last count I have chronicled the lives of more than 1,000 people within these pages. They are not what you'd call great people. For the most part they are of the common, everyday variety. Yet they are far more interesting to me than persons of wealth or so-called 'class.'" By pursuing his passion for recording other lives as well as his own, of capturing within the pages of his memoir, as if in amber, the often imperceptible passage of time, Inman meant to ensure not only himself but these fellow citizens a measure of the immortality he felt they all deserved.

 

Why bother, one could ask, with the rantings of a semi-invalid holed up in a crumbling apartment hotel in a dying American city? What use his unsolicited opinions on world affairs, his ambitions for literary immortality, his calcified Victorian ideas on race and natural selection, his obsession with young girls? In the case of Arthur Crew Inman, I found his ramblings very useful indeed as I began to look further into his self-made shadowland. Inman's social observations range from his favorite subject, himself, to his next favorite subject, sex. In between came his encyclopedic knowledge of the South and the American Civil War, politics, race relations, world affairs, books, music, and the machinations that had led the world past the onset of the nuclear age to the highly evolved and terrible level of uncertainty we are still dealing with today. Inman's diary ended with his own death two weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a man for whom he had little respect and who was, by one of those coincidences of history, once a student of Daniel Aaron's at Harvard.

 

Guided by Dan's exquisite scholarship and professional determination, it soon became clear to me and anyone else who read this brilliantly edited book that this wayward citizen of Boston's Back Bay, this bitter only child and failed romantic poet, meant his vast outpourings to ensure him the kind of literary fame that eluded him during his sleepless days and nights in the apartment he hardly left for 50 years. His fevered desire for the spotlight rears its head throughout the diary. "I wish there was a way I could know right now whether it's been worth the immense effort and nervous perseverance I've spent trying to maintain the highest quality of this work, its honesty. If the diaries of Pepys, Casanova, Boswell and Rousseau have proven of interest to future generations, why not mine?"

 

Some would say that this is inordinately high company for a scribbling nobody to keep, even in his own mind. And yet, taken as a whole, The Inman Diary, thanks to Dan's bruising journey from initial revulsion to benign respect, stands up quite well alongside those great chroniclers. Of course, the diary's eventual publication 22 years after his death was nothing but a distant hope throughout his long, unquiet life. "I wish to explain, in the unlikely case that this diary should ever be deemed to amount to more than the paper it is put upon, the broad theory of its organization.... I delve back into my past and set down all the odds and ends I can remember, so that in the fullness of time I shall have painted the parts of a connected frieze, parts of which you, dear Editor of the future, will have to put together."

 

Some would also say that a man of Inman's dubious scholarship and suspect morality did not deserve an editor of Daniel Aaron's stature as an American historian with impeccable credentials and a stellar reputation. When I first met Dan at Harvard in 1986, entering his top floor office at Warren House, filled with books and file cabinets and the fragrant cloud of pipe smoke, I realized that I had entered the realm of a man who had done some serious learning in his life. I didn't know it then but soon found out that I was at the beginning of a journey that would come to outlast the time I'd spend in many dwellings in many cities, outlive the lives of many pets, of several relationships, and create a vortex in which I still find myself pleasantly entrapped.

 

Having finally moved on to other projects after what must have seemed an interminable stretch of drowning in Inmanalia, Dan gradually and with much grace took me on as a like mind, one who had, like him, caught the virus transmitted by "this Inman fellow." As I began my own deep dive into Inman's world, aided by Dan's voluminous notes and the access he provided to the Inman papers collected at Harvard's Houghton Library, a design began to emerge. Absorbing this diary, overwhelming in scope yet delicate in nature, was like plunging head first into a frigid pool. Daunted at first by its sheer size, nearly 1,700 pages even in its abridged, published form, I swam on, pulled forward through each entry by the emerging voice of this miscreant American.

 

After that initial meeting in 1986 I embarked on a friendship with Dan like no other I have ever experienced. He was my own personal Mr. Chips, a spirit guide into worlds unknown to this mere high school graduate from faraway Honolulu. Through his generosity of spirit Dan passed on to me the unholy baton of all things Inman. Through him I began to appreciate the dramatic potential hidden in the elephantine folds of the diary. After several years of spadework, writing outline after outline to try to create some definable storyline, in the mid-90s I had to actually tackle a job that was way beyond my skills. Emboldened by Dan's belief in me, I sought and eventually obtained exclusive dramatic rights to The Inman Diary from Harvard University Press, rights I maintain to this day, and formally began my journey.

 

After consultations with Dan, it was decided that I should write a play before tackling my ultimate goal of making a movie of Inman's life. It was very good advice. Dan introduced me to his friend, the superb English theater director Jonathan Miller (1934-2019), with whom I would collaborate on two productions of my play, Camera Obscura (www.cameraobscuraplay.com). Performed as a 2001 workshop production at Seattle Repertory Theatre, which Dan attended as my long-suffering literary advisor, to the play's world premiere in 2002 at London's famed Almeida Theatre, the play evolved into a vast memory piece that, despite its cranky protagonist, riveted the attention of audiences and reviewers. To my great relief, Arthur's taciturn nature and outrageous opinions did not drive people from their seats. This positive reception and Dan's unflagging support gave me the confidence to continue.

 

As a playwright I heeded Arthur's admonition not to sanitize his uglier aspects. His explicit warning to his "Editor of the Future" was most chilling. "One day you will know my world more intimately than you do your own, will have mapped its texture, its Chinese box construction. Should you choose to emphasize my whiny, rotten qualities, so be it. If I am made out as some kind of genius of solitude, I will likewise go along. But if you attempt to nicen me up I will come back as a ghost and seek revenge on you as one who has cheated me of my rightful place in history." Not wanting this curse upon my head, I have tried, inspired by Dan's always wise counsel, to present the man warts and all. My adventures on stage and in an opera based on my play by Boston composer Thomas Oboe Lee, have led to what is now a planned 5-Part Limited Series titled "The Diarist." In every scene, on every page, I have strived to render Arthur's interminable ramblings much as Dan did, as gripping scenes and strange encounters between once living, breathing people.

 

As my voyages in Inmanland continue into the unknown future, I give thanks to Daniel Aaron for lighting the way for me. It is in large part because of him that I continue to pursue this disproportionate dream. It is for him that I still toil in the vineyards of other people's lives, much as Dan did in his vast body of work on the fascinating and meandering story that is America. This work I do helps me fill the gap created by Dan's having passed from this realm on April 30, 2016. It keeps me feeling that indelible connection with him I felt in life, a sense of trust and memorable collaboration that has sustained and nourished me these many years.


Lorenzo DeStefano, Ventura, California

November 24, 2020

 

Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, Lorenzo DeStefano is a playwright, screenwriter, producer, director and photographer. A member of the Directors Guild of America and past member of the Motion Picture Editor's Guild, DeStefano has worked in U.S. and U.K. Theater, written fiction and non-fiction, original screenplays and adaptations, and produced and directed documentary and narrative films. DeStefano is founder of the Ventura Film Society, a California-based cinema cooperative.