The Strangest Book in Harvard Library
A hundred years ago, Arthur Inman decided to write the most brutally honest and explicit diary in history—so he hired people to tell him their intimate secrets
On the opening page of The Inman Diary, the book’s editor makes a bold claim: this work “has no counterpart in any literature that I am aware of.”
The author Arthur Inman had decided “the only way for him to win fame, perhaps even immortality, would be to write a diary unlike any ever written….It would contain the kind of information he had looked for and never found in other diaries.”
At first glance, this seems an impossible goal. Since the time of Augustine, authors of confessions, memoirs, and diaries have prided themselves on their candor and unflinching honesty. And after Rousseau, who pushed this dictum to an extreme, the limits of frank disclosure would seem to have been reached. What could Arthur Inman do in the 20th century, that hadn’t already been done before?
Adding to the challenge, Inman had nothing to write about—or so it seemed. He was a semi-invalid who spent most of his life in a darkened room. Even recluses like Proust and Pynchon are gadabouts by comparison.
Yet Inman wrote some 17 million words and filled 155 volumes (now housed in Harvard’s Houghton Library)—that’s roughly 25 times as long as the Bible—and devoted more than 40 years to his project. He started writing his diary in 1919 and continued working on it until shortly before his death in 1963.
But here’s the twist, and the quirk that turned Arthur Inman into one of the most fascinating writers of the 20th century. This peculiar man took ads in the newspaper, offering to hire “talkers’ who would tell him the wildest and most intimate details of their lives. The end result was a diary with more than 1,000 characters—striving with one another to provide the most compelling, uncensored narrative. That crowd-sourced approach turns the Inman journals into a compendium of confessions unlike anything ever written down before.