Diana Trilling’s Discontents

Getting Even

To keep up with the New York Intellectuals, Diana Trilling forgot—and forgave—nothing.


In the 1940s and ’50s, when book culture in America was a real presence, Diana Trilling was among the most de­liciously feared of literary critics. Today, it is something of a marvel to read her work of those long-ago years. The sheer high-handedness of the writing, exhilarating and exasperating as it is, can still put color in the reader’s cheek. From the get-go, Diana is shaking her finger at her subjects. She has a measuring rod in her head that turns on a strict notion—shades of her husband, Lionel—­of the relation between literature and moral responsibility. If, by this standard, the book she is reading is deemed acceptable, it gets a nod of approval; if not, off with its head. One critique—which can stand in for a multitude—branded the book under review “a muddled, pretentious, and vulgar book, to be noticed, in fact, only for its indecency.”

Books, for Diana, were either decent or indecent, vulgar or civilized, responsible or irresponsible. Forget the hundreds of skewered writers who have gone down into oblivion; routinely, she also took apart the likes of John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Evelyn Waugh, Arthur Koestler. Reviewing Truman Capote’s debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, in 1948, she wrote: “I find myself deeply antipathetic to the whole artistic-moral purpose of Mr. Capote’s novel…. I would freely trade 80 percent of his technical virtuosity for 20 percent more value in the uses to which it is put.” As for Virginia Woolf, Diana sadly informed her readers that “we face the fact that Mrs. Woolf’s hand lacks the strength to grip an essential truth.” Diana herself loved to repeat the story of an émigré novelist from Nazi Austria who was said to have remarked that, while he had lost his home, his country, and his language, he had at least had the good fortune not to be reviewed by Diana Trilling.

The woman who wrote those reviews and repeated that story, it will come as no surprise, was herself the victim of an extraordinary capacity for feeling wounded by others. She kept a running score of who admired or scorned her, supported or opposed her, denigrated or celebrated her, and she ascribed all criticism of her work or her person to jealousy or envy. She was also certain that at whatever dinner party to which she had not been invited, there had been someone plotting to take her down. For more than half of her 91 years, she awakened each day to rehearse anew the list of allies and enemies constantly vibrating in her head. Living as she did in an almost entirely male literary world rife with sexism, it is yet hard not to conclude that the shape this life took owed much to the kind of inborn emotional grievance—those narcissistic wounds that never close—that no amount of cultural change can ever do away with.

Diana Rubin Trilling was born in 1905 in New York City into a well-to-do family of immigrant Polish Jews. From the earliest age, she exhibited the contradictions of personality that were to inform her life. To an inordinate degree, the family prized outspokenness—known in some quarters as truth-speaking, in others as confrontation—and the bright young Diana was encouraged to speak her mind boldly and baldly, letting the chips fall where they may. At the same time that this formidable forthrightness was flourishing, there also developed in her—and perhaps the two are destined to go hand in hand—a variety of free-floating anxiety that announced itself first as a fear of the dark, then of heights, then of burglars and break-ins, and at last (most dominating of all) a fear of being left alone. While this is not at all an unusual combination of personality traits—brash certainty masking unrelieved insecurity—in Diana’s case, it proved very nearly debilitating.

But the family had money and enough social ambition to send its clever daughter to Radcliffe. There, as with most women of her class and generation, Diana received an education more resembling that of a finishing school than a university. The young women were openly being prepared to become the appropriate mate of a potentially powerful husband: an expectation that seemed eminently reasonable to Diana, and one that, in due time, she fulfilled.

In 1927, mutual friends introduced her to a graduate student her age by the name of Lionel Trilling, who was studying for a PhD in literature at Columbia. Not long after they met, Lionel wrote in his journal that Diana “had the mechanical trick of being able to talk about anything,” and while “her laugh and her voice irritate me and her talk does not stimulate but rather represses,” he nonetheless found her sexually exciting. They soon fell in love and began to sleep together. “Surely going to bed with a man before marriage was the most courageous act of my life,” Diana later recalled, and she never had reason to amend that assessment.

The Trillings were married in 1929 and remained joined at the hip until Lionel’s death in 1975. It seems unlikely that Diana ever slept with another man; nor did Lionel actually sleep with another woman, although he did fumble about a bit. From all available evidence, the pair remained profoundly ignorant of the contradictory dictates of erotic life when experienced fully, even though both pronounced—and for decades on end—on the human motivation out of which literature of the imagination is made.

Lionel soon became Lionel Trilling—distinguished professor of literature at Columbia and a major American critic—and Diana his competent, albeit restless, wife. She kept house, organized their increasingly busy social life, and took an active hand in aiding her husband with his work. Hungry to think of her life as purposeful, she mentally elevated her job description to “family feminist.” Scorning women who wanted to be men, Diana developed the notion that—as her biographer, Natalie Robins, puts it in The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling—“women in concert with men and their families will transform modern life.” It was a dubious definition of modern feminism, to say the least, and one that in reality ate away at whatever genuine self-regard she might otherwise have attained.

It turned out that Diana was a born editor—­someone with a gift for knowing how to transform a clotted sentence into a readable one and how to structure a piece of writing so that the thought behind it achieved clarity—but instead of getting a job as one, she devoted herself to cleaning up her husband’s writing and, quite early, convinced herself that without her, his work would never have been fully realized. She was certain that after Lionel died and his manuscripts went public, her contribution to the famous essays would become known to the world. But then Lionel did die, and she discovered that he had destroyed all those drafts with her editing notes on them. “Distraught” isn’t the word for what she felt. For years afterward, her son, James Trilling, said, “it was the only thing she kept coming back to with sorrow and anger—‘How could he do this to me?’”

The reason this “betrayal” cut so deep was that Diana burned for vindication in the eyes of those high-minded friends and enemies of Lionel’s known as the New York Intellectuals—Philip Rahv, Delmore Schwartz, Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, need I go on?—the group of critics who occupied a vital place in the literary/political culture of this country between the 1930s and the ’70s, and whom Diana (rightfully) thought of as her lifelong detractors. These men—they were almost all men—were marked by a ferocious devotion to the kind of argument during which you determined not on besting your opponent, but annihilating him. The only women even remotely considered equals at this game were Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt; all others were wives or girlfriends who were admitted to social gatherings but never listened to. Intent on getting her own back, in her 1993 memoir, The Beginning of the Journey, Diana characterized the New York Intellectuals as generally mean-spirited, especially those working at Partisan Review. “Everyone around Partisan Review,” she wrote, “had his licensed malice and made jokes at the expense of his friends—puncturing another reputation.” Ironically, she failed to recognize that when her turn came, her tongue proved as cutting as theirs, her judgments as absolute, and her insistence on the rightness of her opinions equally as unyielding.

Diana’s turn came in 1941, when Lionel recommended her for the position of fiction reviewer at The Nation, and she got the job. At long last, she had been provided a platform on which she could speak her mind in print, and a flood of pent-up critical energy was released that abated only with her death. Diana left behind three collections of essays and reviews, a full-length biography, and a memoir: all of which have earned her a place in American literary history. By the late 1940s, Diana had come to consider herself a cultural critic justified in holding public views not only on books, but politics, social trends, movies… you name it, she had an opinion on it. In certain cases, it was not just an opinion she held, but an interest so strong it qualified as a defining position. First and foremost, there was communism in America; second, psychoanalysis; third, Lionel’s potential to have been a novelist of significance.

Communism in the United States was the great bugaboo of Diana’s life. From the mid-’30s on, she saw it as a threat to American democracy worthy of the highest moral outrage. Making no distinction between communists in the Soviet Union and those in the United States, she described the Communist Party USA as the evil within that operated under a “chain of Communist command” and that was bent on “the entrapment of innocents.” She often thought it more important to fight this evil within than to secure and protect civil liberties, and she could truly never understand why this made others see her as a reactionary. To read her today on communism (with either a lowercase or capital “C”) is jaw-dropping, alternately ludicrous and frightening. Not once in all of her red-baiting diatribes does an insight emanate from anything that might resemble an emotional imagination.

Then there was psychoanalysis. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, in perpetual search of a cure for her unabating anxieties, Diana underwent one form or another of psychotherapy. All in all, there were seven analysts in 20 years—each one, she sniffed, more ignorant than the last—under whose treatment she, by her own account, remained substantially unchanged. Nonetheless, analytic psychobabble became a staple of her conversation with friends and relatives alike. Lionel once objected that Diana “didn’t simply get mad at him; she threw him back into his infancy and psychoanalyzed him.” Another friend often begged her to “please take down your shingle” and stop speaking in the “tone of a psychiatrist talking calmly to a lunatic.” One might have thought that a devotion to analytic insight would produce some understanding of, if not sympathy with, those liberationist movements of the 1970s—especially the women’s movement, which clearly originated in, as a wit of the time put it in another context, one’s “own hurt feelings.” But such was not the case. Like her illustrious husband, Diana was a self-styled 19th-century liberal and saw the movement only as disruptive.

And lastly we come to her undying conviction that Lionel could have been a major novelist if only—if only the times had been different, if only he hadn’t needed to make a living, if only publishers and editors had been more encouraging. This claim, on the face of it, is absurd. Lionel Trilling longed to be a novelist because for him, as for every artist and intellectual of his generation, the very definition of a writer was one who wrote fiction successfully. But the fact of the matter was that he could never put felt life on the page. End of major-novelist story. Not, however, for Diana.

Diana Trilling spent her life declaring that she was her own separate self, but at no time—except when she was pontificating about communism or psychoanalysis—did she imagine herself except in relation to her husband. There are very few pages together, either in her memoir or in the Robins biography, where Lionel is absent. Such an attachment, needless to say, is bound to breed a wealth of negative as well as positive feeling. Thus, while Diana regularly announced that of course Lionel was a genius, she just as regularly pointed out that he couldn’t swim, couldn’t drive, couldn’t balance a checkbook; and when she was pregnant, he wouldn’t come near her. She also reported that he routinely suffered from raging depressions during which—she wondered why—he screamed that Diana had poisoned his very existence.

A life such as hers—full of naked greed for its own fulfillment—is deserving of insight and interpretation, but the biography Natalie Robins has written doesn’t give us much of either. The problem with The Untold Journey is that its author hasn’t developed a point of view separate from that of its subject. Making use of Diana’s memoir to an astonishing degree, Robins repeatedly quotes Diana herself, directly and uncritically, as though she (Robins) thinks it legitimate for a biographer to take what her subject says about herself and others at face value, and around such testimony builds a narrative.

Throughout the book, there are numerous instances of this practice. Diana says of Hannah Arendt, who never spoke to her, “I guess she wanted to go to bed with Lionel. That was usually the reason when women weren’t pleasant to me.” And Robins lets these remarkable sentences stand without comment or evaluation. Diana speculated that her marriage detracted from her literary reputation, concluding that “people will celebrate one member of a household but not two”—and, again, Robins lets it go at that. The result is hagiography, pure and simple.

Nevertheless, The Untold Journey does us a service by bringing Diana to the attention of the current generation of readers as, in its own ironic way, hers is an exemplary life: the life of an intelligent and talented woman who struggles to achieve an inner sense of worth while spending the majority of her years in the shadow of borrowed glory, and who therefore becomes so obsessed with the double bind in which she finds herself that ultimately, in her own eyes, it becomes her inescapable identity. To the very end, Diana brooded that the leading line of her obituary would read “Diana Trilling dies at 150. Widow of distinguished professor and literary critic Lionel Trilling.” And indeed, mention her name today and three out of four people will ask, “Who’s that?” Add that she was the wife of Lionel Trilling, and those same people reply with a nod of recognition.

Hers was the fate of the woman who, regardless of what she herself undertakes to do, lives and dies the Wife of the Great Man. In literary history alone, three women who shared this fate come to mind: Jane Carlyle (wife of Thomas), Clover Adams (wife of Henry), Zelda Fitzgerald (wife of F. Scott). Jane was a celebrated diarist, Clover a brilliant conversationalist and letter writer, and Zelda a gifted dancer and the author of a painfully moving novel. It is not at all clear that the inborn talents of these women were necessarily inferior to those of their famous husbands, but it is certainly clear that while the men were obsessively centered in their work, the women never were. This perfectly conventional failure to develop the single-hearted motivation required for work of the first order determined all in their lives that was to follow. In the end, Jane Carlyle withered away, Clover Adams committed suicide, and Zelda Fitzgerald lost her reason. Diana Trilling, however, it must be said, went down fighting.

When Diana was 90 years old, now blind and with just one more year to live, a journalist at The Boston Globe wrote a profile of her that included the observation that, while Diana’s ankles were “bloated pink and painful over the straps of black sandals,” she still had “a tongue sharp as a torn tin can.” She must have howled like a wounded animal when these words were read out loud to her, then pulled herself together and dictated a letter to the journalist composed of the kind of gorgeously stern rebuke she might have delivered in a book review written 50 years earlier.

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