Trilling, Diana

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Born 21 July 1905, New York, New York

Daughter of Joseph and Sadie Forbert Rubin; married Lionel Trilling, 1929 (died 1975); children: one son

Diana Trilling has spent most of her life in New York City, except for brief sojourns abroad, mainly at Oxford and London. In 1925 she received her B.A. from Radcliffe College, where she majored in fine arts. In 1929 she married literary critic and professor Lionel Trilling, who died in 1975. They had one son, who is an art historian.

From 1955 to 1957, Trilling was chairman of the board of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. She has also served on the board of the American Scholar and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1950, and in 1977 received a joint grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Rockefeller Foundation for an oral history of the advanced literary-intellectual culture of New York from 1925 to 1975.

Trilling was fiction critic for the Nation from 1942 to 1949. A collection of the Nation reviews appears in Reviewing the Forties (1978). During the 1950s, Trilling frequently contributed penetrating essays on McCarthyism and civil liberties to the New Leader. Trilling has published widely, in periodicals ranging from the popular Redbook to the intellectual Encounter and American Scholar.

The Claremont Essays (1964) is a brilliant collection that demonstrates Trilling's salient qualities as a cultural critic—her fusion of literary, social, and political commentary in which the personal and the public, the thinking and feeling selves are combined. The critical analysis of "The House of Mirth Revisited" is no mere explication de texte but an explication of life as well. Granville Hicks has called "The Death of Marilyn Monroe" a masterpiece of analysis. "The Oppenheimer Case: A Reading of the Testimony" is political analysis informed by the examination of one thousand pages of court records.

In the more recent We Must March, My Darlings (1977), it is primarily the 1960s that are under scrutiny, and again the pen is far-ranging. This collection includes "The Assassination of President Kennedy," "Celebrating with Dr. Leary"—which Irving Howe praised as a "major demolition of everything in the late 1960s and beyond, that yielded to the soft swoon of unthinking"—and "On the Steps of Low Library," about the university revolts. One can never count on Trilling for the expected or comfortable ending. She defends anticommunists in "Two Symposiums," arguing one can be opposed to both communism and McCarthyism. Trilling sees the critic's function as a "moralizing function, whatever additional critical purpose he may also be pursuing," but she is never a propagandist. The title essay deals with the author's return in 1971 to Radcliffe, where she lived for almost nine weeks in a coed dorm. Trilling's detractors have accused her of siding with the older generation and of accommodating herself to institutional authority; but, in fact, she resists categories, and in many instances the young end up agreeing with her.

Trilling is not popular with radicals, partly because of her desire to point out ambiguities in the arguments of advocates of social theories. Unlike many feminists, she refuses to discount biology. Though she urges women to "direct their sensibility outward, to the world of social and human fact," she is keenly aware of the significance of sexuality and its effect on personal freedom. In her provocative piece "The Liberated Heroine" (Partisan Review, 1978), Trilling contrasts contemporary "heroines" with earlier "heroines of spirit"—classical literary figures—and shows that women are still capitulating to men and accommodating to their fantasies.

Trilling is a critic in the liberal tradition. Her humanism recognizes the realities of lust and rage, whose boundaries Freud had mapped out, at the same time that it upholds the virtues of manners and form. One might say of her what she said of President Kennedy, that she has had the "ability to bring past and present together, with the hope that this [offers] of a continuing life in civilization—which is to say, a future."

Other Works:

The Portable D. H. Lawrence (edited by Trilling, 1947, 1981). The Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence (edited by Trilling, 1958). Of This Time, of That Place, and Other Stories (1980). Uniform Edition of the Works of Lionel Trilling, 1978-80 (edited by Trilling, 1981). Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor (1981, 1982). The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews, 1965-1975 (1982). The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling (1993).


From the Library of Lionel and Diana Trilling (1998). Ozick, C. and Atwan, R., The Best American Essays 1998 (1998). Podhoretz, N., Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel & Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer (1999). Thomson, V., A Virgil Thomson Reader (1981).

Reference works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Change (March 1979). Commentary (July 1977). New Leader (23 May 1977). NR (20 Aug. 1977). NYTBR (15 March 1964). Partisan Review (1978). SR (14 March 1964).