Trilling, Diana Rubin

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Trilling, Diana Rubin

(b. 21 July 1905 in New York City; d. 23 October 1996 in New York City), cultural and literary critic whose books, essays, and reviews explored the social, intellectual, and artistic questions of her time—the ideals and illusions of the American Old and New Left, the tastes and values of the middle class, and the achievements and shortcomings of American writers.

The youngest of three children of Eastern European Jewish parents, Trilling was raised in a prosperous, not religiously observant, Americanized household. Her father, Joseph Rubin, a hard-driving, no-nonsense striver, had fled from Russian Poland to avoid conscription; he began his business life selling macaroons and soon did well in the braid business. But when elaborate hats went out of fashion during World War I, he turned to manufacturing silk stockings, an enterprise that made the family comfortable enough to live in Larchmont, an upscale suburb of New York City where many middle class Jews lived. Trilling’s mother, Sadie Helene Forbert, was an energetic housekeeper and gardener. In the late 1910s, the family moved to Brooklyn, where Trilling attended Erasmus Hall High School, graduating in 1921. She continued her studies at Radcliffe College—located as one might pick a name from telephone book and fondly desired because it was an all-women’s college near a big city. She received good training in art history and graduated cum laude from Radcliffe with a B.A. degree in 1925. But she claimed in her memoir, The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling (1993), to have learned little about world literature and thought. After college, Trilling studied singing and traveled with her father—her mother had died in 1926. In 1927 she met Lionel Trilling in a speakeasy; at the time he was a graduate student at Columbia University, teaching part-time at Hunter College. Their marriage in 1929 was inarguably the defining event of her life: with it came entrance into a world of literary culture, Marxist politics, and friendship with intellectuals and writers.

Psychological difficulties—especially fears of being alone and of asserting herself—as well as hyperthyroidism plagued Trilling during the 1930s and well into middle life. Nevertheless, in 1932 she began to be active in left-wing politics, engaging at first in “the women’s work of revolution, stuffing and licking envelopes” for the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, a Communist front organization. She also spent the decade sharing her husband’s problems. He had begun teaching in the English department at Columbia in 1932 but by 1936 had not secured his tenure. He was told that “as a Jew, a Marxist, and a Freudian” he was not welcome at the university and his contract would not be renewed. At that point he needed to distinguish himself in order to survive. She encouraged him to make a case for his teaching and literary potential. An avid reader and amateur editor, Trilling criticized his writing, perhaps sharpened his style, and unconsciously prepared for her own writing career. With the appearance of his book on Matthew Arnold in 1939, Lionel Trilling rose dramatically at Columbia and in the community of New York intellectuals—so much so that he was able to recommend his wife for a reviewing position at the leftist magazine Nation in 1941.

After a trial period writing small notices, Trilling got her own column and with it the obligation of reading what amounted to a novel a day for six and a half years. While she was not quite a full-fledged New York intellectual—a wife and a guest at literary gatherings rather than a peer—she began to build a reputation as an incisive critic of the novel in time of war. A 1978 collection of her essays for the Nation, Reviewing the Forties, reveals her talents and strong convictions about writing and politics. Having shed her Communist sympathies by the late 1930s, she cast a cold eye on books informed by Communist-sympathizing or pro-Soviet ideas; she wrote of “intellectual decency,” which Stalinist writers of the period sacrificed to their cause. The reviews also embodied her literary standards—mastery of craftsmanship and freedom from ideology, sentimentality, and extreme subjectivity. She praised the playwright and fiction writer Christopher Isherwood’s clarity and moral sincerity and attacked the gothic elaboration and preciosity of Southern writers Truman Capote and Eudora Welty.

The critic Edmund Wilson took notice of her first long essay for the Nation and encouraged her to curtail her reviewing and instead develop her own ideas. She took his advice; by the late 1940s, after leaving her job at the Nation, she was moving between the world of women’s magazines and the rarefied intellectual regions of Partisan Review. The latter publication—the standard-bearing magazine of the anti-Stalinist Left and the critical arm of literary modernism—eventually brought out her own unorthodox liberal evaluations of the U.S. State Department official Alger Hiss, who turned over state secrets to the Soviets; the American journalist and Soviet intelligence agent Whittaker Chambers; and the American physicist J. Robert Oppen-heimer, who was instrumental in developing the atomic bomb. Her skeptical look at the politics of the postwar period—at deluded liberals and intense Communist-baiters—made her a controversial figure. The beginning of her fascination with the artist as rebel and battler with convention first yielded a long essay on the English novelist D. H. Lawrence for introduction to the Viking Portable series of edited classics (1947); the work became a bestseller. Meanwhile, she became the mother of James Trilling in 1948, and then as before the role of homemaker was central to her life.

In 1950, Trilling received a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship for a book on the American family, a project that was abandoned for steady essay writing in the 1950s. The decade also included a period as a columnist for the pro-labor, anticommunist New Leader (1957–1959) and more work on D. H. Lawrence, which resulted in a selected edition of his letters in 1958. In Claremont Essays (1964), she brought together long pieces about political and cultural life done from the late 1940s into the early 1960s. With pride in her social identity and locale, indicated by the title reference to her street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she argued against a fashionable contemporary attitude—that society is hostile to the individual will. She wrote about such modern icons as Norman Mailer, Marilyn Monroe, and Allen Ginsberg, among others, and dealt with the theme of the disconnected self. Mailer is “messianic” rather than creative; Monroe is the prisoner of biology, not Hollywood; Ginsberg is a talented child trying to impress grown-ups. With a gift for evoking personalities in crisis, including a complex understanding of the intelligence as well as the extremism of larger-than-life artists and outsiders, Trilling measured these figures by her 1940s standards of artistic coherence and freedom from cant and destructive willfulness. Her verdicts were sensitive to the creative mission as well as critical of the illusions of hipsters, movie stars, and beatniks. Her defense of the mind and human community as against instinct and isolated individualism was her main enterprise from the 1960s to the end of her life.

Lionel Trilling, one of the most famous and honored intellectuals of the twentieth century, died in 1975, and Diana Trilling assumed the role of his editor once again, this time officially. She worked on the Uniform Edition of the writings of Lionel Trilling (1978–1980), including a new volume of uncollected pieces, Speaking of Literature and Society. Her own work continued to appear. We Must March My Darlings (1977) was Trilling’s look at the Old Left’s mistakes and the new counterculture’s impact. She enraged the playwright Lillian Hellman and other old-time Marxist stalwarts and anti-anti-Communists by excoriating their ideas about Soviet virtue and American evil. As the wife of a famous professor and critic who had had his own troubles with an order-conservative Columbia, Trilling was sympathetic to one aspect of the 1968 student uprisings at Columbia of 1968: the critique of new power. But the New Left protestors who occupied buildings wanted fundamental changes in culture and values. Their goals were diffuse and anarchic compared to the Old Left’s pursuit of political ends. This new generation seemed to be irresponsible and irrational. The book also reported on a stay at Radcliffe in 1971: she ironically identified a letdown of civilized standards and a general atmosphere of irresponsibility. In another vein, she found the classic 1969 counterculture film Easy Rider (written, produced, and starring Peter Fonda) no more than a romanticizing of the drug culture. On the topic of women’s liberation, she was angry about the denial of women’s “full humanity” in society and encouraged by the revolt against Madison Avenue images for women, but she lacked fervor and militancy. From 1977 to 1979 she received another tangible recognition of her work, a joint Rockefeller Foundation—National Endowment for the Humanities grant.

In 1980 Trilling found another theme to suit her essentially social imagination: the celebrated trial of the Madeira School headmistress Jean Harris for the murder of her lover, the “Scarsdale Diet” doctor Herman Tarnower. Covering the court case and bringing to bear on it her ideas of responsibility and integrity, she produced a richly textured account of pretensions, hypocrisies, and vulgarities. Harris is depicted as the prisoner of her class—an employee to the fashionable and a self-pitying woman desperate for a man of status. Tarnower, a cruel womanizer, is shown as a coarse, swaggering man despite his society airs. Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor (1981) has novelistic qualities and, as the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani pointed out, rounds off the career of a fiction reviewer who was a keen observer of social nuance. The book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Trilling received a second Guggenheim in 1991 for her last book, the story of her marriage to Lionel. The Beginning of the journey is a sweeping memoir of youth and maturity, love and friendship. It is also an intellectual’s account of vivid ideas, characters, and crucial events. As the central figure, Lionel Trilling often appears as temperamental and filled with neurotic self-doubt, the great critic as would-be novelist and flawed personality. The cast of the book includes 1930s radicals, psychoanalysts, professors, critics, and editors. The backdrop is twentieth-century New York from the speakeasy days to Lionel’s death in 1975. The events include the 1929 stock market crash, the rise of the Communist Party, and the impact of the Moscow trials of 1936–1939 with their forced confessions and the McCarthy hearings. Candid about her dissatisfactions—including condescension to women intellectuals and dishonesty and crude behavior among the brilliant and eloquent—she nevertheless celebrates the New York intelligentsia that grew to maturity in the 1930s and disappeared in her old age. This last book, dictated because of failing eyesight, was not Trilling’s last publication. A lengthy article on Goronwy Rees, a British intellectual and Marxist of the 1930s, appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 1995. Rees had become a notable academic by the 1950s and feared his old friendship with Guy Burgess, the notorious Cambridge spy who had defected to Moscow in 1956; in a series of articles, he exposed Burgess and the intelligence network that supposedly protected him. Trilling’s essay used Rees for her characteristic blend of intellectual analysis and memorable depiction of personality. Trilling died of cancer and is buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester, New York.

Diana Trilling combined an intensity about ideas with a commonsensical, middle-class attachment to moderation and decency. As a female writer in an essentially male world of letters, she refused the role of feminist spokesperson and forged an identity based on her personal reactions to books and contemporary manners and on her affinities with opinionated New York intellectuals. Her bracing, judgmental criticism was frankly moralistic and has earned her a modest but dignified place among American essayists and cultural commentators.

Valuable interview material with Diana Trilling in old age and the evaluation of her place among other women writers are available in David Laskin, Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals (2000). Norman Podhoretz, Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer (1999), offers a controversial and ultimately negative account of his own relationship with the Trillings, told from a neoconservative viewpoint. Ann Hulbert surveys major aspects of the Trillings’ life together in her review of The Beginning of the Journey in the New York Times Book Review (24 Oct. 1993). Patricia Bosworth’s “A Life of Significant Contention,” an informative and moving memorial essay in the New York Times, includes a series of interesting remarks Trilling made late in life (29 Dec. 1996). There is an obituary in the New York Times (25 Oct. 1996).

David Castronovo