Diana Trilling Essay - Critical Essays

Trilling, Diana


Diana Trilling 1905-1996

American critic and memoirist.

Trilling is counted among the twentieth century's most eminent American literary and cultural critics. Along with her husband Lionel Trilling, she belonged to the loosely structured group of artists and academics known as the New York intellectuals, who associated both professionally and personally from the 1920s to the 1950s and whose work was prominently featured in such celebrated publications as the Nation and the Partisan Review. Known for her precise arguments and often caustic criticism, Trilling frequently alienated others, but she is remembered as a key figure in the golden age of American scholarly criticism.

Biographical Information

Trilling was born Diana Rubin in Westchester, New York, in 1905 to immigrant Polish Jews. She spoke often in interviews about her childhood, which was defined by her father's strict code of modesty and personal self-denial. She wrote once, echoing a theory of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, “Pleasure was not the principle of our home.” From childhood through the early years of her marriage, she suffered from numerous phobias and panic attacks, as well as a life-threatening thyroid condition. Trilling graduated from Radcliffe with a degree in fine arts, without, she said later, “having read a line of Homer or Dante or Chaucer, without knowing anything of Shakespeare.” Feeling that her education had failed to prepare her for a career, she returned to her parents' home. In 1927 she was introduced to Lionel Trilling in a speakeasy by their mutual friends Clifton and Polly Fadiman. They married in 1929, and Trilling was drawn into her husband's circle of friends and colleagues, which included many of those who would become the most important thinkers in America at the time. In the early 1930s Trilling, like most of the New York intellectuals, was drawn to Communism, but, unlike many others, she quickly saw the darker side of Stalinism and became a staunch anti-Stalinist for the rest of her life. She maintained, however, a policy of anti-McCarthyism as well during the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s. Trilling's political views caused bitter rifts between her and others, particularly Lillian Hellman; their very public argument was a topic of interest and speculation among Trilling's readers for the rest of her life. In 1941 Trilling began her own writing career, after years of helping to edit her husband's work. Her first pieces were unsigned book reviews for the Nation, and she soon moved to a more prominent position as principal reviewer of the magazine's highly respected literary section. In her position, Trilling was among the first critics to review such modern classics as Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, George Orwell's 1984, and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. Additionally, she published nonfiction in the New Yorker, the Saturday Review, Harper's, the Atlantic, Vogue, and Mademoiselle. After her husband's death in 1975, Trilling meticulously collected and edited a twelve-volume complete edition of his works, and she began publishing her own work in book form. She died in 1996.

Major Works

Trilling's literary output is relatively small, but she exercised much influence as a critic of books and culture. In her cultural essays, Trilling wrote from a decidedly upper-middle-class standpoint, often finding the various radical literary and social movements she observed shallow and without focus. In 1977 she published We Must March My Darlings, a collection of essays in which she evaluated the major social changes in America in the 1960s. Reviewing the Forties (1978) is a collection of Trilling's book reviews from her days at the Nation. In Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor (1981), Trilling departed from her usual style and themes, writing instead an impressionistic report of the sensational murder case in which the headmistress at a prestigious girls' boarding school was convicted of killing the famous doctor with whom she was having an affair. In The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling (1993), she produced a memoir of the first twenty years of her married life. But the book also presented a portrait of the couple's professional and social circles, as well as detailing Trilling's own explorations in political groups and with various psychoanalysts. Written when she was eighty-eight years old and nearly blind, The Beginning of the Journey was dictated to secretaries.

Critical Reception

Reaction to Trilling's work has tended to fall along political lines. Trilling's own beliefs were well known throughout the literary and academic communities, as was her willingness to take a stand regardless of whether she offended anyone. She frequently was accused of bourgeois conservatism, although her background was in the liberal intellectual milieu. Critics were largely taken aback by her choice of subject matter in Mrs. Harris; some found the material tawdry while others were shocked by Trilling's sympathetic portrait of Jean Harris, the woman convicted of murdering her lover. But the book that earned the most commentary—both positive and negative—was The Beginning of the Journey, in which Trilling combined autobiography of herself, biography of her husband, and analysis of the New York intellectual scene. Reviews ranged from highly laudatory to disappointed and even angry. Those who praised the book found it a courageous and honest exploration of marriage, career, and family; those who censured it found Trilling's psychoanalytic portrayal of her husband unfair and cruel. Nevertheless, as Trilling's last major work, it is considered by many to be her greatest achievement.

Principal Works

We Must March My Darlings (essays) 1977

Reviewing the Forties (essays) 1978

Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor (nonfiction) 1981

The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling (memoir) 1993


Diana Trilling with Bruce Cook (interview date 28 May 1977)

SOURCE: “When Giants Walked the Land,” in Saturday Review, Vol. 4, No. 17, May 28, 1977, pp. 22-23.

[In the following interview, Trilling discusses her disappointment in the intellectual community of the 1970s.]

Since the recent death of her husband, Lionel, Diana Trilling has continued to live in the spacious, comfortable apartment just around the corner from Columbia University, where at one terrible time, as she recounts in We Must March My Darlings, she anxiously awaited an onslaught from neighboring Harlem that would never come. But as she freely admits, “I've never been in the business of prophecy,” and at the time of the event, the student take-over of Columbia in the spring of 1968, it seemed certain that the center could not hold, and that the world of liberal culture must be coming apart.

Mrs. Trilling's latest collection of essays We Must March My Darlings—ranging as they do from a panegyric to Kennedy (“It's always astonishing to me how abruptly the attitudes in the intellectual community change; one minute The New York Review of Books was devoting a memorial issue to him, a year later he was anathema”) to the social and sexual adjustments of the students at Radcliffe, her alma mater, at the beginning of the 1970s—spans a decade of bewildering transformations. It was a time, she says, when what she calls “the movements of the culture” were so rapid and fleeting that they seemed to far outpace the normal progression by which a society grows and changes. And although the campuses, and the American political scene in general, seem now to have settled into a mood of deep quietism, “it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest to hear this minute that a new large-scale anarchic sit-in was under way around the corner.” Contemporary historical developments, as she stresses in the introduction to her book, “don't last for two minutes,” nor do human attitudes. “In my long lifetime I've been fascinated by the process by which people seem able to completely alter their political views overnight, from left-wing radical to Republican, say, without ever seeming to feel called upon to explain the process by which they got from point A to point B.” As a prime example she cites Garry Wills, a former writer for the National Review, who more recently wrote an introduction to Lillian Hellman's Scoundrel Time in which, she says, he castigated the very positions he had once stoutly maintained.

Mrs. Trilling is still faintly bemused by the extent of the brouhaha set off when Little, Brown, the original publishers of We Must March My...

(The entire section is 1097 words.)

Ronald Radosh (review date 18 June 1977)

SOURCE: “Blaming the Victim,” in The Nation, Vol. 224, No. 24, June 18, 1977, pp. 757-59.

[In the following review, Radosh finds Trilling's interpretations of events in the 1960s in We Must March My Darlings shallow and simplistic.]

Our cultural history continues to be packaged by decades. This season has already brought us Morris Dickstein's sympathetic treatment of the 1960s' culture in Gates of Eden; and now we have a very different assessment of that decade from Diana Trilling, whose political and cultural vision developed in the 1930s, framed by the Spanish Civil War on one hand, and the betrayal of the Socialist dream in the Moscow purge trials...

(The entire section is 2197 words.)

George Watson (review date 24 February 1978)

SOURCE: “Home Truths for the Intelligentsia,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 24, 1978, p. 239.

[In the following review, Watson examines Trilling's portrayal of the American intelligentsia in We Must March My Darlings.]

“You see” Lionel Trilling is said to have once remarked with justified pride to a colleague, “I have power”—a remark that was no exaggeration. His widow has now collected her polemical essays on the 1960s in We Must March My Darlings, and proves herself a powerful personality in her own right, and one who knows from experience what the power of a critic can be. “Men quarrel about opinion here”, she remarks, quoting James...

(The entire section is 2270 words.)

James Atlas (review date 28 October 1978)

SOURCE: Review of Reviewing the Forties, in New Republic, Vol. 179, No. 18, October 28, 1978, pp. 35-36.

[In the following review, Atlas finds in Trilling's collection of her 1940s book reviews intimations of her later essayist's voice, but overall questions the purpose of publishing the collection.]

History is now and in New York City, to echo Eliot. The 1930s and 1940s, decades no longer consigned to the generation that lived through them, have become the property of memoirists and intellectual historians. The Collected Works of Lionel Trilling, the autobiographies of Alfred Kazin and Jerre Mangione, Philip Rahv's Essays on Literature and...

(The entire section is 1180 words.)

Nathan A. Scott, Jr. (review date 28 September 1979)

SOURCE: “Unfailing Insight,” in Commonweal, September 28, 1979, pp. 539-40.

[In the following review, Scott compares Trilling's Reviewing the Forties with Virginia Woolf's The Common Reader for its “quiet pleasure.”]

If one is of a sufficient age, to read the pieces that Diana Trilling has collected in Reviewing the Forties from her work as chief fiction reviewer for The Nation in the 1940s is to feel a certain nostalgic longing for that marvelous period of the journal's career when, under Freda Kirchwey's editorship, Clement Greenberg and James Agee, B. H. Haggin and Reinhold Niebuhr and Harold Laski, as its regular contributors,...

(The entire section is 1008 words.)

Jonathan Yardley (review date 25 October 1981)

SOURCE: “The Headmistress and the Diet Doctor,” in Washington Post Book World, October 25, 1981, p. 3.

[In the following review, Yardley finds Mrs. Harris, and the murder case upon which it was based, shallow and worth neither writing nor reading about.]

Diana Trilling has written a long, occasionally insightful and frequently soporific book [Mrs. Harris] about Jean Harris, the schoolmarm who killed Herman Tarnower, the diet doctor. The book is loaded with admirably serious notions, but it fails to establish its central premise: that Jean Harris and “Hi” Tarnower are sufficiently interesting people to warrant such laborious scrutiny. Trilling...

(The entire section is 1076 words.)

Saul Maloff (review date 12 February 1982)

SOURCE: “Flaubert and Freud and the Scarsdale Diet Doctor: Mrs. Trilling's Mrs. Harris,” in Commonweal, February 12, 1982, pp. 89-92.

[In the following review, Maloff faults what he considers Trilling's psychoanalytic misreading of the Scarsdale murder, finding that her interpretation of the case is closer to pulp fiction than great literature.]

For Diana Trilling to evoke the immortal ghosts of Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina in her book of meditations on Jean Harris1 is not only natural, it is inevitable. Suicide conferred on the fictional characters—what?—stature, significance, dignity, transcendent reality, splendor even, a kind of magnificence...

(The entire section is 2971 words.)

Phyllis Grosskurth (review date 7 May 1982)

SOURCE: “What a Set!,” in New Statesman, Vol. 103, No. 2668, May 7, 1982, pp. 21-22.

[In the following review, Grosskurth finds in Mrs. Harris what he considers an unnecessarily disdainful attitude toward the principal characters in the murder case.]

Just about everyone knows most of the details of the murder of the ‘inventor’ of the Scarsdale Diet by his discarded mistress. In a culture obsessed with bodies, the case provided a gamut of titillation. Additional interest was given to the trial by the knowledge that Diana Trilling, widow of Lionel Trilling, was writing a book about it [Mrs. Harris], thus giving it an intellectual imprimatur.


(The entire section is 554 words.)

Marsha McCreadie (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “The Culture Critics: Diana Trilling, Simone de Beauvoir, Joan Didion, and Nora Sayre,” in Women on Film: The Critical Eye, Praeger, 1983, pp. 103-12.

[In the following essay, McCreadie identifies traits specific to women film critics, including Trilling.]

If one thinks it is still to be proven that women film critics generally react more directly, more intimately—and in some cases more imaginatively—to the performer in films under their scrutiny than male critics, the responses of women writers as intellectually formidable as Simone de Beauvoir and Diana Trilling should settle the question. In fact, no one seems as surprised to encounter such...

(The entire section is 4599 words.)

Diana Trilling with Lis Harris (interview date 13 September 1993)

SOURCE: “Di and Li,” in New Yorker, Vol. 69, No. 29, September 13, 1993, pp. 90-99.

[In the following interview, Trilling and Harris discuss Trilling's life and career.]

It is the fate of notable literary figures to be relegated for safekeeping to a pathetically simple symbolic image in people's minds. However much we may know about the complexity of, say, Ernest Hemingway or H. L. Mencken or Virginia Woolf, there they are, filed away in our overcrowded mental archive like little cartoons: Hemingway in his safari outfit, Mencken in galluses and boater, Woolf in drooping woollens gazing raptly at a moth.

Despite many decades of eminence as a...

(The entire section is 7836 words.)

Hilton Kramer (review date October 1993)

SOURCE: “Diana Trilling's ‘Journey,’” in New Criterion, Vol. 12, No. 2, October, 1993, pp. 6-10.

[In the following review, Kramer excoriates Trilling for what he considers her uncompassionate and overly Freudian portrait of her husband in The Beginning of the Journey.]

Why can't incompatible things be left incompatible? If you make an omelette out of a hen's egg, a plover's, and an ostrich's, you won't have a grand amalgam or unification of hen and plover and ostrich into something we may call “oviparity.” You'll have that formless object, an omelette.

—D.H. Lawrence, in Etruscan Places


(The entire section is 3251 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 17 October 1993)

SOURCE: “A Time for Every Season,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 17, 1993, pp. 3, 11.

[In the following review, Eder discusses several flaws in The Beginning of the Journey.]

There is a time for memoirs. Some are premature—those written to record events rather than to transform them in the perspective of elapsed time and ripened character. Wait too long, on the other hand, and perspective becomes disassociation. The writer does not so much transform the memory as jab at it over the gulf of years, as though the subject were not himself or herself but a young intruder.

The time for memoirs is not fixed; it varies with the...

(The entire section is 1350 words.)

Phyllis Rose (review date November, 1993)

SOURCE: “Goddess of Reason,” in Atlantic Monthly, November 1993, pp. 149-54.

[In the following review, Rose finds The Beginning of the Journey to be a powerful, if at times unsettling, examination of self, marriage, and the intellectual circle.]

A friend who reached the age of enthusiasm around 1960, like me, came to New York from the Midwest intoxicated by literature and, just to feel close to them, looked up Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin in the New York phone book. They were there! These gods were listed in the phone book! My friend felt awed and privileged to be in the same city. It was still the golden age of the New York Jewish intellectual....

(The entire section is 2341 words.)

Diana Trilling with John F. Baker (interview date 1 November 1993)

SOURCE: “Diana Trilling,” in Publishers Weekly, November 1, 1993, pp. 53-54.

[In the following interview, Trilling discusses reviews ofThe Beginning of the Journey, as well as her relationships with her publisher and editor and her writing method.]

Diana Trilling, at 88, is not exactly slowing down. She is almost blind now and moves a little stiffly, but her mind is razor-sharp as ever, her opinions are firmly held and often crusty, and her writing style—as anyone who has read The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling will recognize—remains a model of balanced lucidity.

She receives PW in the...

(The entire section is 2177 words.)

Sven Birkerts (review date 28 November 1993)

SOURCE: “A Marriage of True Minds,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXIII, No. 48, November 28, 1993, p. 11.

[In the following review, Birkerts faults Trilling for not presenting a more complete portrait of her husband in The Beginning of the Journey but otherwise considers it a work of great importance to the history of American critical thought.]

In the preface to her cleverly, if inevitably, entitled memoir, The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling (her husband's one novel was The Middle of the Journey), Diana Trilling writes: “Although I often cast forward in time, I end the story in 1950. Lionel and I...

(The entire section is 896 words.)

Kenneth S. Lynn (review date February 1994)

SOURCE: “Life with Lionel,” in American Spectator, Vol. 27, No. 2, February, 1994, pp. 66-68.

[In the following review, Lynn focuses on Trilling's portrayal of her husband, Lionel, in The Beginning of the Journey.]

The New York intellectuals of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were “overbearing and arrogant, excessively competitive; they lacked magnanimity and often they lacked common courtesy,” Diana Trilling recalls in her startling memoir of her marriage to the celebrated literary critic Lionel Trilling [The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling. Harcourt Brace and Company, 442 pp.]. Once at a Partisan Review...

(The entire section is 2623 words.)

Robert B. Heilman (review date Summer 1994)

SOURCE: “Intellectual Portraiture,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 102, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 482-86.

[In the following review, Heilman praises Trilling's ability in The Beginning of the Journey to move fluidly among her various topics and laments the loss of critics of Lionel Trilling's caliber. ]

In this extraordinarily interesting volume [The Beginning of the Journey] Diana Trilling combines a fairly complete autobiography, a biography of her husband, an ample account of their marriage of forty-six years—the marriage a durable survivor of human ups and downs that only sentimental romance ignores—and less detailed accounts, biographical and...

(The entire section is 1631 words.)

Mark Krupnick (review date Summer 1994)

SOURCE: “The Trillings: A Marriage of True Minds?,” in Salmagundi, No. 103, Summer, 1994, pp. 213-24.

[In the following review, Krupnick finds The Beginning of the Journey self-serving and harshly critical of Lionel Trilling yet maintains that it is Diana Trilling's best book.]

Since the death of Lionel Trilling in 1975, Diana Trilling has come into her own as a writer. Claremont Essays (1964), a collection of pieces from the previous two decades, had borne the stamp of her intellectual collaboration with Lionel, but Mrs. Trilling's 1981 book on Jean Harris, the spurned lover and murderer of the Scarsdale Diet doctor Herman Tarnower, was hers alone....

(The entire section is 4836 words.)

Peter Balbert (essay date Summer 1998)

SOURCE: “Silver Spoon to Devil's Fork: Diana Trilling and the Sexual Ethics of Mr Noon,” in D. H. Lawrence Review, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 237-50.

[In the following essay, Balbert argues against Trilling's interpretation of D. H. Lawrence's Mr Noon.]

“Is not the marriage bed a fiery battlefield as well as a perfect communion, both simultaneously.”

Diana Trilling's prominent, severe attack in The New York Times Book Review on the ethics of D. H. Lawrence and the ethos of Mr Noon requires a response. Trilling's pioneering criticism on Lawrence in the 1940s and 1950s is...

(The entire section is 5937 words.)