Diana Trilling Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.