Diana Trilling

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1097

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 Darlings, declined to publish the book because of critical references in it to Miss Hellman. Those references are there, unexpurgated, in the present edition, and seem hardly strong enough to justify such action. “Lillian said at the time she didn't know what was in the book,” Mrs. Trilling comments sharply, “and I believe her. But I didn't hear any protest from her when the publishers decided to censor my book, all the same.” One more unhappy aftermath of that story that Mrs. Trilling would like to clear up: she had almost agreed to appear on William Buckley's television show, Firing Line , to discuss not any individual, but liberal anti-Communism in general, provided she had a chance to see the questions in advance. She heard nothing more about it for a time. Then, after Buckley had published his long and scathing review of Miss Hellman's book, titled “Who Is the Ugliest of Them All?” his TV people, having apparently accepted Mrs. Trilling's terms, phoned...

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to arrange for her appearance. “But this time I refused because I felt that in titling his review as he had, Mr. Buckley had reduced political polemic to personal insult.”

The Trillings' position of liberal anti-Communism, she finds, is harder and harder to maintain today. “A writer like George Orwell, who to my mind was one of the greatest and most clear-sighted of this century, is completely out of intellectual favor now.” Writers and artists who were once only too glad of (and, she avers, well aware of) clandestine support from CIA funds are now vociferous in their disapproval of it.

Many of Mrs. Trilling's attitudes, she fully realizes, are far from fashionable, though once they seemed humane and eminently reasonable to many. She feels, for instance, that “militant lesbianism” has taken over the feminist movement, and blames Masters and Johnson and their teaching in considerable part for it. “No one can begin to say the harm they have done, and I don't see anyone even trying.” As for making a college like Radcliffe coeducational, “It once seemed to many of us a proud thing to have a great women's college.”

She finds she does not read much contemporary fiction anymore, though for ten years (1940 to 1950) she was fiction editor of The Nation. “I still read Mailer, Bellow, and Nabokov, but that's about all. I'm not really a literary person; I'm a political and sociological person. I haven't done a literary essay in ten years, and I don't think I'd even know where to publish one anymore. Where would one publish an essay today on George Eliot, Stendhal, Madame Bovary, or Anna Karenina?” she asks. “I've always wanted to write about Jane Welch Carlyle—but who would want that?”

She is working on a new book—not a further essay collection—about which she will say nothing more. “But there's such an enormous amount to do after Lionel's death—putting his papers in order, looking at the unpublished material, writing letters. …” The Seventies, compared with the Sixties, seem barren of interest to her as material on which to think and write. “What would I write about now? I suppose you could look at these big new sections in The New York Times, what they mean in terms of an obsession with consumption; you could talk about the passion for British class dramas on TV, about the cultural influence of women's clothes, perhaps about the strange reactions of audiences at movies. But none of these things seems to be central to the decade in the way that the assassinations, the university riots, the drug scene, were in the Sixties.”

But as an old-style liberal convinced, despite frequent evidence to the contrary, of the possibilities for human progress, Mrs. Trilling has a line from her new book that she would be pleased to see taken as the essence of her thinking: “How to activate decency and teach it to stop feeling deficient because of its low quotient of drama is obviously one of the urgent problems of modern society.”

Ronald Radosh (review date 18 June 1977)

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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 of the 1930s on the other.

Although Mrs. Trilling's volume We Must March My Darlings is essentially a collection of previously published responses to the decade, with some significant additions and updating, she still manages to address herself to the right questions, and is often a good enough polemicist to make us attend to even her weakest arguments. But on her own terms—her claim that “I did my best to look beneath the appearance of things, especially the things which announce themselves as virtues”—she fails to convince.

On one level, Mrs. Trilling's work is about the relation between culture and politics. The opening selections focus on two figures from the 1960s—John F. Kennedy and Timothy Leary. The juxtaposition is as striking as its rationale is cheap. The Kennedy piece is a mawkish, uncritical paean to the former President, almost embarrassing in its naivet‚. Mrs. Trilling adores Kennedy, since she sees him as a “President who satisfied the desire of intellectuals for a government approximate to their own vision.” To Mrs. Trilling, there are no conservative intellectuals, radical intellectuals, or liberal intellectuals. There are simply intellectuals, a group evidently forming a class-in-themselves; “us.” These people hold in trust the values of a culture, and they insure its continuity through history. John F. Kennedy is therefore praised as a President who “believes in history and in the continuity between past and future,” enough so that even the skeptical young believed in him.

Timothy Leary, on the other hand, worked to destroy the young's belief in the social order. Leary was a foolish and peripheral figure in the 1960s, and although Mrs. Trilling's dissection of him is incisive, her indictment of a whole movement in the name of this one marginal individual is ignorant if it is not dishonest. She attacks with some reason the often spurious and phony radicalism of the counterculture, and she warns of the need “to resist the seduction of rebelliousness for its own youthful sake.” But despite these points, Leary remains the all too narrow launching pad from which her attack on the 1960s takes off. To her credit, Mrs. Trilling is content to be an intellectual, a book person. But having no direct or extensive experience of the 1960s quite ironically makes her prey to clichés from the media: she contrasts her own generation's dedication to revolution that “had been social and political” with a ludicrous view of the 1960s “revolutionaries” who were content to take an acid trip and then believe they had caught a glimpse of the future—the same old media cartoon.

With much justification she asks, “How can any enlightened person of whatever age take this psychedelic leader with intellectual seriousness and assent in an ideology so barren of ideas?” Are his followers, she inquires, “the best, the brightest, of their generation”? But she does not detect the irony in her words. The best and brightest of her own generation had taken America down the path of both the imperial Presidency and the liberals' war in Vietnam. Yet her own political commentary contains only praise for official liberalism (or at best lukewarm criticism), always combined with sermons upon the sins of the Left. “I have joined no marches or demonstrations,” she tells Robert Lowell. And the very title of her book, taken from a stanza of a Whitman poem, is meant ironically: she will not become involved in a “united front with anti-Americanism,” by which she means that anyone who speaks against American atrocities in Vietnam speaks in the spirit of anti-Americanism. Proud of being a rationalist, as she calls herself, one wonders what sort of American atrocity it would take to shake her from this most irrational knee-jerk patriotism.

To Mrs. Trilling, the war was merely stupid and wrong, but loose talk about American imperialism was simply that, loose talk, mere rhetoric. The war was a mistake—its escalation an error, but, she clarifies, “not its inception.” As Christopher Lasch points out, Vietnam was a war waged by the Kennedy liberalism she admires, and so one could not expect her views to be any more critical than they are: “The war is more than a general expression of American culture,” Lasch writes; “it is also the particular expression of a particular class which has for too long played the dominant role in our affairs … it was a liberal war, the culmination of twenty years of cold war carried out under liberal auspices and reflecting the traditions of a ruling class supposedly enlightened, mature, and superior to the grosser strains in American life.”

Mrs. Trilling speaks for those who carried out that war, and on behalf of the myth which sees the official repositories of our culture as more enlightened than they really are. At the same time she would have us believe that the Left is and was composed of the historically and culturally benighted. As usual a sliver of experience suffices to bolster this view: upon returning to Radcliffe in the spring of 1971, she makes much of finding that “the nonhistorians, many of them staunchly left wing in their politics … gave sign of almost total ignorance of the historical background and source of their beliefs.” Virtually none of the students she asked could answer her questions about the Spanish Civil War—the turning point for her own generation. Mrs. Trilling may have a point, yet her own sense of history seems to have stopped with the discovery of the horrors of Stalinism. The following passage strikes me as so remarkable that it must be quoted in full:

… the makers and recorders of the history of recent decades prefer not to recall that our “enlightened” acquiescence in Stalinism carried well into the White House, to the point … when the war ended, despite America's overwhelming military ascendancy, [Franklin D. Roosevelt] trusted Stalin's assurances at Yalta and yielded to the Soviet Union what should never have been countenanced: millions upon millions of Poles, Hungarians, Rumanians, Bulgarians, and ultimately Czechs and Germans too, were permitted to come under the domination of a brute alien force. … The Soviet empire was doubled in size … had our opinion-forming class not for so many years blindly played the Soviet Union's game Russia would not only not have achieved her present strength in Europe; she might not have been able to back North Vietnam as she did and there would have been no Vietnam War for us to become engaged in unwisely as we did.

Her historical ignorance here is no less embarrassing than that of the students she found at Radcliffe. She reduces the complexities of Yalta to the Republican right wing's canard about “Twenty Years of Treason” and buys other shopworn and long-discredited notions as well: does she really attribute the long Vietnamese nationalist movement's perseverance to the Soviet Union? Can she even acknowledge the crucial time when the United States made the decision to support French colonialism in Indochina? Or is the French colonial rule over Vietnam just another clich‚ of the Stalinist Left? She misreads the goals and policies of the wartime policy makers, greatly inflates the power and importance of the pro-Communist Left, and does not understand the history of Vietnam. If contemporary Radcliffe students were to obtain their standards on historical accuracy from Mrs. Trilling, one would expect to find them mouthing slogans in ignorance of facts.

Which brings us to the much noted Hellman/Trilling controversy. Mrs. Trilling was right about the nature of Stalinism, and Miss Hellman and others of her generation were wrong. But an understanding of Stalinism does not assure equal wisdom when it comes to understanding American repression. Indeed, Mrs. Trilling asserts that “liberal anti-communism was not, and still is not, the recommended path to professional success.” One wishes she would direct this to the scores of entrenched liberal anti-Communists whose access to power and privilege has remained constant. It was not, after all, the “anti-anti-Communists” (non-Communist radicals) whom John F. Kennedy invited to dinner at the White House. After some rough going at the hands of blacks, students and other powerless groups in the late 1960s, Mrs. Trilling and her sort are more firmly in fashion than ever. These essays and others like them now fill many of our periodicals and are the bitter fruits of her generation's temporary discomfort at the hands of the “young barbarians.”

For Mrs. Trilling Stalinism remains the enemy—a hydra-headed creature as much a threat in the New Left as it was in the old—even when contemporary experience tells us otherwise. In the updated version of her contribution to the 1967 Commentary symposium “Liberal Anti-Communism Revisited,” Mrs. Trilling repeats what is by now a familiar litany: her generation saw no contradiction “in having been opposed to both communism and McCarthyism.” What Mrs. Trilling actually stood for and apparently still does is what I'd call anti-Stalinist McCarthyism. The responsibility for McCarthyism is laid at the door of left-wing intellectuals who refused to realize the truth about Stalinism—a highly dubious and irresponsible reading of history, but one which nicely serves Mrs. Trilling's conviction that the accouterments of the McCarthy era witch hunt were not without merit. She describes HUAC as “a duly constituted Congressional committee” whose investigations did not reveal that “whoever it put under scrutiny was thereby certified to be innocent.” Mrs. Trilling does not let us know—perhaps she would prefer to forget—that she supported the McCarran Committee's harassment of Owen Lattimore. She acknowledged at the time that he was neither a spy nor a Communist, simply an “independent” thinker whose ideas rationalized Soviet foreign policy. The danger, she then wrote, was not from McCarthy but from Left intellectuals who sought to rally the public around the issue of civil liberties.

By Mrs. Trilling's logic, to assume that McCarthy's victims were innocent was to become an apologist for Stalinism. Indeed, she once argued that since ideas “might lead to acts,” they should be treated as such, making prosecution for dangerous ideas a permissible method of protection against Communist subversion. Down the line, Mrs. Trilling argued during the McCarthy era that McCarthy's victims brought their persecution on themselves: “Had Dr. Oppenheimer not once been sympathetic to communism, there would have been no Oppenheimer case.”

A truly critical intellectual might have begun a reassessment by reviewing her own prior nonsense. That Mrs. Trilling seeks to repeat her old arguments with updated versions of them is indeed sad. The refrain she used for Oppenheimer is repeated in essay after essay. She reminds those on the Columbia faculty who condemned police lawlessness in the demonstrations of 1968 that “were it not for student lawlessness the law would never have been called to the campus.” More of the same: Eugene McCarthy made a mistake in condemning Mayor Daley and the Chicago police after the 1968 Chicago police riot, since he “failed to name the provocateurs of violence [the New Left] who had deliberately invited retaliation.” In all cases, the victims are responsible for their own victimization.

As a cultural commentator Diana Trilling is so polarized that her thinking lacks all resilience. She undermines her own best arguments. Certainly, New Left radicals incorrectly read the university as a microcosm of capitalist society. While leaving the social order intact, some of them moved to destroy the very base that served as their sanctuary. Mrs. Trilling realizes that the would-be revolutionary's claim that “all universities are representative of their societies” is fallacious. Yet her anger is reserved for the student rebels alone, not for the society whose anger they mimicked and whose irrationality they often aped. She complains that the “existential” revolution was “subverting the intelligence and self-interest of our better-educated” classes, and she is incensed at the “literary-intellectual fellow travelers of the revolutionary young,” apostates from her own group of once liberal anti-Communists. Never does her anger extend to the ideology or policies of the Kennedy or Johnson administrations. Mrs. Trilling, like the cultural revolutionaries she despises, also rejects theory and politics—in favor of the status quo. To condemn the false counterculture while approving the culture of the society at large is basically to vitiate whatever valid criticisms she has of the self-proclaimed revolutionaries and to demonstrate the bankruptcy of her liberalism. Unlike critics such as Peter Clecak or Christopher Lasch who write, as Lasch says, “to construct an ad hoc defense of liberal culture … that would still be distinguishable from a defense of liberalism as a political ideology,” Mrs. Trilling writes in defense of a bankrupt ideology as if it is indistinguishable from liberal culture.

George Watson (review date 24 February 1978)

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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 Fenimore Cooper on the United States, “because opinion rules. It is but one mode of struggling for power.” In the open societies of the West, opinion rules, and there are heady moments when a critic can form it.

Mrs. Trilling brings her polemic to bear on more than one aspect of the 1960s, which with knowing ambiguity she calls a critical decade. On the one hand, the West in that era rejoiced to abuse and deflate its own institutions, in a sudden loss of faith the historian still has to explain; and the years showed a critical—in the sense of decisive—turning point in attitudes to sex and war. Many Americans abandoned their ancestral moral puritanism and their belief in the omnipotence of the United States at much the same time. Mrs. Trilling deals passionately with all this: rueful, as old D. H. Lawrentians now are after the sexual revolution at the thought that it may have killed the fun in killing off the furtiveness: alarmed at the tolerance for drugs and drug-trafficking that the film Easy Rider implies; and sceptical of American involvement in the Vietnam war for reasons too remote from those of the demonstrators to let her march with anybody. (The title of the book, a quotation from Walt Whitman, is about a march of children.) But the heart of the book is a critique of the intelligentsia, and above all of the left intelligentsia of the great eastern cities of the United States such as New York, where she lives, and Boston-Cambridge, where she spent a period of weeks in 1971 in a nostalgic return to Harvard. That intelligentsia had it pretty good in the 1960s, when it made the headlines and persuaded itself it was making history too. Mrs Trilling is determined it should not have it so good again: not, that is, unless it is ready to listen and learn. She is the apostle of home truths for facile radicals.

What is her intelligentsia like? Mrs. Trilling, like many of our most trenchant anti-socialists, is a founder-member of the order she attacks. She enlisted in it in the 1930s, and was the wife of its finest literary analyst; and she misses nothing in her diagnosis of the easy-riding leftist who lives high and fat by abusing modern materialism, though she occasionally and understandably takes for obvious things a European may need to have explained. She assumes, for example, that intellectuals are people who have been to universities, and in a tribute to President Kennedy written a year after his assassination she commends him for having “closed the gap” between academe and federal politics, and better than Roosevelt—just by being the person he was, as she exclaims approvingly, and looking the person he looked. She makes no bones about “the importance I assign, the special importance” of the university teacher. That is not just because she married one. It is a fact of her land and generation, where universities suddenly came in common acceptance to monopolize intellect, and even the pretension of intellect, and in a way that non-university men like Disraeli or Churchill (or, for that matter, most American Presidents until recently) would not have understood. She can even amuse herself at the thought of her own profound need for academic certification, and in the unlikeliest places. “Who or what had authorized this particular conglomerate … ?” she wants self-mockingly to ask of Dr. Leary watching him preach the virtues of drug-taking, even for children, before a large audience; and Dr. Leary and his colleagues, to make it all worse, had once been university teachers themselves.

Again, her intellectual is distinguished by an ability to agonize and a readiness to complain: indeed a foreign visitor to New York, as he eavesdrops in restaurants or on Fifth-Avenue buses, or gratefully accepts the abundant hospitality of its native sons, may sometimes wonder whether that city knows any species of conversation or any kind of utterance but this. If Mrs. Trilling had lived in the late Middle Ages, any one of her essays would have qualified for the title of a “pleynte”, and she aptly remarks at the start that America is a nation of Ancient Mariners, not all of whom are either ancient or marine. True enough, she might better have said New York City: it is a confusion New Yorkers often make. But the agony-fashion has by now spread to the other coast and back again. I remember seeing a young black working in a San Francisco bookshop who wore a badge with the simple device “I care”. To care is to establish a claim to superior sensitivity. And how establish that claim, or even believe in it yourself, unless you confide at length in your colleagues, your neighbours, the world?

The American intelligentsia, what is more, feels itself to be different from the nation that shelters it. Of that difference the self-admiring world of Harvard that Mrs Trilling describes through interviews and diaries is the perfect exemplar. To be at Harvard, or to have been there, is above all to be different from other Americans, in one's own estimation. Never mind that a Harvard student, living in the sad, lonely and almost sexless intimacy of a mixed-sex hostel, can entertain ignorances as gross as any peasant's, like the girl she quotes who confidently believed that the Spanish Civil War was the fault of the United States. (Twenty years ago, when I was there, an unofficial poll had revealed that most Radcliffe girls did not know whether Greeks or Trojans had won the Trojan War, the name of which is admittedly confusing.) The stamp of the degree, the authorized certification, matters there in a way it does not matter in British life. To understand why, one would have to look back into the recent past, when excluded minorities of Catholics, Jews and blacks broke their way into the grand and exclusive academices of the East Coast, first as students and then (Lionel Trilling himself a notable pioneer at Columbia) as teachers, with all the zeal of conquering armies.

And then again, Mrs. Trilling's intelligentsia is Europe-facing. Mrs Trilling, who fell in love with Oxford on the first of her husband's several sojourns there, is an anglophile: in love—a love, late learnt—with ceremony, with change embraced by a tradition of social courtesy and order and with the sort of sexual tolerance exemplified by Nigel Nicolson's portrait of his parents' marriage. Ingeniously, she attributes British intellectual resistance to Freud's normalizing dogmatisms to our superior tolerance of bisexuality. Like her late husband, she has moved over nearly half a century from Marx through Freud to the quiet, begowned common-room where dons differ in opinion but do not shout or bicker. All that puts the English reader on his mettle: it is a book to try to live up to.

It is also a book about the left. Since Mrs. Trilling naturally uses the word “liberal” in a New York way, the confusion this easily engenders needs to be cleared up once and for all. Our two nations are no longer divided by a common language, and it is doubtful if there is any other word than this in common usage, outside certain objects of domestic use, that still causes genuine misunderstanding. I do not believe that either Trilling was ever a liberal as a British reader would understand the term, and since Lionel Trilling's finest collection, The Liberal Imagination (1950), has preserved the confusion on our bookshelves, it grows almost too late to take stock of the difficulty. The best, though still imperfect, British translation of American “liberal” is perhaps “left-wing”. For Americans of a certain age, the word first conjures up the broad New Deal coalition of the 1930s and after, which Kennedy and Carter have since revived in a new guise.

The term permits, and in some circles requires, a tolerance of communism on which Mrs Trilling is justly severe. “I can't remember if he was a member of the Communist Party or not”, I recall an American remarking some twenty years ago of a colleague, “but anyway he was very liberal.” That sentence measures an enormous and gaping difference in use. The confusion perpetuates itself the more easily because the American term can include real liberals, such as President Kennedy and President Carter and Mrs Trilling, in a fine flourish against Robert Lowell and his publicity hunting in the big anti-war demo in Washington in 1967, half-confidently imagines herself a liberal in the European sense, slipping into Heaven under the cross-questioning of Diderot and John Stuart Mill, who will let her in (she argues whimsically) because she loved truth and looked beneath the appearances of things. “And surely it is not impossible that I'll get by.”

I think she will, if Mill and Diderot have any clout at all with the Heavenly Father. But the gap in usage still matters. The Trillings, to put it grossly, were Marxists who turned conservatives—who moved by way of Freud and D. H. Lawrence towards a love of civilized order in the Arnoldian style. In the end the hallmark became civility. By 1950 both had come to think it the highest social good, if widely interpreted, and Mrs. Trilling in her new collection is fond of rapping her adversaries for insensitive conduct to others and for plain bad manners. It is not on record that they ever thought individual liberty the highest good, though like many intellectual socialists and conservatives they have prized it not a little. That is why, when Mrs Trilling attacks Lillian Hellman's aid and comfort to Stalin over many years, in what she rightly calls a “very long footnote”, and speaks up for “liberal anti-Communism”, the epithet needs to be seen in at least a mildly conservative sense.

In America, far more than in Britain, it is a slippery and make-what-you-want-of-it sort of word. Intellectual American liberals have long exempted communism, as she complains in “On the Steps of Low Library”, from anything like searching criticism. That is not a charge that British liberalism has to answer.

What the West urgently needs as Mrs Trilling rightly and momentously insists, is a responsible intelligentsia: “a working liberal intellectual class, and not merely a lobby for moral self-certification”. The heartland of her case is here, and it is humorously decked out with some unforgettable vignettes: Lillian Hellman touring with the Red Army, Norman Mailer jostling for the limelight and television time with Dwight Macdonald and Robert Lowell during an anti-war rally, and Columbia militants in 1968 shouting to an elderly couple to go home and die. In the heated rhetoric that such incidents arouse, Mrs Trilling can be led on into some strange passes and not everyone will think that the best question to have out with Robert Lowell was whether napalm bombing is better or worse than pissing on a university carpet. At one point, in a regrettable lapse, she describes herself in these ringing terms: “I am, was, and always shall be an anti-Communist”; on the next page she tells how she was a communist fellow-traveller in the early-1930s for “some instructive months”. The book is written with heart as well as with head. But then the 1960s were self-intoxicated as well as critical, and protest and counter-protest find caution galling. He who rides a tiger cannot easily dismount.

This is a world of instant political diatribe. Diana Trilling is a moralist who is interested in literature rather than a literary critic, like Lionel Trilling, of marked moral convictions. Her writings are less serene than his, and more self-evidently conscious of a personality and its effects on those she meets. She is not on the whole one to go to things, though she can watch them from a distance and hear them talked of after, but she is deeply moved by the headlines they make and the talk they provoke. One imagines her standing at a ground-floor window, indignantly watching a demo march past, while her husband sits reading and writing in the next room. She will tell him about it at lunch. The only pity is that, with so much to tell, and that so heartfelt, she can sometimes lapse into the kind of prose in which saying what you think really matters becomes “iconographic of its author's intention of seriousness”.

But diatribe is a mighty art, and worth the mastering. The simple truth she tells is that our intelligentsia, which has twice in this century backed exterminatory dictatorships, has a lot of egg on its face, and the horror of Cambodia in the past two years must remind us of that simple and over-powering truth once again. “More people have been killed by the Soviet Union because of their opinions” she reminds Miss Hellman and anyone else who may be listening, “than were murdered by Hitler.” This may be familiar stuff to historians. But I doubt whether, for Miss Hellman and her friends, the fact has yet sunk in.

James Atlas (review date 28 October 1978)

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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 Politics: given this enthusiastic climate of revival, it is only natural that Diana Trilling should rush into print the book reviews she contributed to The Nation from 1942 to 1949.

Still, others have done so before her, and with no other justification than vanity or the public's mild interest in such documents. Dedicated students of literary journalism continue to turn, I assume, to Edmund Wilson's Classics and Commercials—shrewdly subtitled “A Literary Chronicle of the 1940s,” but a collection of book reviews nonetheless—to Isaac Rosenfeld's An Age of Enormity—subtitled “Life and Writing in the Forties and Fifties”—and to Alfred Kazin's Contemporaries. (Mrs. Trilling's title at least intimates the nature of her book.) If Reviewing the Forties seems more fugitive than these other collections, the fault is perhaps not entirely the author's own; where Wilson and Rosenfeld ranged over a number of general topics in their reviews, and were at liberty to dwell on a writer's oeuvre, Mrs. Trilling had to confine herself to the generally dreary chore of evaluating the week's new novels. “I for once urge a novel on the readers of this column,” she announced jubilantly when Christopher Isherwood's Prater Violet was published.

Her reviews of the few significant novels that did appear in those years are fascinating to read: Isaac Rosenfeld's Passage from Home, Wilson's Memoirs of Hecate County, Bellow's Dangling Man and, four years later, The Victim. Her estimate of Bellow in particular seems to me just; published decades before his fame and his enthronement as the main exhibit in the Jewish cultural pantheon discouraged any further criticism, they are honest judgments. Dangling Man, she complains, is “a novel of sterility,” a minor work; The Victim, which “generates fine and important, if uncomfortable, emotions,” represents a considerable advance. And her review of Nabokov's Bend Sinister is gratifying; how few critics have noted his obvious stylistic failings—in Mrs. Trilling's emphatic words, his “forced imagery and deafness to the music of the English language.” On only one occasion—when she declares someone named Isabel Bolton “the most important new novelist in the English language to appear in years”—does she succumb to the temptation fatal to so many reviewers: the tendency to over-praise out of sheer boredom.

More often, she is stern, and with lively results; polemic is invariably more interesting than praise. Of one hapless novel long since forgotten, she objects that “it makes me feel used, as if I had been made to keep a deathwatch over someone with whom I had no vital connection.” “The only thing that makes Anna Kavan's The House of Sleep worth writing about—nothing makes it worth reading,” begins one of her more devastating assaults; Saroyan's novels are “a viscous experience.” The difference between some lamentable World War II novel and Hemingway's novel of World War I is that “there was no earlier Hemingway on whom the early Hemingway could model himself.” All this must be very sobering for contemporary aspirants to literary fame. A crowd of novels flowed over Mrs. Trilling's desk, so many—and how few have survived three decades. Even such estimable books as Elizabeth Hardwick's The Ghostly Lover, Josephine Herbst's Somewhere the Tempest Fell, and Jean Stafford's Boston Adventure are no longer read; I wish they were. (To further distance this remote era, novels then cost $2.50.)

In his introduction, Paul Fussell is obliged to claim that Reviewing the Forties is more than a mere collection of reviews; rather, they represent “a profile of assumption and conviction, a body of implicit doctrine constituting, as Eliot puts it, a people's lived religion.” (When will this deference to Eliot's pious declarations end?) One need only read Mrs. Trilling's Claremont Essays (1964) or We Must March, My Darlings to confirm what these assumptions and convictions are: that intellectuals belong to a separate class; that culture is theirs to protect, the defense of “standards” their main business. But these are reviews, and whatever ideas appear in them are incidental to her purpose, which was to evaluate new books.

In this, Mrs. Trilling was a master, one of the critics responsible for the authority The Nation enjoyed in those days. James Agee, Clement Greenberg, Delmore Schwartz, and Randall Jarrell were regular contributors whose reviews, like Mrs. Trilling's, exalted art, vacillated over transient political allegiances, and decried the philistinism of “the modern mass-personality.” But when they turned to the work at hand, these critics came into their own. Later on, they acquired more distinctive critical voices; I noted in Mrs. Trilling's reviews echoes—or perhaps they were precursors—of her late husband's critique of liberalism embedded in a dismissal of some obscure war novel, and the recurrence of certain words charged with a particular significance in his work, such as “mind” and “sincerity.”

World War II haunts these reviews composed in its midst, and a number of the books under consideration addressed themselves to various aspects of the war experience; but other, more private themes dominated these novelists' imaginations. “Ideologically the war plays about the same role in our current novels that a storm plays in murder mysteries,” Mrs. Trilling complained in 1944. “It is something noisy going on outside the house to add to our indoor tensions.” The cultivation of “sensibility”—to borrow her old-fashioned word—superceded their curiosity about the world. The problem then, apparently, was the same as now; writers were only interested in themselves. They rarely rose to the “moral pitch” of Isaac Rosenfeld; they shirked the intellectual's responsibility: above all, “to be meaningful.”

Mrs. Trilling's own quest for the meaningful is no less evident in these reviews than in her full-fledged articles; but it is less obtrusive, and gives them a succinct force often dissipated in the tight-lipped, hortatory discussions of contemporary events that have made her controversial: women's liberation, the insurrection at Columbia, the politics of the McCarthy era. When she writes on D. H. Lawrence or Edith Wharton, Mrs. Trilling displays an impressive literary sensibility; but she tends to founder among political matters. The intellectual style associated with Partisan Review in the 1940s—polemical, self-conscious, at once snobbish and vaguely Marxist—mingles uneasily with real events, which require an observer to descend from the realm of high seriousness and recognize the more ordinary concerns that rule most people's lives. These Nation reviews, in which there was little time or space to expatiate on the “ideas” that would come to seem so oracular in the decades to follow, are livelier, if slighter, than her essays on culture and society.

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

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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, were giving it an authority approached by no other weekly of the time. And, amongst these figures, Mrs. Trilling earned an important place by virtue of the wit and intelligence and courtesy with which she scrutinized and evaluated the current fiction that came across her desk week after week. Indeed, the opportunity we now have of looking in bulk at what she did for The Nation must occasion some regret that over the last thirty years she has produced so little criticism, for her books—Claremont Essays (1964) and We Must March, My Darlings (1977)—are largely devoted to various sorts of readings of the Zeitgeist, of the “climate” of moral and political opinion; and too rarely has she consented to put her splendid critical gifts in the service of literary interpretation.

The present book does not have the weight and range of such similar collections, say, as Edmund Wilson's The Shores of Light and Classics and Commercials, or even of Alfred Kazin's Contemporaries. For The Nation normally allotted Mrs. Trilling hardly more than a page, and thus she had no chance for the spacious, leisurely estimate. Yet it was just her way of reckoning with this restriction that revealed her talent for the swift, central judgment of the essential drift of a career or of a particular book. And it is a brilliance of this kind which is most noticeable, as one moves through the ninety-some pieces that are here assembled.

A vast number of these reviews are devoted to books—Arnold Manoff's Telegram from Heaven, Betty Baur's The White Queen, Michael De Capite's Maria, Charles Mills's The Choice, Stephen Seley's The Cradle Will Fall—which had been quite forgotten a few months after their issuance and which now hold no significance for us at all. Many others are devoted to novels—such as Herman Wouk's Aurora Dawn, Ira Wolfert's An Act of Love, John Hersey's A Bell for Adano, Frederic Wakeman's The Hucksters, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—which for a brief time in the forties carried a large appeal for the half-educated multitudes; and the stringent assessments of these books that Mrs. Trilling offers will some day need to be regarded as indispensable for whoever undertakes seriously to study popular literary tastes of this period.

It is, however, her discussions of the important writers and literature at the fore in the forties that claim our principal interest, and, here—whether she is discussing Saul Bellow's Dangling Man or Nabokov's Bend Sinister or Katherine Anne Porter's The Leaning Tower or George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four—her estimates are regularly shrewd and telling. She speaks, for example, despite his great fascination with Eastern mysticism, of the worldliness of sensibility at work in Christopher Isherwood's fine novel Prater Violet—a worldliness to which, as she suggests, he owes “the quickness and warmth” and the vital simplicity of his prose; and this, she insists, is a simplicity neither “heavy with condescension to the people it is used to describe” (in the manner of a Steinbeck) nor calculated to assert the author's superiority to his subject (in the manner of a Katherine Anne Porter). No, “it is the style of a free and generous intelligence most happily balanced between self-tolerance and tolerance of others.” Or, again, in her account of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, she is struck by how much his Catholicism rests its appeals to faith “on the most familiar cynicisms of non-faith.” And she remarks how much Eudora Welty's penchant for “fine” writing, in a book like The Wide Net, promotes a kind of “ballet … of words” which in turn “allows an author to sacrifice the meaning of language to its rhythms and patterns”—and this is sternly denominated as a mode of frivolous “insincerity.” And it is such a faculty for rapid, exact definition that over and again distinguished the commentary Mrs. Trilling makes on the fiction of Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Penn Warren and Isaac Rosenfeld and Jean Stafford and Elizabeth Bowen and numerous others.

One very gifted and very young critic who, in talking about her book, has wanted to sound a mild applause has suggested that the one occasion on which Mrs. Trilling succumbed to the great temptation afflicting reviewers “to overpraise out of sheer boredom” is marked by the warmth with which she speaks, as he says, of “someone named Isabel Bolton.” Which makes a slightly amusing cavil, since it is precisely one of the distinctions of this book that it records an admiration for this wonderfully intelligent novelist whom, even now, Mrs. Trilling and the late Edmund Wilson are, so far as I know, the only commentators ever to have accorded the respect that was her due. The late Mary Britton Miller, using the pseudonym Isabel Bolton, published in her old age four remarkable books—Do I Wake or Sleep, The Christmas Tree, Many Mansions,and Whirligig of Time—which nobody seems to have discovered, and it is but another evidence of her perspicacity that, in reckoning with the first two, Mrs. Trilling immediately recognized Miss Bolton as one of the finest American novelists of her time.

In short, Reviewing the Forties, though lacking weight or any special kind of profundity, will, in its graceful prose and unfailing rectitude of insight, offer much the same kind of quiet pleasure that we are given by Virginia Woolf's The Common Reader. And it was a happy decision of Mrs. Trilling's to collect these fugitive pieces.

Jonathan Yardley (review date 25 October 1981)

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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 struggles mightily to give weight to them and their strange case, but ends up proving mainly that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

She was drawn to the case, Trilling writes, because “I'm fascinated by the kind of world that Dr. Tarnower and Mrs. Harris inhabited together and what happened between them for their relationship to ensue in such tragedy.” She perceived in that relationship a variety of sweeping themes: “Love and sexual passion, honor, money, envy, jealousy, greed, death, greatness and meanness of spirit, the anguishing anatomy of class differences. …” In the end, she came to see Jean Harris as a character in a novel—“She belongs to the novel in the way that Emma Bovary does, or Anna Karenina. They too were characters in contradiction”—and she offers this volume as, in effect, a substitute for that novel.

It is a noble and honorable effort, but it does not succeed. In part that is because Trilling insists on recapitulating the trial of Jean Harris at exhaustive and interminable length; had she trimmed her arguments down to 15,000 or 20,000 words, Mrs. Harris would have been a provocative magazine article, but as a book it's mostly padding. But the greatest problem is simply that Trilling is dealing with two very dull people.

The basic facts of the case must now be as familiar as those of the Lindbergh or Hearst kidnappings—two similarly sensational cases involving people of wealth and position. On the night of March 10, 1980, Dr. Herman Tarnower, author of a hugely successful book promoting his “Scarsdale diet,” was killed in his bedroom in the wealthy community of Purchase, New York. His killer was Jean Harris, headmistress of the Madeira School for girls in Northern Virginia and his lover for a decade and a half. She claimed that the killing was accidental, that she had intended to commit suicide; but a year later she was found guilty on three different counts, one of them being second-degree murder, and she is now serving the first year of a 15-year sentence.

Certainly the case has the ingredients of high drama: a wealthy Jewish doctor killed by the headmistress of a finishing school for WASPish girls; the triangular element added by the doctor's increasing interest in a younger woman, Lynne Tryforos; the ambiance in Purchase of money, exclusivity and quiet glamour; the rich supply of undertones and overtones, among them feminism and class rivalry. Yet there was less to the case than initially met the eye. Once the sensation of the killing had faded, there was little left to hold our interest; Jean Harris revealed herself to be uncommunicative and withdrawn, and Hi Tarnower turned out to have been so thoroughly dislikable that sympathy for him was out of the question.

These two people pose insurmountable problems for Trilling. Because one is so distant and the other so contemptible, there is nothing to engage us in a book as long as this one. Presumably what is to interest us in lieu of sympathetic characters is Trilling's view of their situation, but in that case the clanking of the machinery is just too evident. What does it mean, for example, when she writes as follows:

Tarnower with his dry striving and worldly salvations, his best seller and his reputation which has travelled as far as China, his angry suffering mistress and his senseless violent death, was perhaps as representative of his moment as Gatsby, with his impossible dream named Daisy, she of the thrilling voice that was “full of money,” had been representative of the American twenties. … Fitzgerald was unafraid of the word “vulgar.” I wanted his courage to speak in such clean terms of Tarnower's house and the kind of life it stood for. Could he or Mrs. Harris have known, could they have endured to know, how inglorious were the social heights to which they'd attained?

What this means, so far as I can discern, is that Trilling is struggling to find significance and, in its absence, inventing it. She does demonstrate, amply, the tastelessness, vulgarity and ostentation of Tarnower's life, and her comments on the weird fascination it held for Jean Harris are devastating. But the Gatsby comparison is utterly strained, a transparent example of reaching for a theme that isn't there; Trilling allows herself to do far too much of this.

She is best when she is employing her powers of observation and commentary. Especially when she is writing about money and/or class, she is perceptive and interesting. Her comments on the social situation of the Jews of Westchester County are thoughtful; her description of the students and parents of Madeira is clinical and unsparing. Her most useful remarks about Jean Harris have to do with that woman's position “on the outside looking in”—a person employed by the wealthy in order to oversee the education of their daughters, but not allowed full admission into their world. Here, if anywhere, is where one finds echoes of Gatsby.

But when Trilling moves from social commentary to a narrative of the trial, she is on unfamiliar ground and does not know quite what to do; her answer is to tell us everything and then, just for good measure, to tell us more. She employs the first-person singular to wild excess, almost to the point of self-parody. Her prose style has a casualness that is so forced it practically screams to be noticed; even Pauline Kael might blush if caught employing so many contractions. And of Trilling's attempts at amateur psychoanalysis, the less said the better.

What the Harris case comes down to is that one shallow person was killed by another shallow person. All the glitter and notoriety with which the case is surrounded cannot disguise the emptiness at its center. It is this which defeats Diana Trilling; Mrs. Harris is much ado about nothing.

Saul Maloff (review date 12 February 1982)

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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 which neither possesses in the imagined “life” of the great novels and both acquired only through death. Otherwise, both would have died of ennui and inanition, and we along with them: we are unable to imagine an interesting ongoing life for them.

And so it is with Jean Harris: she came to our attention through the passionate murder she committed, and immediately we transformed her into a version of that figure out of melodrama or tabloid—the wronged woman betrayed finally beyond endurance by her wanton lover, one time too many. The cast of characters seemed almost contrived, so perfectly typed were they: the rich, powerful lover (in dull actuality, the fickle bounder Dr. Herman Tarnover, a cardiologist in the wonderfully named gold-coast town of Purchase in Westchester, rich as carriage-trade “specialists” are rich, and suddenly fallen upon a fortune as nominal author of the then-fashionable “Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet”); Mrs. Harris, the aging mistress of fast-fading prettiness; Lynne Tryforos, the “younger woman” and triumphant rival. Alive they were nothing—the headmistress of an expensive horsey boarding school for expensive horsey girls; a pricey physician of vulgar social pretensions living far beyond his intellectual and moral means; the “other” woman, something of a looker with, one surmises, designs of her own, venal as well as amatory. The death in Purchase that night in 1980 lifted them from the obscurity of a depressing suburban triangle into, if not exactly a state of grace, then at least the territory over which the imagination is sovereign: the provinces of fiction.

Did Mrs. Harris murder Hi Tarnower? Did she set out on that fatal day from her house at the Madeira School in Virginia and drive six hours through the gathering darkness armed with an automatic and enough rounds to kill most of the cardiologists in Westchester County for the premeditated purpose of shooting dead the heartless trifler she had come to hate? Or did she drive all that distance in order to punish him by killing herself in his presence? Or, failing that, induce him somehow to do it for her? Or was it all an accident—a suicide attempt gone afoul? Did she, struggling for possession of the gun with the man for whom she protested undiminished love to the bitter end, after she'd been tried, convicted, sentenced—did she “accidentally” riddle him with bullets and flee into the night in quest of help, so she said, thinking him only superficially injured as he lay bleeding to death?

Frankie and Johnnie are already embalmed in folklore; by now yet another crime of passion, another Saturday night shooting, scarcely arouses more than passing interest if any; we are connoisseurs of slaughter, we are surfeited with death, our jaded appetites require blood-baths, mass murder, something special in the way of delicious horror—Atlanta, the Los Angeles Freeway, the subterranean necropolises in Chicago, Texas, the California citrus groves. But these were only careless children or migrant workers or fools or homosexuals, black, drifters, shiftless, a worthless or at best a readily replaceable lot. And here we had something big, clearly worth a running front page story and prime-time television: a lordly doctor and world-traveler, who though nearing seventy played tennis and golf, fished for trout and salmon, hunted big game on African safari, “wrote” a (the magical word) bestselling, world-famous guide to the taming of carnal appetite toward the end of physical beauty and eternal youth; and his lady of many years, a stylish Wasp of impeccable middleclass background, Midwestern, “good” private schools, then Smith College (magna cum laude in Economics, 1946), schoolmistressing in expensive private schools in the imperial Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe and mothering two sons before divorcing her husband and going on to more splendid prospects. Such people may otherwise despoil life but they do not kill, and they are not killed; on the whole unremarkable in life, they mesmerized us in consequence of the lethal act. Death—the notable artist death—made “characters” of them. Or potential ones: in the glare of notoriety they began to stir toward the focus, the concentration and magnitudes of art, he in death, she in her sudden, surprising celebrity, though the “other woman,” largely because she never appeared in court nor did she in any direct way participate in the trial, remains a shadowy figure (yet we feel from what we know of her that we know her well enough). Jean Harris—as “Mrs. Harris,” the titular heroine of her own life—drifts through the grim and melancholy tale like some ghost seeking embodiment—in fact like a character in search of an author.

Diana Trilling is a novelist manquée who found what she was looking for as she sat in the Westchester courtroom day after day of the long and (until Mrs. Harris took the stand in order to justify herself and confound her adversaries; attained instant “stardom”; assured her own conviction-as-charged) mostly tedious trial having to do with trajectories of bullets, the anatomical origin of bits of skin (Tarnower's), ballistics, arcane legalisms, and other piffling attractions.

Whodunit was never at issue; what actually happened was of minor interest; intent seemed perfectly apparent; motive—the wellspring of action—was sufficient to the bursting point, torrential and universally known since the expulsion from the Garden or soon after.

Mrs. Trilling's interest in Mrs. Harris is not lawyerly and it isn't journalistic. It is novelistic and is closely related to the procedures of literary criticism. At the outset, she felt, as most women (and I daresay men) felt, a sisterly (and fraternal) feeling for the woman; but Mrs. Harris, she found, wasn't easy to love, did not invite affection and sympathy, indeed could be offputting, harsh, arrogant, contemptuous. In any event, Mrs. Trilling's feelings toward her subject grew, as the imagined “novel” developed in the dull, suffocating world of the courthouse in White Plains, steadily more complicated, complex, filled with ambiguity.

As for the events themselves, whoever doubted their general structure? Matters of due process and the subtleties of law aside, who among us does not know as surely and despairingly as we know the darker recesses of our own hearts and minds, always excepting the angelic among us who know nothing of rage, loathing, and kindred ancestral passion. Mrs. Harris, as she saw and suffered it, had given the scoundrel the best years of her life and what did she get in return? Scorn. Abuse. Neglect. Humiliation. Insult heaped on indignity. Public ridicule. Discarded as trash for trash, garbage—her kindest word for the other woman. That rank womanizer had lain about once too often, she told the police in a careless moment on the night of the murder, before she began to build her improbable and certainly implausible defense. Over a long time, perhaps for years, perhaps since the beginning of their fated union, or near it, the venom gathered in dank pools, drop by drop by drop, until it poisoned her. And so, feeling, as she was to say, “old,” “bitter,” “sick,” “ugly,” she got her gun and enough rounds to fire as often as she had no doubt done in her murderous fantasies and got into her car and set out to kill the sonofabitch. Where's the mystery? Who can fail to understand her in her (and his) blood and bones? And he was a sonofabitch most foul; and if we can for a moment or two desist from proclaiming ringingly the supreme value of all human life, we might even imagine it possible for persons not utterly depraved to think his departure a good riddance or at least not to feel inconsolable grief. One can imagine such emotion effortlessly; the point is we do not respond to the event as “real” but rather as fiction, not as life but as art even if bad art, a lurid paperback novel, and at that distance we are certainly not displeased when the villain gets his. In the life of the imagination we are bloodyminded hangmen, implacable in meting out just desserts and taking some pleasure in doing so.

But that of course is not the book Mrs. Trilling wants to write. The fiction she aspires to is Flaubertian and Tolstoyan; the analytic instruments she wields are Freudian and Jamesean; she deals in nothing but the best. She is interested in manners, taste, values, tones of voice, and shades of meaning, the hum and buzz of implication. Having seen—or peered through windows at—the brassy vulgarity of Tarnower's Westchester “estate” with its bad statuary and trite “gardens” and the house with its mean interiors and (this is scarcely credible but so little about gold coasts anywhere is) “trophy room” with the mounted heads of slaughtered beasts actually staring down at the guests assembled for their host's little “gourmet” dinners—having seen the kitsch and showy display of his life, Mrs. Trilling is ready to dismiss the diet doctor summarily as a noisome, flat, monochromatic character in the drama. And when you add to his atrocious bad taste and vile sexual manners, what is even worse, his repellent bestseller, swollen to book proportions by a professional hack with some considerable assistance from Mrs. Harris, from the original two-page digest prepared for his patients, well, on aesthetic grounds alone he deserved nothing less than the guillotine. For the sin of committing stylistic solecisms and other barbarisms of taste, to the gallows! For pandering to the lewd popular appetite for dietbooks, let him be dismembered! (My own sentiments exactly, let me confess.) Having disposed of him, Mrs. Trilling makes no serious attempt at posthumous reconstruction of the man who, say what you will, gave his life so that Mrs. Harris might live forever in the annals of literature.

It is upon her and no one else that the focus narrows. But Mrs. Trilling's interest is so special, so selective, so narrow, so unremitting within the self-imposed limits, that she did not see the need as a mere journalist would surely have done, to go out there to the uncharted West and have a look at little Jean Struven's Shaker Heights, Ohio; to inquire a little more closely into her family of origin, about whom we learn next to nothing; certainly to have a long look at Grosse Pointe, the scene of her marriage, the first phase of her career as an educator (of the children of the automobile moguls), or the years following her divorce from James Harris. We learn nothing about her college years, nothing about Harris, what it must have been like for a woman of her vitality, intelligence, ambition—of her contemptuous arrogance and overwhelming pride—to have spent so many years as an upper servant (that is, as teacher and indeed as headmistress) to the presumptive heiresses of the very rich. Much of this can be translated into hard, factual information of the sort a biographer and psychobiographer would require, as would the kind of novelist Mrs. Trilling pays homage to. Ibsen once said that though no reference or allusion to the antecedent life of a character need be made in the drama itself, he himself knew every day and every event of it, internal and external, and in fact made a point of writing out detailed sketches in his notebooks as a way of filling his mind for the work about to be undertaken. This density of knowledge, this direct, intimate relation to the detritus of life, which is one of the chief jobs of the “traditional” novel, is almost wholly absent from Mrs. Trilling's meditations: it is as though Mrs. Harris had been born that night in Purchase and burst into the repleteness of her being only at the time of her trial and especially when she at last occupied the center of her world's attention on the witness stand—when she attained at long last what had eluded her until then: “star quality,” as her chronicler says.

Mrs. Trilling, as one would expect of her, is very good at noticing a hundred details of which novels are made: dress, carriage, countenance, hair, clothes, voice, accent, modulation, tics and gestures, range of expression facial and verbal; but although they are essential to the “novel” of which Mrs. Harris is the central figure, they are not sufficient to give us the author of the long, seething letter to Tarnower (the central, decisive document in the case, and the rope by which she hanged herself). Written to Tarnower on the eve of her last trip, mailed but never received, filled with a palpable hatred and fury which she persisted in denying, whether disingenuously or deviously we cannot know. At this level of observation Mrs. Trilling also misses some golden opportunities, surprisingly: failing to notice, for example, that Mrs. Harris's sense of T. S. Eliot was of the shallow, anthology sort when it wasn't simply foolish and overreaching, an unearned claim to high culture; or her failure to see for what it was her subject's wide-eyed, breathless pronouncement that the diet doctor read Herodotus “for fun” (whether in Greek or English we are not told): a crude joke which neither she nor Tarnower could possibly have understood.

But Mrs. Trilling is really interested not so much in Mrs. Harris's actual lived life as in her unconscious fantasies. Like her late husband, Lionel Trilling, whose work in this area, as in others, was justly celebrated, she is a Freudian; but she is also an unreconstructed, not to say primitive, Freudian of the kind not always very different from a formidably bright undergraduate afire from a first reading of The Interpretation of Dreams and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life—and this, bewilderingly, directly alongside subtle, wonderfully deft psychological and moral analysis, truly illuminating seeing into her elusive, complex subject. At times, Mrs. Trilling reduces the modes and procedures of clinical analysis to farce—a parody of a parody.

A brief scattering of examples must suffice. Mrs. Harris, we are told, was revolted by the night she spent in the (superbly named) Valhalla Jail, mainly because she'd been cast among whores who littered the cell-floor with “bloody sanitary pads” although, Mrs. Trilling immediately remarks, “this may have been a cover memory for a suppressed recollection of the blood that had been spilled in Dr. Tarnower's bedroom. …” Why, yes; but on the other hand it may not have been a “cover memory” at all, or certainly not for an event which she almost certainly would not have cast beyond consciousness into the abyss, if she cast it anywhere at all. A bloody pad is a bloody pad; and even for those of us who do not shrink from the sight, bloody pads do not necessarily compose a delightful and edifying spectacle, especially on jailhouse floors. If it must be a “cover memory,” why not for the ordeal of parturition (her own as preternaturally mature newborn infant of prodigious memory, or as mother)? Or for the (conceivably) traumatic onset of her own menstrual rites of passage? Or for the crisis, if it was that, of her own menopause? The possibilities are psychologically, emotionally reverberant, and (so it seems to me) the least likely and certainly the least interesting of them is the one Mrs. Trilling proposes.

Or take another example. Unless it is immutably true that a phallic symbol, as a distinguished American poet and wit once despairingly remarked, is anything that's longer than it is wide, then surely, surely, we can leave some figurative equations to writers of trashy fiction, if we can't, out of respect for the First Amendment, simply outlaw them; and surely the first of these is the smoking phallic gun so famous among sophomores by means of which Mrs. Harris “too, poor insufficient woman, became capable of assault. She was supplied with what she'd been deprived of by biology.” Tarnower's being a Jew was important to Mrs. Harris (I think) but not (I think) because she endowed him with mythic “sexual exoticism” promising “meta-sexual fulfillment,” as Mrs. Trilling believes, supplanting truly interesting possibilities for the fiction-making imagination with banal ones. But it is drearily consistent with a posited “female castration anxiety” gnawing at the lady's innards, if I may so speak. Author and subject never met to speak in the courtroom and never outside it (actually, Mrs. Harris, once spotting the author in the press section, complimented her for a review she'd seen somewhere); so unless all women are so afflicted as a matter of biological fate, the analyst must deduce that exotic anxiety from the character's gait, arch of eyebrow, turn of phrase—how else? Or from metaphor, as when Mrs. Harris, attempting to capture in language her sense of utter void, spoke of herself as sitting in an empty chair—a sense that overpowers me at this moment as I sit reflecting upon Mrs. Trilling's strange, willful, mischievous reading of a striking image. Rather like charging Nietzsche with voyeurism when he spoke of “gazing into the abyss” (until it gazed back at him). Freudian fundamentalism of this order will not do.

Better to throw up one's hands. “People,” Mrs. Trilling finally concedes, “aren't solved.” Exactly. Only in bad novels.


  1. Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor. By Diana Trilling. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $14.95, 352 pp.

Phyllis Grosskurth (review date 7 May 1982)

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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.

I found myself as interested in Mrs Trilling's reactions as I was in Jean Harris's story. A general tone of de haut en bas pervades her account, a self-conscious awareness that she is slumming. She is careful to establish social distinctions. Dr Tarnower was of Eastern European extraction, a kind of Gatsby who had managed to worm his way into the secure echelons of mid-European American Jewry. When his neighbour Alfred Knopf's name is mis-pronounced, Mrs Trilling winces. Mrs Harris is a book as much about standards—Mrs Trilling's standards—as it is about a murder trial. She is bored by the evidence of the ballistics experts but fascinated by the life-style of the protagonists. She gives a brilliantly caustic description of the victim's multi-balconied Japanese-style house whose meagre rooms betray its superficiality.

As for the girls' boarding-school in Virginia where Mrs Harris has been headmistress, it appears that it wasn't quite top-drawer. After all, not many of its graduates made the Ivy League. She is appalled to learn that the juniors spend one day a week working for Congressmen. As though that was any way to learn about democracy! Mrs Trilling's own brand of Thirties liberalism is barely kept in check.

Early in the book she responds ironically to comments about Jean Harris's clothes—too many pastels, not quite the best brand names. However, it later becomes clear that she herself is uneasy about the studied ‘demeanour’ (a word, she assures us, she never uses!) of the accused. That they share a common humanity is not clear to her until the shock of Jean Harris's deterioration by the time she is sentenced. Mrs Trilling's eyes devour the devastation.

There is a good deal of talk, too, about how the tawdriness of TV has replaced the insights into life that great novels used to give us. Repeatedly her analogies are drawn from literature. Certainly literature should illuminate life, but there is a danger that if everything is seen through the eyes of literature, if something cannot be understood except from an aesthetic perspective, the uniqueness of people and situations may be blurred.

‘What a set! What a world!’, Matthew Arnold exclaimed about the Shelley circle. This is largely Mrs Trilling's attitude to the egregious Tarnower and his harem of commonplace women. However, the enormity of the life sentence forces her to a reappraisal of Jean Harris, who was not, as she originally assumed, a jumped-up provincial, but a person of genuine breeding and standards. ‘Mrs Harris was in the wrong company’, she opines.

This was her crime in Diana Trilling's eyes—that she had let herself down by her fixation on a vulgarian, not that she happened also to have killed him.

Marsha McCreadie (essay date 1983)

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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 subjective and intense reactions as Trilling herself, in partial apology for her “late” appreciation of the star, in the 1963 essay “The Death of Marilyn Monroe.” While the essay surely can be seen in the light of the women's movement's posthumous canonization of Monroe, it is more than latter-day feminist guilt purgation. Trilling's article is an extraordinary example of the free interplay of autobiographical intrusions from the writer, nearly “cinematic” projections onto/into the actor's psyche, and cultural generalizations. The writer's reaction to, sometimes fantasized interaction with, the actor-actress is often taken to be paradigmatic of the culture, and for these purposes, biographical details, even gossip, about the personal life of the star are freely mixed in. At first, easy, glance it would seem as if the work of Norman Mailer on Marilyn Monroe would perfectly fit this description. But his 1973 biography, Marilyn, is a clear demonstration of an only superficial attempt—though of course not necessarily a conscious one—at this method. He may buy, he reports to us, in the true vicarious modus operandi of the new journalist, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 (Monroe was “famous for having worn it”), but he would never “have a real clue to how it smelled on her skin.” The biographical details are meticulously recorded, as are show biz minutiae about each of her films, but nowhere does there emerge the creative conjunction one might expect from the chief autobiographical and impressionistic journalist of our age. The portrait's ultimate flatness makes a telling comparison with Trilling's essay, or with a piece like Simone de Beauvoir's brilliant if sporadically connective essay on Brigitte Bardot, “Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome.”

For in these pieces—as in others by culture critics Joan Didion and Nora Sayre that also consider the cumulative work of an actor, or of the ellision between actor and role—the distance, in the words of Beauvoir, between “Mr. Chaplin and Charlie is entirely done away with”; it is an “ambiguous presence—that both of the actor and of the character he is playing.” (These remarks are preparatory to her discussion of Modern Times, and also to her comments on more contemporary films such as Bonnie and Clyde, Five Easy Pieces, and the films of James Bond and Clint Eastwood [Beauvoir assiduously avoids the French farce, she reports]. These observations are found in the fourth volume of her autobiography, All Said and Done.) Even the fact that Beauvoir knows “Yves Montand's face too well” doesn't prevent her from seeing him as Lambrakis in Z; “soon the actor and the character merged into one.”

This acceptance of the amalgam is put into automatic practice in the work of Trilling on Marilyn Monroe. Trilling has been the fiction critic of The Nation; essayist and reviewer in the New York Times, and Partisan Review, among other places; and author of Claremont Essays, We Must March My Darlings, Reviewing the Forties, and the recent reportorial Mrs. Harris. Born in New York City in 1905, daughter of a successful businessman, she married renowned literary critic and Columbia University professor Lionel Trilling, and they had one child, a son. Diana Trilling—a momentous figure herself—determined never to teach, she is reported to have said in conversation, after having once taken over a class of her husband's and deciding that it jangled her nerves too much.

Trilling's essay on Monroe is, quite simply, a surprise. For one thing, the combination of psychobiography and high-level movie magazine reportage is a new one for this kind of writer, and for criticism in general. By brilliant conjecture, Trilling makes the kind of intuitive leap Mailer's piece tries for but fails at; her “feeling about Marilyn Monroe” is that “even when she had spoken of ‘wanting to die’ she really meant she wanted to end her suffering, not her life.” Or, in noting Monroe's incredibly upbeat qualities, “when there is this much need for optimism surely there is great peril, and the public got the message.”

Coming from another type of writer some of these insights might be regarded as platitudinous; as we also might dismiss as gossipy a report that a few of the men Trilling knew who had had “romantic” involvements with Monroe found her sweet and lovable, though not particularly sexual. But when it is Trilling who concludes that “Monroe's perception of herself came from others' reactions to her,” that her biological “gift” did not arise from any sure self-knowledge, we are more inclined to accept the summation. Trilling has earlier on put herself in a “special” category vis a vis Monroe criticism: there is “always this shield of irony some of us raise between ourselves and any object of popular adulation, and I had made my dull point of snubbing her pictures.”

But she's changed her mind after watching a “television trailer of Bus Stop.” The junction of high and low culture (and our disinclination to question the hybrid) is—since the advent of new journalism—a hallmark of the confident intellect. But where Mailer, especially in Marilyn, fails to come up with the flashy insight that should result from the unexpected juxtaposition, both Trilling and Beauvoir have startling success. When Trilling has her conversion about Monroe, it's because “an illumination, a glow of something beyond the ordinarily human” had gone on in the room. Illumination is a cleverly used television adjective that moves rapidly into a psychoanalytic interpretation probably borrowed from literary criticism. It is a natural for psychobiographical cinema criticism that might be seen to have taken its most primitive form in early issues of Photoplay and Modern Screen. For Trilling, Monroe's luminosity comes from her innocence, from being untouched by life (a quality shared, according to Trilling, with Hemingway). And finally—here is the tie-in with her suicide—from being able to “suffer one's experience without being able to learn self-protection.”

It is as disarming, as refreshing, to find Beauvoir starting her long separately published essay on Bardot, “Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome,” also in reaction to a television appearance—Bardot's on New Year's Eve. “Once again,” Beauvoir says, “I could observe that Brigitte Bardot was disliked in her own country.” If Beauvoir's style here seems more fluid, more natural, than in some of her other work, it's perhaps because a historical or critical apparatus has been dropped, for the subject apparently demands less of a pronouncement, less of a commitment to posterity. Daughter—like Trilling—of a bourgeois family (her father was an advocate in the Court of Appeals in Paris), Beauvoir was born in 1908. University professor, essayist, social historian, and novelist, her work includes the novels The Mandarins and L'Invitée, her multivolumed autobiography, All Said and Done, and the monumental The Second Sex, the last inspired by the suggestion of her life-time inamorato and intellectual companion, Jean-Paul Sartre, that she “look into” the fact that she wasn't “brought up the same way a boy would have been.” This model for the twentieth-century intellectual woman has no difficulty seeing the cinema as important material for analysis (even including the textually integrated reviews in All Said and Done).

As a member of the TV audience, Beauvoir dissents from her countrymen's antipathy toward Bardot, which tells the observing critic that the bohemian star appeals more to freedom-loving Americans than to the middle-class French, who feel threatened by her. For Bardot—a Lolita-like, youthful sex-object who makes use of the fact that “distancing creates erotic desire”—undermines a bourgeois structure (according to Beauvoir, the feminist historian, when one myth is threatened, so are all others).

In this regard and others, Beauvoir's version of Bardot is that she takes an active part in the construction of her persona. This has been a conscious, shared effort by both Bardot and (then) director-husband-mentor Roger Vadim. Not just actor-as-auteur, or merge of person and part, but conscious manipulator of the media, and of the national psyche. It is an intriguing cross-fertilization, as Beauvoir sees it. “In so far as she [Bardot] is exposed to the public gaze, her legend has been fed by her private life no less than by her film roles.” (If so, it is a more sophisticated manipulation of 1950s mores than Monroe's.) While Monroe, according to Trilling, liberated Americans by making sexuality seem not so threatening (her childish “innocence” is the vehicle), Beauvoir decides that French men find Bardot particularly threatening because her “eroticism is not magical, but aggressive. The male is an object to her, just as she is to him. And that is precisely what wounds masculine pride.”

Besides, like Lolita, Bardot has “not been marked by experience.” Her hairdo is that of a waif; seen from behind she is “almost androgynous.” She goes about “barefooted, she turns up her nose at elegant clothes, jewels, girdles, perfumes, make-up, at all artifice.” “Radical innocence” here is not the star's undoing as it is for an American critic like Trilling. Perhaps only Americans see the tragic potentiality in innocence, lost or otherwise. (That they are untouched, however, is an almost common observation about women stars; a May 3, 1981 New York Times essay on Elizabeth Taylor's first stage appearance, in The Little Foxes, for instance, notes her curiously innocent and untouched quality even after six marriages, various and numerous tribulations, and so forth.)

The attention to physical detail, followed by social or psychocultural generalizations, seems an irresistible venue for women writers. This is not simply an example of woman's proverbial obsession with physical assets, as a quick sidelook at Alexander Walker's otherwise quite effective description of Elizabeth Taylor in The Celluloid Sacrifice shows: Her “large eyes, delicate nose and dark hair that always looks more effective when let down” is the kind that an “Elizabethan poet would have called ‘gipsy.’” But—unlike Beauvoir or others such as Sayre who move these descriptions into other realms—Walker simply cites the cultural stereotype and lets it go at that; Taylor's looks hold “sexual tension,” and “generate expectancy among filmgoers that her actions will be impulsive, high-tempered, possibly destructive.” As far as Mailer gets with this sort of thing is to say that Monroe seems to take on the characteristics of the man she is involved with (viz her physical agility in the dance sequences of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes when she is married to Joe DiMaggio), but he generally limits the attention to physical details to the usual reportage. He notes that before it was snipped, Monroe's formerly overlong nose appeared “snout-like,” her teeth before correction were too protruding, causing her to tremulously quiver her upper lip, a retained habit.

Most telling, after reading Beauvoir's treatment of Bardot, is Parker Tyler's vision of the same star in Sex, Psyche, Etcetera in the Film. For Tyler, Bardot, with “canonic plenitude up front, facile nudity and long, tumbling blonde hair, was an impressive paradox; a cheerful Magdalene. Repentance and guilt were alien to her if only because her assets (like Jane Russell's before her) were so unmistakably God-given.” Of the physicality of Bardot, Beauvoir can make so much more: “nothing can be read into Bardot's face. It is what it is. It has the forthright presence of reality. It is a stumbling-block to lewd fantasies and ethereal dreams alike. Most Frenchmen like to indulge in mystic flights as a change from ribaldry, and vice-versa. With BB they get nowhere.” It is easy of course, and often unfair, to juxtapose quotes to advantage or disadvantage. But it is an undeniable truth that these major women writers and intellectuals here evoke their material almost “from within,” as may be possible with no other subject matter. Lest this sound antifeminist in suggesting “woman's intuition,” let Beauvoir's explanation stand: “Sometimes, when I discuss a film with friends—friends whose tastes are the same as mine in other fields—I find that my opinion is quite unlike theirs: the film has certainly touched them or me or all of us in some intimate, entirely personal area.” And then she starts to analyze the aesthetic qualities of actors' faces (in All Said and Done).

Tracing through the cultural implications of an actor is a specialty of writer Joan Didion, as her essay “John Wayne: A Love Song,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, demonstrates. Didion's discovery that Wayne has cancer sends her, and by extension, her generation, into a kind of existential panic: “It did not seem possible that such a man could fall ill, could carry within him that most inexplicable and ungovernable of diseases. The rumor struck some obscure anxiety, threw our very childhoods into question.” Like Beauvoir and Trilling, Didion sees her reaction as nationally paradigmatic: by riding through her childhood, and “perhaps through yours” Wayne altered forever the shape of “our dreams.” The occasion of the essay in which Didion makes these comments is an assignment that takes her in 1965 to the set of the most “recent” Wayne film where she has dinner with the man whose “face across the table was in certain ways more familiar than my husband's.” Not because she's ever met Wayne before, but because of the intensity of her dream or fantasy life about him. For, less prosaically, “Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls” there is still a line she is waiting to hear from John Wayne.

The presence of the star—real or imagined—seems more acute in essays written by women critics, as does their own presence in the midst of these celebrities. The writer is a cultural conductor, a seismograph of the most significant proportions, who determines—by virtue of her own response—the star's possible impact on society. In Joan Didion's review-essay about Woody Allen's Manhattan, Interiors, and Annie Hall, for instance, her reactions to the films' characters are so extreme as to be in the realm of interaction or reminiscence: “The characters in these pictures are, at best trying,” Didion observes in an August 17, 1979 piece in the New York Review of Books. “They are morose. They have bad manners. They seem to take long walks and go to smart restaurants only to ask one another hard questions.” The more banal dialogue is quoted, ending with “finally, inevitably, ‘what does your analyst say.’” Didion doesn't like these characters, for any number of reasons. They are New Yorkers, they are self-conscious, they are intellectual and introspective in a way that Didion—a Californian whose own elitism does not include the Upper West Side leftist-intellectual value system of Allen and his characters—clearly despises.

The interesting point here is that she is reacting to them as if they were real. And as if Allen-as-director were himself in the film (an easy trick, admittedly, with this film maker). Within the NYRB piece, Didion's focus shifts to an interview with Woody Allen, printed elsewhere, in which he talks about his own analysis, and then to Didion's declaration that such introspection, such “working on” oneself, is adolescent and self-indulgent.

An easy slide, since the essay, called of course “Letter from ‘Manhattan,’” begins with assertions that self-absorption is endemic to the summer of 1979, a summer loaded with affectations and vanities. In the “large coastal cities of the United States this summer,” Didion observes, “many people wanted to be dressed in ‘real linen,’ as well as wanting to be served the ‘perfect vegetable terrine,’” and—but of course—bothered to stand in line to see Woody Allen's Manhattan. Didion's rhetorical habit of the clever listing and the startling juxtaposition has already been smartly satirized in Barbara Grizutti Harrison's piece on Didion, “Only Disconnect,” which caused quite a stir when it was first published in The Nation (October 1979, collected in Off Center, New York: Dial Press, 1980). One needs only to read a Burpee catalogue, Harrison says, or to put some disparate “items” like Al Capone and sweet Williams in the same sentence. But Didion also uses—particularly in this NYRB essay—the downwardly spiraling listing, with the deflationary detail at the end (a technique not unfamiliar to readers of eighteenth-century satirical poetry). Manhattan's Tracy, for instance, is characterized as having “perfect skin, perfect wisdom, perfect sex, and no visible family.”

Here the culture critic as social chronicler can be seen in perfect operation. The telling, damning detail is discerned. In Didion's case, however, her moralizing is a surprise, even though the subject about which she most moralizes is life in New York City. So many of Didion's essays call up the fact that not only is she a “California girl,” but that she's from an old Valley family (see especially “On Going Home” and “Notes From a Native Daughter” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem). “Hollywood the Destroyer” lurks somewhere “in the wilds between the Thalia and the Museum of Modern Art” Didion observes ironically in her essay that defends that fabled West Coast corrupter, “I Can't Get That Monster Out of My Mind.”

Didion, born in 1935 and praised by the New York Times as the best prose writer of her generation, is novelist, Run River, Play It As It Lays, and A Book of Common Prayer; screenwriter, of A Star is Born and True Confessions, with her husband John Gregory Dunne; and essayist. The pieces in Slouching Towards Bethlehem—by now a classic collection—were originally written for magazines such as Vogue, the New York Times Magazine, and the Saturday Evening Post. For a time in the mid-1970s, Didion wrote a column about Hollywood, “The Coast,” for Esquire. And in 1979, another collection of essays, The White Album, was published to reviews not quite as glowing as those received by Slouching Towards Bethlehem. To say her work is autobiographical is in some ways to miss the point, to undershoot the mark, since she has nearly made a literary cult of neurasthenic projection. And while it comes as no surprise to read her adoring portrait of John Wayne, or her condemnation of Woody Allen and his works, which is in many ways a profile, it's a bit odder to see intensely personal reactions to even standard directors. But it may be that a kind of California chauvinism has turned Didion into a nostalgic harkener back to defense of the studio days (in fact, much of her essay “In Hollywood” in The White Album is devoted to proving, or at least asserting, that the old Hollywood system still exists. Its demise, she says, is just a cliché—really a fantasy—of East Coast liberal reviewers who don't understand how the movie industry works.)

Didion is called a surf fascist by some residents of northern California because of her preference for old-time California values. In the essay on Hollywood, “I Can't Get That Monster Out of My Mind” (1964), her rancor is reserved not just for European directors, but also for the more au courant “modern” American film makers who insist on directing with a didactic purpose. About Dr. Strangelove, Didion decides that “rarely has so much been made over so little.” Stanley Kramer, Carl Forman, and John Frankenheimer are also directors attacked because of their involvement with “issues” and “problems.” It is clearly no accident that each of the films featured in the essay has a leftist-liberal tenor. Of all the movies in the creative and fertile cinematic field of the mid-1960s, it is not surprising that Didion discusses Judgment at Nuremberg, The Victors (a left-field choice, as is its director, Carl Forman) and Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May.

What these films have in common, according to Didion, is an “apparent calculation about what ‘issues’ are not safe—an absence of imagination, a sloppiness of mind in some ways encouraged by a comfortable feedback from the audience, from the bulk of reviewers, and from some people who ought to know better.” The Europeans, Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini, Bergman, and Resnais, are demolished in toto in one paragraph, though each for a different reason.

What these films have in common, according to this reading, is that they stand for the kind of vaguely libertarian stuff that Didion is out gunning for. She shows her true colors at the end of the essay, in a paragraph that is separated from the rest of the piece and that relies on some not-so-clever non sequiturs: “We are no longer in the grip of a monster; Harry Cohn no longer runs Columbia like, as the saying went, a concentration camp. Whether or not a picture receives a Code seal no longer matters much at the box office. No more curfew, no more Daddy, anything goes. Some of us do not quite like this permissiveness; some of us would like to find ‘reasons’ why our pictures are not as good as we know in our hearts they might be.”

The obvious sentimentalism of this statement aside for the moment, the startling thing here is the polarity of “us” and “them.” “They” are even more in evidence in her White Album piece, “In Hollywood.” Although various Hollywood or industry-related scenarios are ironically presented, it is with the loving eye of the insider who knows the most revealing feature. The anger is kept for those who write about film, for the Kaels, the Kauffmanns, the Simons. In their insistence upon seeing corruption in Hollywood, and in not understanding the “circus” aspect—the collaborative quality of film making—they miss the boat entirely. But the entire matter is dismissed anyway in a clever hand-wave by Didion; reviewing films has a kind of “petit- point-on-Kleenex” effect that “rarely stands much scrutiny.”

It's getting easier to see Didion's pieces as increasingly reactionary: Her tendency to refer to “my husband” throughout, as well as her distaste for anything smacking of liberal, or “east coast radical chic,” values, are making her preferences predictable. Praising or dismissing movies according to one's political bent is not a trait peculiar to women writers (who would want to claim it?) as even a nodding acquaintance with the consistently liberal views of Stanley Kauffmann makes clear.

But for a writer with political proclivities and background, political and cultural connections can prove irresistible, almost obvious, as in the essays and reviews of Nora Sayre. Daughter of political reporter and screenwriter Joel Sayre, she grew up in Hollywood and around New Yorker writers, for which her father wrote. Blacklisted writers were “around the house” at a time when Sayre was coming to maturity, in the 1950s. After attending Radcliffe, Sayre became a political writer and columnist. She was a New York correspondent for awhile for The New Statesman, and while working on her 1973 collection of essays, Sixties Going On Seventies, was reviewing films for the New York Times. As of this writing Sayre occasionally reviews films for The Nation, and her second book, Running Time: Films of the Cold War, was recently published.

Perhaps because of an awareness of her political “heritage,” Sayre makes political and cultural references a bit more ironically and less connectively. An excerpt from Running Time, which appeared in Sayre's film column in The Nation, notes the figure called the Bad Blonde. “In the 1950's,” Sayre decides, “you knew that there was something terribly wrong with a woman if her slip straps showed through her blouse; in this context, it meant treason.” As slyly, Sayre decides that communists have larger and blacker shadows, and walk with a forward slant that reveals their “dedication to their cause.”

The ironic distance is retained even when Sayre uses a first-person intrusion, as we can see in her clever piece “Two New Films Focus on California and Californians” (a September 1, 1974 Times piece on California Split and Chinatown). “As a New Yorker,” Sayre declares straightforwardly, “I return from every visit to California convinced that Manhattan is the most peaceful and rational of communities.” Of course Sayre was reviewing for the Times from 1972-75, years when the impact of the earlier new journalism was beginning to make some inroads into mainstream periodicals; therefore, the autobiographical reference is not unexpected.

Sayre displays the same predilection for the most telling detail, to capture a particular culture: “Segal and Gould [in California Split are comic versions of the wanderers—often failures—whom you constantly meet in California, the stragglers who swarm through motels and drive-ins and Pizzaburgers.” As might be expected, films that Sayre either chose to review or was assigned to by the Times were frequently susceptible to political analysis, or background fill-in, like her 1975 review of Les Violins du Bal (this much-praised film, according to Sayre, “glamorized the persecution of the Jews”) or of Charlie Chaplin's A King in New York, which explains the background of the film's suppression (it was released in Europe in 1957 but the American release was put off until 1973). Chaplin's politically allegorical comedy makes full and free use of the composite portrait of actor and part that is the recurrent thread in the writing of women film critics: it's OK, Sayre's review decides, for A King in New York to have a bitter ending, since Chaplin himself had such a hard time in America. And the even more personal detail that “Clearly, Chaplin loved playing King. Here, as in some of his other pictures, he seems to be in awe of the rich and the class system, though he has often derided both” (New York Times, October 22, 1973). A comparison with James Agee's review of Chaplin's 1947 Monsieur Verdoux makes the point, as the distinction between actor and part simply does not coalesce: we may “wonder why Chaplin's only direct statements, most of which are made through Verdoux, are so remarkably inadequate” (The Nation, June 21, 1947).

Seeing the actor's combined roles as ouevre and deciding that these parts affect the national psyche is a trait peculiar to women writers about film, as Sayre's piece, “Did Cooper and Stewart Have to Be So Stupid?” shows, for it rests on that premise. Male naifs who are not frontiersmen or woodsmen (in contradistinction to Perkins in the 1950s and Hoffman in the 1960s; also naifs, but intelligent ones), “proudly proclaim their stupidity. … Quite often reading seems difficult for them. … But the back of their necks tingle when they hear the national anthem” (New York Times, August 7, 1977).

A talent for revealing the telling detail, the assumption of the cumulative effect of the actor's role on a nation, are characteristics of the woman film critic, but are particularly so for women culture critics. But it is Beauvoir, with typical comprehensiveness, who touches on the reasons that so many of the other properties of film criticism are attractive to women. Her criticism is extremely personal; it makes use of the amalgam of actor and role, as the quotes above show. But film's “potency of images” also overwhelms her, an illusion “I accept in a state of near-passivity.” It provides Beauvoir with an occasion for vicarious experience, for power, and for omnipotence: “I slip silently into houses; I am present at events that cannot be seen. I sit by the bed upon which lovers make their love.” And, too, “I pass through walls, I hover in the sky; I am endowed with supernatural powers” (All Said and Done).

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7836

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 literary and cultural critic, Diana Trilling has eluded efforts to find a catchall image for her. She has managed to slip through the net of this nearly universal process in part because the public's gaze was usually focussed on her more famous husband, the late Columbia University scholar and critic Lionel Trilling, in part because of the insularity of the New York intellectual world she wrote for, and, perhaps most of all, because of the complex contradictions of her persona. A phobia-racked young woman, she quickly became known for the fearlessness of her style; an early trespasser on the traditionally male world of political polemics, she revelled in motherhood and domesticity; a defender of the middle path, she has always been captivated by those who didn't take it.

Inside the contentious, politically fervid New York intellectual circle that was her milieu from the late nineteen-twenties on, there was, to be sure, an “official,” minimalist line on the Trillings, largely based on Lionel Trilling's literary circumspection and both Trillings' apparent imperturbability. But that version, according to Mrs. Trilling, whom I recently visited after reading an unbound copy of her excellent forthcoming memoir, The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling, appears to have been almost laughably at variance with the reality of their lives. The memoir has most of the major cultural upheavals of the century as its backdrop, but in writing it Trilling was concerned chiefly with shedding light on heretofore hidden aspects of her private life and her husband's—hence its odd, third-person subtitle. Now that nearly all the intimates who knew her as Di and her husband as Li were gone, there was, she felt, no record of the more personal side of her history, or of the union that Rebecca West once said had no equal in contemporary English literary marriages. Her book joins a lengthening list of opinionated recollections of the heyday of New York intellectual life, the thirties and forties, written by people—Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, and Irving Howe, among others—who rarely agreed about much, but most of whom have now passed beyond debate.

Having been forewarned that Mrs. Trilling was in her late eighties, that she was blind, and that she suffered from several debilitating ailments, I arrived at her apartment, on the Upper West Side, anticipating a hushed encounter with a faltering spirit. Instead, I found a determined-looking woman in a dark-blue summer dress who came quickly to the door after I rang the bell, greeted me with her face turned attentively toward mine, and led me so briskly toward a flowered couch in her living room that I rather rudely blurted out, “Oh, you're not blind.”

“But I am, I am, or nearly,” she said, sounding pleased that I thought she wasn't. Trilling is a medium-sized woman with pale skin, elegantly arched high brows, and large brown eyes that are slightly protuberant—a legacy of the hyperthyroidism she suffered from in her twenties. Above her face rises a soft cloud of upswept reddish-brown hair. On the way to the couch, I paused to look at a propped-up copy of her book jacket on a side table, which shows a contemplative-looking Lionel Trilling and a bold, beautiful Diana Trilling gazing expectantly out at the world. Mary McCarthy, who was in Mrs. Trilling's circle from the late nineteen-thirties on, thought she resembled Katharine Cornell. Harking back to the period when Trilling and a number of her women friends swam in the same waters as the Trotskyists, McCarthy also remarked that the Trotskyists had all the beautiful girls. Though Mrs. Trilling cannot make out faces except at very close range in a good light, she can, I discovered, see outlines of bodies, and she noticed that I had lingered near her book jacket.

“Those photographs were taken about the time we were married, in the late twenties,” she said. “I like the jacket. I looked at it under a magnifying lamp that is my savior. Isn't it attractive? Lionel was extremely good-looking. Photographs do not do him justice. They never did. Even in the ones that Cecil Beaton and Walker Evans took of him, he looks hideous.”

Trilling began losing her sight in 1985. Nowadays, she has a secretary who comes in half-days to read to her and help her with her work, and she listens to tapes of books, but, as someone who has lived in books, she has had to undergo a torturous period of adjustment. The memoir took her eight years to complete.

“I had to dictate it, which was a most peculiar process,” she said, looking toward but not at me.

“Into a machine?”

“I couldn't dictate into a machine. I dictated to people. I've had a series of secretaries—seven, in all. It was awfully hard.”

Despite the loss of vision and an advanced case of emphysema (she cannot walk more than a block), Trilling lives alone, in a sprawling Claremont Avenue apartment that has been her home since 1955. In her memoir, the subject of what it was like to be a middle-class literary couple in a combative, radical circle hostile to what Mencken called “the booboisie” looms large. “We were resented, and it was not a small subject,” she said when I asked her about it. “It's inconceivable today, but it turned people against Lionel and me.” The unfashionable subject of class surfaces frequently in Mrs. Trilling's writing, and the terrors, demands, constrictions, and lasting reverberations of an early-twentieth-century middle-class Jewish upbringing are a large part of the story she tells in her memoir, and tells with admirable candor—though, needless to say, her book is more than a portrait of a bourgeois literary marriage.

Trilling was born Diana Rubin, the third child of a poor Polish couple who immigrated to the United States in the eighteen-nineties. Her father, who had grown up in the ghetto of Warsaw, became a manufacturer of braid and prospered rapidly. Her mother brought a wealth of rural Polish folk remedies, superstitions, and habits to her children's upbringing. If the children had colds, she rubbed their feet with garlic; if a speck blew in their eyes, she licked it out with her tongue; and if the cat inconveniently bore kittens, she drowned them in a kitchen pail or had them smashed with a broom under the dining-room table, in full view of her terrified daughter.

In the then far more rural suburb of Larchmont—where the family lived before moving to New Rochelle, then to Brooklyn, then to Manhattan—the Rubins grew their own fruits and vegetables and raised chickens in the back yard. Neither of Diana's parents read books, and no one encouraged her in any intellectual pursuits—or, apparently, in much of anything else. Although she can still vividly recall the sweetness of a peach she ate from the family tree, the pleasure principle, she makes clear, was entirely absent from her upbringing.

“It was a very puritanical household,” she told me. “My parents were strict, and worried about spoiling us. We had few toys. We were never complimented, lest we become conceited. But in my generation, in a certain kind of East European Jewish household, that was the way it was.” She leaned forward as she spoke, with her elbows resting on her knees and her hands clasped in front of her. Trilling's place in her generation is also marked by the cultivated, New York-accented cadences of her speech and the complete sentences in which she expresses even the most ephemeral thoughts.

In her memoir, Trilling speculates that her family's extreme disapproval of any sort of self-display and their subliminally conveyed wish that she not surpass her older brother and slower sister contributed to her slowness in becoming a writer. She was thirty-six before she began writing for publication, and that fact partly explains the modesty of her literary output to date: three collections of reviews and essays—Claremont Essays,We Must March My Darlings, and Reviewing the Forties—and one full-length book, Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor. (“I actually never sat down to write a book until after Lionel died,” she told me. “We don't know what the meaning of that is. …”) That day, it was worrying her that she hadn't made it clear enough in the memoir that her family's obliviousness of her psychological needs and of her fears—of burglars, of lice, of a crazy neighbor—rested on the period's totally different assumption about the personal life. “It wasn't only my upbringing, it was a whole sense of life—you were not that precious.”

Her future husband, also the child of Polish immigrants, was, on the other hand, all but inundated with parental attention. Though as a baby he was overfed to near-bursting, his mother considered him so irresistible to strangers that she felt compelled to pin a “Please Don't Kiss the Baby” sign on his carriage. Trilling père gave up tailoring, which he was good at, to become a manufacturer of fur-lined coats, which he was bad at, solely to spare his son the embarrassment of having to say that his father was a tailor. In Far Rockaway, where Lionel spent part of his boyhood, when he played with his friends in makeshift cardboard houses the other boys' lunches came out of paper bags; his—lamb chops and baked potato—was sent forth on a silver salver. And when he went away to camp Mom and a multitude of aunties moved into a nearby boarding house. At six, he was informed that he would go to Oxford. (He never attended as a student but taught there in 1964 and was a visiting scholar in 1972.) Diana Rubin always believed that her stately first name portended a romantic future; he loathed his (probably the result of a period when his mother lived in England), and never ceased to wish that he had been a Jack or a John.

As a student at Erasmus Hall High School, in Brooklyn, and Radcliffe College, Diana had no sense whatever of her future calling as an intellectual. She had high expectations of college, but found that at the Radcliffe of her day “any intensity of idea bordered on the ill-bred,” she writes in the memoir, and “no one carried back to the dormitory any topic for discussion which had arisen in a classroom.” The object of their education, a college dean told her sophomore class, was to provide mental diversion in their private lives; as they went about their domestic chores in the future, they could recite Keats to themselves. Dorothy Calingaert, a friend from her Radcliffe days, remembers spending many happy hours playing the piano while Diana sang arias in a beautiful, pure soprano voice. But she graduated without having read Homer, Dante, or Chaucer, without adding to her scant high-school knowledge of Shakespeare, and barely knowing the names Montaigne, Tocqueville, Austen, or Hawthorne. She majored in art history, but in her era few Jews even made it into the elite schools, and she was apparently the only student in the art-history department who openly declared herself Jewish, that department being particularly unwelcoming to Jews.

At various points in his life, Lionel Trilling was accused by his critics of being insufficiently Jewish, or, anyway, traitorously assimilationist—a charge that Mrs. Trilling addresses at some length in her book and, I think, succeeds in laying to rest. She also writes, quite movingly, about her own complex feelings about being Jewish, though, like her husband, she grew up in a largely secular home and, like him, “had the childhood of an American who happened to be a Jew, not that of a Jew who happened to be an American.”

She graduated from college in 1925, and arrived in New York with strong recommendations for jobs at the Frick Art Reference Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But her Jewish name apparently outweighed her references, and she never got beyond the front door of either institution. Those rebuffs effectively ended her career as an art historian. However, it was not religious prejudice alone, or even mainly, that thwarted her, she says, but a lack of sense of direction—something she shared with most of the women of her generation.

She was introduced to Lionel Trilling on Christmas Eve in 1927 at a speakeasy in the West Forties by Clifton Fadiman and his wife, Polly, whom both had come to know during their school days. The Fadimans did not actually expect them to like each other, but thought, more or less jokily, that a Lionel and a Diana belonged in the same orbit. They turned out to like each other quite a lot, and two years later they were married. It was “not a case of love at first sight, only of attraction,” she writes. “We were never in love in the way that people are in love in popular songs—for that kind of love I should have had to look outside reality, and, like someone who is muscle-bound, I am reality-bound. Over a long lifetime, we loved each other very much, increasingly with the years, although in middle life we quarreled a great deal and often threatened each other with divorce. But even at our angriest, we were never estranged. … I have never met any man to whom I would rather have been married.”

Their courtship floated along on a virtual sea of brandy Alexanders and a drink called a Bullfrog. “From the moment we met until I became seriously ill after we had been married for a year, neither of us was entirely sober when we were together,” she says. Six months before they married, they became lovers. In later life, Mrs. Trilling fearlessly engaged in any number of battles with powerful literary figures and heavy-hitting political antagonists, but apparently these required nothing like the daring it took to sleep with her future husband. “It was the most courageous act of my life,” she told me. “Mary McCarthy said she had a lover every day after she graduated from Vassar, but no one I knew did anything like that. None of my friends did what I did.”

Lionel Trilling's extravagantly over-attentive immediate family was ruled by a formidable claque of maiden aunts and bachelor uncles, who looked upon marriage as a weakness—a betrayal of family fealty. When Lionel introduced Diana to them, they refused to shake her hand, and when he told his mother that he was actually getting married she fainted, and Lionel's pretty sixteen-year-old sister obligingly fell at her side.

Her wedding does not figure among Mrs. Trilling's favorite memories. The ceremony was conducted by a former college classmate of her husband's who had recently been ordained as a rabbi, and he “insisted” that they be married under a chupah. The fact that this requirement came, as it were, with the job seems to have been underappreciated by the adamantly secular bride and groom. As Lionel was about to step under this ritual object, Diana's father disappeared into the bathroom, and reappeared forty-five minutes later; the bride's wedding bouquet of roses had not been dethorned and pricked her painfully through her wedding-dress sleeve; and the nuptial banquet included a dessert bombe topped by a doll bride with a sugar skirt, which guests were directed to reach under to retrieve little scoops of ice cream.

The first years of her marriage were marked by the onset of a long period of illness and phobias (one was a fear of being alone, and it was so powerful that she briefly had to hire a paid companion), but those years also broadened her intellectual horizons immensely. The crowd her husband became a part of—the Family, as it was later named by Norman Podhoretz—included, in the early years of their marriage and into the thirties, the editors Elliot Cohen, Philip Rahv, William Phillips, and F. W. Dupee, and the Marxist scholar Sidney Hook. “The girls,” as the Trillings referred to them—Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Hannah Arendt—joined the group later. The group came to include, as well, the critics Dwight Macdonald, Clement Greenberg, and James Agee, the editor William Barrett, the poets Delmore Schwartz and Robert Lowell, the editor and writer Irving Kristol, the critic Irving Howe, the sociologist Daniel Bell, and Podhoretz himself. At some unspecified point, Diana Trilling became an integral part of this circle, although at first she was welcomed only as an adjunct of her husband. Few of its members became her close friends. “It was hard to be intimate with anyone in that crowd,” she remarked on another afternoon. “They were so adversarial.”

“Even the women?” I asked.

She gave me a pitying look, and said, “When Mary and Hannah were with us socially, they ignored me totally. They directed their attention only to Lionel.” After a while, the conversation turned to the subject of Mary McCarthy's reputation as a beauty. “Of course, she was enormously good-looking,” she said. “But I did not like her smile. There was no innocence in that smile.”

In histories of the thirties and forties, the New York intellectual crowd comes across as a kind of brilliant, out-of-control Lower East Side schoolhouse gang. Mrs. Trilling's memoir supports this impression. “They were overbearing and arrogant, excessively competitive; they lacked magnanimity and they often lacked common courtesy,” she writes. “But they were intellectually energetic to a degree which I had not previously encountered and—this particularly attracted me—they were proof against cant.” Someone once complained to Irving Howe that there had been a lot of professional back-scratching among them. “Change the word ‘back’ to ‘eye,’” he replied, “and maybe you've got something.”

In 1931, during a stay at Yaddo, both Trillings became converted to the Communist cause. By then, most of the people they knew were becoming politically engaged Marxists, and Marxism had joined modernism as the focus of the debates that frequently took place at Stewart's, a cafeteria in the Village. It has been suggested that without Marxism the New York intellectuals would have been dull. Harold Rosenberg went as far as to say that without it they would have been nothing.

Mrs. Trilling and a number of her friends began working for the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, a Communist-affiliated organization. Together with a woman who referred to herself as Comrade Grace and to the man she lived with as Comrade Lover, she at first stuffed and licked envelopes (“the women's work of revolutions”), but before long she was given the task of enlisting the signatures and the support of intellectuals for the N.C.D.P.P.'s many appeals. In 1932, a couple she was friendly with came back from a lengthy visit to Russia with horrific tales about bloated commissars and political terror, but at that point neither she nor her husband paid much attention to such stories. She continued to believe in Communism as the best solution for the country's ills, to admire the Party's position on social and racial equality, and, embarrassed but with arm upraised, to sing the “Internationale” at the conclusion of every Party gathering. Her disenchantment with Communism, which grew exponentially as she got older, was triggered by the Party's cynical use of the Scottsboro Boys case to attract publicity and adherents and by what she saw as the Party's indifference to the actual fate of the Scottsboro defendants, evidenced by its hiring of a criminal lawyer with no civil-rights experience. From a fellow-worker she learned that money she had helped raise specifically for the defense of the Scottsboro Boys had been used instead to pay for the Party's national convention. In April of 1933, less than a year after joining the N.C.D.P.P., she and her friends quit, and after a brief period of Trotskyist involvement she joined a growing number of disillusioned radicals.

“But the worst thing about leaving the N.C.D.P.P. had nothing to do with politics,” she recalls today. The office had served as a secure retreat from her phobias. In 1930, Mrs. Trilling had had two operations—she had nearly died after one of them—for hyperthyroidism. (Even after this condition was diagnosed, her father was convinced that her symptoms—extreme fatigue and loss of appetite—had been caused by “sexual excess,” and instructed her brother to speak to her husband about the matter.) She had also begun to suffer from panic attacks and from the various phobias—she was terrified of travelling and of heights as well as of being alone—that would plague her for more than twenty years. A doctor prescribed Luminal, a mild sedative, to help calm her, and she carried it with her in her purse wherever she went. The multitude of fears besieging her had become so extreme that when Whittaker Chambers (unaware that she was about to quit her job) came to her apartment to try to enlist her as a spy for the Russians, she could scarcely think of anything but how flattering it was that anyone would think her brave enough to be capable of spying. Nonetheless, she declined.

Lionel Trilling had been appointed an instructor at Columbia in 1932, but he nearly lost his job several years later when he was “accused” of being “a Jew, a Marxist, and a Freudian.” He survived by sheer force of will, and thereafter began his unwavering ascent to the literary-academic empyrean, where he remained for the rest of his life. At home, however, things were going far from well. The Trillings were struggling to maintain their own household and that of the senior Trillings, who had lost their money in the Crash, and they had already entered the first phase of what Mrs. Trilling described one afternoon as “a lifetime of dreary indebtedness.” Their “public guardedness”—as William Phillips, who was both Trillings' editor at Partisan Review, recently described it—also concealed a cauldron of emotional difficulty. No one knew that Lionel Trilling suffered from ravaging depression and rages.

Shortly before Lionel and Diana were married, his usually adoring mother somewhat mysteriously recommended that she occasionally hit him over the head with a bottle if any strange show of temper manifested itself. “I thought she was mad,” Trilling now says. But during her husband's frequent bouts of depression, she writes, “this most peaceable of men” gave vent to “annihilating verbal assaults” in which he blamed her for all his sorrows—a charge she accepted to some degree, because she felt that her phobias must be a terrible drag on him.

To try to extricate herself from the problems that ensnarled her, Mrs. Trilling began a more than twenty-year adventure with psychoanalysis. It helped her cure her phobias and find the courage to become a writer, but, at least as she describes it, seems like pure opéra bouffe. Over several decades, she consulted seven different analysts. One asked her out on a date. Another, supposedly to keep her fear of being alone at bay, invited her into his chaotic house, where she sat, horrified, as the family pets relieved themselves at will and the baby crawled around petrified bits of old food and dog shit. (This doctor also took on her husband as a patient while treating her, and vacationed with both of them.) A third, “an artist of the counter-phobic,” made her aggressively confront her phobias as if she were a circus performer, and a fourth was addicted to morphine.

Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Trilling believes that she was never entirely properly analyzed. Still, she had better luck with psychoanalysis than her husband did: his two biggest problems, depression and writer's block, eluded the talking cure. Apparently, despite all the respect he was accorded as a critic and the near-reverence he inspired as a teacher, he felt that he had failed as a creative writer (his one novel, The Middle of the Journey, published in 1947, is, in fact, rather leaden) and wished he had been capable of living the more released life that he felt went along with a realized creative spirit. Those who knew him in his academic guise will probably be amazed to learn from the memoir that he “deeply … scorned the very qualities of character—his quiet, his moderation, his gentle reasonableness—for which he was most admired in his lifetime and which have been most celebrated since his death.”

One happy result of Mrs. Trilling's having overcome her fear of venturing forth in the world was the launching of her writing career, in 1941, as a book reviewer for The Nation. In the eight years that she held that job, the front editorial section of the magazine had a pro-Communist bias and the literary, back section was anti-Communist—a situation that prompted one wit to remark, “How can The Nation long endure, half Slav and half free?” Her reviews were unsigned at first, but she soon graduated to longer, signed essays, both in The Nation and in Partisan Review. To her astonishment, she discovered a bold public voice that totally belied her private terrors. When she attended Partisan Review parties now, “it was as if I had all at once acquired new powers of mind or a new endowment of personal charm,” she notes bitingly. “The other writers could talk to me without the fear that they were squandering time that might be used more gainfully.”

The next decades saw Mrs. Trilling's reputation as an incisive literary critic and fearless polemicist grow apace, and brought some extraliterary battles onto the printed page. Although she had written in her introduction to the Viking Portable D. H. Lawrence that “there have been few writers in any era, and certainly none in ours, who have combined as Lawrence did the gifts of the creative heart and the penetrations of the critical intellect,” Alfred Kazin (with whom Lionel Trilling once nearly came to blows in an argument about Mrs. Trilling's politics), criticizing her introduction to a volume of Lawrence's letters, found “Mrs. Diana Trilling,” as he referred to her, incapable of appreciating Lawrence's genius. She continued to write chiefly for small, “advanced” (a word she uses a lot) periodicals, but her audience expanded when she began contributing essays to popular magazines like Vogue, McCall's, Harper's Bazaar, and Mademoiselle. In the late fifties, in an article for Look entitled “The Case for the American Woman,” which she wrote in response to a series the magazine had run depicting American wives as grasping Valkyries driving their husbands to early graves, she said that, on the contrary, American homes were like mental hospitals: American wives were the nurses and their husbands the patients. “A storm of protest followed, and my husband's publisher told him that I was damaging his reputation,” she recalled, with unconcealed glee.

The hallmarks of Diana Trilling's work—whether about Edith Wharton, Norman Mailer, McCarthyism, William Saroyan, feminism, Marilyn Monroe, Timothy Leary, D. H. Lawrence, Alice James, or Tom Sawyer—are lucidity, moral complexity, an unself-protecting, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may staking out of strong positions, and an aversion to received ideas. “She has one of the most generously consecutive minds I have ever known,” says the literary scholar and critic Quentin Anderson, who is also Trilling's friend and neighbor. “Other people aren't continuously working things out,” he said recently. “They have their intermissions. But Diana can't bear intermissions. The experiences which face her have to be stripped of their strangeness and incongruity so that she can make sense of the world. And whether she was writing for Redbook or Partisan Review, there was always a steadiness of judgment. When ‘judgmental’ became a commonly used pejorative adjective, much of Diana was being implicitly condemned, because she demands of herself that she make responsible judgments, and I think that it shows in her work wherever and however it appears.”

One morning in 1947, Trilling awoke to the unnerving realization that she had been married for eighteen years, she was forty-two years old, and she was childless. Childlessness was common in her circle, and somehow, she writes in the memoir, the subject had simply never come up.

I asked her how that was possible.

“I don't know,” she said. “But that's how it was. When I realized my position, of course, I consulted a doctor immediately. He was not optimistic. He said I'd waited too long. Well, he was wrong. I became pregnant that night, and our son, Jim, was born the following July. We loved being parents.”

James Trilling, an art historian who lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with his family, grew up, he says, with no feeling that there were powerful tensions in his parents' private lives. But he has strong memories of the seriousness, even the “sense of mission,” with which both parents approached their work. “I was aware most of all that my parents talked constantly to each other and they were almost always on the same wavelength,” he said. “Very rarely have I had the impression from another couple that the whole strength of their marriage was right there in the way they talked.”

For more than five decades, Trilling has referred to herself as a “liberal anti-Communist.” Nevertheless, almost uniquely, she has critics on the left who distrust her liberalism and conservative critics who consider her an unreconstructed liberal. Over the years, she has had cause to articulate her political position many times in print. “I was against both Communism and McCarthyism,” she writes in her memoir. “They were enemies of each other but I was the enemy of both. Double positions of this kind are not popular.” She finds “a curious abstractness in the liberal condemnation of anti-Communism, which has become increasingly marked since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” and goes on, “It is as if there were no connection between the reality of Soviet Communism, in particular Stalin's Communism, and the opposition it engendered among some few intellectuals in the democracies. While on the one hand liberalism acknowledges and deplores the evil of the Communist dictatorship, on the other hand it treats anti-Communism as an object of its scorn.”

Trilling attracted the enmity of much of the left in the mid-fifties, when she served as an officer of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, a coalition of anti-Communist liberals and conservatives. According to its first chairman, Sidney Hook, one of the organization's missions was “to expose Stalinism and Stalinist liberals wherever you find them.”

Victor Navasky, the editor of The Nation, her old alma mater, and the author of Naming Names, a book about the McCarthy era, believes that the A.C.C.F. members were obsessed by the dangers posed by what Hook termed “Stalinist liberals.” “But there were many people who had long ago left the Communist Party who may or may not have been so-called Stalinists when they were inside it, and to be in it was not necessarily to be a Stalinist,” he said recently.

During the period when Trilling was associated with the A.C.C.F., however, she also succeeded in alienating many anti-Communists, by writing a closely argued essay for Partisan Review about the J. Robert Oppenheimer case, in which she demonstrated that nearly every charge brought against Oppenheimer (who, incidentally, was said to resemble her husband) could have been destroyed if his lawyers had had a better sense of history. Nonetheless, she believes, the liberal community, and especially the predominantly liberal literary community, never forgave her or her husband their anti-Communism. “Lionel was never invited to become a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters,” she said. “A few weeks after he died, the Academy called to offer him posthumous membership, but I told them that the offer had come too late, and declined.”

For all the Hobbesian breadth of her position, one could still wonder about the way Mrs. Trilling frames her critique of liberal irresponsibility. Responding to a 1967 article by Jason Epstein in The New York Review of Books about the Central Intelligence Agency's funding of various anti-Communist organizations, in which he enumerated the many serious domestic problems the nation was facing—crumbling cities, polluted air and water, a weak educational system—which he felt might be better served by government funding, she felt compelled to fault Epstein for not subjecting the Soviet Union to a comparable scrutiny. Reading his article, she remarked in an essay of her own, you might conclude that “the air over the Soviet Union remains pure, the streams of Communism run clear and unpolluted.”

But shouldn't democracies be judged by their own standards? Americans were not responsible for either the pollution or the police-state realities of the Soviet Union and could not possibly have controlled them. When I suggested this the next time I saw her, Trilling shook her head. “No,” she said. “We were responsible for what was happening in East Europe. At Yalta, another huge chunk of the earth's surface was given away by a great liberal President, and what we did in our foreign policy continued to affect the fate of millions for years.”

During the 1972 Presidential election, a number of the Trillings' former radical friends, who had gradually migrated further and further to the right over the years, endorsed Richard Nixon for President, and one of them invited the Trillings to sign an endorsement for him that was to appear in the newspaper. They refused, and that moment marked a decisive break with a number of people who had been their friends for years, and who later became known as neo-conservatives. “They became right-wingers,” Trilling told me. “They don't care about equal rights, they don't care about the working class. They oppose sane abortion legislation. They thought Bush and Quayle were fine. I could never have followed them in those things. But, you know, it doesn't make me a good person because I think these things. I despised Oliver North and the way he took government matters into his own hands, but that doesn't make me a good person. Some liberals think that having liberal opinions makes them good people. I don't.”

Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary and a chief standard-bearer of neo-conservatism, has not spoken to her since they had a bitter falling-out over the accuracy of his portrait of Lionel Trilling in his book Breaking Ranks (1979), a political memoir. Back in the nineteen-fifties, “nobody regarded her as a liberal,” Podhoretz declared recently, in a telephone conversation. “Her ruling passion was anti-Communism and that's what she was hated for by some and admired for by others.”

Irving Kristol, now another neo-conservative stalwart, disagrees with Podhoretz. Kristol and his wife, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, have known Mrs. Trilling since the nineteen-forties. “She is a Hubert Humphrey liberal,” he said recently. “We became more conservative, but she never did. Perhaps today's liberalism has moved to the left of her liberalism, I don't know. But she was always far more literary than political—she's a first-class literary and cultural critic.”

In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, Trilling engaged in a number of skirmishes in print with members of the Family. One was with Mary McCarthy. (Both favored withdrawal from Vietnam, but Trilling predicted—rightly, as it turned out—that things would be far more difficult for the South Vietnamese in the postwar era than McCarthy believed they would be.) Another was with Robert Lowell (over the student takeover of Columbia), and a third, a not at all modest skirmish—more like Armageddon—was with Lillian Hellman.

The differences with Hellman grew out of Trilling's attack on the veracity of certain facts in Hellman's memoir Scoundrel Time. She was hardly alone in finding fault with Hellman's version of reality, but she was an early and an eloquent critic. Her fight with Hellman received so much publicity that several years ago she told an interviewer from the Times, “Sometimes I think my obituary is going to read, ‘Diana Trilling dies at 150. Widow of distinguished professor and literary critic Lionel Trilling. Engaged in controversy with Lillian Hellman.’” Hellman's disfavor, as Mary McCarthy's biographer, Carol Brightman, has noted, was “not something one wanted to encounter in the dark alley of American letters,” and their struggle remains fresh in Trilling's memory. She and Hellman had known each other for years before their well-publicized clash. “She was a very, very amusing woman, very charming, one of the most entertaining people I have ever known,” Trilling told me. “She gave lots of glamorous parties, and it was nice to be friends with her. As long as we stayed off politics. But she was not the largehearted, large-spirited woman I thought she was. Our difficulty arose in 1976, the summer after Lionel died. I asked Roger Donald, my editor at Little, Brown, who was going to be publishing a volume of my essays, whether he would be willing to publish them if I included a piece about Scoundrel Time, which I was sure I wasn't going to like. Little, Brown was, of course, also Lillian's publisher. He said, ‘No problem.’” (Roger Donald denies this.) “Well, that summer, Lillian, who had the whole Vineyard in her pocket, did everything to keep me friendly. I was invited everywhere. I have gone to the Vineyard or the Cape for years, and never once, except for that summer, have I worn a long, dressed-up sort of summer dress. That summer I had five, and they weren't enough. Well, at the end of the summer her book came out, and I thought it was loathsome, and I included in one of my essays four passages of criticism of it, and I put that essay in the volume called We Must March My Darlings. And Donald said I had to remove those four passages, and I said I would not remove them, and they broke my contract. I couldn't afford to sue. But I would have won. And then I put an enormous footnote that extends for several pages in the essay, and the book came out under the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich imprint.”

“Were there any further repercussions?” I asked.

“There certainly were. The word went out that you could not be a friend of Lillian's and still be a friend of mine. Norman Mailer, whom I'd been on friendly terms with for years—I'd even gone to a prizefight with him—modified a blurb he'd written for the jacket copy of my book so as to render it useless, and we ceased being friends. The next summer, at the Vineyard, I was absolutely shunned. And, you know, I was alone by then. I missed Lionel terribly. Actually, it forced me off the island. I didn't have any social life. I spend my vacations at the Cape now.”

Lionel Trilling's favorite of his wife's essays was an account she wrote for Partisan Review in 1959 of an evening she had spent with some faculty wives listening to Allen Ginsberg (a former student of Lionel's), Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso reading their poetry. It was called “The Other Night at Columbia: A Report from the Academy.” In it she subjects Ginsberg to a rather severe moral accounting but also questions her own assumptions about the values of a middle-class life. It's a complicated bit of writing, but its unreceptive attitude toward the embryonic Zeitgeist of the sixties was considered retrograde, and many people were irritated by it. Probably there are still those who, with the passing years, can forgive Mrs. Trilling her politics, forgive her her continuing doubts about the innocence of Alger Hiss, forgive her her insistence that in the case of Mrs. Harris it was actually Dr. Tarnower who was the victim, but cannot forgive her “The Other Night at Columbia.” When the article about him came out, Ginsberg sent Partisan Review a one-line note, saying, “The universe is a new flower.”

“What I'd meant to convey was that the world and our understanding of it was changing,” Ginsberg said recently. “I don't think she understood what she was hearing that night. I'm glad she paid attention to our poetry, but it would have been more useful if she had realized that the change in poetic form and concern was part of a new way of looking at the world. Our consciousness was getting beyond fights between Communists and anti-Communists, beyond the radical disillusion of the thirties intellectuals. Both the New and the Old Left became hypnotized by their battles. But we were trying to get beyond all that to an experience of the divine. We were worrying about the more universal police state that comes through technology.”

The last afternoon I saw Mrs. Trilling, which happened to be her eighty-eighth birthday, I asked her if, in retrospect, she might have come to think that her judgment of Ginsberg had been too harsh.

“Well, he thought of himself as outraging the academic community,” she said. “And if someone is coming to outrage your community you look at him and say, ‘What is he going to substitute for it?’ What I saw was a mixture of theatrics and infantilism and envy and wanting to get there himself—which now he has. I don't think that was a harsh judgment. When he was a student at Columbia, he was briefly thrown out of the school for writing ‘Fuck the Jews’ on a window, and it might be preferable for that not to be known now. And later on he was arrested for receiving stolen goods, and Lionel and other people at the university kept him out of jail. They did a very big job on the district attorney to get him a year of free medical help rather than a jail sentence. I felt sorry for him as you do for a lost kid. You can say it's condescension, but, you know, maturity condescends to youth. When the essay first came out, he told people he thought that it was ‘motherly,’ but at a dinner we were both invited to in the nineteen-seventies he told me that I was responsible for the junkies on the streets of New York. Well, that's what I have against him.” (Ginsberg had been talking about the C.I.A.'s involvement with the Far Eastern and Mediterranean drug trade.) “That's all I have against him. But there was affection for Ginsberg in that essay, too, and there was also enormous self-irony in the ending, which people seem to miss, or forget. I came home after that reading to this meeting of serious men, this respectable book club, and Auden was there and spoke condescendingly of Ginsberg. And I looked around the room and I thought, Is this any better than those rompered kids? No, it's not any better. And so I said to the room at large, ‘Lionel, he wrote a love poem to you, and it was beautiful. I liked it.’”

Mrs. Trilling had mentioned this poem in her memoir, and though I have a passing familiarity with Ginsberg's poetry, I had no recollection of the poem she referred to, and had trouble finding it in a collection of his poems, so I called Ginsberg to ask him for its title.

“There is no poem about him,” he said matter-of-factly. “The poem I read that night was one I'd written in Paris about a mystical vision I had about a lion in my living room. It's called, ‘The Lion for Real,’ and begins with a quote from the nineteenth-century French poet Tristan Corbière: ‘Soyez muette pour moi, Idole contemplative.’ I guess she misheard it. I visited them for years afterward, but I never brought it up; I thought it was better to just let it go.”

I told Mrs. Trilling what Ginsberg had said.

She shrugged, and said dryly, “Ah, was I wrong? He should have told me I was wrong. But, in any case, the fact is that that night I was trying to throw a bombshell into the respectability of my home. I was writing from the point of view of somebody who was trying to live in two worlds at once—the imaginative world of bad children and the ruling world of good, ordinary grownups.”

Mrs. Trilling was interrupted by the ringing of the phone, which she kept on the floor at her feet. It was her friend Dorothy Calingaert, who was calling to wish her a happy birthday.

“Oh, Dorothy. Oh, thanks so much. Well, you made it. I made it. I guess we're the oldest living ornaments.”

As soon as she hung up, the phone rang again. It was her granddaughters, who are two and six, also calling to wish her a happy birthday and to discuss the delayed celebration they would have in a few weeks, when she planned to visit them.

“Yes, darling, I can't wait to see you.”

That call was followed by a long succession of others from well-wishers, and after a while my mind drifted away from the subject we had been discussing before the phone started ringing. Mrs. Trilling's had not. Leaning back on the couch with her arms outspread after returning the phone to its cradle, she said, without missing a beat, “This is the unresolved question that imaginative people will always have, in every time of life, in every time of the world: Where do I belong, and what price do I pay for where I choose to stand?”

For all its rich allusion and social alertness, there is a strong feeling of grief in The Beginning of the Journey: for her husband, for her vanished friends, and for the robust intellectual climate in which she once thrived. “Today, when the intellectual world as I knew it in the middle decades of the century no longer exists, I deeply mourn its loss,” she writes. “I loved intellectual talk: the easy discursiveness, the free range of reference, the refusal of received ideas, the always-ready wit. I cherished the exigency of the intellectual life as it used to be lived.”

The finality of such statements, coupled with the physical difficulties of Mrs. Trilling's life, led me to assume that her memoir would be her last work. I was mistaken. That afternoon, she told me that on the morning of the first day I visited her she had just started a new book, a series of recollections of places and people, and she had been working on it every day. A mighty warrior does not tarry in her tent.

Hilton Kramer (review date October 1993)

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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

To the literature of reminiscence that has been devoted to the history of the New York intellectuals from their emergence as anti-Stalinists in the late 1930s to the period of breakup and recrimination in the 1960s, women writers have contributed remarkably little. Mary McCarthy, after writing a savage lampoon of the group in The Oasis while it was still ascendant in the 1940s, might have been expected to give the subject a full-dress treatment, but she returned to it too late in life to produce anything of significance. The slight, unfinished Intellectual Memoirs published after her death added nothing but a self-serving gloss to what she had already written. Hannah Arendt no doubt thought the subject beneath her consideration, though there are bound to be some caustic references to it in her letters—especially in her correspondence with McCarthy. Elizabeth Hardwick has not yet favored us with a candid account of her close involvement with this intellectual circle. It has thus been left to Diana Trilling to provide us with the most extensive memoir of this milieu that has yet been written by a woman who was both a witness to and a participant in its literary and political affairs.

Yet the book that Mrs. Trilling has now written in The Beginning of the Journey is, if not exactly peripheral to the history of this literary circle, only partly an account of its intellectual vicissitudes.1 In much larger part, it is a book about the troubled private life of its author. While its subtitle—“The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling”—gives the reader fair warning as to the principal focus of the book, it nonetheless comes as something of a shock to discover that The Beginning of the Journey has much more to tell us about Mrs. Trilling's harrowing and protracted immersion in the mystifications of psychoanalysis than about the public role that she and her husband played in the political and cultural life of their time. As intellectual history, The Beginning of the Journey adds little to what we already know about the personal character and political proclivities of the New York intellectuals. It settles a few scores and corrects some minor misconceptions, mainly about the Trillings, and that is about all there is in the way of revising the record. But about another important aspect of New York intellectual life in the period in question—its fateful attachment to Freudian doctrine and the culture of psychoanalysis—Mrs. Trilling has given us a document of undeniable historical interest. Much of her book is indeed a grim illustration of those lines from W. H. Auden's “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” (1939), which once summarized the spirit of the age:

                    If often he was wrong and at times absurd,
To us he is no more a person
          Now but a whole climate of opinion
Under whom we conduct our different lives.

It is not only in what she writes about the details of her own horrific experience with psychoanalysis and that of her husband, moreover, that Mrs. Trilling gives a radical priority to Freud over every other means of coming to terms with her life and times. As we follow the course of a narrative that encompasses the many lives that have shaped her own, we come to realize that for Mrs. Trilling—and perhaps for Lionel Trilling, too—the Freudian psychoanalytical enterprise came to constitute a politics as well as a psychology, and even at times a moral system. Its morality was an inverted Puritanism that conferred upon the most extreme varieties of self-revelation and self-vindication the status of an absolute ethical imperative. In the politics of Freudian analysis, villainy was unequivocally identified with the disabling impostures of the bourgeois family. We come to see that it may well have been this view of the bourgeois family that commended Freudian analysis to intellectuals of Mrs. Trilling's generation in the wake of their disenchantment with Marxism. The discovery, in the midst of that disenchantment, that salvation might be accomplished on the couch rather than on the barricades, proved to have an irresistible appeal. Now the path to enlightenment and emancipation required not a plunge into the problematic future but a prolonged exhumation of the past, where the primal causes of our present afflictions were believed to lay buried under the disfiguring fictions of a dishonest society suddenly reduced to the dimensions of the family romance. On the couch, Marxian class conflict was transformed into a contest with parents, siblings, and spouses, while the bourgeois enemy remained firmly in place as the obstacle to be surmounted.

To the rigors of the mystical system of trial and redemption Mrs. Trilling gave up a good many years of her life, doggedly pursuing its chimerical promise of transfiguring revelation through the embattled decades of the Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War. In the course of this long ordeal, which by her own account brought Mrs. Trilling neither happiness nor any sense of having been “cured” of the fears that afflicted her, she was obliged to endure a good deal of ignorant treatment, if not indeed what we should now characterize as medical malpractice. “In my search for cure,” she writes, “I nevertheless went from doctor to doctor, seven in all over the years, and today, at the end of this long road, I still feel that I was never properly analyzed.” Three of her doctors died while she was in treatment with them. One, who came highly recommended by the Psychoanalytic Society, turned out to be a drug addict. Another, as she says, was “a Communist fellow-traveler” at a time when both Diana and Lionel Trilling had already become staunch anti-Stalinists. Amazingly, Lionel Trilling also became a patient of the same doctor, with whose family the Trillings even spent a summer holiday lest their psychoanalytical sessions suffer some irreparable interruption. “Today I ask myself,” Mrs. Trilling writes, “whether it was possible that Lionel and I were ever so ignorant of the analytical conventions and of the delicate relation between patient and therapist that we cooperated in such destructive arrangements. The answer is that we were precisely this ignorant, and so was everyone we knew”—including, apparently, the psychoanalysts.

That there was a large element of blind and irrational faith in this surrender to the psychoanalytical enterprise is more or less acknowledged by Mrs. Trilling herself. “Freudian thought excited strong emotions among intellectuals,” she writes, “but not much intellection. Intellectuals tended, indeed, to voice their opinion of analysis in the language of religion: one ‘believed’ or did not ‘believe’ in it.” Mrs. Trilling, who is in all other respects opposed to the religious outlook on life, remained a true believer in this particular cult, and appears to remain so even now. She acknowledges, too, that “a disquieting subtext of my experience of analysis was my failure to trust my own judgment of these people into whose hands I put myself. … In fact, I never had entire confidence in any of the therapeutic situations in which I found myself. Yet I never left any of them of my own accord. Instead of looking upon my doctors as technicians whom I hired to perform a necessary service and whom I should dismiss if the service was not satisfactory, I behaved with each one of them as if he or she were indispensable to my well-being.”

Mrs. Trilling also had reason to believe that one of the several analysts who treated her husband was actively engaged in demonizing her role in his life, and thus attempting to destroy their marriage. One of her own analysts—perhaps the only one she actually admired—made an unwelcome and, for that matter, quite unprofessional attempt to alter the way Mrs. Trilling conducted her career as a critic.

More than once [Mrs. Trilling writes], Dr. Kris said of my literary criticism that I must “neutralize” it, by which she meant that in my writing as in my life I must be more accepting, less given to the making of judgments; as a critic, I was to be less critical. … But in commenting on my work in these terms, Dr. Kris was not just expressing a biased sexual view; she was moving into an arena in which she had little competence—psychoanalytical training is not a preparation for literary judgment.

Yet in the face of these blatantly moralistic interventions in her life, Mrs. Trilling continued to affirm her interest in, as she puts it, “psychoanalysis as a medical practice.” In this regard, she makes what she regards as an important distinction between her attitude toward Freud and that of her husband.

Until the end of his life, Lionel never yielded in his admiration for Freud. But it was Freud the man of idea, Freud the witness to the tragedy of civilization, whom he esteemed. He was not primarily concerned, as I was and continue to be, with psychoanalysis as a medical practice.

Yet on his deathbed, as Mrs. Trilling duly reports, her husband received the last rites, so to speak, during a final session with his psychoanalyst, a woman whom Mrs. Trilling was meeting for the first time. “They saw each other in private,” Mrs. Trilling reports, “but when she was ready to leave I took her to the door. I had never before met Dr. Abbate, but at the door she leaned over and kissed me. She said that she wanted me to know how much Lionel had always loved me. It was not something which she had to say, nor was it much to say, but it was enough.” Clearly for secular intellectuals of the Trillings' generation, psychoanalysis was something more than “a medical practice.”

It was ironic, in any case, for a psychoanalyst to have advised Mrs. Trilling to “neutralize” her penchant for criticism, whether in regard to literature or about life itself, for Freudian analysis is nothing if not a system that compels its acolytes to render the fiercest judgments on those nearest and dearest to them. In this practice, too, Mrs. Trilling exhibits all the unlovely stigmata of the classic analysand. She delivers herself of harsh verdicts and ungenerous characterizations about members of her own family, about members of her husband's family, about many of the people who figured importantly in their professional lives, and even, alas, about her beloved husband himself. It is indeed one of the sadnesses of this book that so much of it is devoted to what may be called a psychoanalytical deconstruction of Lionel Trilling's character.

Armed with the moral authority of the Freudian system, Mrs. Trilling has made it one of the tasks of The Beginning of the Journey to demystify her husband's reputation—not as a critic, to be sure, but as a man! “I very much disliked the image of Lionel as someone immune to profanation,” she writes. “I felt that it lessened and falsified him. I preferred him in all his vulnerable humanity.” Mrs. Trilling holds it very much against her husband that, unlike herself, he did not wish to publicize his own need of psychoanalysis or otherwise disclose the problems of his private life to his students, his academic colleagues, or his literary friends. It is clearly beyond her comprehension that such discretion may signify a command of moral delicacy to be admired. What particularly incenses Mrs. Trilling is that her husband did not disabuse his students of their high opinion of him. Lionel Trilling, she charges, “had a public image to protect, perhaps especially at Columbia,” and she cannot forgive his reluctance to deface that image through the agency of abject public confession.

Lionel represented for his gifted students a literary academic whose thought ranged well beyond the academy, linking literature to the wider political and moral life of the nation. The social relevance and moral intensity which in our American mid-century gave criticism its newly important role in society made Lionel himself into a kind of moral exemplar for his students, someone whose life and character might set the pattern for their own public and private choices. Lionel did not create or encourage this image. Consciously he scorned it. Yet unconsciously he conspired in it.

“Obviously I cannot write about Lionel's analytical history with the direct knowledge which I bring to my own,” Mrs. Trilling writes, but this professed disability does nothing to lessen her determination to pursue her project of profanation with a single-minded fervor. She thus offers a peevish and detailed guide to her husband's “vulnerable humanity.” This includes, among much else, disparaging descriptions of what are said to be Lionel Trilling's characteristic ways of conducting himself while swimming in the ocean, playing tennis, driving a car, and partnering his wife on the dance floor. Mercifully, we are spared an account of his performance in bed, but we are certainly meant to understand that Lionel Trilling could make little claim to distinction in the realm of masculine prowess. He is even criticized for sleeping less soundly after the birth of their son than when they lived together without parental responsibilities—criticized, that is, for making himself more readily available to respond to the baby's needs in the middle of the night. This must surely be counted as one of the most bizarre indictments in the checkered annals of modern marriage. By the same token, he is criticized for sleeping too soundly earlier on in their marriage when, by Mrs. Trilling's own account, her husband was exhausting himself with an overload of teaching and writing in order to support his parents, who were impoverished by the Depression, while his troubled wife frittered away a small legacy from her father on a fruitless pursuit of Freudian nirvana.

On matters small and large Mrs. Trilling compiles her indictment of her husband's offenses quite as if he were the principal malefactor in her life. If Lionel Trilling was disinclined to carry out the garbage, though by no means averse to serving his wife breakfast in bed, this was another matter that had to be subjected to psychoanalytical scrutiny. And if he had the courage to disagree with his wife in describing Whittaker Chambers as “a man of honor,” this must be dismissed by Mrs. Trilling as “a careless phrase”—which is a truly preposterous observation considering the gravity of the occasion. Lionel Trilling knew very well what this carefully considered defense of Chambers would cost his reputation, and he was willing to pay the price. It does nothing but trivialize her husband's own honor to treat this matter, as Mrs. Trilling does, as if it were an example of thoughtless composition. The really awful thing about the portrait of Lionel Trilling that emerges from The Beginning of the Journey is that Mrs. Trilling's unassailable faith in the ethos and efficacy of the psychoanalytical enterprise shields her from the least glimmer of understanding the moral violence she has inflicted upon the memory of the man she clearly adored. In this respect, as in others, Mrs. Trilling has indeed performed something of a feat in The Beginning of the Journey by incongruously combining an orthodox Freudian reading of her life with the kind of feminist politics that are generally thought to be opposed to Freudian theory.

It is one of the many paradoxes of this book that while its author is very much concerned to exonerate her husband and herself from the charges brought against them by other members of their New York intellectual circle—that they were too square, too bourgeois, too genteel, and insufficiently Jewish in their public identity—Mrs. Trilling has herself provided the public with a far more devastating account of their lives in all of these respects than anything written by Delmore Schwartz, Alfred Kazin, Harold Rosenberg, and the other critics who ridiculed their manners, their politics, their respective literary styles, and the reputations they achieved. About the Trillings' inadequate finances, especially in the 1930s when Lionel Trilling undertook to support his parents, Mrs. Trilling complains a good deal. Never mind that a good deal of cash was flowing into the coffers of a succession of psychoanalysts. Suddenly in this narrative of straitened circumstances in hard times we find the Trillings installed in a garden apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with a housekeeper in attendance in the midst of the Depression. Still, Mrs. Trilling complains that her husband never had a proper study in which to work. (She was not yet a writer herself.) Even now, she doesn't seem to understand that by the measures of the time her overworked husband did pretty well in providing her with a respectable standard of living. Yet because she had been brought up in wealthier circumstances—a West End Avenue style of luxury she professed to scorn—nothing that Lionel Trilling earned was ever enough in her view. One can only conclude that with Mrs. Trilling in charge of defending the family name, there was never any need for critics like Alfred Kazin and Delmore Schwartz to call the Trillings to account. Mrs. Trilling has exceeded their indictment on every charge.

Yet for all the criticism of Lionel Trilling that fills the pages of The Beginning of the Journey, Mrs. Trilling duly acknowledges that she owes her career as a writer to the man she married.

Before I met Lionel [she writes], I never thought of myself as a putative intellectual. I was not even acquainted with the word in this honorific use. Himself an intellectual, Lionel shared the attitudes and tools of the intellectual trade with me. Without him, I would no doubt have remained just another half-educated product of an expensive schooling. From Lionel, I learned not only what to read but also how to think about what I read. He gave me a literary and critical vocabulary and prepared the path to what eventually became my career.

And further:

With marriage I had entered Lionel's world; it was with his friends that I now chiefly associated. My career as a critic still lay in the future but unconsciously I may have been preparing for it. They were not easy companions, these intellectuals I was now getting to know. They were overbearing and arrogant, excessively competitive; they lacked magnanimity and often they lacked common courtesy. But they were intellectually energetic and—this particularly attracted me—they were proof against cant.

Except for this last point—for both Freudian theory and feminist ideology have engendered whole new realms of cant that are reflected in this book—Mrs. Trilling can be said to have mastered the intellectual style here described. With its arrogance, its fierce competitiveness, its lack of magnanimity, and its utter indifference to questions of moral delicacy, The Beginning of the Journey at last qualifies its author for full membership in this illustrious intellectual circle. She learned its lessons well.


  1. The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling, by Diana Trilling; Harcourt Brace, 442 pages, $24.95.

Richard Eder (review date 17 October 1993)

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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 individual and there is a lot of leeway in it. Diana Trilling's memoir The Beginning of the Journey, dictated by failing vision in her 80s, contains much that is interesting and a number of passages that earn the overworked name of epiphanies. Its weaknesses—rambling, straying into dead-ends of detail and above all a kind of reluctance of purpose—suggest that her life in the center of New York's intellectual renaissance should have been decanted sooner.

Probably she never meant to decant it. In her preface she tells why she decided now, 18 years after his death, to recall the years with her husband and senior partner in New York's remarkable mid-century intellectual fellowship. Lionel Trilling, author of The Liberal Imagination, was an eminent critic admired for his qualities of acuity and temperance until the intransigent '60s when he was criticized for them. At the same time, Diana achieved a celebrity of her own as literary critic for The Nation. What with the “spate” of current biographical writing—she seems to have in mind the fashion for scarifying pathography—Diana suspected that the Trillings would soon be up for grabs.

“If this should happen, I wanted the undertaking to be more solidly rooted in truth than was likely were the biographer dependent on existing sources,” she tells us. So she has written a preemptive memoir; and for years she seems not to have wanted to write it. Hesitant purpose gives her book an erratic quality that includes vagueness and a sense of grievance that once or twice becomes vicious; but also an insight that can be graceful in its pain and often extremely moving.

Its heart is the portrait of the couple known to their circle as Li and Di. Given the rather formal qualities of their writing, particularly Lionel's, the nicknames sound comically incongruous. We learn that Clifton Fadiman introduced them because he liked the coupled assonance. Truly, a writer's marriage.

“Li and Di” was no doubt used for behind-the-back malice by the couple's bristly friends. Friendship among the New York intelligentsia bears the sign of the short knife. As Trilling beautifully writes of Elliot Cohen, co-founder of Commentary, he was “a genius of hostile intimacy.” No two words have better summed up the world of Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv and the rest of the crowds in or against the Partisan Review. And here is Trilling's capacity to take us from combat to evocation. When a surviving friend calls her Di she writes: “I feel as though life were being stopped for me; the train is being held at the train station.” The cane Lionel used for orchard walks 60 years ago still smells faintly of apples. We imagine her sniffing it occasionally like smelling salts.

Trilling tells of the couple's twin journeys out of a background of first- and second-generation Jewish families struggling to make it in New York. The struggle was varyingly successful—Lionel's father did modestly well as a tailor, Diana's was a prosperous and socially enlightened small manufacturer—but both families were ruined in the Depression. The account is disproportionately detailed; Trilling tells us that she had intended to write a book on the subject and transferred the material into her memoir. This gives it an awkwardly foreshortened shape, particularly since the book ostensibly ends in 1950, at the time of Lionel's celebrated The Liberal Imagination; and a quarter century before his death.

There are engaging things in the detail, particularly in Diana's portrait of her father. He was, in fact, the stereotypical Jewish mother. When she found him reading her mail he ingenuously protested: “I'm not reading your mail, I'm just interested in your life.” When she languished with an overactive thyroid after her marriage, he sent her brother to warn Lionel against excessive sex. Lionel's own family golden-princed him as best they could. At 5, they declared him a future candidate for Oxford and, in a moment of prosperity, sent a maid with lamb chops and a baked potato to a nearby beach where his friends were having sandwiches.

There is an account of Diana's genteel and intellectually barren education at Radcliffe; the list of books she had not been assigned makes up an entire canon. She was so sheltered that when she was offered the kind of job that post-doctoral candidates, let alone undergraduates, would kill for today—as assistant to the celebrated art historian Paul Sachs—she turned it down because her family expected her back in New York. There she met Lionel, who had read everything and, as required of an apprentice intellectual, had opinions about everything.

Ostensibly it was a marriage of unequals; in fact it was a marriage of two complementary vulnerabilities that managed to become astonishingly fruitful. For a number of years Diana tried to play the role of wife, and was correspondingly snubbed not only by the men who came to dinner, but by Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt too. Each snub works its way up; Trilling records how Randall Jarrell and Cyril Connolly separately insulted her desserts. Later, she had a dessert problem with E. M. Forster, who refused her son a second piece of cake when they brought him to tea at Cambridge.

With Lionel's encouragement and influence she was taken on to do short unsigned reviews for the Nation. Perhaps it was initially a matter of “let's get her out of Lionel's hair,” but she quickly graduated to signed reviews and then to a weekly column. Soon she had gained a battlefield commission in the New York cultural wars, and was a celebrity in her own right. She and Lionel had been pro-Communist in the 1930s, moved to the anti-Stalinist left with the founding of Partisan Review, and moved farther and faster than their Review colleagues to the liberal center. They more or less stayed there, but the times moved; by the '60s they were assailed as conservatives. Times moved once more; the final portion of the book soberly recalls their opposition to Joe McCarthy, their abhorrence of Nixon and Diana's absolute rejection of the pro-Reagan Neo-Cons at Commentary and the Public Interest.

Trilling is a ferocious lasher-back, and she can verge on McCarthyism herself. On the word of an unnamed bookseller, she accuses a prominent former editor at Viking who was cool to Trilling's fiction—as posterity has largely been—of being a Communist. She tells a revolting story about James Agee and then adds that even if apocryphal it is nevertheless indicative of something or other.

This is more than balanced by her strengths; indeed, her intemperance is an act of complex self-portraiture. Her portrait of Lionel is almost as complex and perhaps more distinct. His belief in a society of manners was often mocked in the successive radicalisms of the 1930s and '60s. His “conservatism,” which Diana fully shared and shares, was paradoxical, often misinterpreted and, as it separated him from his friends, often painful.

Even more painful were his bitter contradictions. The symbol of academic gentility, this supremely sophisticated man considered himself a failure because he lacked the wildness he romantically regarded as necessary to an artist. Hemingway, oddly, was his model. He suffered depressions, and Diana, alternately understanding and waspish, suffered from them. Her portrait, often passionate, sometimes chilly and never easy, is of a marriage neither passionate nor easy, but with a power of loyalty and endurance that elevates her final pages into a pure moving lyricism.

Phyllis Rose (review date November, 1993)

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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. Deconstructionism had not yet arrived to unsettle forever our sense that art has something to tell us about life. The name Derrida had not sounded in the land. Novels were serious matters, and equally serious was criticism, which acted as a clearinghouse for values in literature, endorsing some, rejecting others. The religion of literature spread out from New York, inspiring, uplifting, disturbing, complicating, and Lionel Trilling was, if not its god, one of its high priests.

The widow of the critic of our innocence, Diana Trilling, a notable critic herself, has written a combination autobiography, biography, and memoir of her marriage. It's impressive in its clarity, stunning in its candor, heroic in its composition (she is eighty-eight and virtually blind), and startling in its picture of this earlier generation of reigning intellectuals. Ending in 1950 but focused largely on the thirties, Trilling's account gives new resonance to the term “the Great Depression”—because the intellectuals she describes do not sit around discussing great ideas in some Upper West Side version of Boccaccio's house party, amused, amusing, and washing down good food with good wine. They scrabble for a living, bend beneath family responsibilities, get sick, get fired, don't produce, hide their weaknesses, obsess about them, move from shrink to shrink, think the worst of one another, and have their idealism abused. Take that, Mary McCarthy!

Both born in 1905, Diana Rubin and Lionel Trilling, children of immigrant Jewish families in New York, were introduced to each other soon after college by Polly and Clifton Fadiman, who were inspired by the sound of their names, Lionel and Diana, Li and Di. It's a sign of the fresh emphasis Trilling brings to her story that she gives names their due. Where did Lionel get that incredible name? His mother, who was born in England, came up with the anglicization of his Hebrew name, Lev (Leo, Leon), and marred his childhood thereby. He longed to be Jack or Mike; the “unmanly mellifluousness” of his name set him apart from the rough-and-tumble life of the streets. Later the Trillings suffered accusations that Lionel, in changing his name, had turned his back on his Jewishness. But neither he nor his father had changed the family name, which as far back as anyone could trace in Russian Poland was Trilling.

They met and largely courted in a speakeasy. They drank bullfrogs and brandy Alexanders through long nights of conversation. “We drank too much but we and our friends … are not to be confused with characters in a novel by Hemingway. No Jew I know has ever drunk with the abandon and virtuosity of the people in Hemingway.” Hemingway and his characters run through the memoir as a leitmotif of libidinal expressiveness, creativity nourished by bohemian abandon the likes of which moderate, responsible, superego-driven Jewish intellectuals—especially Lionel—had to renounce.

If Hemingway was to some extent Lionel's anti-self, Mary McCarthy may be Diana's. McCarthy's is the name Trilling invokes to counterpoint the innocence and timidity of her own sex life. The flamboyant, adventuresome McCarthy, only seven years younger, boasted of having had sex with a different man daily in her early years in New York, whereas Diana went to bed with Lionel only six months in advance of their wedding and considered that “going to bed with a man before marriage was the most courageous act of my life.” As she acknowledges repeatedly, Trilling's sense of woman's lot was comfortably pre-feminist.

In the early years of their marriage Lionel taught at Hunter and then at Columbia while publishing his first work in a Jewish publication, the Menorah Journal. Diana, who had been an art-history major at Radcliffe, did nothing but take care of the house—and did not do even that for long: she fell seriously ill as a newlywed, and for some weeks Lionel had to take on all the housework. She had the thyroid disorder Graves' disease, which is often treated fairly quickly these days with the help of radioactive iodine, but which in Diana's case required protracted surgery. When she got over her physical illness, she began developing other problems, panic attacks, which made her wholly dependent on Lionel. She is astonishingly frank about their cause: she wanted Lionel to be more commanding than he was, more like her father. She reduced herself to jelly in despair—or was it in support?—of his strength.

Lionel himself, as one would never suspect from his essays and reputation for public geniality, was given to severe recurrent depressions. He was continually in treatment, but kept this hidden from his colleagues and friends. He passed his afternoons in movie theaters, telling his wife he had gone to the library. His writing became blocked, a problem that got even worse late in life. Then he could take a day to change one colon to a semicolon. He took almost a year to write his essay on Keats, which reads as though it floated to birth on a river of honey. He raged against Diana. Five or six times a year he indulged in “annihilating verbal assaults” on her; she was the worst person he'd ever met; she had ruined his life. She eventually learned to deflect these outbursts by leaving the room.

Trilling's assessment of their early years is harsh.

For more than a decade Lionel and I squandered life not in pleasure but in fearfulness. We were afraid to be fully grown up and to be in command of ourselves and others, even children. Ours was a successful marriage on the score of this shared impediment as well as on the score of more attractive features. It was one of those unconscious conspiracies between a man and a woman which make a successful marriage so remarkable an accident.

But they were harsh years. In 1932, as an instructor at Columbia, Lionel made $2,400, of which he felt compelled to give half to his father, whose business had failed. In 1936 Columbia fired him, on the grounds that as a Jew, a Freudian, and a Marxist, he could not be happy there. He fought back, regaining his post, and some time later President Nicholas Murray Butler announced at a white-tie dinner at which the women wore white gloves (the industrious Diana called both Vogue and Bonwit's to ascertain proper dress) that Columbia recognized merit, not race. Lionel was the first Jew to be tenured in the English department.

Their friends were competitive, arrogant, frequently unpleasant, and often given to depression. Trilling recalls a man who moved from one friend's house to another “leaving his gift of gloom, like a cat depositing a half-eaten bird at the feet of its master.” They were witty, but they were not, she insists, fun-loving. Nor did they place a high value on happiness. Americans were desperate and hopeless, and the Trillings and their friends believed they should try to do something about that. Whereas intellectuals in the twenties had defined themselves by their aloofness from public affairs, intellectuals from the thirties on felt they had to be committed, engaged.

Diana's first job was a volunteer position with a Communist-front organization, the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners. Her disillusionment with the Party was swift. She was asked to send out a letter over her own signature soliciting funds for food for the families of the Scottsboro boys. When, in addition to lots of contributions, she received an accounting by the State of Florida of all the food it had supplied to the defendants' families through its relief office and an accusation of mail fraud, she felt she had been misused. She came to feel that the Party exploited American idealism, turning it to the Party's end, and she became definingly anti-Communist, even after Senator Joseph McCarthy made anti-communism as politically incorrect as indentured servitude.

She was deceived by heirs of Marx and Freud, because during this period she was continually in treatment with one analyst after another, and the treatment turned out to have been incompetent. After ten years of what she thought was analysis, her second analyst was hit by a car. (Her first had decided he needed more training and suspended his practice.) She went to a former head of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute for referral, and after some discussion he informed her that she was as innocent of analysis as on the day she was born. She—and apparently her early doctors—had thought that just talking about oneself was analysis. The distinguished man referred her to an analyst equally problematic—one who was morphine-addicted, frequently canceled sessions or disappeared, shopped by phone during Diana's sessions, and assured her that this unconventional treatment was what Diana's “rigidity” required. Only after that doctor died did Diana find genuine help, from Dr. Marianne Kris.

Trilling displays a cool clarity about her childhood and links childhood to adulthood in this memoir with the skill of an A+ analysand. When as a child she expressed a desire to act, her father told her he would build her a stage “in the toilet.” This mockery, she is convinced, instilled in her a fear of self-exposure which inhibited her creativity forever. In addition, she was brought up to defer to her brother because he was male and to her sister because she had a curved spine. Consequently, as an adult Diana was less competitive than she wanted to be and embarrassed about her own successes. When she started to write for The Nation, she wrote short, unsigned notices and also had the opportunity to do signed long reviews. She had no difficulty with the longer form but a lot of difficulty signing her name to the pieces.

If we can say that I was born with ten units of personal power, I never used more than five. What would have happened to my marriage if I had used all ten, I obviously cannot know. But I surmise that the marriage would not have endured as it did.

She is keenly attuned to inhibitions of creativity, including her own and especially her husband's. “Writers are what they write, also what they fail to write,” she observes. What Lionel wanted to write and failed to write were novels. He wrote one novel, The Middle of the Journey, which supplies Trilling with the title of her book, and several short stories, including the oft-anthologized “Of This Time, Of That Place.” But fundamentally he wished he'd been a novelist, not a critic at all, and blamed his qualities of moderation and restraint. When he read Lillian Ross's famous New Yorker profile of Hemingway, with its account of the writer striding through the Metropolitan Museum swigging from a flask of whiskey, he said to his wife in a bitter voice, “And you expect me to be a novelist!”

If associating creativity with theatrical self-indulgence strikes you as surprisingly naive, Trilling agrees, yet she seems in her own way to do the same—associating creativity not with liquor but with sex: “I could have wished him to have a thousand mistresses were this to have released him from the constraints upon him as a writer of fiction.” And if you find that remark suggestive of a controlling temperament, a temperament in itself not conducive to bringing out the best in a mate, Trilling is right there ahead of you blaming herself. “I was surely not the right wife for someone with Lionel's conscience, or perhaps I mean his stern self-prohibitions. I was myself too much burdened by superego and by the need to keep a firm rein on instinct.” Robert Lowell's epithet for her, “a housekeeping goddess of reason,” was, she notes, a courtly insult.

I've always admired Trilling as a critic, but she certainly was hard on people—often moralistic, always judgmental. In this book, endearingly but also sadly, she turns that tendency to blame on herself. She makes me want to invoke the maxim of therapists of a later and looser age: “Don't be so hard on yourself.” Her life was objectively difficult. She had her first and only child at forty-three. Money was always a problem. She never had her own study; she worked at a living-room desk until her husband died. He died in 1975, and she has suffered the loneliness that tends to be the lot of women at the end of life. (“Everyone knows that any man who wants a wife can have one, younger than himself if that is what he looks for. No man, whatever his age, need be alone.”) People begrudged her recognition, for whatever reason. Lionel thought it was that she presented herself as married. She herself thought that more than one writer per family strained people's powers of generosity.

The primitive Freudian model of superego battling id doesn't serve her well, doesn't do justice to the buoyancy of her own engagement in life. She seems resigned to seeing herself as a person hampered by fear and self-discipline. I see too much energy, too good a marriage, too impressive a body of work, a son, friends, a life lived richly to the end. Not least, to write this book was a triumph and a masterstroke. By telling the story of their marriage with such power and candor Trilling ensures that her name will move into the past with her husband's, passing from mere celebrity into fame, linked forever: Li and Di.

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

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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 spacious ground-floor apartment near Columbia University in New York, where she has lived for nearly 40 years and which she shared for nearly half of that time with her husband Lionel. He was, of course, a noted critic, one of Columbia's most celebrated professors, and her book is partly an account of his life, partly of hers, but mostly of their life together; it is a riveting story of a marriage at the heart of New York literary and intellectual life, a relationship that also had extraordinary personal and financial strains.

Although many of the reviews, frustratingly to her, have concentrated on the political and literary reflections that are certainly part of the book, Trilling is anxious that it be seen as much more than that. “It's not just a book for intellectuals,” she declares firmly, in her clear, implacable tone. “It's a real story of two people and their struggles with family, with money, with career. It's the story of how Lionel was fired and then fought back to become Columbia's most famous professor. And it's also a slice of cultural and social history.

“So many reviews have called ours a sad story. I'd say it was a hard life, but not a sad one. It was filled with incidents, friends. It's just that there wasn't much self-gratification in it, which is what people seem to seek mostly nowadays. Perhaps,” she muses, “everyone's life is much harder than they would want the world to know. In any case, what I wish the critics would talk about more is the writing. It isn't just our story, or a piece of social history, it's also a piece of craft.”

PW's review, she was delighted to note, was one of the few that praised that aspect of the book, and she brightened when told it had just been chosen as one of the best nonfiction books of the year. As a figure whose liberal but strongly anti-communist views tend to discomfit those on at least two sides of the political fence, Mrs. Trilling inspires strong reactions, among leftists and neoconservatives alike. With that in mind, what were the most surprising reviews she had seen so far—both good and bad? “The best was Carolyn Heilbrun in the Boston Globe—a very generous-spirited piece. The most inexplicably angry was Hilton Kramer's in the New Criterion, which goes beyond mere politics to attack me personally as a nasty woman.”

But generally the reviews had not been as political as she feared: “I always expect a lot of attacks from neoconservatives. One of the things that interests me is how political much reviewing is,” adds Trilling, who was for many years a book review editor herself (at the Nation in the 1940s). “Magazines and newspapers define themselves, after all, by their point of view, and they don't want the reviews they publish to go against their position. But the poor people who read the reviews don't know what's behind them—what friendships and enmities inspire them.”

Whatever the vagaries of reviewing, Trilling's publishing history, until very recently, has been a remarkably blessed one, thanks to William Jovanovich, who became her publisher in the 1970s. “He's been so supportive, so trusting,” she says. “I'm only sorry Lionel never enjoyed such a relationship with a publisher”—though, ironically, it is thanks to Jovanovich that Lionel Trilling's major works, edited by Mrs. Trilling, are now out in a uniform Harcourt collected edition.

“Neither of us ever used an agent,” Trilling says. “When we were very young we tried to get one, but no one would handle us. Then later it didn't seem to be necessary. I've seen young friends trying to get one, and it seems sometimes more trouble than trying to find a publisher; I wonder why they should bother.” She adds with some asperity: “I've also seen several people become agents who it seemed to me had very little training, or literary ability. It seems very unsound that they should be advising someone on how to handle a literary career.”

Her association with Jovanovich began unforgettably. “I was publishing my first book, Claremont Essays , with what was then Harcourt Brace & World, and had a very strong discord with my editor there. But I was committed to the publisher. I heard that the new head of the company was William Jovanovich, so I wrote him, asking if he would please release me from the contract. He wrote back immediately. In the first paragraph he released me from the contract. In the second he invited me to become a Harcourt Brace Jovanovich author, and invited me to Lutèce to celebrate. There, he told me he would be glad to publish, sight unseen, anything Lionel or I wrote.”

The promise came in handy when a political quarrel interrupted the publishing progress of Mrs. Trilling's next book, We Must March My Darlings, which was about a return to Radcliffe nearly 50 years after she had been a student there; it developed into a series of essays examining issues of the time. One of them involved a skeptical discussion of Lillian Hellman and her book Scoundrel Time—and unfortunately, Trilling's publisher, Little, Brown, was also Hellman's, and there was little doubt which author had more commercial clout. Trilling insists that she had pointed out the passage to her LB editor at the time, and had been assured there was no problem. “It was only four sentences, but I knew Hellman would have been so enraged she would have broken off with Little, Brown.” In fact LB ultimately came to the same conclusion, and asked Trilling to delete the offending passage. When she refused, they voided the contract and she took the manuscript to Jovanovich.

Her next book was a decided departure. Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor was a combination of true-crime reportage, courtroom drama and reflections on the role of women in a male-dominated society. Trilling was fascinated by the case: Jean Harris, headmistress of an exclusive Virginia girls' school, was accused of murdering her lover, Herman Tarnower, author of a phenomenally successful diet book. She had written most of the book before Harris even came to trial, examining its many social, psychological and sexual aspects. The verdict, in which Harris was convicted and jailed, was so unexpected that Trilling had to rewrite the book almost entirely. It became her first, and so far only, bestseller.

There then followed years of editing her husband's papers, in the course of which Trilling grew wary of two possible eventualities: the first was that Lionel, with his grace, fluency and apparent affability, might easily be misjudged by posterity, and she wished to remind people of the many contradictions in his personality, including his depressions and his “essentially tragic view of life”; the second was that she felt sure that “in our current spate of biographical writing,” someone might hit upon their marriage as a possible subject, so she wanted, in effect, to launch a pre-emptive strike, and ensure that “the undertaking was more solidly rooted in truth than was likely were the biographers dependent on existing sources.” After all, she notes in the foreword to The Beginning of the Journey, “There are now few people alive with even a partially reliable knowledge of our lives as they really were.”

Now that she has delivered her own version of those lives, she says, she will open the archive of Trilling papers at Columbia in the New Year. “I haven't necessarily had the last word. Anyone can look into it now, and form their own impression.”

Since she began to lose her sight several years ago, and now has only limited peripheral vision—she can read only very large print—work on the book taxed her severely. Once again, Jovanovich came through. “When my eyesight failed, he said I should get a good secretary, pay a good salary, and he would pay half.” And that's how she wrote the book, dictating largely from memory, since “I can't do research now, I have to do things that come out of my head.”

She found writing by dictation a strange experience. “We use our eyes so much when we write, looking back at the last sentence unconsciously as we think of the next, seeing how far we have come, where we are on the page. Not to be able to see where you are is annihilating—you have to have a personal intermediary.” And though she couldn't brook commentary or criticism from her amanuensis, “what you write inevitably gets filtered through the consciousness of whoever is writing it down. You instinctively seek the approval of the person to whom you're dictating, and it changes the way you phrase things.”

How does she manage? “I find my sense of touch vastly developed after my eyes started to go. I choose things by their texture—for instance, I chose these black stockings this morning because I knew how they felt. And I can still cook for myself, and for friends sometimes, though I used to be a very good cook, and I don't think it's so good now.”

When the manuscript was delivered, what she calls “the new Harcourt” instantly stopped paying for its share of her secretary's time, “so I can now have her only for the time I can afford to pay for.” Jovanovich's departure from the company affected her in other ways as well. “With Bill gone, I felt my book was homeless. I had a clause in my contract saying that if he was no longer my editor I could take the book elsewhere, and I wrote saying I wanted to leave, but he assured me he was still the editor, though I was never clear whether he really was or not. They assigned someone to the book, but he didn't do any work on it, and I just don't know how it was presented at the sales conference.”

About this ritual, she is quite clear-sighted. “I think the fate of every book is determined by how its editor or publisher presents it to the salesmen at the sales meeting. I'm afraid this may have been presented as just an intellectual memoir.” About the publicity department, headed by Leigh Haber, which has certainly been stirring up a great deal of review and interview attention, she says, “They've been wonderful, but it's not the same as having someone you can talk to about the book.” She says she has had no word for six months from Jovanovich, who is said to be quite ill in retirement in San Diego, “and I'm very worried about him.”

Now that she's working her way into what she hopes will be a new book, “I very much miss having him around.” She plans this as “a series of episodes from my life, beginning in kindergarten. I hope I can sell individual installments to magazines, then bring them together as a book.” The first piece she has completed, she says, centers around a time she spent at Oxford in the '60s. “It's about Goronwy Rees, and the women he was involved with then: Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Bowen and that circle—a fascinating group.”

She listens a great deal to recorded books, with a particular fondness for biographies (virtually nonexistent in audio) and elegant crime fiction. “But it's very difficult to keep up.” In any case, viewing what she knows of the current literary scene, “we are all being buried by celebrity and the cult of it. So much of the search for celebrity takes you well down the ladder, for the sake of quick self-gratification.”

But hers does not seem a lonely life. The phone and the doorbell ring frequently, the latter with deliveries, including an elegant box of chocolates in tribute to “a stunning book.” “My friends think my life is one long soap opera,” she declares. Her only son James, born late to the Trillings, is a 45-year-old Byzantine scholar in Providence, R.I., with two small daughters, ages six and three—who are pictured, holding a copy of their grandmother's latest book, in a prominent place on an end table. The book is dedicated to them.

And despite a lifetime of health problems, devastatingly described in her book, and what she calls “a very unhealthy way of life now—I hardly ever leave the house,” she cannot refrain from a certain sardonic flourish: “And look how long I've lived!”

Sven Birkerts (review date 28 November 1993)

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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 were both born in 1905; we were forty-five years old and there were now no significant changes in the basic pattern of our lives.”

In 1950 I was, as they say, but a gleam in my father's eye, a fact which is relevant only insofar as it neatly draws the line for me between the world of then and the world of now. Trilling's is an act of temporal archaeology. Now 88, nearly blind, dictating rather than writing, she has put her still vigorous verbal artistry to work in reanimating the settings and circumstances and personalities from the earlier decades of our century. And while Trilling does offer some insight into her long marriage, her memoir may be more illuminating as a record of a tempestuous era in American intellectual life. The Beginning of the Journey can be shelved alongside period reflections by William Barrett, Mary McCarthy, William Phillips and others—one more effort to set us all straight on how it really was.

How was it really? It was different—it was a graver and slower and in some elusive respect denser time. Both Diana Rubin and Lionel Trilling were children of Jewish immigrants from Poland; both grew up in the long shadow of the 19th century. Though largely secularized as Jews, they conducted their studies, courtship, and early professional lives in a social order rife with codes and prohibitions. Following the couple into marriage (they were introduced by Clifton and Polly Fadiman), we read of chaperones, curfews, drinks consumed at speakeasies. “The only teaching about sex I received from my parents,” confides Mrs. Trilling, “came from a sexology book by one of the Kellogg brothers of cold-cereal fame.”

Passion does not figure in. “We were never in love in the way that people are in love in popular songs,” she writes, adding that “Over a long lifetime we loved each other very much, increasingly with the years, although in middle life we quarreled a great deal and often threatened each other with divorce.”

The passion was reserved for—or, in the jargon of a slightly later era, sublimated into—the life of the mind. Lionel, who would of course emerge as one of the eminent literary critics of our age, was writing his dissertation and essays and pulling himself up through the departmental ranks at Columbia (then all but closed to Jews at the professorial level). Diana, who would decades later step forward as a trenchant polemicist and critic, was an active disputant in the New York intellectual circles that have gained fame as our own first-generation Bloomsbury.

Together the Trillings made the generational pilgrimage to Marx in the 1930s, then the hegira to the anti-Communist cause (though Diana makes it very clear that Lionel would not be found in the neo-conservative camp if he were alive today). There is much retrospective evaluation—call it “hair-splitting”—about who was what when (Stalinist, Trotskyite, fellow-traveller …), but the author gives just enough context to let the discriminations keep their point. Mercifully, too, she commands the anecdotal art, larding in wonderful stories and mini-portraits, like the one of a paranoid Whitaker Chambers arriving for a visit and insisting that Diana Trilling send her cook home.

After Marx, Freud. And again, Trilling's account of analyses interminable makes for, depending on your interest in therapeutic matters, absorbing or laborious reading. Either way, the narrative fleshes out the portrait of the time and its obsessions. People in her milieu did devote themselves to the regimen and discussion of the 50-minute hour.

Intellectual mise en scene in abundance here. And Trilling also tells the compelling story of her emergence from the girl cruelly crushed by her father (when she sang in the house he told her that he would build her a “stage in the toilet”) into an assertive and tough-minded writer. She is ever faithful to the directive of her old voice teacher, who insisted: “Wear a red dress! Step through windows!”

What is missing, alas, is a deeper sense of Lionel. He is discussed and analyzed, but for all that he never gets both feet onto the page. We long for the inside view of the passions and preoccupations that made him the figure he was. The sage of Columbia moves past like a landscape outside a train window—never invisible, but only intermittently focused upon. Diana Trilling holds the stage. She does not so much shoulder her late husband aside as absorb him, pulling his story into her own. Nevertheless, her love for the man is palpable. Not a sentimental love, but hard-won and steady—not unlike the love she expresses toward the whole of her past, including the many people whose names she inscribes on her monument in the final paragraph of this honorable work.

Kenneth S. Lynn (review date February 1994)

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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 party, she came up behind her husband just in time to block his physically violent response to the critic Alfred Kazin's intolerably insulting demand, “When are you going to dissociate yourself from that wife of yours?” Behind Kazin's rudeness, it would appear, lay a resentment of Mrs. Trilling's arguments about the extent to which cultural Stalinism had dominated supposedly enlightened thinking in America in the years before the Second World War. As her infuriated husband raised his arm to chastise his questioner, she restrained him—“perhaps mistakenly,” she adds, for neither old age nor blindness has dimmed the proverbial intransigence of her spirit.

At times, the combativeness of the intellectuals crossed the line into viciousness, as Mrs. Trilling demonstrates in her account of their treatment of Norman Podhoretz and his success-oriented autobiographical volume Making It. In the early days of his editorship of Commentary, Podhoretz was on the left. Political congeniality, however, did not deter his circle of liberal friends and acquaintances from setting upon him, once Making It appeared, like a pack of wild dogs in a Jack London story. Making It “was a crudely boastful book,” Mrs. Trilling concedes. Yet she leaves no doubt of her distaste for the insensate nature of the assaults on Podhoretz. “From the reviews,” she writes, “one might have supposed that he had written Mein Kampf.”

That Lionel Trilling also distanced himself from the piling on was not merely because Podhoretz had been one of his most brilliant students at Columbia. Not for nothing had the grace, moderation, and good manners of Professor Trilling become a perennial topic of conversation in Morningside Heights cafeterias. These qualities of his personality and even of his work were noted not only by the colleagues who revered him and the students who turned him into a father figure, but by hostile critics like the poet Delmore Schwartz, who regarded gentility as indicative of a wish to evade the harsher realities of social experience.

In light of this widespread agreement about Trilling's nature, it comes as a shock to find Mrs. Trilling declaring that grace, moderation, and good manners are not the qualities for which her husband would have most wished to be remembered, for they had “little bearing” on his thought and they spoke “not at all” to his essentially tragic view of life. There were “many contradictions” in his character, she insists, even though they may not have been visible in the classroom or in casual social encounters. But they have their place, she implacably concludes, in “our understanding of why he wrote as he did.”

Reality was the watchword of his writing and the test by which he measured the intellectual soundness of the life-view that engaged him above all others: the liberal imagination. Whether or not he would ultimately have welcomed the compliment, a good many of his judgments were pioneering expressions of neoconservative criticism. In dealing with the politics of the left, he repeatedly rejected its constructs of the contemporary social world and its dreams of achievable social perfection as denials of the complexity and variousness of life. The first thing we are supposed to understand about Mrs. Trilling's memoir, I believe, is that her husband's willingness to take issue with the left's incorrigible wish for an unconditioned universe began at home, so to speak. Out of painful grapplings with his own complexity and variousness in a context of excruciatingly difficult family relationships, he developed his sense of life as a tragedy. Unfortunately, in Mrs. Trilling's view, he took pains to conceal from his worshipful admirers the human fallibilities that ultimately drove him into psychoanalysis and kept him there for the rest of his days. More royalist than the king, the author of The Beginning of the Journey declares on page two that “I am reality-bound,” as she sets out to destroy the image of Lionel Trilling as someone immune to profanation.

For starters, she tells us that he was “maddened by his father's unreality.” As a consequence of Lionel's birth, Dave Trilling had relinquished his tailoring business to become a manufacturer of men's fur-lined coats because he didn't wish his son to have to say that his father was a tailor. Alas, he never again earned a reliable living. In the early days of the Great Depression, Lionel was a lowly college instructor on annual appointment; yet he had to support his parents and his sister, as well as his wife, who was chronically ill. One day, he bought himself a much-needed suit, at Macy's, for $29.95. That night, his father looked it over. “Son,” he said at last, “don't you think that a man in your position owes it to himself to have a tailor-made suit?”

Another of Dave's charms was his violent temper. Although it was usually directed at his wife, Lionel grew up in its “savage orbit.” At table, the parents communicated through the children. (“Lionel, ask your father if he wants another piece of chicken.”) As for Diana's relationship with Dave, she “disliked almost everything about him”—his pieties, his hypochondria, his self-absorption, his trivial conceits, and most of all, his self-pity. Toward the end of his life, she sneeringly reports, he “thought himself surrounded by murderous enemies.” (In another heartless sentence, she lets us know that en route by ambulance to the nursing home where he would die, he wept and screamed the whole way.)

Lionel's mother was “strikingly selfish and self-concerned in her rearing of her son, cruelly insensitive to his young pride. In her financial dependence upon us, she was more than selfish, greedy. She made great difficulty for us in the early crucial years of our marriage.” Nevertheless, there was much to love and respect in her, in Diana's opinion. But not in Lionel's. Even though he finally managed to acknowledge that she played an important part in encouraging him as a writer, “there remained a hard primitive core of hostility in his relation to her.” Were his “unprovoked rages” at Diana circuitously connected to his feelings about his mother? As a veteran of decades and decades of psychoanalysis, the octogenarian memoirist clearly believes that this was so.

In a self-pitying elaboration of her marital woes, she declares that her sensitive-looking husband, whom their close friends thought of as the most peaceable of men and most devoted of husbands, indulged in “annihilating verbal assaults” on her. He accused her of being the worst person he had ever met and of having ruined his life, while she in turn was sure that whenever he fell for no perceptible reason into an extreme bleakness of mood he acted toward her as though she were the cause of all his descents into despondency.

Her own emotional problems surfaced in the summer of 1929. It was the summer of their marriage, and she and Lionel were living in a hilltop cabin in Westport, Connecticut. When for any reason she was left alone, she felt strangely uneasy. Two years later, she experienced her first full-blown panic. As she lay in bed waiting for sleep, she was overwhelmed by terror. Further panics attacked her thereafter with demoralizing frequency, and her fear of being alone entrenched itself. She wanted Lionel to be with her always. Moreover, she wanted him to be more commanding, more in charge of her. “I wanted him,” she finally blurts out, “to be more like my father. … I wanted him to be the chaperon my father had been.” The spring of 1933 was a particularly bad time. Her father had died a few months before, and she was politically bereft as well. For after an enthralling involvement in the Communist movement—to which she and Lionel had been converted two years earlier by the redoubtable Sidney Hook—they had both become disillusioned. Consequently, “I had nothing to fill my days and, like an unhappy adolescent, I stayed in bed half the morning.” Lionel's sister, Harriet, would bring her breakfast in bed around nine or ten, and sometimes Lionel would. “I tried to be grateful for his kindness,” she writes, “but in my heart I accused him, as I accused Harriet, of invaliding me.” Did Lionel, one wonders, sense how she felt, even as he was waiting on her?

Throughout this entire period of psychological crisis, she also was afflicted by physical problems, of which the worst was a severe hyperthyroidism. Following the second of two major operations for this life-threatening condition, she steadily regained her strength, but never wholly regained her health. “I have, in fact, never since … had a day in which I felt wholly well.”

Medical and psychiatric bills massively compounded their financial problems. If it had not been for the money Diana's father left her, “we would have sunk under the weight of our indebtedness.” Over the years they constantly borrowed money to stay afloat. Not until 1970—when they were in their mid-sixties!—did they pay off the last of their loans. In part, their own improvidence, especially about expenditures for food, was to blame for their need for deficit financing. They both lacked “good sense,” Mrs. Trilling admits, as she recalls the three-rib roasts of beef that they served to friends in the depths of the Depression. Yet she at least was willing to face up to the responsibility of paying bills at the end of the month and verifying bank balances, whereas Lionel took no interest in such matters. And never had, she further states. For when he went to college, his parents had never required him, despite their straitened circumstances, to contribute in any way to the cost of his education.

His financial innocence was symbolic of other disconnections from life. Because he and Diana “were afraid to be fully grown up and to be in command of ourselves and others,” they put off having a child (who is all but totally ignored in this memoir) until the twentieth year of their marriage. The prospect of foreign travel—of being removed, that is, from familiar surroundings—likewise filled Lionel with dread. On the trips to Europe that he finally began to make in his forties, he went alone and did next to no sightseeing, preferring instead to visit English literary acquaintances. When in later years he and Diana went together, she had to make all the arrangements, from hotel and restaurant reservations to sightseeing plans. Once, in Venice, she exasperatedly handed him a stack of guidebooks and demanded that he arrange their schedule for the day, only to hear him propose at the end of half an hour that they might visit St. Mark's. Similar attacks of paralysis occurred whenever he dined in a restaurant. Upon being presented with a menu, he would infallibly order something he didn't want.

Trilling lived, in short, in a world of ideas. Yet he wished with all his heart that fate had dealt him a different hand to play. “Any kind of action,” Mrs. Trilling writes, “had a special charm for him. War, politics, business, finance: all of these were for Lionel the ‘real’ world.” Bizarrely enough, he “enjoyed” the clamorous student rebellion at Columbia in the late sixties, for as a member of a three-man faculty committee to deal with the emergency, he was on campus around the clock for three days, returning home to sleep for only an hour or two. Here at last was “real” life!

In the most arresting pages of The Beginning of the Journey, Mrs. Trilling portrays her husband's acute unhappiness at not being able to break away from academia and make a career as a novelist. She begins by quoting the despairing words he set down in his journal in 1933, at age 28, after his friend Clifton Fadiman had shown him a letter he had received from Ernest Hemingway:

A crazy letter, written when he was drunk—self-revealing, arrogant, scared, trivial, absurd: yet felt from reading it how right such a man is compared to the “good minds” of my university life—how he will produce and mean something to the world … how his life which he could expose without dignity and which is anarchic and “childish” is a better life than anyone I know could live, and right for his job. And how far-far-far I am going from being a writer—and how less and less I have the material and the mind and the will. A few—very few—more years and the chance will be gone.

As a young man who came of age in the high noon of the speakeasy era, 1926, Trilling, too, was “frequently … drunk,” according to The Beginning of the Journey. In his middle years, he had a drinking problem, in the sense that the negligible amounts of alcohol that he consumed were sufficient to alter his behavior in unfortunate ways. But so far as Mrs. Trilling knows, he never wrote a letter to someone while under the influence, certainly not to a stranger, as Fadiman was a stranger to Hemingway. Professor Lionel Trilling, after all, had a reputation for grace, moderation, and good manners to maintain. Only a reader of his journal could have known of the professor's anguished belief that the booze-haunted, arrogant, scared life of the author of In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises was a “better life than anyone I know could live.”

Trilling's obsession with Hemingway surfaced again in his journal on July 3, 1961:

Death of Ernest Hemingway. Except Lawrence's death 32 years ago, no writer's death has moved me as much—who would suppose how much he haunted me? How much he existed in my mind—as a reproach? He was the only writer of our time I envied. I respected him in his most foolish postures and in his worst work (except The Old Man and the Sea).

Trilling's wonderfully endowed mind had led him into a life of intellectual dedication, but “in the dark recesses of his heart where unhappiness was so often his companion,” he was “contemptuous” of his achievements, his widow assures us. In 1950, three years after the appearance of Trilling's one and only novel, The Middle of the Journey, the New Yorker published Lillian Ross's profile of Hemingway's recent visit to New York. It was a pitilessly accurate portrait of a magnificent wreck of a man who talked in pseudo-Indian-chief English in between heroic intakes of champagne and whiskey. “Lionel all but flung the magazine at me,” Mrs. Trilling remembers. In a voice that was tense with bitterness he exclaimed, “And you expect me to be a novelist!”

In a journal entry of 1949 or thereabouts, Trilling referred to his “continuing sense that wickedness—or is it my notion of courage—is essential for creation.” Wickedness versus decency. Dictates of impulse versus calls of conscience. Creative writing versus criticism. Trilling's choices in these matters led to an important life, but left him with a devastating awareness of a lack of inner freedom. Is it any wonder that in some of his most compelling essays he wrote about literary heroes—Huck Finn was one of them and the “dingy little London bookbinder” in Henry James's The Princess Casamassima was another—who also were torn apart by the morally critical decisions with which they were faced?

Robert B. Heilman (review date Summer 1994)

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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 historical, of many writers, artists, and political thinkers who constituted the “New York intellectuals.” Mrs. Trilling deals comfortably with these distinguishable, but inevitably overlapping and interfusing concerns, focusing now on one, now on another, but rarely on any one to the exclusion of the others; she moves easily among personal life, matrimonial life, professional life, social life, and intellectual life; among personalities (their excellences, failures, foibles, courage, cowardice), group events, political events; from theorizing to the support or attack of this or that movement, ideology, campaign, candidate, or theorist. In the world she portrays it is a rare happening in which several fields of interest do not intersect. There are snapshots or studio portraits of so many eminentoes—literary, artistic, intellectual, political—that the index here is more necessary than usual.

Diana Rubin and Lionel Trilling were brought together by the Clifton Fadimans, who were not matchmaking but thought that it would be fun to have a “Di” and a “Li” meet. They were married in 1929, when they were both 24; Lionel died at 70 in 1975 (a year in which he and I, coevals, were listed among Guggenheim recipients; before year-end he died of cancer, and I had a heart attack. A letter from the Guggenheim foundation implied that such conduct was a trifle irregular). The marriage was a good one: “we loved each other very much, increasingly with the years, although in midlife we quarreled a good deal and often threatened each other with divorce. … I have never known any man to whom I would rather have been married. We probably quarreled because we held too much life in common and were battling to be disencumbered of our shared past. In our too-close union we recognized in each other our own shortcomings and blamed each other for our disappointments.”

Mrs. Trilling writes with great candor about all aspects of their relationship, though never without the decorum that our age likes to discard under the guise of praising ourselves for “honesty” (one thinks of Mary McCarthy's, and everyone else's, talking about her 130 or so bedfellows). She can fault Lionel for emotional failures, praise his virtues (his devotion and concern), and acknowledge the ways in which she was a difficult wife. She is detached in both directions. She suffered from various neuroses—one was an overwhelming fear of being alone—to which Lionel responded with helpfulness and care. She was in therapy twenty years. Twenty years! Freud was a jovian figure in the pantheon of the times.

She describes herself, at the time of her marriage, as a poorly educated college graduate who, marrying a man much further along intellectually than herself, expected a then-standard wifehood of domestic tasks and maternity. Constant economic problems—she is fascinatingly detailed about these—postponed parenthood until suddenly, at age forty-two, she realized that it was now or never, and undertook what turned out to be a difficult and dangerous pregnancy that was ultimately successful. Meanwhile she had become a writer almost by accident, and she records with amusement how her doing reviews for the Nation (her first publications) improved her status among the male intellectuals who dominated their social world.

That world was mainly Jewish. Mrs. Trilling comments occasionally on her and Lionel's different Jewish backgrounds, the different expectations of their families, and their own lives as mainly outside a Judaic tradition. She is very mild in reporting on the extraordinary anti-Semitism at Columbia in the 1930s and 1940s, a force which might actually have prevented Lionel's career there. When Lionel was finally, upon the intervention of President Nicholas Murray Butler, given reappointment and tenure, the then head of the English Department called upon Lionel and told him not to regard this event as an opening wedge for a Jewish incursion into the department. Incredible.

Diana's first reviews for the Nation were unsigned. In time she got a byline and established herself as an independent literary and sociopolitical critic for various journals. The most conspicuous of these was the heavyweight Partisan Review, on its political side a major voice of Marxism. In New York all intellectual life, from the late 1920s into the early 40s, revolved around Marxism, whether in the Russian manifestation, Trotskyism, unaligned socialism, or whatever. Stalinism shocked the leftist ranks; then anti-Stalinism begat anti-anti-Stalinism, which treated anti-Stalinism as a reactionary anti-Marxist ploy. For a while Partisan Review had a split personality, with its “political front” and “literary back” (I can remember giving up on the front but feeling much enlightened by the back). Diana presents the Trillings as always veering from leftish extremes toward a center: they, for instance, did not regard the war against Hitler as just another squabble over the loot between equally bad capitalisms, as did orthodox leftists, at least initially.

But leftism, however delicately managed, was no guarantee of literary insight. By far the worst reviews of Warren's All the King's Men were written by leftists, who seemed to think that Warren should be writing, not a novel, but a slashing denunciation of Huey Long. Diana, alas, was in this camp, although in general she would do better than this. She regrets, by the way, the disappearance of the New York intellectuals and their “significant contention,” which they have given up for “expertise.” She says that they “kept the general culture of the country in balance” and alleges that outside of them there is only “popular culture.” Oh, come. The best reviews of All the King's Men, those whose authors recognized it as a tragic novel rather than a failed tract, came in periodicals published in the sticks. Diana forgets the Chicago school, Eric Voegelin and the like, and the sharp southern intellectuals who constantly challenged New Yorkers' sense of having mastered the truths of and for the country, and the intelligent human beings everywhere who escaped the claws of urban with-it-ness, often called metropolitan provincialism. This urban view was, however, often seductive elsewhere. A western dean once said to a department chair in his college, “You know what saved you and me a lot of trouble? We weren't joiners.”

Two minor points. The title, The Beginning of the Journey, while it has the charm of echoing the title of Lionel's novel, does not do justice to the biographical account of two people that goes way beyond beginnings and indeed very close to endings. Two: a professional book editor told me that the book needs a lot of editing. Since she did not specify in what way, I remain puzzled by the comment. There are signs of very rapid writing, yes, but it is the rapidity of a bright, well-filled, organized mind. Sometimes there are very long paragraphs that romp associationally, perhaps at times breathlessly, among a variety of different matters, not all of a color, but one has no sense of damage to the thematic development. Everyone should remember that Mrs. Trilling, owing to her failing eyesight, dictated this memoir.

In our age of wart-love Diana might well have chosen to picture Lionel as an impossible person and thus gained great credit for candor. But, though she can record many of the imperfections by which our age chooses to record humanity, and indeed is a capacious reporter of the trivial as well as the monumental, she is not a look-how-honest-I-am wart-recorder. Lionel was “human,” as we say, but superior. One of the interesting aspects of his humanity is that from early in life he thought he would be a novelist, then continued to cherish that life as an ideal, and evidently long maintained a sense of having come in second best by virtue of succeeding as a critic rather than creator. But John Laskell, the Trilling figure in The Middle of the Journey (1947) is essentially a detached rational observer rather than an imaginative explorer of diverse othernesses, and in this portrait Lionel Trilling may have defined himself better than he knew. One cannot, however, wish him other than the fine critic he was—the candid, individual, perceptive reader of texts, free of both convention and anticonvention, the civilized critic who never strove for iconoclasm but could practice it if need be. Once, dealing with a standard figure of American iconolatry—possibly the sage of Walden Pond—he seemed so right on to me that, in a rare step for me, I wrote him a fan letter. In reply he invited me to visit him in New York; I regret that I never managed this. My last direct word of him was at a meeting of the Modern Language Association in San Francisco some time in the late 80s—a meeting never very cheery at best, but far less so in recent years of mc/pc dogmatism. I stopped in at a meeting of a section on modern literature just in time to hear some scruffy aging Marxist, evidently an alum of late sixties nonthought, sneering at Trilling as some sort of faithless dope. It was a sad moment.

Happily we have here, in Mrs. Trilling's book, a fitting portrait of her husband and herself, willingly inclusive but neither self-consciously iconoclastic nor hagiographic. One would hardly take its consistent liveliness and detachment to be the work of an octogenarian on the edge of her next decade.

Mark Krupnick (review date Summer 1994)

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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. It was clearly not the kind of project Lionel Trilling would ever have undertaken.

On the basis of Mrs. Trilling's development as a writer, I had half-expected that this memoir The Beginning of the Journey of her first 20 years with Lionel would claim that in the beginning she had been submerged but that many of Lionel's published ideas had begun life as theirs together or even as her own. And this book is indeed an affirmation of selfhood. It announces on every page: I was there, too; I mattered. But, as Mrs. Trilling has herself said, it is not a book mainly about ideas but about personalities. It puts forward no claim of intellectual priority in relation to Lionel. Rather, it exposes previously concealed aspects of his psychology and of their sometimes stormy life together. Mrs. Trilling has come a long way from the high-culture essays she published in Partisan Review and Commentary in the 1950s and '60s. In dealing candidly with the intimate lives of public persons, notably Lionel and herself, she has written a book as sensationalist in its way as her Mrs. Harris.

The most surprising part of this memoir is Mrs. Trilling's unsparingly deflationary portrait of Lionel. She is intent on replacing a common idealized image of Trilling the intellectual with one that takes account of his shortcomings as a person. But in her relentless detailing of his inadequacies she seems to me to be only offering a rival fiction. The Beginning of the Journey is both a biographical account of Lionel and an autobiographical memoir of the author. The portrait of Lionel is also part of the autobiography; its unillusioned objectivity itself seems to me an illusion. Mrs. Trilling's much-praised reason and logic are in the service here of a subjectivity all the more comprehensive in being unacknowledged.

This memoir records a half-century of Diana Trilling's complaints about her husband. Although it is mainly limited to the first part (1929-1950) of the Trillings' marriage, the complaints carry on nearly up to Lionel's death. The particulars in this bill of complaint are of unequal gravity. We learn that Lionel was incompetent or merely comical at swimming, dancing, and driving a car. Mrs. Trilling also adduces his ineffectiveness in handling money and dealing with his publisher. She does not tell these stories in a spirit of life-with-father sentimentality. Rather, she peels away the image of poise and gentility to reveal a man feckless and inept. We read of a young husband insufficiently dominating in relation to his wife and of an older husband who disappoints her by failing to exercise the faculty leadership that might have been his during the student demonstrations at Columbia in 1968. The complaint is basically the same from start to finish: Lionel wasn't much of a man.

The most intimate of Mrs. Trilling's revelations concern her husband's lifelong pattern of depressive illness. She writes that Lionel's periodic depressions were punctuated five or six times a year by irrational rages in which he blamed her for all of his unhappiness, and she reveals that some four decades of intermittent psychoanalysis did little to mitigate the problem. That Mrs. Trilling would expose what she describes as her husband's deep sense of failure, his at times excessive drinking, and his periodic cycles of gloom and abusiveness is startling because she has previously been a fierce defender of his posthumous reputation. The revelations are surprising also because, as Mrs. Trilling says, her husband was the most private of men and went to great lengths to conceal his emotional difficulties and his involvement with psychoanalysts from even his closest friends. Is it so obvious that Lionel would not have regretted revelations made posthumously that he so assiduously evaded during his life? Is it courageous for Diana Trilling to be giving away Lionel's secrets, or is it merely tacky?

Lionel's reticence about his emotional problems was the focus of a quarrel between husband and wife during his lifetime. The quarrel surfaced in the late 1940s, when Diana was pregnant with their one and only child and had temporarily put aside her career as a writer. In those years Lionel's reputation was solidifying as a consequence of the essays he had published, mainly in Partisan Review, and was to bring together in 1950 in The Liberal Imagination. Mrs. Trilling describes her “fury” of resentment at that time about her husband's public image: “I very much disliked the image of Lionel as someone immune to profanation.” This dislike can only have grown in the 1950s, when The Liberal Imagination was selling more than one hundred thousand copies in the Anchor paperback edition before going out of print. In that decade Trilling was revered as counselor, mentor, culture-rabbi, even secular saint. In the last great decade of the public intellectual with a large non-academic readership, Trilling was the last American literary critic to be admired and even beloved as a latter-day sage.

Mrs. Trilling remembers feeling that the image of the infallible Lionel “lessened” him. She has now gone far in the direction of righting the balance. But why has she elected to present him in so unflattering a light? It's possible that she was led to say more than she might have intended because of the way this memoir was composed. Because her sight is badly impaired, she was obliged to dictate the book. Inevitably, talking about the past encourages confidences that might have been edited out had she been working at a typewriter and been able to see what she was saying. Also, the speech situation, involving a silent amanuensis, mimics that of psychoanalysis, with its encouragement to say all that comes to mind. But this is only a speculation, and the highly organized and focused quality of the book argues against it.

Mrs. Trilling's portrait of Lionel is all the more mysterious in view of her wholly credible affirmations of love and admiration for him and her great labor after his death in editing his books and unreprinted essays for the 12-volume Harcourt Brace Jovanovich collected edition of his works. There is also the biographical fact, which she acknowledges, of Lionel's unwavering loyalty and service to his young wife all through the 1930s, when she was more a patient than a helpmate on account of harrowing phobias and nearly fatal hyperthyroidism. I once saw on a gravestone in a Norwegian country cemetery this sentiment: “Takk vor all” (thanks for everything). Mrs. Trilling's version of this final salute to the dead might be: “Why didn't you do more!”

The negativism of Mrs. Trilling's account of Lionel inevitably raises the question of her reliability as a biographer. Can this man, so admired during his lifetime, really have been so inept? I don't doubt Mrs. Trilling's veracity. She is obviously telling it as she saw it, or at least as she sees it now. But I question her emphases and doubt her interpretations, which she presents as incontrovertible facts.

Mrs. Trilling has always been more a political-cultural writer than a person of literary sensibility. She has been drawn to the world of telegrams and anger that Lionel largely avoided in favor of the inner life. Perhaps no one should be surprised that Mrs. Trilling turns out to be a very unself-conscious autobiographer. My impression is of someone who confuses her subjective sense of things with reality; or rather, since we all do that, of someone who is unable to imagine the possible other case. One expects a tone of authority from a writer who has been mainly a controversialist over the course of a long career, but in a portrait of a marriage one expects more than blame and complaint.

The impulse to externalize, to find the causes of one's misery outside the self, is all the more striking in view of Mrs. Trilling's long experience of psychoanalysis. She reveals that, like Lionel, she was a psychoanalytic patient during the greater part of their life together. She had analyses with seven doctors, all of whom she describes as having served her ill. The horror stories she tells about her analysts—one of whom was hooked on drugs, another of whom took both Trillings along on his summer vacation with his family—are adduced to support her judgment that at best her doctors helped her little and at worst did considerable damage.

But the evidence Mrs. Trilling herself presents would seem to suggest that she was in fact helped a great deal. As she tells the story, she was in dreadful physical and psychological shape almost from the beginning of the marriage. Her phobias were such as to make it impossible for her to hold a job or to do much of anything else. Lionel had to look after her at a time when he was taking on extra work to make money to support his parents and struggling to write a dissertation and survive in his job at Columbia. But for help Diana had her doctors, too. Although she disparages all of them, somebody must have been doing something right to have enabled an agoraphobic semi-invalid to manage motherhood and become a much-respected public intellectual.

I believe, as she says, that she survived psychologically by relying on her formidable powers of logic and reason, which she used to order the chaos of her emotional experience. One negative aspect of this reliance, however, was that Mrs. Trilling's attempts at writing fiction never panned out. She could never rid her stories of “my intrusive (intellectual) supervision.” More important for this memoir, her severe rationalism disposed her to a harshly judgmental view of others. Her harshness is cognitive as well as moral. Mrs. Trilling seems never to have been able to accept that others' ideas may be as real for them as hers are for herself. And it is hard to think of many occasions when she has acknowledged being wrong or when she has changed her mind about an important idea. The epithet “cold war critic” has been bandied about too freely in our present age of revisionist political virtue, but it does fit Mrs. Trilling in relation both to her substantive politics and her ideological inflexibility.

In a review of Mrs. Trilling's memoir in The New Criterion (October, 1993), Hilton Kramer writes that she disparages Lionel Trilling out of a misguided, leftish psychoanalytic ideology that demands the stripping away of bourgeois appearances, even those which protect the privacy of our closest intimates. On the contrary, I would say that Mrs. Trilling held herself together, from at least the 1940s on, by a nearly dogmatic insistence on middle-class values. Far from having transferred her allegiance from anti-bourgeois Marxism in the 1930s to anti-bourgeois Freudianism afterwards, Mrs. Trilling turned to middle-class ideas of order when she left communism behind. But she was as rigid in her middle-class tastes and in her anti-communism as she had been as a communist fellow traveler. She never wrote against herself or took her own doubts as an intellectual point of departure, as did Lionel. This is not to say that she had no doubts. It's more the case that she suppressed them in the service of her well-known stance of unassailability.

Any number of texts might be cited as evidence of Mrs. Trilling's solidly middle-class social and moral preferences. Her essays on the famous cold war treason cases—involving Alger Hiss and J. Robert Oppenheimer in this country and Harold Macmillan's Minister of War, John Profumo, in England—are her most directly political pieces, but they are less to the point than her essays on literary and cultural subjects. The most revealing of these is her essay of 1959 on a reading by Allen Ginsberg and other “Beat” poets at Columbia University, an essay entitled “The Other Night at Columbia: A Report from the Academy.” This is Mrs. Trilling's favorite among her essays and Lionel's favorite as well.

In her “report,” Mrs. Trilling patronizes Ginsberg and his friends on a variety of fronts. She finds these 1950s bohemian rebels less authentic than their 1930s proletarian counterparts. Also, whereas F. W. Dupee, the English department moderator of this campus event, is described as exhibiting “dignity and self-assurance,” Ginsberg and his companions are only “panic-stricken kids in blue jeans.” For Mrs. Trilling, Ginsberg is a “case”; his former teachers, on the other hand, represent an ideal to which the waif-poet inevitably but helplessly aspires. As if it were not enough to discredit the poets, Mrs. Trilling goes on to categorize the audience: “so many young girls, so few of them pretty, and so many blackest black stockings; so many young men, so few of them—despite the many black beards—with any promise of masculinity.” To which one can only respond: how could you tell? The poet Robert Bly answered this report with a very funny parody in his journal The Fifties, but the fact is that Mrs. Trilling had done Bly's work for him with her unintentionally self-parodic exposure of middle-class fears and disdain.

According to Mrs. Trilling's new memoir, readers like Bly misunderstood her intention—which, she now says, was to call into question what would seem to be its smugly middle-class sense of superiority. That intention, almost universally unperceived by readers at the time, is signalled, we now can see, by the last paragraph, in which Mrs. Trilling describes herself as returning from the reading to find “a meeting going on at home of the pleasant professional sort which, like the comfortable living room in which it usually takes place, at a certain point in a successful modern literary career confirms the writer in his sense of disciplined achievement and well-earned reward.” The irony here is of a glancing kind, almost indistinguishable from the complacency it so gently chides.

Mrs. Trilling had gone to the Ginsberg reading in the company of two other English department wives. None of Columbia's professors of English had attended except Dupee, whose presence seems to have been intended to defuse the event, to keep what Mrs. Trilling calls the “vast barbarian hordes” from erupting. At McMillin Theater, Mrs. Trilling the faculty wife had felt self-important in relation to the hapless barbarians on stage. At home, she adopts, very briefly, a different role, coyly mocking the establishment respectability of her guests. She interrupts the grownups, the successful men in suits, to say: “Allen Ginsberg read a love-poem to you, Lionel. I liked it very much.”

We learn from the 1993 memoir that the meeting Mrs. Trilling interrupted involved the staff of The Readers' Subscription, the upper-middlebrow book club that Lionel served as editor and consultant. Recent scholarship has discussed the role of book clubs like this one in providing guidance to a culturally anxious, newly enlarged educated middle class in the 1950s. If Mrs. Trilling had said in her original report what those writers with their “modern successful literary careers” were doing in her living room, it's possible that the irony she cites in her memoir 35 years later would not have been so widely missed at the time:

It was in the ironic contrast between the stage capers of Ginsberg and his friends and the comfortable scene to which I returned when I came home that I found much of the meaning which the evening had for me and which I wrote about. For me, perhaps no less than for Ginsberg, it had been an evening of ambiguities. As I weighed the choice between rebelliousness and acceptance, the beats held their own on many scores.

This is the kind of situation, of unresolved oppositions, that both Trillings were drawn to. The capacity to live with contradictions was for Lionel the mark of the mature as well as the tragic character. But sometimes it took some doing to contrive such a situation. In the case of Diana Trilling's report, the later authorial explanation is at odds with the manifest tone and tendency of the report, in which the rag-tag bohemian poets do not hold their own on any score at all. Ambivalent she may have been at the time, but in the essay Mrs. Trilling actually wrote in 1959, middle-class self-righteousness and status-consciousness overwhelm the small voice of self-doubt.

That is not to say the report might not have been cast in different terms. A deeper, more inward, more truly psychoanalytic relation to herself might have suggested to Mrs. Trilling a bond between herself and the outrageous homosexual poet. This would have been a bond founded not on a shared anti-bourgeois ideology but on a shared condition of exclusion and narcissistic hurt. And how shocking it might have been for Mrs. Trilling to suspect that the faculty wife, with her middle-class pride, might have something in common with the outsider-poet.

There are moments in the original report in which Mrs. Trilling comes close to acknowledging the bond, but then she retreats into the familiar “great lady” pose and insistence on “seniority” that Robert Lowell once remarked, in connection with her essay of 1968 in Commentary on the student disturbances at Columbia. She seems never to have been able to resist one-upping Ginsberg. She is still doing it in this memoir. She describes a dinner party, some years after her report on the poetry reading at Columbia, at which Ginsberg explodes in anger at her. She is upset by his anger and works it over in her mind, finally deciding that it was owing to Ginsberg's guilt over her disapproval of his involvement with drugs. But what if it was not guilt but Ginsberg's reaction to years of being patronized and bullied? Mrs. Trilling doesn't entertain other explanations than the one she offers, and she demonstrates its correctness, Q.E.D., by noting that Ginsberg's last communication with her was by way of a postcard written on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

Mrs. Trilling does not herself go in for atonement, even when she is clearly in the wrong. An interview with her in the New Yorker (September 13, 1993) includes the interviewer's mention that she tried to find the love poem to Lionel Trilling in Allen Ginsberg's collected works. Not finding it, she contacted Ginsberg himself, who told her that the poem Mrs. Trilling refers to was not in fact about her husband. Indeed, Ginsberg's poem, “The Lion for Real,” is not a love poem for anyone. As Ginsberg remembers, “I guess she misheard it. I visited them for years afterward, but I never brought it up; I thought it was better just to let it go.”

One of the things she holds onto from the past is her fixed ideas. So when the New Yorker interviewer tells her what Ginsberg has said about the love poem that was not, she is unfazed: “Ah, was I wrong? He should have told me I was wrong. But in any case. …” If Mrs. Trilling were a novelist, Henry James say, we might remark of her 1959 account: she seized a fragment, a “germ,” and worked up her own version of the events, which is so much more interesting than the anecdote which set her into motion. And if the novelist's version is shown to diverge from the actuality which inspired it, so much the worse for actuality. The only problem is that Mrs. Trilling is presenting her memoir not as fiction but as the facts.

The question of what is perception and what fantasy is central in any memoir. It is all the more exigent in New York Intellectual memoirs, which seem so often to be mainly concerned with setting the record straight. As one of the relatively few persons about whom Mrs. Trilling pronounces in her memoir who is still alive to defend himself, I want to correct an interpretation of hers that bears on me and is presented as a fact.

Mrs. Trilling comments on a review that I wrote of a 1971 book that Lionel Trilling edited, entitled Literary Criticism: An Introductory Reader: “Featured in [Modern Occasions] first issue was an extended attack upon Lionel by a then-unknown teacher of English, Mark Krupnick. Like ‘The Duchess' Red Shoes,’ Delmore Schwartz's attack on Lionel in Partisan Review, Krupnick's piece was of course solicited and predesigned.” Mrs. Trilling's remarks on my piece occur in the context of a hostile portrait of Philip Rahv, the supposed solicitor and designer of my review. Rahv had been a friend of the Trillings in the early years of Partisan Review and had later turned cool. He had resigned his editorship at PR and had launched a new quarterly, Modern Occasions. I was an associate editor of the new journal.

What Mrs. Trilling calls my “extended attack” on Lionel took up five-and-a-half pages in all, and appeared in the journal's second not its first issue. The date is Winter 1971. But clearly the important point is Mrs. Trilling's contention that the review was “solicited and predesigned.” What she intends to convey is that Rahv put me up to it, as—again, according to her—he had put Delmore Schwartz up to similar mischief in 1953. The facts of the case are that Rahv had been asked to review the book for the Boston Globe. He wasn't interested in doing it but, knowing my interest in Trilling, asked me if I wanted to. The piece grew under my hand, and I asked Rahv if he might want to use it in Modern Occasions. The main thing is that Rahv made no suggestions before or after I wrote the review about what it should say. Nor did he in my two years with him at Modern Occasions express much concern about Trilling. The writer who obsessed him was Norman Mailer. Rahv was only seriously interested, as a polemicist, in writers whose stock was high in the current literary marketplace. For him Lionel Trilling was a back number.

Perhaps it is inconceivable to Mrs. Trilling that Lionel should not have been at the center of Rahv's thoughts as he was at the center of her own. In any case, I was the one who was concerned with Trilling in 1971, not Rahv. In the book I later wrote on Lionel Trilling, I explained how my initial enthusiasm for him when I was an undergraduate in the late '50s had turned to disillusion over the course of the next decade as a consequence of his long silence on the Vietnam war. My thoughts about Trilling continued to change over the years I was writing about him, so that the view I presented in my book of 1986 is much more positive than the review of 1971. But Mrs. Trilling finds it hard to believe that the “then-unknown” assistant professor was doing his own thinking about her husband. She not only presumes to know how this piece came to be written. For her it's obvious, a matter “of course.”

Others who have been the objects of pronouncements by Mrs. Trilling must have wondered, as I do, how she can be so self-assured and yet so mistaken about events of the past. Most of those upon whom she animadverts are in no position to talk back. That is a great virtue of long life. Is it not possible that Mrs. Trilling is as wrong about the origins of Delmore Schwartz's essay as she is about mine? Neither Schwartz nor Sidney Hook nor Mary McCarthy nor Hannah Arendt nor many others about whom Mrs. Trilling writes are around to tell their side of the story. Who knows if she didn't get them wrong, too? And is it not possible she has misrepresented her husband as well?

At the center of Diana Trilling's self-understanding, as she conveys it in this memoir, is her frustrated desire for attention. She describes herself as a little girl shamed by her puritanical businessman-father out of her normal instinct for exhibiting herself. It was made clear that she was not to outshine her considerably less talented older brother. Later in life, she implies, the parental injunction against self-display led to the failure of her grand ambition to be a concert singer. The wound was exacerbated further by her relegation to secondariness as a faculty wife. Finally, she found her own growing reputation as a writer muffled by the much larger success of a husband who was regarded in the educated liberal middle-class circles for which they both wrote as one of the noblest moral imaginations of the age.

Mrs. Trilling mentions several times that she never had a work-room of her own until Lionel died and she took over his study. It's not a criticism of Lionel as a person that his wife's writing life only really got underway after his death, by which time she was already 70. It was in the structure of things—the genteel patriarchal conventions of literary academic life and the Trillings' own fear of violating the suffocating middle-class conventions they inherited from no less fearful parents—that Diana and Lionel should both have felt baffled, deprived of an easy relation to pleasure, self-assertion, and their own large ambitions.

As a younger woman, Mrs. Trilling felt mainly anger at Lionel's “conspiring” in his students' idealization of him. This memoir makes clear that she is still exasperated by her husband's public image. But idealization is inescapable as an aspect of students' identification with great teachers and as the engine of many kinds of positive development—moral, emotional, social—in young people. Earlier in her career, as a faculty wife and contributor to magazines of opinion, Mrs. Trilling was respected but rarely idealized. She was always too blunt and practical for that. With this new book, however, she has become something of a heroine for younger women reviewers for whom she is a survivor, a woman-warrior who would not be crushed by the Church Fathers of Partisan Review. She has come a very long way from the panicky, inexperienced young woman she was 50 years ago.

The Beginning of the Journey, with all the flaws I have mentioned, is still Diana's best book, the book in which she seems most herself: not the high-culture intellectual of the 1950s with large ideas of culture and society, but a shrewd social observer with a nineteenth-century novelist's eye for manners and motives. This memoir is surely one of the best of the many published in the past 20 years by aging New York intellectuals, and that is because it goes beyond the stale repetition of political pieties to help us see the connections between public discourse, such as Lionel Trilling's, and the private life of that time and place that went into that discourse.

Best of all for Diana Trilling, it represents an overcoming of her baffled impulse to self-display. Still the good wife, she shares its pages with Lionel. But it is her story. The Lionel that appears in it is a character in her life (or, rather, in her fantasy of what that life was about).

But renown is not a zero-sum game or a hydraulic system in which, as in Henry James's The Sacred Fount, one party must be sucked dry so that the other is pumped up. It should not have been necessary to make Lionel Trilling smaller so that his widow might be bigger. In any case, this memoir is not likely to damage Lionel's reputation because most readers will recognize that Diana's account of their life together remains a specimen of autobiography. Everything Diana Trilling says about Lionel is a revelation about her as much as it is a fact about him. She will not have the last word about his character or the larger meaning of his life. I expect that biographers, in relation to their subject, will be more struck by Lionel's fortitude and finesse than by his ineptitude and fecklessness.

What we have, then, is a revelation of a strong-minded woman, admirable in many ways, who didn't get all she wanted out of her marriage or her life. Would she have liked more time for her own writing, and a room of her own? She might have had both if she had been born in 1955 rather than 1905, and therefore in a position to reap the benefits of the feminist revolution. Also, no small matter, she might with luck have been treated by psychoanalysts informed by more enlightened ideas. As it was, she had the great good luck, which she acknowledges, to enjoy the company and conversation in their prime of New York's most gifted intellectuals, including, of course, for half a century, Lionel Trilling.

Peter Balbert (essay date Summer 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5937

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 well-known and often helpful; through the years—although not recently—she has written several intelligent and largely sympathetic assessments of both the novelist and his work. In her 1984 review of Mr Noon, she correctly asserts that “for anyone interested in the derivation and interpretation of Lawrence's sexual doctrine, it is mandatory reading” (24). Why then does Mr Noon provoke such a hostile reaction in her that she concludes the essay with the specter of self-deceiving D. H. Lawrence also misleading generations of readers and critics about his true feelings on marriage, infidelity, and sexual license?

In brief, she argues that in the newly published Part II of Mr Noon, primarily because of both the depiction of Gilbert Noon's permissive answer to the news of Johanna's affair with Stanley, and the consistent evidence of Johanna's inveterate promiscuity so tolerantly and exuberantly dramatized in the novel, Trilling angrily concludes that the seminal celebration in his other works of marriage, monogamy, and sexual responsibility must now be read as a species of hypocrisy and pretense by an uncloseted, decadent novelist. She regards Mr Noon as the emergence of Lawrence's dirty little secret, as the startling disclosure of his concealed libertinism—as the smoking gun, in effect, that he manages to camouflage with a veneer of puritanism throughout his career. Further, Trilling confidently deduces that such marital infidelity “was a condition on which Lawrence built his marriage,” and thus—for here is the radical assertion of her unrelenting logic—everything else that Lawrence wrote must now be reinterpreted as an attempt “to deceive us that he wrote from within the boundaries of monogamous marriage”; she concludes by arguing that such hypocrisy by Lawrence “must shadow … our view of him as among the bolder of our modern authors” (25). So Trilling considers Mr Noon as a form of pernicious high disclosure—indeed, she sees it as nothing less than a revealing showdown at noon that leaves us with the corpse of established Lawrencean dialectic.

I propose to respond to Trilling in three ways. First, I shall isolate a provocative pattern of metaphors in this novel, a virtual “utensil erotica” of various spoon and fork references that integrate the two parts of Mr Noon and ultimately suggest a nurturant and quintessentially Lawrencean doctrine of marriage and sex that Trilling misses in the heat of her indictment of apostasy. Second, I shall glance at the confrontation scene between Gilbert and Johanna concerning her night with Stanley; my attempt here will be to place that episode within the brilliantly developed pattern of the seven preceding arguments between Gilbert and Johanna; those seven intimate dramas comprise an interrelated thematic sequence that helps determine the motivations both for her affair with Stanley and for Gilbert's unorthodox approach to her confession. Lastly, I shall suggest that Trilling's character assassination fails to contemplate an interesting clue at the end of this unfinished manuscript about the emotional direction of their present “honeymoon” and coming marriage.


Part I of Mr Noon was published posthumously in a 1934 volume appropriately titled by his publishers as A Modern Lover. Gilbert Noon's variously frustrating and titillating amorous exploits make him an eminently contemporary and decidedly un-Lawrencean lover early in the twentieth century, as he predictably plays out his games amid the regulated customs of Midlands social dating and marriage. Such regional habits of customized and mildly daring love, of course, are offensive to Lawrence's doctrinal emphasis throughout his career—and noticeably in Part II of Mr Noon—on the need for risk-taking, polarity, and achieved “otherness” in marriage and sexual courtship. Despite his possible rebellious impregnation of Emmie and his consequent dismissal from the school, Noon remains as much a bored, mechanical, and “modern lover” in Part I as he is an unconventional, committed, and instinctual mate to Johanna by the end of Part II.

In this coquettish, inhibited environment, all is tolerated in necking provided it stops short of copulation and/or legal fuss. Even those restrictions are circumvented when the affair is quickly channelled into a marriage contract, and thus the community-sponsored habit of “spooning” is preserved as a sanctioned, safe mode of Sunday evening dating practice. When early in Part I Lewie Goddard argues, in his silly defense of this teasing, undignified custom of spooning, that it is “natural” (15), Lawrence thus uses Lewie's error to define the craven sexual spirit of an era: the stimulating lubrication of a tongue on the face and neck of a lover pretends to satisfy the more urgent needs of a country's aroused suitors and ladies. It is a supposedly informed generation that, to Lawrence's disgust, congratulates itself on its liberated notions, on its trendy tolerance for restricted groping in dark hallways. To Lawrence this mild reaction against Victorian restriction and prudery promotes an alternate danger: it ultimately unsexes young men and women by regulating and publicizing their sexual customs, and thus—the ultimate direction of this century's conformity—it makes their secret lusts tepid and casual. But Lawrence knows it is too late for his disapproval, as a mere twenty years has transformed the Midlands. “There are only spooners now, a worldful of spoons” (20), as the narrator is drawn to the popular name of this unconsummating and closed-ended game; Lawrence highlights a dainty food implement to suggest the measured and routinized response to sexual appetite that is the accepted rage for modern lovers.

Throughout his prolific career—in novels, stories, and essays—Lawrence comments with conviction and precosity on an obsessive theme: the insidious relation between that superficially more tolerant, “progressive” attitude about sexuality emerging during World War I, and the consequent—or parallel—domesticating, deprivatizing, and mechanizing of the sensual instinct in man. What Lawrence's contemporary intelligentsia and trend-setters consider to be a beneficent socio-cultural revolution, he regards as the cutting edge of a modernist madness. He has no sentimental attachment, however, to an earlier world of dark Victorian taboos and inhibitions; but he is equally horrified by the early twentieth-century impulse to tame sex by submitting it to the public scrutiny of medical do-gooders, opportunistic politicians, and fashionable social scientists.

Just two years before Lawrence began work on Mr Noon, Dr. Marie Stopes published an eminently liberal and crusading book on sexuality, governmental responsibilities, and reproductive issues for women, and it was titled—with an unintended irony Lawrence would appreciate—Modern Love. This popular and controversial study focuses particularly on England's failure to address openly such issues as women's rights, birth control, sexual passion, and problems of pregnancy. While Stopes does not directly analyze the raging phenomenon of spooning, she encourages the pragmatic spirit of a realistic and demystified post-war age; she sees the time as propitious to save people, at last, from the excesses of their unregulated instincts. The redemptive mechanisms urged by Stopes include mass federal programs, unrestricted medical pamphlets for the young, and a more clinical discussion of the needs and vices of female sexuality.

D. H. Lawrence was characteristically offended by Stopes's dominant notion that sex is better and healthier when mystery is removed from it, when it is subordinated to the prime goal of child-rearing, and when it is unabashedly “clarified” by the expertise of medical educators and humane public officials. His most direct response to her work occurred nearly a decade after Modern Love, in his 1929 essay “Pornography and Obscenity.” In that spirited and urgent message from a dying man, his scathing criticism of her school of what he calls “wise and scientific” idealism seems especially appropriate to the wasteful sexual dalliances of Gilbert Noon in Part I. Before I quote from Lawrence's essay, here is part of his most extended description of spooning in the novel; I intrude in the middle of Emmie and Gilbert's little diversion, just as the heat begins to envelop them:

Let us mention that this melting and ripening capacity is one of the first qualities for a good modern daughter of Venus, a perfect sweetness in a love-making girl, the affectionate comradeship of a dear girl deepening to a voluptuous enveloping warmth, a bath for the soft Narcissus, into which he slips with voluptuous innocence. … Only let him kiss her ears, and it was a consummation. … Yet we have hardly fathomed the heights and depths of the spoon in the Co-op. entry. (21-23, my emphasis)

In Lawrence's criticism of Stopes a decade later, it is hard not to recall such a passage about Emmie and Gilbert in their degrading posture of sexual semi-ecstasy, as they stand and grope amid the defined limits of exploration near the book stalls. Their fundamental hypocrisy is caught so precisely and bitterly by Lawrence with his oxymoronic phrase, “voluptuous innocence”; their pretense of eternal virginity in spooning; the sentimental imagery of flowers and of unearthly heights achieved; the big lie that purity is the requirement for sexual indulgence; the pretense that “consummation” is a matter of workmanship by a crafty spooner rather than a special gift brought by the instinctual delivery to the unknown; the inevitable boring drift by Emmie into dispassionate union with another man in marriage—all these recollections about Emmie and Gilbert have relevance for Lawrence's blast in “Pornography and Obscenity” at the destructive habits of a meek sexual revolution:

The idealists along the Marie Stopes line, and the young bohemians of today have killed the dirty little secret as far as their personal self goes. But they are still under its dominion socially. In the social world, in the press, in literature, film, theatre, wireless, everywhere purity and the dirty little secret reign supreme. … The young girl, and the young woman, is by tacit assumption pure, virgin, sexless. … She herself knows quite well she isn't sexless and she isn't merely like a flower. But how bear up against the great social lie forced on her? She can't! She succumbs, and the dirty little secret triumphs. She loses her interest in sex, as far as men are concerned, but the vicious circle of masturbation and self-consciousness encloses her still faster. (76-77)

As in the above passage on their spooning, Lawrence's mock-heroic contempt for their exercise in lovemaking is conveyed as Noon's clever mouth takes mind-centered Emmie to new heights of fantasy and titillation; their acrobatic gamesmanship never moves, of course, to real consummation here—neither her expectations nor society's conventions permit that; but the romantic transport is just high enough to give her the self-involved illusion of real ecstasy. She is repeatedly described as a “spoon,” and he the “sport” as the athletic typology makes sense in Lawrence's humorous acknowledgment of society's verbal integration of the playing fields of England with the back-lanes of love. In cricket a “sport” who “spoons” the ball manages “to hit or loft it mildly in the air, with a soft or weak stroke,” as the OED defines the action (2978); it is a mere holding shot, an unengrossing passing of the time, in which technical contact is made but nothing is really accomplished in the game. There is, to use our own downright idiom, no real score.

Further, in Mr Noon, the spoon, as the utensil with a limited and balanced capacity, is to be contrasted with a variety of sharper and less subtle instruments, such as forks, spades, prongs, knives, and plough-shares. These more “predatory” tools and utensils have that greater potential for capacity and strength, as they can exert the powers both of leverage and insertion; they can carry food, unearth the land, and stab through prey—multiple abilities, in effect, provided you have the courage to get near enough to swallow the whole hog, engorge the entire feast, or capture the prize quarry. “He should have a long spoon that sups with the Devil”: it is an appropriate proverbial gloss on this novel's penchant for discrimination between classes of utensils. This conventional and cautious advice, which Lawrence might have known and despised, suggests not only the infamous hot fork with which Lucifer both eats and attacks, but also the timid and lengthy spoon that waits for a visitor to the underworld—indeed, that waits for a “modern lover” who wishes merely to suck the devilish brew while he stays safely far away from the encompassing heat of the cauldron. As Part I of Mr Noon develops, Lawrence begins to interweave aspects of these images in strict dualistic terms. He consistently contrasts patterns of spooning courtship, dainty spoon-feeding, and spoony coyness with versions of fork-like directness, earthy and demonic shovelling, and plough-share power:

It doesn't matter what you do—only how you do it.—Isn't that the sincerest of modern maxims? … Why bother about spades being spades any more? … Ah, dear reader, you don't need me to tell you how to sip love with a spoon, to get the juice out of it. … And there is nothing low about our goings, even if we go to great lengths. A spoon isn't a spade, thank goodness. As for a plough—don't mention it. No, let us keep the spoon of England bright, between us. (20-21)

By the end of Part I, with Noon the spoon-conditioned victim of the inevitable consequences of his affair with Emmie, and with him now adrift and without vocational plans or amorous connections, Lawrence brings down the curtain (where it shall stay for more than sixty years) with a telling warning to the reader. The next section of his novel, we read, shall take his protagonist closer to the real core of sexual love, to the land of predatory forks and the risk of real proximity to hot desire. Lawrence promises, in effect, to move us from the protective shield of a silver spoon to the close, dangerous heat of a devil's prong: “But the second volume is in pickle. The cow in this vol. having jumped over the moon, in the next the dish, dear reader, shall run away with the spoon. Scandalous the elopement, and a decree nisi for the fork. Which is something to look forward to” (93).


Part II of Mr Noon begins with an important echo of the conclusion to the Noon-Neville saga; there is an immediate resolution by Lawrence about his intentions in this fiction, and it is accompanied by announcements of its dominant symbology, of the new character of Mr Gilbert Noon, and of the transfiguring love that is at center-stage the rest of the work. Thus Noon awakens in Germany on the first page, in a story where “[y]ou'll not hear another word about Emmie” (97). It is to be a transformed Gilbert Noon, whose vision and experience of love will soon be embattled, unadulterated, and etched with blood on the sharp point of a fork: “So pray cast out of your mind that spoon association, and be prepared for the re-incarnation of Mr Now. Noon is Now” (99). This significant change conforms to the consequences of Lawrence's growing impatience with the comic tone and preoccupations of Part I; Gilbert is no longer Neville but recognizably Lawrence himself, just as the rest of Mr Noon chronicles and contemplates his own singularly undainty, unspoony, and unmodern love affair with his future wife, Frieda, named Johanna Keighley in the novel. The developing alteration of tone in Part II is also corroborated by the new set of adjectives Lawrence uses in his work-in-progress letters on Mr Noon. When Lawrence writes to friends and editors about Part I, it is always its comic elements that he proudly stresses (e.g., see Letters III 626, 639); but the words that appear in his correspondence on the Gilbert- Johanna section are “dangerous” and “unsettling” (e.g., see Letters III 653, 717).

In her first conversation with Noon, Johanna quickly notices their attraction to each other. But she is often disappointed by a lack of erotic authenticity in other men, and she now warns him, in effect, of her experienced contempt for a version of spoon-love—what she calls “sex all in your head” (127). Thus Johanna early establishes her seminal demand for only the most legitimate, unharnessed, and organically complete approach to physical love. She says it simply and without pretense or bravado; it is a cautionary statement of her essential belief, as it announces a profound dissatisfaction with contemporary modes of loving. She believes you must press near enough to feel the earth, you must not settle for the compromise of bright fantasy or for any version of coitus interruptus: “But you can have your sex all in your head, like the saints did. But that I call a sort of perversion. Don't you? Sex is sex, and ought to find its expression in the proper way—don't you think” (127). Noon must hear it as a relevant warning, for he knows with what exuberance he recently entertained himself with flirtations and impotent fixations over Louise, Marta, and now Johanna. In each case his mentalized stimulation at female proximity was sufficient for him, and Johanna Keighley recognizes that momentum for uneventful satisfaction in all modern men. But she wakes Gilbert out of his ingrained habits of evasion. If you “come on” to Johanna and she reciprocates the gambit, you better be prepared not at noon, but now to show her how much you care.

Trilling's adamant dismissal of Lawrence rests primarily on her insistence that the depiction of Stanley's affair with Johanna negates Lawrence's vaunted stress on monogamous marriage, and that such acceptance of infidelity by Noon-Lawrence may even align the writer with the decadent lyricists of open-marriage today. Yet the central passage of doctrine in Mr Noon—that Trilling conspicuously never mentions—remains an open celebration of the institution of marriage; it reads in the novel no less emphatically because of the crucial qualification that concludes Lawrence's praise:

And as for the leaping into the chasm to pure connection with the woman, that needs a basic courage and a strange concerted unison between the two protagonists, which life alone can give. It is absolutely useless going to a prostitute or a libertine. The deep accustomedness of marriage is the only way of preparation. Only those who know one another in the intricate dark ways of physical custom can pass through the seven dark hells and the seven bright heavens of sensual fulfilment. And this is why marriage is sacred. And this is perhaps the secret of the English greatness. …

But now alas the English adventure has broken down. There is no going on. There is cul de sac and white-livered fawning.(191)

What is insisted in this novel, doctrinally through the intrusive narrative sermons, and dramatically through the confrontations between the two lovers, is that the only true, “sacred” marriage remains intense and unstable, risky and transcendent, and—this above all—it is always changing, always “going on” through “dark hells” and “bright heavens,” even when it appears bogged down in the most acute personal struggle. In this demanding marital dynamic, any transitional tension or heated argument, provided it is directly addressed and fully expressed, becomes the intermittent vehicle for avoiding the stasis of spoon adjustment, that intolerable condition Lawrence calls “cul de sac and white-livered fawning.” Thus often the narrator in Part II takes his utensil symbology to the very meat of the matter: “If we are to have yon tasty tuft of grass, or yon patch of sweet-herb, we've got to hop perilously down a precipice for it. And that is what we prefer. God, I don't want to sup life with a spoon. I'd rather go lean-bellied till I'd caught my bird” (152).

The sexual ethic here is clear and unadorned, and its ramifications have particular relevance for Gilbert Noon's accumulated habits from Part I of spooning and “modern love.” Lawrence now warns that it is better to do without, to starve oneself for the real thing, than to settle for the passing satisfaction of easy prey. The following lines from Part II elucidate the same doctrine and employ comparable images; they must be read as exhortations to move close to the fire and the earth, and to have those forks or plough-shares prepared for a reward that is beyond the scope of a petty spoon:

No, damn it all, what was the good of love that wasn't a fight! … Be damned, he did not care to fancy mingling with a woman, as if he and she were two spoonfuls of honey put into the same pot. (173-74)

… If one must reckon the costs, at least let us have the dinner first and reckon afterwards. No matter what the cost is, if we've once had the dinner nobody can take it from us.(179)

… Man is a smith, and it behoves him to smite while the iron is hot, if ever he is to get any shape into life, or any sharpness on his plough-share. (146)


Trilling fails to locate the Stanley incident as the eighth disagreement in an integrated line of seven major quarrels between the two lovers. Such a pattern of conflict confirms the novelist's consistent judgment that lasting marriage must come “out of the sheer, pure, consummate fight,” and that Noon and Johanna are embarked on “a very painful shedding of an old skin” (290) in the process of this struggle. Their first argument may reflect the most representative disagreement between them. Gilbert Noon, who is both profoundly unsympathetic to the pained anthropomorphism of the Christ statues in the mountains, as well as unimpressed by the platitudes of organized religion, pokes fun at the crosses by addressing them in a mocking manner. When Johanna Keighley, a lapsed but still believing and frightened Catholic, objects to his satirical tone, she appropriately reminds him that she was educated in a convent. His cutting response that he was educated “in a Board School” (201) would be fair enough as riposte if Johanna's only concern was the residue of her non-secular belief. But she legitimately worries in a more subjective, superstitious manner that Gilbert can neither understand nor tolerate. She really fears the specter of some vague and abstract punishment to be levelled on her and her children for her own abandonment of a husband and a family. When Noon virtually scoffs at this obsessive anxiety in her, she tells him to leave their bed; he spends a restless, unhappy, and illuminating night alone, in which he begins to realize the desperate extent of his need for her. Perhaps Johanna was vicious to evict him; at bottom, however, the quarrel is the result of Gilbert's typical self-involvement clashing with Johanna's unreserved concern for other people. Writing eight years after the event, D. H. Lawrence demonstrates that Noon-Lawrence knows he is to blame, although in 1912 Noon-Lawrence does not know exactly why: “But probably it was his own fault. Johanna could be horrible like some werewolf that ate men's hearts: only their hearts. His heart still pained him in his left breast.—But probably, probably he had brought it to pass upon himself. There can be no werewolf unless men loose it upon themselves. He must have wanted it” (204).

The second conflict between them develops when Johanna objects to his pompous and inaccurate generalizing about the life of soldiers, which Gilbert naively believes they enjoy as a romantic vocation. The tension here grows beyond the surface issue, for Johanna senses that it really reveals Gilbert's ambivalence about the prospect of his giving up—by way of marriage—a large portion of single male freedom; Gilbert imagines a soldier's life as more open-ended and comradely than it is, and Johanna realizes the childish insecurity that influences his exaggerations about the texture of military service. Their third argument occurs after he excoriates her, as Paul Morel did to Miriam Leivers, for prating about fireflies without necessary emotional restraint. Yet Gilbert's outburst significantly follows his own depressing realization about a major difference between them: she is impressively unashamed about her own nudity and the mundane postures and habits of the human body; he remains tense about his own appearance, and he prefers the quiet peace after consummation to the chaos of engaged passion. No doubt the Gilbert Noon who angrily asks Johanna Keighley to calm down about the insects—“don't gush” (213), as he puts it—is correct in a Lawrencean sense; the intensity of his anger, however, reflects his recognition that her charge that he is an insufferable “dried English stick” (214) has enough validity to justify her compensating over-effusiveness about insects.

Argument four, quite major in its dimension, erupts when Johanna villifies him for not speaking up to the imperious Baroness. It is an accurate but unfair charge, as there was little for an inhibited Gilbert to say in that scene that would not foment more discontent all around; his possible responses to the Baroness would not affect either the adamance of her decision or the resolve of Johanna to stay with him. But Mrs. Keighley will never tolerate passivity in Mr Noon, even when it is understandable and justified. So she goads him to the point of fury about his allegedly unmanly failure with her mother. She incites Noon to a threatening emotion she has never witnessed in him, one that resembles the murderous wrath Gudrun provokes in Gerald before she just escapes behind a door.

The fifth argument, which visibly builds in Johanna for several pages in the novel, is caused by her disgust with his periodic pattern of coldness to her. She correctly sees that such defensive aloofness is occasioned by his inability to resolve, maturely for himself, the circular and essential paradox of any intimacy: that is, the more that Noon realizes his dependency on her and their passionate connection to each other, the more insecure he becomes about his ability to hold a woman whom he now recognizes is crucial to his life. Thus more than once, profound fear nags at Noon after transcendent sex with Johanna, and she notices his moody capitulation to the pangs of worry. Argument six similarly implicates Gilbert as the major culprit, as dangerous Louise collars him when he is most vulnerable; Gilbert is still a soft touch for feminine wiles, and the sister makes him pour out his soul on the state of his relation to Johanna and on the couple's prospects for the future. Johanna is understandably furious at this violation of their own privacy and at his inability to perceive the insidious strategy of a vindictive Louise. Soon Johanna, with a variety of motivations in mind, enacts a mild but public flirtation with a lusty Tyrolese villager at a dance. While Gilbert watches them and correctly interprets Johanna's essential contempt for the man—she would never yield to the man's sense of “over-weening possession” (250), argument seven is now assured. Gilbert is angry at her coquettish game, and he concocts some nonsense of his own. He writes letters to Emmie and Violet, for he knows Johanna will read them. When she rips up his foolish messages, they reconcile once more, and that dangerous state in him—always noted by Johanna—develops again out of a blissful communion: he begins to feel trapped in his relation to her, and he becomes distant and unaffectionate. In short, he returns to the anxieties about the loss of his single self, as he subtly but perceptibly steps back from Johanna; she is left to honor a reconciliation that he has just forgotten in the perversity of his unresolved emotions.

It is at this point in the novel that Johanna sleeps with Stanley. There seems little doubt that the act is foolish on many levels. It not only provides a supreme violation of a tacit, seminal understanding of loyalty between Johanna and Gilbert—who, in essence, are on a honeymoon—but it also strikes us as a gratuitous infidelity with a simpering mother's boy; Stanley is the prototype of the immature male that Johanna persistently denigrates in Mr Noon. She never provides a convincing explanation for having had sex with him; she only offers the lame excuse that she had fallen for the unusual package of his boyish charm combined with his desperate need. She seems stunned by the consequent lack of antagonism from Gilbert over her actions as he instinctively provides a reaction other than the fury she wanted and expected. I believe that Gilbert's mild response is neither cowardice nor ploy; it is the immediate expression of a developing awareness in him that Lawrence, in the writing year of 1920, delicately charts through the depiction of those seven previous arguments in his autobiographical fiction. Mr. Gilbert Noon begins to sense, as early as the initial disagreement between them, that in fundamental ways during their first months together he did not provide Mrs. Johanna Keighley—a woman who dares to leave her own family and her parents for his love—with the confident, unreserved, “basic courage” (191) of active passion that she would require as they make their initial pilgrimage across mountains, countries, and cultural taboos.

It is difficult to assess first cause within the dialectic of a continuing argument between lovers, but it is also hard not to conclude that the confident, secure, and enlightened Lawrence of 1920 is more retrospectively critical of himself than of Johanna. As my capsule summaries of those seven arguments indicate, they comprise lines of developing intensity that both bring us close to the time of Johanna's infidelity, and suggest that a large portion of error is on Gilbert's side. The priapic Mr Noon found it easy to be energetic and engaged during his episodes of uncommitment in Part I, but he never really opens himself up to the more demanding and mature Johanna Keighley. Often when he feels the apocalyptic passion of his closeness to her, Gilbert rebounds with the indulgent isolation and introspection that shield him from further requirements of true intimacy. In short, what Lawrence vaguely senses about his unformed self in 1912, the experienced novelist of 1920 can confirm with artistic certainty.

It is also noteworthy that only after the revelation of Johanna's affair does Gilbert love her, and for the first time, “with a wild self-abandon” (277). So who can contemplate the complex brilliance of Johanna's own motivations for the infidelity? Did she unconsciously see Stanley as the way to break down Gilbert's wall of inhibition and reserve? Or as the way, quite simply, to enact revenge for his aloofness? Or as the available way to confirm her own vital self once again amid the fears of her own commitment to another man? Or was it none of the above, and was Johanna-Frieda merely being Johanna-Frieda, a woman willing to violate an understanding with Gilbert-Lawrence that she feels deprives her of her promiscuous rights?

An emphatic answer is not possible, but the questions raise a larger issue that is more provocative to contemplate. There is no indication by Gilbert Noon in 1912, or by Lawrence the writer in 1920, that such infidelity by Johanna is likely to repeat itself. Lawrence's biographers are quite uncertain about Frieda's fidelity in the last years of Lawrence's life, but they conspicuously have not demonstrated or implied—and neither has Lawrence—any instance of further cheating by her in the eight years between their difficult early months together and the composition of Mr Noon; we know of the Stanley-Harold Hobson affair of 1912, and of David Garnett's allegation that, during that same year, Frieda had sex with a woodcutter, but there is, at least, a likely presumption of fidelity to Lawrence by Frieda in the ensuing decade. In his self-advertising ecstasy in 1912 at the end of the novel, about the birth of his sensual soul, the Lawrence of 1920 confidently recalls his earlier implicit belief that Johanna's betrayal will not occur again. Let us assume that it has not occurred—to Lawrence's knowledge—as he writes Mr Noon. If he was right about her from 1912-1920, was his guess about her fidelity right in the long run—that is, in the decade after his unfinished novel is discarded? Or was his permissive response in 1912 even wise in the short run, and is there more to tell about Johanna's sex life in the months immediately ahead, and about Noon's response to her conduct?

It sounds as if Mr Noon was ready to tell us more about unhappy developments shortly after the affair with Stanley, and we can only speculate on why he never returned to it. Note a place in the novel that is most provocative. It occurs just after Johanna claims that her night with Stanley meant nothing to her. Lawrence writes: “He did not answer. The words fell into the deep geysers of his soul, leaving it apparently untroubled. But in the end the irritable waters would boil up over this same business” (278). What form would this slow boil take? Did Johanna cheat again? More likely, did resentment about Stanley emerge from Gilbert in another context of argument? None of these questions, of course, is answerable, but at least the unfairness of Trilling's charge of hypocrisy must be acknowledged. This is a relationship, a developing, intense marriage that is dynamic, changing, and growing. Trilling does not like Johanna's conduct or Gilbert's response to it. That is her right. But there is no abrogation in this novel of Lawrence's stress during his life and career on monogamous marriage. Gilbert wants Johanna as his wife, and Mr Noon suggests his assumption that he will not have to share her again with another man. Even as the novel closes, there is the distinct sound of the sharp fork, or the tearing ploughshare and spade, or even the cutting knife, all utensils that Lawrence celebrates to replace the conventional silver spoon. Now he uses the instrument not only to eat the dinner of life, or to engage the bounty of earth, but also to be born anew. Gilbert Noon is forgiving to Johanna Keighley because he sees his own emotional failures as a contributing factor in her infidelity, and he is still grateful for the new life she gives him. Who can know for sure if Lawrence was naive to allow, even once, such dispensation in a mate?

If he had married some really nice woman: for of course, gentle reader, we have decided long ago that none of my heroines are really nice women; then he would never have broken out of the dry integument that enclosed him. He would have withered with the really nice woman inside the enclosure. For the act of birth, dear reader, really is not and cannot be a really nice business. It is a bloody and horrid and gruesome affair. And that is what we must face. (291)

Works Cited

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary . New York: Oxford UP, 1971.

Lawrence, D. H. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence: Volume III: October 1916-June 1921. Ed. James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

———. Mr Noon, Ed. Lindeth Vasey, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

———. “Pornography and Obscenity.” Sex, Literature, and Censorship, Ed. Harry T. Moore. New York Viking, 1959, 64-81.

Trilling, Diana. “Lawrence in Love,” New York Times Book Review. 16 Dec. 1984: 3, 24-25.

Additional coverage of Trilling's life and career is available in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R, 154; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 10, 46; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2.


Principal Works