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The Parties Were Hell

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The Untold Journey: the Life of Diana Trilling
By Natalie Robins
Columbia University Press, 2017

“Writers are what they write, and also what they fail to write.” So Diana Trilling, book critic and author, wrote in her memoir. Natalie Robins, author of the first full-length biography of Trilling, spends a good deal of time on Trilling’s false starts: the unfinished, unpublished, and abandoned works that, like many writers, she often saw as her realest and most important. Robins begins the book by recounting the story of a fight between Diana and her husband Lionel when they were newlyweds. Diana was enraged when Lionel called a play she had written with a college friend “a vulgar babble.” Lionel responded by throwing his favorite pipe out the fifth-floor window.

Lionel called his one novel The Middle of the Journey; Diana called her memoir about her marriage The Beginning of the Journey. By titling her biography The Untold Journey, Robins suggests that she will fill in what Diana could not or would not write. In particular, she frequently evokes what she could or would not say during her marriage to Lionel, because of his rages and because of the complicated ways he both could and could not see her as an equal. And yet Robins’s book maintains some of the same distances and evasions; she doesn’t shy away from the more unflattering aspects of Diana’s life but she doesn’t know quite what to make of them, as if she herself feared being on the wrong end of Diana’s famously withering prose.

Diana was born into a world unfathomable to those of us who came of age after the feminist transformations of the 1960s and 1970s. Growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in the 1910s in New York she was, like so many, terrified of sex, gathering information from smuggled books. At Radcliffe she rebelled slightly by refusing to wear the required hats and defending her position in the newspaper. But mostly she absorbed the lessons given to young women of her class and gender—at least outwardly. She majored in Art History and while she was not on the track to marry immediately after graduation, like so many of her classmates, she accepted that finding an appropriate husband was the ultimate aim of her education. When they were told to occupy their minds while washing dishes “by recit[ing] Shelley and Keats to themselves at the sink,”

she paid attention to this advice, just as she practiced the etiquette she was taught as a child. She had never rebelled against such guidelines; she continued to see them as leading her to a life of quiet dignity that she had begun to her envision for herself.

Through such acts of will she became, as the analysts who came to play such a large role in her life would say, very well defended. The best defense was always a good offense, ideally one wielded with the pen.

Not surprisingly then, Diana’s judgement of other writers was ultimately moral and psychological: she saw writing as a reflection of character and when she denounced what she saw as insufficient thinking, the thinker was rarely spared. In a 1951 review of Andre Gide’s journals, she characterizes his thought this way:

Gide is studying German, Gide is studying Latin; Gide is reading German and Latin and English; Gide is reading, reading, reading and improving himself and recording the improvement for posterity; Gide is refining still further this mind which is the instrument of—what? Only, we feel, of Gide himself. The impression begins to grow on us . . . that this individual conceives himself to be the purpose for which all the great past of thinking and feeling was suffered. And in revulsion we are moved to point out that no individual is worth quite that effort.

Her interest in biography allowed her to give full rein to this penchant for judgment. Her 1973 review of a biography of the pioneering journalist Dorothy Thompson reluctantly acknowledges Thompson’s achievements in light of overwhelming sexism but concludes:

The career had vanished; marriage has failed or disappeared in death; the beloved stepson whose upbringing had not been in her charge is gone . . . What inner life would be required to deal adequately with such calamity is hard to imagine. That she had none made for devastation.

Robins has no apparent taste or desire for such judgements and leaves readers to work through the puzzle of Diana’s life. At the heart of the matter is Diana’s famous marriage to Lionel Trilling, the renowned literary critic and Columbia professor. For many years Diana was his unacknowledged editor, shaping his ideas and prose. And yet, as Robins poignantly notes, he thanked her only fleetingly for all her intellectual work on his behalf but fell all over himself with gratitude when she sewed on a button. Perhaps fittingly for someone who made her name as a critic, two fascinating reviews of Robins’s biography move to fill in the gaps, coming to complementary conclusions about the marriage. The Nation’s Vivian Gornick and The New Yorker’s Tobi Haslett both suggests that, however much she complained that she would be remembered as Lionel’s wife, she never truly imagined herself outside the marriage, nor could she come to terms with the rage she felt at being on the receiving ends of his slights and anger. Gornick heartbreakingly describes the fate of Diana’s desire to be recognized as Lionel’s necessary collaborator:

She was certain that after Lionel died and his manuscripts went public, her contribution to the famous essays would become known to the world. But then Lionel did die, and she discovered that he had destroyed all those drafts with her editing notes on them. “Distraught” isn’t the word for what she felt. For years afterward, her son, James Trilling, said, “it was the only thing she kept coming back to with sorrow and anger—‘How could he do this to me?’”

Diana always insisted, unconvincingly, that she didn’t mind having put Lionel first, but there was a sense in which it was true—as his editor, her gift was for the difficult work that disguises itself. By design editors do not seek the spotlight but the best are often compensated in their circles with the esteem of writers who alone know their value—this is what Lionel could not give her.

As for the community, what Robins’s book suggests but can’t quite bring itself to say is that the much-romanticized world in which Diana travelled could not give her the recognition she craved not only because of its sexism, but because of its insularity. For all the talk of the New York Intellectuals as the quintessential “public” intellectuals, there is little sense in Robins’s account of Lionel or Diana being very engaged or interested in ideas outside their own circle. There is much score-keeping of apartments, academic positions abroad and, of course, positive and negative reviews, but little about what animated Lionel or Diana’s intellectual passions and curiosity. And however much envy the Trillings might have elicited from their academic peers for finding recognition outside academia, their social life was marked by all the same resentments as the faculty lounge. “If you went in as a wife,” she later recalled quite simply, “the parties were hell.”

In Diana’s account, the few other women accepted in these circles, including Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, were hostile to her out of jealousy; the reader senses their accounts would read differently. But female solidarity was out of the question. Diana called herself a feminist but had little use for the actual feminist movement when it came along, and it’s easy to see her as younger feminists might have: as someone who prided herself on withering honesty but who could not speak honestly about the contradictions and compromises of her own life. Perhaps not coincidently, by the late 1960s these younger feminists were publishing little magazines and starting presses across the country, speaking to and creating new publics in a way Trilling never could.

What we can intimate is that Diana’s intellectual passions were often as much a question of style as insight. She held firm in her commitment to liberal anti-communism, and was angered when she was lumped together with those ex-communists who became conservative. Yet by her own account her conviction didn’t come from a fully-realized political analysis or perspective on world affairs but a distaste for other intellectuals: “We didn’t see the working class around us very much,” Diana said. “What we saw was a lot of middle-class young people who were speaking on behalf of a class that wasn’t represented very much in our view.” Class is one of the many themes in the book that are not exactly unspoken but are not fully examined; Robins is slightly embarrassed by Diana’s high-handedness and snobbism but once again can’t quite bring herself to explore it.

There is one thinker, however, for whom Diana’s passion resonates thoroughly. Like so many at mid-century, she took Freud seriously and deeply. Diana saw seven analysts over the course of twenty years; her son was placed in analysis from a young age. Her childhood fears and phobias, her guilt over the fate of her disabled sister, her anger at having been sexually assaulted by a friend of her father’s shortly after she graduated from college, Lionel’s rages and sexual difficulties, her son’s temper: Diana never found answers, much less solutions, but her truest faith seemed to be that the answers were there, somewhere, on the couch. She also saw in Freud a model of sorts for her husband, whose 1955 book Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture marked the highpoint of Freud’s influence on popular and middlebrow culture. In her memoir, she recounts the sting of being told by a therapist that psychologic progress might involve loosening the grip on her critical scalpel:

Dr. Kris said of my literary criticism that I must ‘neutralize’ it, by which 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.

And yet her Freudianism sometimes led her towards just this sort of imaginative sympathy: in a long essay on Alice James, Henry’s sister, she described her journal as “a record of a life from which the elements of equality and reciprocity have so long been absent,” and offers sympathetic speculations on the sources of depression in the James family, leading Robins to conclude that “she was looking in literature for clues to Lionel’s depression.”

Before Lionel’s death, Diana had a long stint as The Nation’s book review editor; she was credited as the editor of two volumes (an anthology of D. H. Lawrence’s work and one of his letters) and as the author of a single volume of essays. In the twenty years she was a widow, from seventy to ninety-one, she edited three volumes of Lionel’s work and published two of her own essay collections along with the memoir, and Mrs. Harris, a best-selling account of the trial of the headmistress for killing the famous “Scarsdale diet doctor” with whom she’d had a decades-long relationship.

I grew up with the stories of women who became themselves later in life. For those of my mother’s generation, it was often a story of divorce or of a return to work after the children were grown; for those of my grandmother’s generation, which was Trilling’s, it most often only came with widowhood. Robins is as ambivalent about this late-in-life flourishing as Diana seems to have been. She offers a poignant portrait of Diana in her eighties. As reviewer for The Nation she’d read a book a day; bad eyes led to television taking over; she was partial to shows about true crime trials like the one she wrote about in Mrs. Harris; a late essay on the OJ Simpson trial does not defy expectations on the relevance of her perspective to debates about race by the 1990s.

And yet it is difficult to separate these things; the triumphs and the loss. Mrs. Harris, her most successful book, is a fascinating document of a lifetime of suppressed impulses partially unleashed. In the New Yorker review, Haslett zeros in, with chilling effect, on the moment early in the book when Trilling muses: “I still saw her [Harris] as a woman who thought she loved a man whom she deeply hated —it’s not an unfamiliar phenomenon.” There’s a sense throughout that what draws her to the story is that it allows her to unleash her lifelong penchant for armchair psychoanalysis as well as a working through of her class snobbism: surveying the suspiciously modest office of the Scarsdale diet doctor, she wonders “How simple can a man be who makes himself out to be this simple?” She insists on her right to make aesthetic judgements—inseparable for her from the moral—and condemn the writing of diet books. In Harris she sees, perhaps, above all, a woman who had made a match with an aesthetically and culturally inferior man. As the headmistress of an elite boarding school, Harris belonged to another one of the professions not so far removed from editor or faculty wife: one of the few available to women where they might rub elbows with power and respect, if never quite truly exercise it themselves. In Mrs. Harris we find the overwhelming emotion that simmers throughout Robins’s account: the stifled desire for recognition, for understanding, for esteem and prestige, and somewhere beneath this, the simple but difficult business of being to heard and seen. In the detailed accounts of one perceived or real slight after another at the hands of publishers and friends, the pipe falling from the window is never far behind.

Laura Tanenbaum is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, where she teaches literature, composition and creative writing. Her writing has appeared in Jacobin, Narrative Magazine, The New York Times, and other publications. She blogs at The Golden Notebooks.