1905 – 1996
The life of Diana Trilling has encompassed the rise and fall of the Jewish intellectual community centered in New York, and the literary and political journals that arose there after the Depression. Although often identified as the wife of Lionel Trilling, soul of the Columbia University English department from 1929 until his death in 1975, Diana Trilling was an intellectual voice in her own right, writing literary criticism and autobiography into her nineties. Trilling’s formidable reviews and commentary, as well as her position among the liberal anticommunist critics of the Partisan Review, the Nation, and the New Republic, reflect an influential period of American social critique.
Diana Rubin Trilling was born on July 21, 1905, the youngest of three children, to Joseph and Sadie (Forbert) Rubin. Although her parents were both Polish Jews, their exposure to Judaism was different. Joseph Rubin was raised in the Warsaw ghetto, while Sadie Forbert grew up fifty miles from Warsaw in the Polish countryside, knowing little of Yiddish or of Jewish culture. Like her mother, Diana did not have a typical Jewish childhood. Until 1914, when the Rubin family moved to Brooklyn, Diana and her siblings, Cecilia and Samuel, lived in Westchester, far from the hub of Eastern European Jewish culture. Joseph Rubin owned a factory that produced silk braid for hats, and then manufactured silk stockings when styles changed. In a generation of intellectuals whose devotion to learning began in deeply religious homes, Diana was an exception. Of the relationship between religion and American society, she wrote, “Increasingly, one’s religious choice has become the equivalent of a political statement. On the left, to advertise oneself as a Jew is to claim honorific status as a member of a minority; minorities are presumed to be genetically virtuous. On the right, it implies that one’s religious commitment falls into line with other well-tested moral and social attitudes.” Trilling likens her upbringing to her husband’s: “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 Radcliffe in 1924. She considered her undergraduate experience inferior to her husband’s Columbia education because of the differing assumptions underlying men’s and women’s collegiate preparation. Even though Radcliffe women were not expected to be merely decorative, she asserted, “our college educations would not only help us be more efficient housekeepers but also provide us with something to occupy our minds as we went about our domestic chores … drying our dishes, we could recite to ourselves our favorite poems of Shelley or Keats. … Success as women was still measured by our success as wives.” The limitations of this gender gap would remain part of her life. She gained entry to the circle of New York critics as the wife of Lionel Trilling, whom she married on June 12, 1929.
Trilling’s first professional ambition, to become a vocalist, was thwarted by a nervous condition she attributes to her childhood. Her career as a writer did not begin until 1941, when Margaret Marshall of the Nation asked Lionel Trilling to recommend someone to write unsigned reviews of recent fiction for the magazine. Diana Trilling suggested herself for the position, although she admits she was unqualified and, until that moment, had never considered becoming a critic. Her Nation reviews, later collected under the title Reviewing the Forties, gave her a chance to examine the most important authors of the day, including Sartre, Bellow, Welty, Marquand, Lewis, Capote, Rand, Priestley, Warren, Hersey, Maugham, Wouk, Waugh, McCullers, and Orwell. Although she was still invited to Partisan Review parties as a wife, her prominence as a Nation critic gave her a visibility denied to other women in the Trillings’ progressive intellectual circle.
The Trillings were often criticized for deracination and for the betrayal of the Left that marked their staunch anti-Communist position of the 1940s. In largely Jewish circles of fellow travelers, these two traditions were often related. Yet Trilling made herself a political book critic; as she asserted in her autobiography, “my anti-Communism was seldom far from the surface of my reviews.” Although her husband was the first Jewish tenured professor of English at Columbia, critics often accused him (unjustly) of inventing his mellifluous name to distance himself from the Eastern European culture of communists and fellow travelers.
As she approached her forty-second birthday, she decided that she and her husband had been squandering their lives. “We were afraid to be full grown up and to be in command of ourselves and others.” And so she became pregnant. Their only child, James, was born shortly thereafter, in 1947.
In 1948, Diana Trilling left the Nation to become an independent critic. The topics that occupied her in later years were not bound by any formal discipline. Her subjects—the Oppenheimer, Profumo, and Hiss cases, Edith Wharton, Beat Generation authors, and Timothy Leary, among many others—can be called, in her words, “adversaries to our society.” Mrs. Harris, a full-length book on the murderer of Herman Tarnower of Scarsdale Diet fame, written in 1981, gave Trilling an opportunity to contemplate a middle-class woman on trial for murder after the first wave of 1970s feminism. Trilling’s work always granted her the “life of significant contention” for which she hoped to be remembered. In her writing, she examined those who elected or were relegated to social expatriation during the many moments of the twentieth century when social upheaval interrogated the status quo.
Trilling’s last book was The Beginning of the Journey in 1993, a chronicle of her marriage. Although it follows their lives as Depression era children through the fall of 1930s radicalism and the campus unrest of the 1960s, between the lines lies a lingering sadness at the critical voices no longer heard. Trilling’s age was one of criticism, and she was connected to its most influential voices for decades when intellectual work was not limited to the university. Indicting current academics for their preference of expertise over significant contention, Diana Trilling placed herself at the final boundary of a generation of intellectuals who commanded social criticism for much of the twentieth century. She died on October 23, 1996.
The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling (1993); Claremont Essays (1964); Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor (1981); The Portable D.H. Lawrence, editor (1947); Reviewing the Forties (1978); Selected Letters of D.H. Lawrence, editor (1958); We Must March, My Darlings (1977).
Bosworth, Patricia. “Diana Trilling: An Interview.” Paris Review 35 (Winter 1993): 234–270; EJ, s.v. “Trilling, Lionel”; Weissman, Judith. “A Straight Back and an Arrogant Head.” Georgia Review 48 (Spring 1994): 181–187.