October 25, 1996

New York Times

Diana Trilling, 91, Cultural Critic, Member of Intellectual Circle


NEW YORK -- Diana Trilling, an uncompromising cultural and social critic and a member of the circle of writers, thinkers and polemicists of the 1930s, '40s and '50s known as the New York intellectuals, died Wednesday at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. She was 91 and lived in Manhattan.

At one point, as a critic for The Nation, Mrs. Trilling read a novel a day for six and a half years, delivering challenging reviews on some of the most important works of the modern era: Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited," Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men," Jean-Paul Sartre's "Age of Reason" and George Orwell's "1984."

As a reviewer, she approached her work with "force, control and precision," said Paul Fussell, the scholar and author, in his introduction to a collection of her criticism titled "Reviewing the Forties" (Harcourt Brace, 1978).

Her theme, he said, was "the threat of monomanias and systems and theories and sentimentalities to fiction." Above all, he said, she was "impatient with simplicities," but "generous in recognizing real merit."

As an intellectual living through the Depression, the rise and fall of Fascism and Communism, World War II, the Holocaust, Prohibition and the sexual revolution, Diana Trilling clung to an old-fashioned ethos.

"My first responsibility was to my home and family," she once said. "I was able to deceive myself that it was a matter of free will and competence that I took on the tasks of the home."

She credited her husband, Lionel Trilling -- one of the century's foremost literary critics and teachers and the author of works like "The Liberal Imagination" that became central documents of American intellectual life -- with her success and development as a critical writer, even as she struggled to establish herself in her own right in later years.

To everyone, she was a complicated woman, with a passion for language, a zest for cultural contention and a sharp, usually unforgiving pen. Robert Lowell called her "a housekeeping goddess of reason."

She began writing in 1941 and never stopped. Fifty-four years later, in her 90th year, with failing eyesight, she composed a 75-page article on the Welsh literary figure Goronwey Rees, offered it for publication to The New Yorker, then packed her kit and headed for her summer home on Cape Cod.

Later, back in her ground-floor apartment on Claremont Avenue near Columbia University, she resumed her routine of writing from 9 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon, five days a week.

She believed that "writers are what they write, also what they fail to write."

No novels, no volumes of poetry or short fiction bear her name, but among her writing credits are five books: three collections of essays and reviews, an impressionistic piece of journalism, "Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor" (Harcourt Brace, 1981), about the sensational murder trial of Jean Harris, the headmistress of an exclusive girls' school, for the murder of her lover, and "The Beginning of the Journey" (Harcourt Brace, 1993), sometimes a memoir, sometimes an apologia, often a long letter of rebuke to those who thought of her as little more than a sidekick to the scholar with whom she lived for 46 years.

Still, the task of keeping Lionel Trilling's flame while trying to break free of its light sometimes seemed to envelop her. She once told an interviewer that the headline on her obituary would read: "Diana Trilling Dies at 150. Widow of Distinguished Professor and Literary Critic Lionel Trilling."

His expertise was acquired; he held a Ph.D. from Columbia University, taught there in the company of brilliant colleagues and challenged students who went on to produce some of the country's finest literature and criticism. Her expertise, on the other hand, was intuitive; her Radcliffe degree in fine arts, she said, left her ill-prepared for anything except a walk through a gallery or a museum.

"I graduated from Radcliffe without having read a line of Homer or Dante or Chaucer, without knowing anything of Shakespeare," she said. So she learned from her husband, "casually, unconsciously, by association," and along the way discovered that she had a natural acuity for language and an innate sense of what made a good book work.

She suggested in her memoir that Lionel Trilling often used her as an editor and tutor on style.

"What I was trying to bring to his writing was a greater directness and greater fluidity," she wrote. Nevertheless, she never doubted "that, of the two of us, he was the more important writer." Her husband "had more to say than I and a great deal more resonated from what he wrote."

Her work appeared in some of the best magazines in the country, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's and The Saturday Review, but mainly in two journals that were among those at the center of American intellectual life of the period, The Nation, where she wrote book reviews and literary criticism, and The Partisan Review, to which she contributed essays.

Her writing bears out her interest in the relationship between esthetics, morality and society and her determination to express moral judgments -- her critics said moralistic judgments -- on literature and the political issues of the day.

She was a fierce anti-communist, someone who joined some communist-front groups in the early 1930s but who then became disaffected by the ruthlessness of Stalin, and for the rest of her public life she wore the ideals of Western democracy on her sleeve.

Perhaps it was this disaffection that led her to think of herself as a rationalist bent on exposing empty slogans and ideas -- political, literary and cultural. And it was this stance, the immovable anti-communist who insisted that all ideas be grounded in rationality and morality, that dominated her work.

She was born July 21 1905, one of three children of Helene Forbert Rubin and Joseph Rubin, a manufacturer of straw braid. Her parents were immigrant Polish Jews who moved with their children from Westchester County, to Brooklyn to Manhattan.

"Pleasure was not the principle of our home," Mrs. Trilling once wrote. "I learned early in life that to laugh before breakfast was to cry before dinner."

She described herself as an "excessively fearful" child. First she was afraid of the dark, then of burglars and, as she grew older, eventually of just about everything, especially being alone or leaving the house. "I regard the whole of my life as having been lived in an anxious world," she said.

Her fears, indeed her fear of having so many fears, may have shaped her choice of work, she came to believe, because they made her "too intent upon reasonableness" and "blocked the free play of my imagination." Thus she stuck to analytical writing, preferring the logical and the cerebral to the fantastic.

In 1927, in a Manhattan speak-easy -- over a drink called a bullfrog (gin, apricot brandy and grenadine) -- she met Lionel Trilling. He was smart and handsome, a graduate student in literature at Columbia. In a short time, they fell in love.

Later they slept together. ("Surely going to bed with a man before marriage was the most courageous act of my life," she said.) And in 1929, they were married.

"With marriage I had entered Lionel's world," she said. "It was with his friends that I now chiefly associated. They were not easy companions, these intellectuals. They were overbearing and arrogant, excessively competitive; they lacked magnanimity and often they lacked common courtesy. Ours was a cruelly judgmental society, often malicious and riddled with envy."

But what a society it was, with Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, Philip Rahv, William Phillips, Sidney Hook, Delmore Schwartz, Dwight McDonald, Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Clement Greenberg, Irving Kristol and several others striving to set the intellectual agenda of the nation.

In book-cluttered apartments on Manhattan's Upper West Side, they lived what Mrs. Trilling called "a life of significant contention." In the pages of The Partisan Review, Commentary, The Nation and Dissent, they debated whether America should enter World War II. They quarreled over Trotsky and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Beats and the Columbia riots to such an extent that many of the survivors have not spoken to one another for years.

When these intellectuals were not preoccupied by ideas or pulling apart the culture, they talked incessantly, Mrs. Trilling remembered in her memoir, "about sex, sex, and more sex, with particular emphasis upon adultery." Sex, she continued, "took up as much conversational space as in later years we would give to politics."

Diana Trilling's career as a critic began in 1941, at the age of 36, when she overheard a telephone conversation between her husband and Margaret Marshall, the literary editor of The Nation, who had called to ask if he could recommend someone to write the magazine's literary notes column. When her husband hung up, Mrs. Trilling looked at him and offered herself for the position.

She held the job for 10 years, often wielding her pen like a Bowie knife: "A mad, bad, and dangerous book, Allan Seager's 'Equinox' is fiction's most recent attempt to practice psychiatry without a license."

Or, of Truman Capote's "Other Voices, Other Rooms": "I find myself deeply antipathetic to the whole artistic-moral purpose of Mr. Capote's novel. I would freely trade 80 percent of his technical skill for 20 percent more value in the uses to which it is put."

She was proud of her reputation as a clear-eyed, uncompromising critic. She liked to tell the story of a Viennese novelist, a refugee from Nazi Austria, who "was said to have remarked that he had lost his country, his home, his language, but that he had at least one good fortune; he has not been reviewed by me."

As she approached her 42nd 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. James, of Providence, R.I., survives her, as do two grandchildren.

In 1975, Lionel Trilling died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 70, and in the years that followed, she worked hard to assure his legacy, editing a 12-volume uniform edition of his work. But she also strove successfully to establish her own mark, writing essays, publishing two collections of criticism -- "Reviewing the Forties" and "We Must My Darlings" (Harcourt Brace, 1977) -- and covering the Jean Harris trial.

Then, suffering from macular degeneration that left her with eyesight so poor she could no longer type, she dictated her memoir, "The Beginning of the Journey."

To the last, she remained contentious, complaining of America's loss of intellectual culture. "I think the life of significant contention no longer exists," she told New York magazine in 1995.

"We have enormous division in our society on sectarian or ideological lines. But we don't have any discourse." She said that the best minds in academia had drifted into esoteric specialization and she assailed multiculturalism as "our present-day version of Stalinism -- a culture of moral virtue without thought."

Earlier this year The New Yorker published her brief memoir of her days at summer camp, and she finished her last book, "A Visit to Camelot," an account of an evening spent at the White House when John F. Kennedy was president.

Three or four times a week in her later years, friends would come to the cluttered apartment to read to her. Among them was the poet Richard Howard, who said that despite her infirmities, she remained "remarkably autonomous."

Often the conversation turned to Lionel Trilling. "Seventeen years have now passed since Lionel's death," she wrote at the conclusion of her memoir, "and hour by hour, minute by minute I still listen for a clock which no longer ticks."


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