Commentary Magazine


The Beginning of the Journey, by Diana Trilling

Inside Story

The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling.
by Diana Trilling.
Harcourt Brace. 369 pp. $24.95.

Of the many possible reasons for publishing a memoir, Diana Trilling’s must surely rank among the oddest. She tells us in her preface to The Beginning of the Journey that in writing the book she had hoped to accomplish two things. First, the various accounts of her husband, the eminent critic Lionel Trilling, that have been published since his death in 1975 have tended to dwell almost exclusively on his many graces, failing to perceive or understand the darker aspect of his nature, and she wanted to ensure that he would no longer be seen, as she puts it, “so narrowly.” Second, in pondering the disposition of her husband’s papers after his death, she came to think that some day a biographer might find that she and he together made a more interesting subject than either of them alone: “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.”

The Beginning of the Journey brings the Trillings up only to 1950. There are occasional flashes forward, but mainly it is about their courtship and the first 21 years of their marriage. And aside from the story of how they for one brief moment in the early 1930’s flirted with the Communists and then quickly became lifelong anti-Communists, there is suprisingly little (and that highly selective and not altogether accurate) about the subsequent political wars in which she was so visible and audible a participant.

Even more puzzling is her denial that being Jewish had any significance for either of them, a denial she issues sharply and with a suspect insistence. As it happens, Lionel Trilling left behind a record of his interest in the matter (including his famous essay, “Wordsworth and the Rabbis”1), but even if he had not, it would be difficult to believe that two children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe could live through the 1930’s and 1940’s without a certain serious raising of their consciousness—regardless of where it took them.

Most puzzling of all is that the book should end in 1950, since this was the year in which, with the publication of The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling became a literary celebrity. This was also the year in which Diana Trilling herself, having quit reviewing books for the Nation, began to publish essays in Partisan Review, thereby becoming a member in full standing—in, as they say, “her own right”—of that special community known as the New York intellectuals.

The Trillings were by then both forty-five years old. They had a child of two, who would naturally be playing an increasingly central role in their life together. Lionel had 25 years left to live, and, among other things, a number of books left to write. Diana, too, had several books ahead of her. Yet, she says, after 1950 there were basically no changes in the pattern of their life; and in any case, “with the information which I supply here, the events of succeeding years can, I believe, be sufficiently reconstructed.” In the world of electoral politics, this would be called “spin control.” Coming from a serious writer, it is almost thrilling in its obtuseness.

But just suppose that one day a biographer obedient to Diana Trilling’s will were to come along and set out to write the book of which she dreams. What would he learn from this memoir? He would learn that the marriage of the Trillings was from almost its first moment plunged into an almost unrelieved state of darkness and difficulty, dominated by two preoccupations: illness and money.

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The story as Diana tells it basically begins during the summer of 1929, right after they were married and spending their honeymoon in a cabin in Connecticut. One day, apropos of nothing, she was seized with a bout of panic that would not long after become a permanent condition, in which for many years she would be unable, literally, to be left alone. She also came to be afflicted with phobias which, along with all the other limitations on their freedom, necessitated her living on the ground floor (as, to this day, she still does).

Meanwhile, Lionel was writing book reviews and struggling to finish his Ph.D. dissertation and contending with depressions of his own. Both Lionel and Diana were to be in psychoanalysis for years and years, in Diana’s case under the ministrations of seven different analysts. Moreover, almost immediately after their honeymoon came the stock-market crash, followed by the Great Depression. Diana’s father, who had been a wealthy businessman, lost a good deal of his money. Lionel’s family, only moderately prosperous to begin with, lost everything, so that for some years he would have to support them.

Thus, on top of their other struggles, the Trillings were always in debt—then, and later. In 1932 Lionel was appointed to an instructorship in the English department of Columbia, which meant that, unlike many of their friends and acquaintances, they had a steady if extremely modest source of income. On top of this, in the following year the death of Diana’s father brought them a small inheritance. Still, they could never make ends meet. Their medical expenses alone were enormous, not to mention the burden of keeping Lionel’s parents. But in addition, as Diana tells us more than once, they simply could not bring themselves to live as penuriously as others in their circumstances did.

And all the while they quarreled, bitterly—almost always, it would seem, at Lionel’s instigation. He would shout, and accuse her of ruining his life, until she cried. In later years, she says, she would discover the way to abort these scenes: instead of bringing them to a conclusion by weeping, she would simply leave the room.

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By the time he reaches the middle of this book, our future biographer might begin to wonder whether he had not picked for himself a subject almost impossible to write about interestingly. After all, everyone had money troubles in the 30’s. Furthermore, now as then, two out of three Ph.D. candidates in the field of literature slog through their dissertations, unable to write, or unable to finish, depressed, angry, and sometimes paralyzed. And what husband has not hurled angry accusations against his wife, and what wife has not wept or left the room in response? Finally, who among the world’s writers was not either unbearably pressed by one or both of his parents to succeed, as she tells us Lionel was, or put down and told he must not rise above them, as she says she was?

By comparison with the mayhem which the biographers of so many of the Trillings’ literary contemporaries have had to spice up their narratives—madness, violence, suicide—Diana’s confidences seem almost banal. True, she was seriously plagued by illness—hampered herself and how not hampering to him?—but here she is, eighty-eight years old, and alive to tell the tale. There must be something more to this tale than she is giving their joint biographer to tell.

As indeed there is. Anyone who knew the Trillings, especially in the years immediately following those chronicled in The Beginning of the Journey, is bound to be taken aback by the “spin” Diana has chosen to put not only on Lionel but on herself as well. What is completely missing from this heavily gloomy book is the lightness of the Trilling household: the fun, the hospitality, the joking, the teasing, Lionel’s terrible and sometimes brilliant puns, the talk, talk, talk—talk more nourishing than a lifetime of meals—and even, on at least one memorable occasion, the dancing. All this was there in the years between 1950 and 1975, when I myself was privileged to be included among the Trillings’ friends. (Diana and I were to have a falling-out not long after Lionel’s death.) And it is hard to imagine that this very highest kind of amusement was not to be found in their household, in some degree or guise, for some of the time before.

As for the darker side of Lionel’s nature, how can Diana Trilling suppose that his admirers, let alone his friends, ever really believed him free of black times and rages? What does she take them—us—for? Few people—and almost certainly no serious writers—are free of such things. The question, then, is: in aid of illuminating what is Lionel’s dark side to be uncovered, and more important, in what spirit? For there can scarcely be a more “narrow” view of Lionel Trilling—or for that matter of Diana Trilling herself—than the one on offer in The Beginning of the Journey.

One would never guess, for instance, that among the “graces” she refers to so dismissively was the kind of preternatural intelligence that made it possible for Lionel to sit in a roomful of chattering people and know exactly what was going on with each and every one of them. It was this very special power of eye and mind that commanded his prose (and sometimes, out of the sheer complexity of what he saw, tended to clot it) and that made his conversation an adventure. Diana tells us that he really wanted to be a novelist rather than a critic and that he was disappointed to have written so little fiction; and perhaps it was this special quality of mind, too, that impeded the kind of surrender to the unconscious necessary for the writing of fiction. In any case, she must surely have been aware of this quality in him. Yet she makes no mention of it—not to speak of what had to have been its effect on their relations.

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In the end, the historical revision Diana Trilling is attempting in this book would seem to have more to do with cultural politics, past and present, than with any revelation of some vital personal information heretofore unknown. To grasp the nature of this revision, it has to be understood that the Trillings were regarded by many of their literary contemporaries as impermissibly “bourgeois.” Such an epithet sounds almost laughable nowadays, when the avant-garde cannot advance fast enough to keep up with its middle-class imitators, but it was no laughing matter then. To be stably married, with the husband the family breadwinner, may have been something more or less taken for granted in the then rather staid precincts of Columbia, but it was a rare condition in the New York literary world. Rare, and frequently, though not always explicitly, viewed with contempt. Lionel was held to be a man with a questionable distaste for adventure and an unholy taste for elegance, in his demeanor, his dress, and even, especially among the Francophiles, in his love of 19th-century English literature.

Diana closes her book with a paragraph devoted to the “strange difficult ungenerous unreliable and unkind, not always honest people who created the world in which Lionel and I shared,” and provides a list, among whom the best known today are Philip Rahv, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Sidney Hook, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Delmore Schwartz, William Barrett, and James Agee. Her characterization of these people, at least in their existence as a community, is certainly just (and her contention that we shall not look upon their like again is probably correct). The point is that while they all came to honor and respect Lionel, many of them disapproved of “the Trillings”—for, precisely, their ruliness. The Lionel of the rages and depressions may be Diana’s bid, after all these years, to prove to the world that he suffered as did any poet—in other words, to shuck off the malice of Philip Rahv, Mary McCarthy, and company. They are all dead, but they may still have the power to rankle.

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As for present-day literary politics, try as one may, it is impossible not to find lurking in these pages a contemporary feminist subtext. Not that Diana wishes to put herself forward as Lionel’s literary superior, or even peer: she makes a point of stressing that she could not have been married to a man who was not her superior. But there is something in the way she speaks of his difficulties, something in the flatness and insistence of her tone when she does so, that seems to be saying, though he was the more important person, I was the braver and more honest. There are also passages here that have given some of her feminist reviewers the impression that Diana was a woman forced to stand in her husband’s shadow. But as all those now-dead contemporaries might have told them, her presence, whether in a room or on the page, was all her own, distinct and, to put it mildly, unignorable.

By her own account, Diana did terrible things to Lionel—perhaps the most terrible being that she kept him out of the army with a letter from her doctor when he was about to be drafted (this was World War II, remember). Yet for all her vaunted honesty, she frequently seems unaware of what she is actually revealing. And this is finally what our obedient biographer is likely to find the most difficult to manage. Here is a woman, rich in years and experience, having spent much of her life among some of the worst and best and most interesting people in the world—and having, to boot, spent countless time on the couches of various psychoanalysts—who can still speak of her long-ago past without the least distance or detachment. From the oppressions of her girlhood (when despite her talent and intelligence her father told her she must not put herself forward), to the rudeness of Lionel’s aunts and uncles when she was first introduced to them, to being bullied at the hands of poor Elliot Cohen (the founding editor of COMMENTARY, and a man so sunk in his own sorrows that he would one day put a plastic bag over his head and tie it tight)—all is recounted with a pettiness of detail and with a fierceness of feeling astonishing in their unselfconsciousness.

Was this the woman I once knew who opened her home and her hands so unstintingly? Who would have guessed that all the while her mind was closed, wrapping itself around the story, the “true” inside story, she would one day have to tell the world, about herself, about Lionel, and about the two of them together?


Footnotes

1 COMMENTARY, February 1955.

About the Author




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