The Untold Jour­ney: The Life of Diana Trilling

Natal­ie Robins
  • Review
By – January 5, 2018

The Untold Jour­ney: The Life of Diana Trilling by Natal­ie Robins | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

For the lit­er­ary cognoscen­ti, the title of this study of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry lit­er­ary crit­ic Diana Trilling is an obvi­ous clue, ref­er­enc­ing her hus­band Lionel Trilling’s unpub­lished nov­el The Mid­dle of the Jour­ney and her mem­oir The Begin­ning of the Journey.

Author Natal­ie Robins’s ini­tial inter­est in Diana Trilling was sparked by her inves­ti­ga­tion into Lionel Trilling’s FBI files for a book she was writ­ing; she vis­it­ed Diana to get her per­spec­tive on the infor­ma­tion con­tained therein.

To write about Diana, Robins searched the well known couple’s diaries and exten­sive archives. In con­tem­po­rary jar­gon Di and Li” would be known as a pow­er cou­ple.” From the 1930s through the late 1960s they were part of a group of New York, most­ly Jew­ish, intel­lec­tu­als whose lit­er­ary crit­i­cism and polit­i­cal activ­i­ties received major attention.

The cou­ple was involved with the pres­ti­gious Par­ti­san Review,edit­ed by Philip Rahv and William Phillips, and attend­ed par­ties with writ­ers such as Han­nah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Eliz­a­beth Hard­wick, and Gertrude Him­mel­farb. There, Diana, in the shad­ow of her famous hus­band, whose work she fre­quent­ly edit­ed, often felt snubbed.” Through­out her life she suf­fered fam­i­ly ten­sions, per­son­al jeal­ousies, and acer­bic out­bursts, all of which are detailed by Robins from a psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic perspective.

Even­tu­al­ly Diana worked her way up to become a high­ly-respect­ed crit­ic. She had her own col­umn in The Nation writ­ing fic­tion reviews, some of which earned the wrath of writ­ers, includ­ing Saul Bel­low and Philip Roth. Her opin­ion pieces — about Beat poet Allen Gins­berg, and the death of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe — also court­ed con­tro­ver­sy. In 1980, Diana pub­lished a best­selling book, Mrs. Har­ris: The Death of the Scars­dale Diet Doc­tor. She con­tin­ued to write, men­tor, and lec­ture until her death in 1996.

When Diana died, her New York Times obit­u­ary rec­og­nized her as an uncom­pro­mis­ing cul­tur­al and social crit­ic and a mem­ber of the cir­cle of writ­ers, thinkers, and polemi­cists of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, known as the New York Intellectuals.”

With this biog­ra­phy, one thinks of Shakespeare’s Mac­beth: A poor play­er that struts and frets his hour upon the stage/​and then is heard no more.” Robins has giv­en Diana Trilling an encore.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

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