The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling
by Natalie Robins.
Columbia University Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 424 pages, $33.

“In the actual conduct of our lives Lionel and I silently accepted the premise that my first responsibility was to my home and family.” So writes Diana Trilling in The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling, published in 1993, just three years before her death. Lionel Trilling died in 1975, having been acclaimed as one of the great literary critics of his age and best known for his essay collection, The Liberal Imagination (1950). The couple married in 1929, and Diana, trained as a singer, did not seriously begin her own writing career until more than a decade later, producing outstanding reviews for The Nation and subsequently establishing her own formidable reputation as a literary and cultural critic in Claremont Essays (1964), We Must March My Darlings (1977), and, most surprisingly, Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor (1981). That she wrote under her husband’s name was part of the “premise” she referred to in her memoir. Her husband wanted his last name on her work, she said, and she did not object, so long as no one treated her as merely her husband’s partner. As she wrote in The Beginning of the Journey, she would have protested the premise if it had been “put in words.”

Remaining as Mrs. Trilling caused her no end of problems. Certain women treated her as handsome Lionel’s adjunct, no matter how outspoken Diana became as a fervent anti-Communist, dueling it out with Stalinist Lillian Hellman, rupturing a friendship that Lionel had encouraged even though he, too, disagreed with Hellman’s politics. This is clear in his one novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), which, in part, derives from his dealings with erstwhile Communist Whittaker Chambers, whose testimony ultimately helped put former State Department official Alger Hiss into prison for conspiracy to commit espionage. Diana suspected women of wanting to sleep with her renowned husband; they suspected her of being there merely to defend her franchise, so to speak. Diana made it her business to tell off anyone who criticized her Lionel or tried to seduce him. He remained aloof from her battles with others, encouraging his wife’s writing career, to be sure, but ignoring the disrespect that his colleagues of both sexes showed to her. Lionel Trilling was a consummate diplomat, rarely wishing to offend anyone, which made Diana’s attacks seem all more shrill. He only showed his anger at Diana herself. He would go into rages, she reports, and blame her for just about anything and everything.

Why did she put up with it? Her own answer, as Natalie Robins reports, is that after the rages subsided, the couple resumed their intense working relationship. How intense? Diana was fond of saying that Lionel taught her to think, and she taught him how to write. An exaggeration? Perhaps, although other writers, including myself, can testify to her acute editing skills, to her ability to make one’s own writing better. When I interviewed Diana for my biography of Lillian Hellman, I agreed to let her review what I wrote about our interview, although I was to be the final authority over what I wrote. She sent me extensive revisions that clarified her responses to my questions, and then she went to work on my own prose, telling me she could not help going over the whole chapter I sent her. Her superb work delighted me. When Lionel died, Diana discovered to her dismay that he had destroyed her extensive editing of his work. He did not want the world to know how sentence-by-sentence she had improved his prose. He noted her crucial help in the acknowledgments of his books, but he did not want anyone to know just how essential, and I would guess, how much more elegant she had made the writer seem. As in life, so in his work he wanted to seem above the fray, the struggle that Diana personified.

Nowhere does Natalie Robins say it, but Diana Trilling believedin heroes—not only in her husband but in others such as Rebecca West. West had done what Diana never dreamed for herself: Rebecca put herself first, marrying Henry Andrews, who served as her chevalier. He protected and nurtured his wife as Diana cared for Lionel. Rebecca went off to cover court trials, creating masterpieces like The Meaning of Treason. Diana realized more than a decade after her husband’s death that in her Mrs. Harris book she had discovered her talent for narrative, a talent that never quite jelled in her attempts at fiction, but which again asserted itself in her memoir of her marriage.

Why did Diana Trilling play a supporting role in the life of Lionel Trilling? Robins never quite explains it, although it is apparent that Diana regarded herself as in the service of a great man, and she doubted her own greatness. But together they could be great. There will, I hope, be at least one more biography of Diana Trilling, since I think her conception of the hero requires investigation. When she learned from my biography of Rebecca West that West was not merely the beset mother with an ungrateful son, but that Rebecca had been responsible for some of her son’s suffering, Trilling turned on me—not so much in anger as in sorrow because I had disabused her of the image of Rebecca West that had been so bolstering.

The psychological aspect is important here because of the major flaw in Robins’s biography. Only in a final chapter do we learn that Lionel Trilling suffered from attention deficit disorder, a term that would not have been in anyone’s vocabulary during his lifetime. Suddenly, Robins explains that his son, diagnosed with the malady in his thirties, wrote a controversial article that explains his father’s rages and much else as a result of ADD. Why, after reading hundreds of pages about these rages are we invited only then to factor in such a crucial finding? Robins does not say why. But her delayed revelation reflects a failure of nerve. The evidence for ADD Robins presents is compelling, but of course it is also open to dispute. Trilling’s son was vilified for making his father seem helpless. But that is to misconstrue the role of ADD in Trilling’s life and to overlook his courage in trying to control his rages and much else, even if he sometimes failed to do so. To have such an ailment is not suddenly to become a victim. As Robins does stress, Lionel Trilling’s will was extraordinary. He overcame his disability time and again. But for a biographer to accept the diagnosis and to make it a part of her narrative is, of course, to invite attacks. Better to tuck the whole vexatious pathosis in at the end. It is safer. Except it isn’t. We have, in short, a narrative that dares not speak its name.  

Carl Rollyson is the author of Lillian Hellman: Her Life and Legend, Norman Mailer: The Last Romantic, and Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl.