Obituary: Diana Trilling

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The Independent Online
The American writer Diana Trilling was one of the last surviving members of the literary circle that came to be known as the New York intellectuals.

This was the group of literary critics and political writers that emerged from the ideological battles of the 1930s as leftist opponents of the Communist Party and staunch champions of modernism in literature and the arts. Its principal literary organ was Partisan Review, which two young dissident Marxist critics - Philip Rahv and William Phillips - managed to wrest control of in 1937 when they broke with the Communist Party, which had founded the journal five years earlier.Phillips remains the principal editor of Partisan Review nearly 60 years later, and some of Diana Trilling's best-known essays - on the guilt of Alger Hiss and the political career of J. Robert Oppenheimer - first appeared in it.

In its heyday, from the late 1930s to the early 1960s, the group counted among its stellar talents such writers as Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, Clement Greenberg, Hannah Arendt, Irving Howe, and Trilling's husband, Lionel, who died in 1975. (He also served for many years on the magazine's advisory board.)

Diana Trilling was frank to acknowledge that she owed her career as a writer to the man she married in 1929. In The Beginning of the Journey, a memoir of their marriage published in 1993, she wrote that:

Without him, I would no doubt have remained just another half-educated product of an expensive schooling. From Lionel, I learned not only what to read but also how to think about what I read. He gave me a literary and critical vocabulary and prepared the path to what eventually became my career.

That career commenced in 1942 with a regular column in the weekly Nation devoted to reviewing new fiction - a task to which, for some seven years, she brought an unfailing seriousness, if not always a perfect understanding. Evelyn Waugh, for example, proved to be entirely beyond her ken when it fell to her to review Brideshead Revisited in 1946, and in a review of Nineteen Eighty Four in 1949 she chided George Orwell for the book's "fierceness of intention" and "implacable tone".

She was, to be sure, even tougher on American fiction. Writing in 1944, with the Second World War still raging in Europe and Asia, she lamented "the refusal of American fiction to discuss any of the political, social, or psychological realities of the war," adding that "Ideologically, the war plays about the same role in our current novels that a storm plays in murder mysteries: it is something noisy going on outside the house to add to our indoor anxieties."

With the coming of the Cold War, however, Trilling turned more of her attention to subjects of political controversy, becoming a formidable polemicist in the cause of liberal anti- Communism, a writer who - in the view of her anti-anti-Communist opponents, anyway - now seemed herself to be possessed of an "implacable tone". She was particularly implacable on the subject of Lord Russell's labours on behalf of the international "peace" movement that, in the guise of moral neutrality, was in her view clearly serving the foreign-policy interests of the Soviet Union.

This aspect of Diana Trilling's career came to a dramatic climax in 1976 when her publishers - who were also the publishers of Lillian Hellman's Scoundrel Time, a fanciful Stalinoid account of the McCarthy period then enjoying a huge success - informed her that they could not publish her new book of essays unless some critical references to Hellman were deleted from the manuscript. This blatant attempt to censor Trilling's book was all the more remarkable in that her criticisms of Lillian Hellman were written in response to the latter's attack on Lionel Trilling in Scoundrel Time for siding with Whittaker Chambers on the issue of Alger Hiss's guilt (Hiss had been accused of espionage, and was found guilty of perjury; Chambers had blown the whistle on him).

Trilling's book, We Must March My Darlings, quickly found a home with another publisher, but not before the whole episode exploded into a scandal on the front page of the New York Times, prompting a ferocious replay of all the old ideological battles between Stalinists and anti-Stalinists in the New York literary world - the central issue that had given birth to the New York intellectuals as a distinct political group in the 1930s. It was a vivid reminder, as Diana Trilling hastened to point out, of the extent to which we still lived with what she described as "the cultural detritus of Communist fellow travelling" in the post- Vietnam War period.

Twenty years later the historical veracity of Scoundrel Time has now been thoroughly discredited, and Lillian Hellman's attack on the Trillings largely forgotten. But the episode itself proved to have a curious sequel as far as Diana Trilling was concerned.

What had incurred Hellman's wrath in 1976 was Lionel Trilling's characterisation of Whittaker Chambers as "a man of honour". This was restated in his introduction to a new edition of The Middle of the Journey, the novel he published in 1947 that was partly based on Chambers' personal history. (They had been undergraduate classmates at Columbia.) The novel was originally published, of course, before the Hiss case came to public attention in 1948, but when the case broke it gave the novel a currency it might not have otherwise enjoyed.

What was overlooked in the controversy over Scoundrel Time and the attempted censorship of Diana Trilling's book was that she had not specifically addressed the question of Whittaker Chambers' "honour" on that occasion. By the 1980s, however, as she settled down to the task of writing her own memoirs, she became more and more concerned to present herself to a new, left-leaning intellectual generation as a bona fide liberal. The implacable anti-Communist polemicist of the 1950s was now more and more concerned to denounce the rising influence of the "neo- conservatives" - many of them, like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, her old intellectual comrades in the anti-Stalinist battles of the Cold War. She now lived in fear that, owing to his profound critique of liberalism, Lionel Trilling might be posthumously appropriated as a Founding Father of the neo- conservative movement.

It was in this connection that Diana Trilling seized the occasion of an exchange of letters with me in the New Criterion of May 1988 to announce that "So far as Chambers is concerned, I do have a post-trial disagreement with Lionel which I am glad to have this opportunity to record." While acknowledging that she "never argued this with Lionel", she now declared his characterisation of Chambers as "a man of honour" to have been a mistake, and ventured to suggest that, had he lived longer, "he might have amended the words he used" in his characterisation of Chambers.

As many of Diana Trilling's old friends saw it, she had now embarked upon a project that one of them described as "moving Lionel's coffin to the left", lest the neo-conservatives take possession of it. There was even worse to come when she published her memoir of their marriage in 1993, for much of the book was devoted to a remorseless psychoanalytic deconstruction of Lionel Trilling's character.

"I very much disliked the image of Lionel as someone immune to profanation," she declared, and with the headlong zeal she brought to every endeavour she undertook, Diana Trilling set about the unlovely task of mounting a protracted assault on her husband's character. His controversial characterisation of Chambers as "a man of honour" was now brutally dismissed as "a careless phrase."

Needless to say, many of the Trillings' old friends were horrified by this final turn in Diana Trilling's career, but it did succeed in winning her a decree of acclaim she had never before enjoyed in such bastions of liberal orthodoxy as the New Yorker and the New York Times. It was one of those turnabout developments in the realm of cultural politics about which the younger Diana Trilling would have had some fairly devastating things to say.

Diana Rubin, writer: born New York 21 July 1905; married 1929 Lionel Trilling (died 1975; one son); died New York 23 October 1996.