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Daphne Merkin

The Journey of Diana Trilling

There are people who, for whatever reason—some combination of personality and fate—never seem to catch a break, no matter what their accomplishments or contributions. So it appears to be with Diana Trilling. Despite being feared and on occasion revered in her lifetime for her critical intellect, she was also regularly snickered at by fellow eminences in the backbiting group around her known as the New York Intellectuals, who reigned from the 1930s through the ’50s; among them were Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, who thought she was getting beyond herself with her stentorian pronouncements on literature and culture. Diana, who was married to the critic and professor Lionel Trilling and only started writing in her 40s, was an extraordinarily complicated and often bristling creature, given to petty grudges and large hurts. (Full disclosure: I dedicated my first book to her, and we were friends for 15 years—before, like many others, we weren’t.) She was capable of great insight as well as great arrogance, and her politics were a confusing mixture of liberalism and a kind of personal Toryism. There was something of the rebbetzin in her, issuing elevated edicts, and something also of the fishwife, delighting in gossip and low-brow TV shows, but none of this sufficiently explains why the snickering continues more than two decades after her death, in response to a new biography of her, written by Natalie Robins.

The book, “The Untold Journey,” takes its title both from Lionel’s lone novel, “The Middle of the Journey,” and from Diana’s memoir of their marriage, “The Beginning of the Journey,” and is an effort to explain her turbulent life and times. Almost all the reviews of the book that I have read strike a conspicuously ambivalent note, often verging on the outright hostile—more in regard to Ms. Robins’s presumably unendearing subject than to the enterprise of the biography itself. Was Diana too forceful? Not forceful enough? A clinging vine of a wife or a competitive harridan? An unliberated hausfrau or a proto-feminist? Then again, I suppose it is a tribute to Diana’s indomitable and sometimes bullying presence that Ms. Robins appears inclined to render her subject through Diana’s own half piteous, half self-regarding prism rather than stepping back and trying for a more mediated, tempered perspective. It is almost as if Diana sat astride her own biography, dictating the terms, demanding the final word. Perhaps she would have benefited from a tougher yet at the same time more forgiving biographer, one who deferred to her less but who also saw through to the raging insecurity and neediness that lay just behind her more obvious sense of entitlement.

Wall Street Journal | October 26, 2018


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