Lewis P. Simpson
Aware that a growing indifference to the mid-twentieth-century generation of American literary and cultural critics is undermining our capacity to understand the meaning of our literature and thought, I was pleased when I picked up the issue of Newsweek for January 11, 1993, to find that Diana Trilling had made a twofold appearance in a leading national news magazine. In one instance she was featured, along with James A. Michener, Gore Vidal, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., William Styron, and others, as a contributor to a special retrospective section on “The World War II Generation and How It Changed America,” her particular contribution being a remembrance of a dark moment in our post-1945 history entitled “How McCarthy Gave Anti-Communism a Bad Name.” My interest in Mrs. Trilling’s Newsweek essay was enhanced, I must add, by a footnote acknowledging that it had been “adapted from” The Beginning of the Journey: The Life and Marriage of Lionel and Diana Trilling, and announcing that this long awaited memoir would be published in the fall of 1993.
In her other appearance in the January 11 Newsweek—less conspicuous, though hardly less important—Mrs. Trilling was cited in an article about the release of Jean Harris from the women’s correctional facility in Bedford Hills, New York, as the author of a book (title not given) about the notorious Harris case. At the time of her release Mrs. Harris, the former headmistress of the exclusive Madeira School for girls in McLean, Virginia, had served twelve years of a fifteen-to-life sentence for the murder in 1980 of her lover, the then famous “diet doctor,” Dr. Herman Tarnower of Westchester, New York.
The fact of Diana Trilling’s appearance in two places in a single issue of Newsweek—as a featured writer in a carefully planned special section and in an article about a breaking news event—was obviously a pure coincidence. Yet to one interested in the motives of her long career in American letters the coincidence seemed suggestive. Why did a highly sophisticated and politically conscious New York intellectual like Diana Trilling develop a compelling interest in the Harris case? In spite of holding a position of some eminence in the educational field, Jean Harris, like most educational administrators in America, was hardly in any strict sense an intellectual. Nor was she, as we say, a “political person,” nor was Dr. Tarnower, and in his murder one finds, in the usual sense, no imputation of a political motive. The Jean Harris story, to be sure, seems to be no better than a good soap about upper middle class America. Is Mrs. Harris: The Murder of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor (1981) to be taken simply as an effort by a member of the literary elite to write a popular, saleable book? The quality of the thought and feeling in Mrs. Harris plainly refutes such an unkind notion. The book reflects an interest in the murder of the “diet doctor” so strong that it led its author not only to the considerable trouble of attending a lengthy trial day by day but of conducting a struggle with herself about its meaning, a struggle so demanding that after she had finished a book about the case she rewrote the whole thing. At the risk of seeming to make a forced point, I would suggest that Diana Trilling’s attraction to the case of Jean Harris in 1980 bears a significant relation to her compulsive interest in the case of the subject of her Newsweek essay, that of the opportunistic red-baiter who a quarter of a century earlier had been investigated, tried, and censured by his colleagues in the Senate of the United States. Pursuing this notion, I find myself offering the broader suggestion that, as much as any other of Diana Trilling’s other books, Mrs.Harris bears
an integral relation to the shaping motives of a career, that, like that of her eminent husband, Lionel Trilling, is an illuminating aspect of the history of the American literary intellectuals who came of age in the 1930s and into their maturity in the age of the Cold War.
Diana Trilling offers a succinct description of the nature and meaning of her career at the beginning of the Newsweek essay.
From the ’40s onward, after a brief period as a communist sympathizer, I was engaged as a writer in what is called “cultural politics,” that area of the intellectual life in which issues of national policy, especially in foreign affairs, are most intimately associated with culture. Today we celebrate the collapse of Soviet communism as not only the victory for democracy which we hope it will be, but as if it were specifically an American victory, brought about by the unified will of the American people. But the fact is that this country has been much divided on the issue of communism. I know this myself because I was that villainous creature, an anti-communist. This was often an isolating experience.
The encapsulation of her career in Newsweek leaves one with the impression that Diana Trilling clearly regards its chief motive to have been a long and passionate quarrel with other American intellectuals, who like her are of liberal inclination, yet, as she sees them, have for a good part of this century allowed themselves to be dupes of Soviet communism.
The language seems hyperbolic. Certainly being a communist in America once singled one out as a major villain, but how could being against communism in a nation generally committed to this opposition have made one into a socially isolated villain? In actuality, Diana Trilling is speaking of a special rather than a general situation in American society. When she refers to the division of the Americans on “the issue of communism,” she assumes a sense of identity between Americans in general and the elite group with whom she has explicitly associated herself, the American literary and intellectual class. Her reference to herself as an “anti-communist villain” recalls a particular historical moment: the time in the period of the Cold War, when, as Mrs. Trilling describes it, within the ranks of American intellectuals being an anti-communist liberal involved one in the irony of opposing a “lie” that was “promulgated” by the very persons with whom, by professional commitment, the opposer most closely identified, the dominantly “liberal” element among those of superior education—“writers, university teachers, journalists.” In her summation this lie—“one of the towering lies of history in this century”—simply held that within the “Soviet Union there was to be found a fairer distribution of the decencies of life and a corrective to our faulty society.”
As the economic depression signalled by the collapse of Wall Street in October 1929 grew into the Great Depression, this view of the Soviet system seems to have offered itself to a good many American liberal intellectuals with the force of a new revelation. This was not because being intellectuals they had a natural proclivity for exotic and alien ideologies, as the popular attitude held. It was because they had once, consciously or unconsciously, assumed the truth of the myth of the American Republic and so assumed that they were participants in the fulfillment of a world historic revolution that had been inaugurated by the American Revolution. Witnessing the world in the grip of the Great Depression—a world in which the American self-interpretation of history had proved to be wrong—they sought to transform desperation into hope by in effect believing that the Marxist-Leninist version of history had replaced the capitalist corrupted American version. For American idealists—and American intellectuals were generally idealists, aware that the nation had come into historical existence as an “idea” of history—it was a heady moment, a chance to participate in the redemption of a world historical promise. Commitment was demanded: the vision of America as the embodiment of the moral progress of mankind was at stake.
Yet for some American intellectuals the moment of belief in the Russian Revolution as the redemption of history was brief. Mrs. Trilling indicates she and her husband were actively engaged “with the radical movement of the early thirties” for less than a year before abandoning it in 1933. All it took to destroy their faith in communism—and transform them into thorough-going anti-communists—was an association for a few months in 1932-1933 with a communist-front organization called the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners. A “firsthand knowledge of the authoritarianism and dishonesty of the Party and its cynical betrayal of its own proposed goals,” shocked them into an immediate “understanding of the nature of the Soviet dictatorship and of the workings of communism throughout the world.” Their inability to close their minds to the complexity of history, one surmises, made for their quick grasp of what other fellow-travelers understood more slowly, or never got at all.
No doubt it was for this reason, one conjectures, that their communist moment, as Mrs. Trilling observes in The Beginning of the Journey, was as profound as it was brief, insuring that their short experience as fellow-travelers in the 1930s would have “a deep and lasting effect” on their “thinking about politics and society and on the kind of work” they did for the rest of their lives.
The effect, however, was not registered in quite the same way in retrospective evaluations of the decade of the thirties by the two former fellow-travelers. As time went on Lionel Trilling was inclined to see it as an age of innocence, but Diana Trilling has consistently seen it as an evil age. For her it has remained a time when, overlooking or dulcifying the positive evidence of the great Moscow purge of the mid-thirties, many American liberals—the majority in her opinion—kept on believing that the Soviet system was more desirable than either German fascism or American capitalism. Subsequently they ignored the crucial revelation of historical reality attendant upon the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the Russian invasion of Finland. “Far from being the most moral decade of this century, the quickest and most irradiated with right feeling,” Mrs. Trilling wrote in 1979 (in a review of Samuel Hynes’s The Auden Generation), “the decade of the ‘ideological thirties’ was almost entirely built upon self-deception and the deception of others.” In their self-deceit about the meaning of Stalinism the company of fellow-travelers, she charges, thus left “a legacy of debilitating ignorance.”
The impact of this legacy, according to Mrs. Trilling, was not fully experienced by the opponents of communism in the 1940s. The fact that they were outnumbered did not produce in them the feeling that they were “excluded” from the liberal “intellectual mainstream of the country.” The experience of alienation came with the rise of Senator McCarthy. “A great gift to Stalin, indeed, the greatest gift our country could have made to the Soviet Union,” McCarthy “robbed anti-communism of its base in liberalism and brought upon it the opprobrium which properly attached to his own mode of operation.” “I was against both communism and McCarthyism,” Mrs. Trilling says. “They were enemies of each other, but I was the enemy of both.” But she found that although it is not “so difficult to hold two opposing views in one’s mind at the same time,” her position was suspect by those who couldn’t do so, or refused to do so. Like “all anti-communists, liberal no less than illiberal,” she became “vulnerable to the demeaning charge of McCarthyism.” In concluding her recollective comment in Newsweek, the author recalls two critical events in her life. (These are recorded more fully in The Beginning of the Journey.) One is about the time in 1933 when she was asked by Whitaker Chambers—whom she knew to be a communist agent—to “become his drop” (receive mail for him). Although she was by then on the verge of leaving the radical movement, she was “enormously flattered” that Chambers, “this man of the world,” indeed “this man of two worlds,” thought her to be “capable of his treasonable assignment,” but realizing that her personal “pleasure had little to do” with the radical politics she had been espousing, she refused. The other event Diana Trilling recalls is an evening when as a twelve-year-old girl in Brooklyn she joined two other girls in a daring little venture “to pick up boys” on Ocean Parkway. When a car stopped, occupied not by boys but three men, and one pointed to her and said of the three girls he would take her, she fled back to the safety of her home a block away. She had been flattered, she remembered, by being chosen: “But the point is, of course, that I did not surrender to the flattery. My upbringing was stronger than the seduction.” Pointing a somewhat cumbersome moral, Mrs. Trilling says that “the seductions of the former Soviet Union have been gravely entrapping of us in the democracies.” Not only have we “paid a big price for conspiring in the lie that communism represented,” we continue to pay it; for “despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, our most-conscious social egalitarians steadily grow in self-confidence and even—shall I say it?—in moral smugness.” It is as if anti-anti-communism has given them “moral rectitude.” As in the case of “all refusals of truth,” their “measurable self-deception” must “impair our perception of political and social actuality.”
From Diana Trilling’s adaptation of her memoir in Newsweek one derives at least two distinct impressions. One is that of a strong-willed, independent critical mind. The other impression is that Diana Trilling’s career has been controlled by her sensitivity to her involvement in the opposition of anti-communism and anti-anti-communism in America. It is somewhat disconcerting to find these impressions do not entirely accord with the fuller treatment of her career in The Beginning of the Journey. Reading the Newsweek essay one assumes that the Diana Trilling of the 1930s was, like her husband, a youthful, highly self-conscious New York literary intellectual. But in the memoir she is at some pains to explain that at the time when she was a fellow-traveler she did not consciously herself identify as an intellectual. She was still in training for a musical career, and even after this career became improbable, she says, she did not think about turning to a literary career. According to her memoir, this fateful turn was a happenstance.
I became a writer by accident early in 1941 as the result of a telephone call to Lionel from Margaret Marshall, the literary editor of the Nation; she was calling to inquire whether he knew someone who could write the brief unsigned fiction notes for her magazine. I overheard Lionel’s end of the conversation: he told her he would look around for a possible candidate. When he hung up I offered myself for the job. I have no idea of why I was moved to make such a suggestion. Until that moment it had never occurred to me to be a professional writer, least of all a critic.
Questioning the accuracy of Diana Trilling’s own account of the origin of her writing career is no doubt impolite, but on the basis of other things she says in The Beginning of the Journey, and more importantly on the basis of her other writings, one is led to ask if in truth she was an accidental writer. She herself recognizes her endowment with the kind of talent that may destine one to seek a career in letters. In her childhood this had expressed itself in “skits and lyrics for our camp songs,” and in the early years of her marriage continued to express itself in “plays and stories,” though she says she wrote these “only to fill the time.” But while she had experienced no real challenge to seek her identity as a playwright or novelist, in becoming a critic Diana Trilling was responding to a deep need to resolve what was, in the fullest sense of the cliché, an “identity crisis.”
We may well consider Mrs. Trilling’s insistence in The Beginning of the Journey that she became a critic by accident in the light of another passage in her memoir in which she says that she was actually deeply attracted to the intellectual life well before Margaret Marshall’s phone call. “Back in the thirties” when she had married and “had entered Lionel’s world” and made his friends her chief company, her “career as a critic lay in the future,” but “unconsciously,” she says, “I may have been preparing for it.” Although the persons she “was now getting to know” were “not easy companions”—tending to be “overbearing and arrogant, excessively competitive,” she recalls, and “often lacking in magnanimity” and often [even in] “common courtesy,” they were intellectually energetic to a degree” she “had not previously encountered.” They were “particularly” impressive in their attitude toward “cant”: “A received idea was an idea to be resisted; piety in thought was the equivalent of non-thought.” But Diana Trilling also says in her memoir that she was not intimidated by such austere intellectuality. “Curiously enough” while she “had not even heard of the books on which they [her husband’s acquaintances] had cut their critical teeth,” she “never doubted” her competence to “judge their work,” anymore than she had doubted her competence when she was engaged in “reshaping draft after draft” of Lionel Trilling’s Matthew Arnold (1939). To quote directly from the memoir:
I was not undertaking to shape ideas other than as style is inevitably an extension of thought. Lionel never resisted this intervention. Indeed until he no longer required it, he welcomed it, counted upon it. . . . Behind my confidence that I knew good writing when I saw it lay a considerable if unexplained faith in my ability to judge the whole of a literary performance. This was now much bolstered by Lionel’s willingness to recommend me for the Nation position; if he had indicated any doubt of my ability to do the work, I would have withdrawn my candidacy, and I would not today be the person I am.
The last statement seems unequivocal. Yet even as she insists on her reliance on her husband’s judgment about her ability to do the job for the Nation, Mrs. Trilling recalls she “was worried that Margaret Marshall had engaged me without proof of my competence, out of regard for Lionel,” and that this had led her to exact a promise “through Lionel that she would not keep me on because of him.”
There is an intriguing ambiguity in Mrs. Trilling’s discussion of her motive in assuming the vocation of the critic. On the one hand, she virtually says her identity as a writer was conferred on her by her husband; on the other hand, she asserts an unmitigated confidence in the relationship between her intrinsic talent and her literary identity. In the tension in her memoir between these attitudes her love and respect for Lionel Trilling would seem to be the controlling attitude. Does this account for the fact that, although she has much to say about herself in her memoir, including frank accounts of various psychic difficulties, she gives comparatively little attention to her own writings?
Prior to the publication of her memoir, Diana Trilling had published three books in addition to Mrs. Harris: Claremont Essays (1964), We Must March My Darlings (1977), and Reviewing the Forties (1978). Of these books, all essay collections, only one, Reviewing the Forties, a selection of the reviews of current fiction Mrs. Trilling wrote from 1942 through 1949 as fiction critic of the Nation, is given more than cursory attention in The Beginning of the Journey. And then only indirectly—that is, although she does not refer to Reviewing the Forties, she comments specifically on a few of her Nation essays during an illuminating discussion of her years with what was then one of the more important periodicals in America.
Published late in the author’s career, with an introduction by Paul Fussell, Reviewing the Forties might give the impression of simply being a retrospective recognition of Mrs. Trilling’s critical apprenticeship. But reading the essays in the volume, one discovers that they are hardly what we expect from an apprentice. As Fussell comments in his introduction to Reviewing the Forties, not only do they sound more like the work of a critic than a weekly book reviewer, they indicate a critic with a broad cultural orientation: a critic who was “not satisfied to leave literature sitting there uninterpreted in its fullest psychological, social, and political meaning”; who perceived that “literature is no mere decoration of life but an index of the health or sickness of society.” If Fussell’s evaluation of the Nation essays somewhat exaggerates the quality of some of the week-in-and-week-out reviewing Diana Trilling did for seven or eight years, he is correct in stressing that from the first she was a critic of unusual psychological, social, and political range and perceptiveness. In a more particular sense, we may say, the Nation essays are the work of a complex critic, who perceived American literature to be the index of a society that has been adversely influenced by a malformed liberal tradition. In writing them, as she says in her memoir, “My anti-communism was seldom far from the surface.” On occasion the Nation’s literary critic self-consciously assumed the role of the critic was at once stern moralistic judge and prophet and pronounced imperious, sweeping, self-righteous judgments on self-righteousness (i.e.: “Present-day liberalism, in all its astigmatism and self-righteousness, has many important cultural as well as political sins to account for at the day of judgment.”) At other times, and more often than not, Diana Trilling conceived of the critical task as demanding a less strident and more subtle voice. One of the more arresting essays in Reviewing the Forties is on Edmund Wilson’s notorious novella Memoirs of Hecate County (1946). Comparing Hecate County with Wilson’s earlier I Thought of Daisy, Mrs. Trilling sees the two stories as together constituting a “record of American artistic and intellectual life” in the twenties, thirties, and forties. Wilson presents “an enormously valuable document of social change,” and of the impact change “must have on the thought and emotion of the artist and intellectual,” she says. But in taking a “highly subjective attitude” toward the stories he tells he fails in the primary duty of the artist and intellectual, which is to keep the “creative will” from being at the mercy of history. Opposing reality to idealism, he finds that the idealistic outlook is “morbidly diseased.” This discovery results in a “breach between sensation and emotion” in the protagonist in Memoirs of Hecate County. He is an intellectual without compassion.
Clearly, I do not mean . . . to say [Diana Trilling remarks in the conclusion to her comment on Wilson] that it is the job of the intellectual to go about doing good in a bad world. But we do, I think, have the right to ask that he maintain, amid disorder, some principle of private order from which a principle of general order could be adduced—that he keep, for one thing, a sound integration between head and heart, which itself of course is another way of asking that he distinguish between sensation and emotion. For if he allows himself to be disordered by his disordered society, all he will generalize is mess, whereas if he maintains personal order within a disordered society, he will at the least have a tragic—which is to say, a meaningful—experience of pain. And that is everlastingly the intellectual’s job: to be meaningful, despite and above his social situation.
Wilson could not achieve a sense of personal order to offset social disorder, Diana Trilling argues, because in the decade of the forties the American intellectual was still trapped in a “sad recoil from the broken promises” of the thirties. Although her time with the Nation was in the pre-McCarthy age—before the term “liberal” became one of opprobrium and one could still distinguish without rancor between “anti-communist liberals and fellow-traveling liberals”—Mrs. Trilling saw the recoil from the thirties beginning to work itself out through the preemptive self-righteousness of “politically correct” liberals into a more repressive future for the critical mind in America. The most arresting example of her insight into this process is a divinatory comment about Jean Paul Sartre, who in the forties was at the beginning of an influential reputation in this country. In an interpretation of The Age of Reason—onethat, she says in The Beginning of the Journey, “outraged” the publishers of “the leader of the French Existentialists,” and “no doubt many of the Nation’s readers as well”—Mrs. Trilling found the Sartrean implication to be that, although the individual must resist a “fascist dictatorship” to the death, his “final act of freedom” is “the free choice to give up all purely personal freedom” to the power of the State as vested in a “proletarian” dictatorship. “While one hesitates,” she says, “to conjecture that the very fierceness of the Existentialist protest against authority may disguise a longing for it, we recall that Heidegger, the German Existentialist, became a Nazi.”
Diana Trilling’s sensitivity to the motives of Wilson and Sartre reflects the discovery and development in the Nation essays of a quest that, either directly or indirectly, would engage her throughout her career. A highly self-conscious, a personal quest for the identity of the intellectual, this necessarily demanded an effort to define the relation between modern society and the intellectual. Its ultimate inspiration was no doubt Diana Trilling’s self-conscious experience of the company of the New York intellectuals in the early days of her marriage. And may we not deduce another, less definable but eminently significant experience: her intellectual and emotional involvement in the writing of her husband’s book on Matthew Arnold—a work that reflects a variety of motives but is essentially a response to the cultural politics of the 1930s?
Tracing the character of this response in Diana Trilling through the Nation essays into Claremont Essays, (for the sake of reducing my overlong remarks, I will forego a detailed discussion of this book) we find that the latter, although largely written in the McCarthy decade, are still based on the animating premise of the Nation essays: namely, that the individual intellectual is the embodiment of the social power of reason.
While I find in myself small impulse to challenge the contemporary premise that society is more incoherent than accessible to reason, more destructive of the individual than designed for his uses, I remain convinced that it is yet suspectible to rational processes, and—what is more important in this context —that even while the terms of its organization radically alter, it has an anatomy in whose study we discover some of the main lines of our individual growth. Far from believing that the self is best comprehended or realized apart from society, I am of the older opinion that it is society which provides the self with its best possibilities of ascendancy, even of transcendence.
But if Mrs. Trilling saw herself in Claremont Essays as still adhering to the “older opinion” that reason should govern the relationship of the individual and society, she at the same time intimated her awareness of “prognosticative phenomena” pointing to the deepening crisis in the situation of the intellectual that she would explore in the essays she wrote “roughly” from 1965 to 1975 and collected in We Must March My Darlings. For the most part these essays qualify, even reject, the possibility of maintaining adherence to the eighteenth-century rational humanism, with its vision of controlling the connection between the individual and society through the social power of reason.
For Mrs. Trilling the final sign of the loss of the classic American liberal concept was the abrupt and tragic end of the presidency of Jack Kennedy, whose election she had seen as heralding the revival of the classic liberalism. Her deeply felt elegy to Kennedy, the first essay in We Must March, is a small masterpiece.
A man, a president, who believes in history and in the continuity between past and future but who even in the view of the most intransigently young cannot be written off as a “square”; a national leader whose personal aura is one of heroism, romance, gaiety, and even a certain rakishness—and it ignores the obvious not to note the erotic element in Kennedy’s charm, with what this was bound to add to his image as a champion of freedom—but who has the stern substantiality of mind and character to guide his country in international crisis and to propose new paths of domestic enlightenment; a modern who is a traditionalist; a traditionalist who is the very essence and image of the contemporary—what more could we have asked in reassurance that life was solid under our feet despite our uncertainties, and that the present was not only dread and isolation? To give us this reassurance, to dispel our loneliness: for some time now this has been the burden refused by the artist and unmet by the politician. Kennedy enlarged the political profession to provide just such an answer to the needs of the spirit.
In addition to the assassination of President Kennedy, the essays in We Must March unfold a whole procession of highly disturbing occurrences: the rise of the drug culture, the rise of the radical women’s liberation movement, the quest for a radical sexual freedom, the riotous protests against the Vietnam war, the disruption of American campuses, followed by a falling off in post-Vietnam college students of a sense of meaning and purpose. Here were happenings of great consequence, yet, while each had “its full dramatic or . . . melodramatic moment” in the mind, it was no more than this, each development being “virtually wiped from memory by a next event, a next dramatic moment.” No longer “something that might be relied upon for evidence of cultural continuity,” history became “non-history.” What she had still “taken for granted” in Claremont Essays, the sense of “historical time,” Diana Trilling says in the introduction to We Must March, has “vanished” in the new collection of essays. Searching for a metaphor of the cultural situation that manifested itself in the sixties and early seventies, she likens the loss of the sense of history to the disappearance of what painters used to call “negative space,” that distance left “between such objects as were represented in a picture” so as “to permit the introduction into the painting, if the artist desired it, of any other objects which might in reality occupy the space.” The Claremont Essays, a volume which—even though it dealt with “prognosticative phenomena” like “the moral radicalism of Norman Mailer” and the “meaning of the meaninglessness of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”—was, Mrs. Trilling says, based on the assumption that “there was still space in which the life of culture had its relatively orderly growth.” As she had pointed out in the foreword to Claremont Essays, the very title of this book was taken from the name of her street in the Columbia neighborhood and refers to the concept that “even in an unsatisfactory society the individual is best defined by social geography.” But the title We Must March My Darlings—borrowed from the well-known first stanza of Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”—implies the “ironic” rejection of the spatial concept of culture. Originally conceived as the title of a projected book about “Radcliffe, my old college,” Diana Trilling says, We Must March My Darlings became the title of both one section of the 1977 collection and of the whole collection. The projected book on Radcliffe was presumably never completed, but the fragment in Let Us March serves the purpose of reporting on the author’s discovery, during a period of close association with undergraduates at Harvard and Radcliffe in 1971, that, for all the celebrated radicalism of the youth of the Vietnam era, the students she associated with not only lacked a sense of generational and personal identity but basically displayed a strange passivity toward the future. Their attitude suggested to her “the possibility that it is the younger and not, to borrow from Whitman, ‘the elder races’ who ‘droop and end their lesson.’” In the 1950s man had been depicted by cultural diagnosticians as coping with modern life through his Protean ability to make infinite changes, to conceive “negative space” on a canvas as a symbol of the “social and moral possibility” that may be introduced “into the canvas [that is, into our vision of society] without violating its circumstantial accuracy.” Since “space and time are in important ways inseparable,” if space has been “blotted out” by an acceleration of time so sharp as almost to “constitute a mechanism,” the possible “obliteration” of man is suggested.
The most compelling essay in We Must March is “On the Steps of Low Library.” Its enabling perception is the link Diana Trilling perceived between the march on the Pentagon in the fall of 1967, as told in Norman Mailer’s essay, “On the Steps of the Pentagon,” (which appears in Armies of the Night) and the disorders at Columbia University in the spring of 1968 as witnessed by Mrs. Trilling. To her these events “were acts of civil disobedience initiated by people who regard the law as the arm of a despised form of social organization.”
Both . . . dramatized drastically opposed ideas of what is meant by social responsibility and both had the intention of forcing on us a new examination of the workings of democracy: the discrepancy between democratic theory and practice. Both proceeded by, or at least began in, outrage of the conventions of educated speech and behavior. And both events faced us, whether or not we were prepared to look at what was being shown, with the capacity for hatred and violence which many of the educationally privileged left-wing young share with those they most condemn on the score of their hatred and violence. This is no small likeness. The two occasions, indeed, can significantly be separated only in terms of their practical outcome and the emotions consequent on their differing capacity for effectiveness.
Yet in their deepest relation, in their most fundamental resemblance, Mrs. Trilling felt, the march on the Pentagon and the Columbia disorders could not be separated. She refers to Norman Mailer’s characterization of the Columbia situation as “existential,” observing that for him, “who for some years has served faithfully at the ceremonies of experience,” this was a “criterion of the worthwhile.” But, she says, “the word ‘existential’ is also in fairly general use to describe the improvisational character of our contemporary revolution, its disdain of ideology and program, and its appeal as an instrument of personal definition.” Mailer’s “honorific designation” may be more precisely applied, therefore, to the situation at Columbia than to a preplanned, symbolic march that had been deliberately designed to make a statement. Exploding in an unrehearsed “release of social bitterness and rage,” the action at Columbia invoked a response that “quite precluded” Diana Trilling’s own further emotional involvement in what had taken place in Washington a short time before: “Touch with hostile hands the building which houses the Department of Defense and you perhaps flick the soul of your nation but the building and your nation remain intact. Touch a university with hostile hands and the blood you draw is prompt, copious, and real. There may be disagreement on the quality of the blood, it may be good blood or bad blood, pure or impure blood, but as to the actuality of the wound you have inflicted, there can be no question.”
In Mrs. Trilling effort to deal with the Columbia disorders the tension between the possibility of rationality and the doubt of it was virtually eclipsed by the power of the existentialist impulse. “One’s own existential moment yields to no other,” she says. The obligation of the intellectual to develop the rational analysis of a given situation does not entirely disappear in her account of the insurrectionary attempt to take over the University: she devotes some attention to the question of whether or not a rational historical explanation of the “Columbia revolution” lies in the irony of a “democratic self-criticism” that has at once condemned the failings of American democracy while “exempting communism. . . from the shortcomings of industrial modernity.”
But the invoking of this problem in “On the Steps of Low Library” strikes one as being not much more than a gesture. Not only in this essay but throughout Let Us March, the belief in the rational capacity to define moral responsibility and act on it is haunted by the anxious doubt, strongly implied, if not overtly stated, that such a definition is any longer possible. Finally, in the conclusion of a reflective narrative that takes on a more and more meditative quality as it proceeds, the anxiety of doubt is resolved in a cathartic recognition of the tragic ambiguity of what had happened at Columbia and in American society. This comes in an appeal to an event that, although it had no immediate connection with the Columbia situation, was profoundly relevant to it—the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
Drawing on newspaper accounts, Diana Trilling recreates the poignant scene the night before the funeral of the second Kennedy to be felled by an assassin’s bullet, when, as the body lay in state in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, none other than Tom Hayden—the dedicated leader of the SDS, who, although he was not and had never been a Columbia student, had been a major participant in the uprising, came to the Cathedral—”dark, empty save for the guard around the coffin”—to mourn the death of his sworn enemy.
Holding in his hand the field cap which reputedly was given him by Castro, Hayden sat alone in the shadows, weeping, until someone who saw him invited him to stand a watch at the coffin, which he did, probably glad of the invitation—in moments of grief, it is helpful to be part of the ceremony. The question this newspaper report raised in my mind—and it refuses to be answered—was, how can the strong emotion which brought Hayden to St. Patrick’s in the middle of the night to mourn for Robert Kennedy so totally divorce itself from the ideas which govern the SDS and Hayden as one of its chief leaders? After all, everything that Hayden most significantly lives and works for is directed to the destruction of everything that Kennedy most significantly lived and worked for. One can truly love one’s political enemy, and not only in the way dictated by Christianity. But to the degree that one weeps for him alone in the night? And when the political difference is so nearly absolute? It can be put simply: Kennedy believed in the possibility of our society and Hayden believes that our society must be destroyed. These are antithetical principles. Do they not generate antithetical emotions, or at least require some distancing in personal feeling?
Answering her question, the author recalls that she earlier in her essay she had spoken “of the ambiguousness of Mailer’s Pentagon story, in particular of the ambiguousness which resides in supposing that a higher reasonableness will be reached by acts of unreason, a more reliable condition for peace by acts of violence.” But she now extends her comment on Mailer to observe that “perhaps more than we can readily recognize, Mailer’s ambiguousness is also the ambiguousness of our apparently most single-minded insurrectionary students and their leaders, of all our intellectuals and all our enlightened population which welcomes the student revolution; the ambiguousness, in fact, of our moral and spiritual times.”
Whereas she had once talked about the “moral confusion” of our age, Diana Trilling now spoke of its essential moral ambiguousness. Nor does she speak in the abstract. In “On the Steps of Low Library” she implies her intense personal experience of discovering the pervasive moral equivocalness in the contemporary American cultural situation resulting from the loss of faith in the interlinked modes of moral and intellectual perception developed by the high culture of the Enlightenment as the transcendent reference of civilized order. With the disappearance of the perception that had guided the instigators of the American Revolution and the founders of the Republic, she further implies, the definition of self-deception has become impossible. Therefore—is this the most drastic implication of the cultural situation depicted in We Must March?—the assertion of the betrayal of liberalism in America through the yoking of liberalism and Marxism has become meaningless.
In the essays in Let Us March a controlling opposition present in Diana Trilling’s writings from the beginning threatens to disappear: I refer to the stress between a commitment to the idea that through the agency of rationality intellectuals will ultimately triumph in human affairs and a persistent suspicion that intellectuals, possessing no greater capacity for virtue than anyone else, are prone to betray their vocation. Yet, we must note, although Diana Trilling’s faith in the educated mind’s capacity for reason came under severe stress in the crisis of the sixties and seventies, Let Us March does not represent a full surrender to the existentialist imperative. Of the two pieces in the collection that were originally contributions to Partisan Review symposia, the most important of these, “Liberal Anti-Communism Revisited,” represents a rewriting of what Mrs. Trilling had said in 1967 on the problem of the relationship between American policies in Vietnam and the attitudes of American “anti-Communists of the Left.” In its rewritten form a trenchant reply to Lillian Hellman’s criticism of the Trillings in Scoundrel Time (1976), this essay is also Diana Trilling’s most cogent and expansive analysis of the effect on American literature and thought of the struggle between the anti-communists and the anti-anti-communists: When “liberalism” was destroyed in the conflict between the “liberal” (“left-wing”) partisans and the “liberal” (“left-wing”) opponents of communism, it created a “great intellectual rift” in the American mind. That she locates the origin of this split, not in the time when it became overtly manifest in the 1950s but in the 1930s, suggests with vivid certainty her recognition of her own intellectual origin.
Although the term “anti-anti-Communism” dates from the fifties and specifically refers to the split among left-wing intellectuals on the McCarthy issue and what has followed from it, the concept was in preparation as far back as the thirties when, with the rise of Nazism in Germany and with the Spanish Civil War, the newly radicalized intellectuals in the democracies were so successful in capturing the antifascist cause and identifying it with the communist cause. Put most summarily, what happened was that throughout the thirties the Communist Party with great energy and skill organized “innocent” groups, people committed to certain presumed goals of the party but not party members or necessarily even fellow-travelers, into movements against war and fascism, a maneuver by which Communism became intimately associated in the minds of people of progressive political impulse with these dedications. As a consequence of this maneuver, whoever put himself in opposition to Communism came to be regarded as of the Right or even as an “objective fascist.”
But obviously in her clear-cut analysis of the fate of “liberal anti-Communism”—which concludes with the hope that “if we indeed have a working liberal-intellectual class and not merely an intellectual lobby for moral self-certification,” liberalism can be “rethought” and made to function once again—Diana Trilling had not reached the point of writing off the historic equation between reason and liberalism. If in “On the Steps of Low Library,” she felt that the vocation of the intellectual had become involved in a struggle with ambiguities that destroy the efficacy of mind, Mrs. Trilling did not abandon her faith in the continuing possibilities of intellect.
While in comparison to her other writings, Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor may seem to be an exotic performance, its basic, shaping, motive is Diana Trilling’s continuing preoccupation with her commitment to the view that the cultural critic is a moralist, whose duty it is to serve as a monitorial voice both in the realm of his or her peers and in the general society. This motive is not overtly expressed in Mrs. Harris. It may not have been quite available to the author’s grasp of her own intentions in writing the book. But it is a motive of which the book itself is a symbol, its presence being unmistakable, for instance, in Mrs. Trilling’s description of the inner drama of her reaction to the growing presence of the defendant in the courtroom.
From hour to hour my own judgment of her would drastically change—I’d swing from an extreme of sympathy to an extreme of disenchantment. When she was charming, I was charmed. When malice took over as it so often did without her being at all aware of it, I scarcely remembered that I had ever felt anything but dislike of her—I would think, how can anyone fail to see that this woman is dangerous? Perhaps these swift shifts of feeling attest to her lack of a firm emotional core; certainly hers was a strange power for someone to exercise who sobbingly described herself as metaphor of emptiness.
We come close to the compelling motive of her fascination with Jean Harris in the next moment, when Diana Trilling returns (though with no reference to her prior use of the same notion in Let Us March) to the concept of negative space in a painting. In contrast to her first reference toward the possibility of using negative space, her attitude has become positive: “On the canvas of Mrs. Harris’s personality there is much negative space, room for what hasn’t been painted in.” The power of Jean Harris in the courtroom that Mrs. Trilling observes was the way in which she responded to the challenge to fill the emptiness, to conceive her life not as a metaphor of closure to interpretation but of openness to it.
Published in 1981, a year after the trial, Mrs. Harris is what Diana Trilling fills in the negative space Jean Harris represented to her. The book not only sets forth a detailed account of the day-to-day courtroom scene as the trial proceeded, but—drawing on the author’s assiduous personal investigation and analysis of the circumstances surrounding the murder of Tarnower—effectively locates the Harris case in its social context.
The murderer of the “diet doctor” was not simply a school teacher: she was the administrator of a respectable educational institution. Her victim was not only a wealthy cardiologist: in a country that takes dieting as seriously as football, he was the author of the best-selling The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet and thus in a sense a figure of national renown. Another important facet of the Harris case is a widespread doubt that justice was well served by the conviction of a woman, who, even though she bore the responsibility of a voluntary relationship with her paramour, may have been as much his victim as he was hers.
The motive for the murder seemed to be the jealous resentment of the fifty-seven-year-old Jean Harris. After a long liaison with Tarnower that had once held the promise of marriage, she had been rejected by her sixty-nine-year-old lover for a younger woman. Her bitterness toward Tarnower was extreme, yet, according to her own account of the murder, Jean Harris went to his fashionable home in Westchester on the night of March 10, 1980, carrying a pistol she intended to use not on him but on herself. Tarnower’s death, she testified, was in effect accidental. This defense did not convince the jury, which convicted her of murder in the second degree. Nor later on was her story convincing to Governor Mario Cuomo, who refused Harris’s plea for clemency (or the recognition of her right to parole) three times. When he finally did grant clemency—and followed this action three weeks later by ordering that Harris be paroled—Cuomo may well have responded not to the plea for justice but to an immediate need for humanitarian expediency. At any rate the granting of clemency was coincident with Jean Harris’s need for heart surgery. Then, too, Cuomo’s action may well have been influenced to some extent by what the Newsweek article refers to as the “changing attitude toward emotional abuse” in America. Reflected over the years in thousands of letters received by the governor’s office on behalf of Harris—including one from the trial judge upon his retirement from the bench—this attitude was also evident, Newsweek observes, in several books relating to the Harris case, among them not only the three books pleading her own case Harris wrote while in prison, but also books “sympathetic” to Harris by Shana Alexander and Diana Trilling.
The pairing of Mrs. Trilling’s book with Shana Alexander’s is, however, a gross oversimplification. Although like Shana Alexander’s book it is in the mode of “personal journalism,” Mrs. Harris is a far more complex narrative. A troubled inquiry into the moral drama of the author’s response to the Harris case, it bears the aspect of a record of Diana Trilling’s own self-conscious participation in it. Initially, she says, her interest in Jean Harris was inspired by the “great upwelling of feeling” across the nation for a woman who had been grossly wronged by a cruel and tyrannical man. When the realization came to her after she had written the first draft of her book about the Harris case that her perception of the tangled motives involved in it had been obscured by the influence of doctrinaire feminism, she discarded the manuscript and began again. As in her struggle against the anti-anti-communists, she resisted ideological conformity: “Was I a child of my ideological times? Maybe, but not to the extent of allowing any system of ideas or feelings to obscure immediate truths.”
Comparing her to Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, both of whom violate their status in society by doing something they are not supposed to do, Mrs. Trilling finds in the Jean Harris story an exemplification of the difficult relation between fact and fiction. Seeing Jean Harris solely in her actuality—”in the raw state of life where we have only the making of art, without its seamlessness”—wondering “how this unprepossessing woman, whose life and love had been of such uninspiriting quality, could create around her such an air of superbness,” she “put her in the company of large persons in literature and in life.” Yet, Mrs. Trilling says, but it would have been “wrong not to emphasize the ordinariness in which her extraordinariness begins.” The answer to the problem of how Jean Harris created “the air of superbness” lies in the more or less indefinable thing theater people call “star quality.” This is not something with which one can be invested by others. Like Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harris inherently possessed this “mysterious ingredient” and drew “strength from it.” This is why everyone who has heard of the tragedy of Jean Harris “wants to speak about her and hear about her.”
Her elusiveness tantalizes, her personality is like a hall of mirrors: one loses one’s way in it. She has become everyone’s story. Everyone claims her, everyone claims to understand her, to have solved her mystery. But the mystery of course is not solved or to be solved. People aren’t solved. Even women aren’t to be solved, though they sometimes act as if it were a desirable consummation. In one of the novels of Anthony Powell he has a character say, “When I read bout crimes passionels in the papers, I am struck not by the richness of the emotions, but by their desperate poverty. On the surface the people concerned may seem to live with intensity. Underneath, is an abject egotism and lack of imagination.” Yes, this could be said of the Harris case too and of Mrs. Harris herself except . . . [sic] except that whatever the abjectness of Mrs. Harris and self-boundedness, these are not the aspects of her character that, at the last, remain with us. I’m far from sure that Mrs. Harris is a worthy person, a lovable person, a person we would wish to see replicated in our society. Not any of these. But she’s a person who for some reason sparks the imagination and who has her place in our imagination of this time.
The shifts in perspective implied in the movement from “one” and “everyone” to “I” and “our” in this passage may be regarded as no more than a conventional rhetorical gesture aimed at identifying the mythical general reader with the author; at, so to speak, bringing the unknown reader into the authorial embrace. Yet is not this simple device a key to the question of Diana Trilling’s compelling attraction to the Harris case? Her solicitation of the reader assumes the presence of a particular kind of reader, a member of the audience she identifies with and for whom she has always written, namely, her peers, the members of the intellectual class, in particular, as she describes them in Claremont Essays, “the people I know best, the academic and literary intellectuals of New York.”
If in the writings of Diana Trilling we seem to feel at times a more confining New York provincialism than in the writings of Lionel Trilling, we do not experience this as markedly inhibiting. She shares with Lionel Trilling the cosmopolitan conviction that the right motive of the critic as an actor in the drama of history is Arnoldian. The critic has the moral duty always to sit in rational, responsible judgment; for in truth—at least in the Western world, where we have traditionally conceived that the civilizing process is inseparably tied to the culture of letters—the fate of civilization depends on the conscientious performance of the critic’s task. Yet Diana Trilling also shares with Lionel Trilling a sense of the fragility of the critic’s sensitivity to the burden of responsibility for the use of letters. Like him she expresses an ever-present awareness of conflict in her own mind between the assumption that the vocation of the critic imposes a mandatory obligation to be the moral agent of society and the recognition that this obligation is not self-defining. As a highly self-conscious, dedicated intellectual, Diana Trilling assumes in Mrs. Harris, as she has always, that the role of the critic implies an instructive or admonitory self-representation of his or her own moral character. Does she not assume also that she is less concerned in Mrs. Harris with the moral character of the person who shot Dr.Tarnower than she is (to employ an adjective she uses elsewhere) the “moral-intellectual” character of her own personal response to Tarnower’s killer? Considering this implication in Mrs. Harris, I think the book may be compared to a novel in which, in the conflicted struggle to tell the story of a hero or a heroine, a first person narrator in effect becomes the protagonist. At times it seems that the goal of the implied protagonist in Mrs. Harris is to come up with a reasoned, objective analysis of the Harris case. But this possibility is constantly tempered by the narrator’s recognition of the limits of reason in the pursuit of the truth of human behavior. Having meticulously pursued the duty of the reporter to get at the facts about Jean Harris, the narrator-critic discovers finally that “without the armature of fiction,” her story will become “a clinical study”—a perversion of the fundamental truth about human beings, which is that they “cannot be solved.” She refers the meaning of the story of Jean Harris to the realm of “imaginative writing, where . . . Freud learned, as we learn, about characters in conflict.”
By the time Diana Trilling wrote Mrs. Harris the struggle between the anti-communists and the anti-anti-communists had ceased to be an active issue. But the capacity of American intellectuals for self-deception remained for her what it had always been, a fundamental issue in American cultural politics. One may refer especially to two passages in Mrs. Harris. Both are concerned with culture in relation to taste and moral values in Jean Harris’s life style. In one passage the author presents her as “a values lady,” who, “in her system of values,” holds “intellectual honesty” as the “first principle.”
As witness after witness took the stand for the defense, Arunou [Joel Arunou, Harris’s lawyer] would ask the same stilted question: what about the headmistress’s reputation for ‘veracity’? The question became silly. It had to be plain to anyone that for Mrs. Harris veracity is a moral imperative. Aurnou’s client reeks of truth. There’s an important sense in which she’s sick on truth—if she didn’t over-estimate truth for its own sake and be pledged to stay true to her ideals, she wouldn’t have to resort to denial as disastrously as I believe she did and does. Mrs. Harris tells the truth even when she lies. In a way this is what is meant by denial: the process of self-deception spares one the need to lie just as it spares one the confrontation of truth.
Here is the other passage in Mrs. Harris concerning culture and taste one may refer to:
In the trial Harris was at considerable pains to consolidate her own social and cultural position by the way she pictured Dr. Tarnower, her social companion for so many years. She made him into a fitting partner of the superior intellectual life she led as member of the academic profession. She told us that when she first met him, Tarnower talked with her of Russia and instructed her in Jewish history. She said he was the kind of man who “read Herodotus for fun” and that the two of them had never argued except “over the use of the subjunctive.” . . . In adducing a moral style from a style of life, I was perhaps more generous with Mrs. Harris than with Dr. Tarnower: although I was embarrassed by her intellectual boasts, her gifts of mind were sufficiently striking so that I could at least suppose she had a better foundation for her cultural vanities than he had . . . . Expanded from a two-page diet sheet, [Tarnower’s] book spoke more than a volume’s worth of social pretension to anyone who was willing to read it as something other than just a guide to weight loss.
Is it an exaggeration to say that Diana Trilling, assuming that the critic has the novelist’s privilege of employing the preemptive imagination of the artist, creates Jean Harris as kind of parodic figure of the American intellectual, a figure with whom she herself is however deeply empathetic? Something like twenty years before she wrote about the case of Mrs. Harris, she had remarked (in Claremont Essays) of the Profumo affair in England:
Ours is an era of ‘cases’ starting with the Sacco-Vanzetti case in the 1920s, proceeding through the Hiss and Oppenheimer cases, to the Rosenberg case, the Chessman case, the Eichmann case, and most recently culminating, if we can call it a culmination, in the Profumo case. That in 1963, our great confrontation between opposing social principles began with the discovery that a government official has been engaged in illicit sex was opportunistically manipulated by the party in England that is supposed to speak most firmly for the liberal—by which we mean—decent values, and was brought to the semblance of moral resolution by the suicide of a man of the character of Stephen Ward, should remind us that the life of reason continues to have its difficulties.
Mrs. Trilling’s rhetorical understatement about the cultural politics of England dramatizes a failure of reason by the presumably educated mind in England so fundamental that it suggests not merely a lack of diligence on the part of those who are responsible for the education of the nation but, to use Julien Benda’s famous term, a “betrayal of the clerks,” an act of treason by professors, philosophers, and critics, those who are responsible for the uses of mind. While the case of the headmistress of the Madeira School had nothing as such to do with the involvement of American intellectuals in communism, like the Profumo affair it had to do with the sexual misbehavior by a person in a position of public trust, which is to say with the cultural politics of sexual behavior. In Diana Trilling’s complex vision of it, the Harris case is altogether a symbol of the incapacity of the moral imagination of the American intellectual class (which properly in a participatory democracy must include all its teachers). In a large and poetic sense, Mrs. Trilling’s book about Jean Harris—which locates the story about her misconduct in the context of the author’s personal struggle to imagine the life of the intellectual in “this time”—in our time, in the time of the author of Mrs. Harris—can be read as part of a fable of twentieth-century American cultural politics, the animating motive of which is the ironic betrayal of the basic motive of American history, the struggle for national self-definition, by a willed self-deception about the ends of this struggle.
I am not sure at all how one may reconcile the independence and brilliance of Diana Trilling’s career and her disposition at times in her memoir to attribute her career to Lionel Trilling’s influence. In view of the independent character of Mrs. Trilling’s career it seems more comfortable and more logical to seek the nature of the remarkable relationship between the two minds not in the dependence of one mind on another but in the mutual intensity of their dedication to the responsibility of the critic. I find myself remembering an essay on the character of Lionel Trilling’s work I wrote six years ago, in which I referred to Allen Tate’s notion that criticism is invested with an ambience of the tragic, the “act of criticism” always being a tragic action in that it finally and imperatively presents a “crisis of recognition.” What exactly does the critic, the interpreter of meaning, recognize? He comes into the knowledge that the only “certain knowledge” he possesses is that he “knows virtually nothing.”
Writing about Jean Harris would seem to have been for Diana Trilling a way of recovering from the despair of meaning that she describes in Let Us March. The recovery is not based on a renewal of an assured faith in the capacity of the intellectual—in her own capacity—to serve as an agent of order. She had never had this. Mrs. Harris indicates a restoration of what Diana Trilling had preeminently shared with Lionel Trilling—a dramatic tension in her vision of the world between faith in the capacity of the critic to be an agent of reason and despair of this possibility; a tension, in her own words, between “an intellectual life in which we define ourselves by our manifest responsibility to reason and the consequences of thought” and “a world in which we validate our sensibility by our apocalypticism.”
We recall Mrs. Trilling’s homily on the meaning of Edmund Wilson’s career in her review of Memoirs of Hecate County. “Amid disorder” in “a bad world” the intellectual, she says, must maintain “some principle of private order from which a principle of general order might be adduced—that he keep . . . a sound integration between head and heart, which of course is another way of asking that he distinguish between sensation and emotion.” Having failed to integrate head and heart, Wilson has in effect betrayed the literary-intellectual vocation by failing to maintain “personal order within a disintegrated society,” thus making it impossible for him to “at the least to have a tragic—which is to say, a meaningful—experience of pain.” He has thus failed in what “is everlastingly the intellectual’s job, to be meaningful despite and above his social situation.” An experience of pain that transcends society as the ultimate measure of the critical achievement: I don’t think Diana Trilling has ever explicitly repeated this austere poetic criterion for evaluating the worth of the critic, but her career has exemplified her recognition of the irony that was its inspiration: the irony of a critical career spent in the impossible but necessary attempt to imagine the vast spiritual and intellectual disorder of our times, while at the same time endeavoring to imagine a sense of personal order strong enough to oppose her imagination of disorder. We of course see in Diana Trilling’s participation in the drama of the struggle for order in the twentieth century the influence of Lionel Trilling, but it is more to the point to see that the two critics share in the same effort; and in doing so share in the common effort of all the best literary minds of the century.
1. I am indebted to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich for allowing me to read the edited manuscript of The Beginning of the Journey.
2. It may be noted that I ignore the question of the relation between the literary identity of Diana Trilling and the fact that she is Jewish. Doing so I follow her own insistence—so contrary to the present-day preoccupation with ethnicity—on the unimportance of the ethnic factor either in her life or in Lionel Trilling’s life. She says in her memoir: “Like Lionel but unlike most of the Jewish intellectuals of our generation, I had the childhood of an American who happened to be a Jew, not that of a Jew who happened to be an American.” This made a great deal of difference. It also made a difference that by the 1920s, as Irving Howe has explained, that the cosmopolitan intellectual life in New York City encouraged Jews with intellectual aspirations to adopt “secular and universalist values.” Of the time Lionel Trilling began his career William Phillips has observed: “One thought less of one’s ethnicity than of one’s internationalism and concerns for humanity as a whole. We thought of literature and our literary profession not as Jews, but as heirs of the Western tradition.” A good summation of the question of Lionel Trilling’s Jewishness is in Stephen L. Tanner’s Lionel Trilling (New York, 1988, 10-17). Also, see an earlier comment on this question in Lewis P. Simpson, “Lionel Trilling and the Agency of Terror,” Partisan Review (Winter, 1987), 18-35.
3. Diana Trilling’s insight with respect to Sartre is supported in Tony Judt’s brilliant study, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
4. Diana Trilling’s complex ideas about what she calls the “American feminine fate” deserve exploration at length. See especially her essays in We Must March My Darlings in the section labelled “Women’s Liberation” (“Female Biology in a Male Culture” and “The Prisoner of Sex”) and the section called “We Must March My Darlings” (the record of the author’s return to Radcliffe in 1971).