Diana Trilling: Guerrilla Feminist


When female biographers examine subjects of the same gender via traditionalist institutions (marriage, motherhood), feminists are quick to blast them for affirming the male stereotype of women writers as being unable to write about anything unconnected to a man.

But such a view is a-historical when one is dealing with a subject that did not come of age in the Feminist Movement of the 1960s, and deprives the reader of a kind of guerrilla feminism going on beneath traditional roles.

Natalie Robins in this good but often frustrating biography manages to rescue Diana Trilling, Nation reviewer, essayist and one of the founding members of liberal anti-Communism, from the looming shadow of her better-known and more pedigreed husband, Lionel Trilling, a Columbia professor and one of America’s foremost literary critics.

Diana, both a stay-at-home mother and professional writer, is called a “family feminist” by Robins; but given how women juggle both careers and motherhood today, in violation of what 60s era and politically correct feminists demanded and still demand to this very day—that is, focusing solely on career and not on anything that compromises it—Trilling could be called a forerunner of post-feminism.
The portrait of Trilling that emerges in this biography is a figure as intellectually rigorous as her husband. She was so gifted a reviewer that she both struck fear in and admiration from male authors; one Austrian refugee writer found the prospect of her reviewing his books scarier than life under Hitler; at the same time, Lionel’s rival as America’s foremost man of letters, Edmund Wilson, saw her wasting her talent on book reviews, and encouraged her to engage in the more difficult genre of essays. Others, such as Norman Mailer, no feminist by any stretch of the imagination, regarded Trilling’s talent so highly that he sought out her literary advice.

But perhaps the ultimate recognition of her talent came courtesy of Robins’ daring to focus on her stormy and at times mentally abusive marriage. For decades, literary historians have mocked Diana’s claim that she taught Lionel how to write. Robins, by affirming that Lionel had all of her blue-penciled drafts of his writings burned, finally lays this matter to rest.

When one considers that Diana achieved her literary success basically on her own (although she got Lionel to recommend her for the book reviewing slot at The Nation) while at the same time raising a child at the age of 43, editing her husband, and laboring under the triple burden of being hopelessly neurotic and phobic, Diana comes off as more authentically feminist than those from the same era lauded by the Women’s Movement today: Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman.

Both McCarthy and Hellman achieved their literary success through romantic associations with male writers. McCarthy basically slept her way into a literary education; she ended her affair with Philip Rahv, editor of Partisan Review to marry Edmund Wilson because, in the words of her contemporaries, the latter had “a better prose style.” And for all her hatred of Wilson after their divorce, McCarthy did acknowledge that she owed her success as a short story writer to her former husband.

Hellman used her relationship with Dashiell Hammett to learn how to write. In rare moments of candor, she stated that she could not write without him nearby, and even credited him as the sole author of her celebrated play, The Little Foxes.

Both were extremely—forgive the expression—catty toward Trilling; McCarthy was particularly scornful and dismissed Trilling’s literary success as solely because of Lionel; not even their shared disgust with Hellman’s Stalinism could unite them.

One cannot help thinking however that some of these sour grapes could have come from her being a much cannier political thinker than they were. While leftists were praising Hellman’s willingness to discuss her own political history but not those of her friends before HUAC, Trilling detected Hellman’s underlying adherence to the Communist Party line when the witness “whitewashed” her friends of any Communist thinking. Her carefully wording denouncement to the contrary about her misspent allegiance to Stalin, Trilling knew—correctly—that Hellman never gave up the ghost on the dictator; up to her death in 1984 Hellman was telling her admirers that Stalin was right (statements rarely mentioned in biographies of her).

McCarthy was incapable of Trilling’s ability to hold two independent stances on the Vietnam War. Self-advertised as a premature anti-communist, McCarthy fell head over heels for the Vietcong. She gushed as much as the intellectually-challenged Jane Fonda during McCarthy’s 1967 trip to Hanoi; and despite their clear Stalinist characteristics, McCarthy praised them with as much fervor as the kind of “useful idiots” toward Stalin she once mocked.

Trilling, by turns, both criticized the military aspect of the US effort in Vietnam, and instead asserted that the aid should be economic in nature. But she got Ho Chi Minh’s number from the start, and correctly predicted what would happen in the event of an immediate American withdrawal from South Vietnam: a genocidal bloodbath by the Vietcong. Trilling was even correct in her assessment about the lifespan of the Soviet Union. While her fellow male liberal anti-Communists such as the Harvard-educated Arthur Schlesinger Jr. mocked Ronald Reagan’s 1982 claim that the Soviet Union was set to implode, Trilling shared the then-President’s prediction that was validated in 1989.

It must be said that Robins breaks new ground in her minute and necessary focus on the Trilling marriage. The Lionel who emerges from this book will not please his fans; both liberal and conservative. In these pages he is petty, jealous (chiefly of Diana), and constantly berates her. Long blasting her for being a neurotic wife, he is revealed to be just as neurotic, with an added dose of paranoia.

But she never follows up on promising leads worthy of exploration. The comparison between McCarthy and Hellman which occurs early in this review was the work of this reviewer; and never entertained by Robins.

Neither does she consider, as did one male admirer, how much Dianna resembled George Orwell. Such a comparison, which shows just how scrappy and prescient she was, could have further enhanced the reputation of this “family feminist.” For like Orwell, she was far too independent to fit into any “socialist” category. Indeed, her assertions to the contrary, Trilling really wasn’t liberal, but shared with Orwell a stubborn conservative streak.

Robins, who reported in her first meeting with Trilling that she planted a kiss on Diana’s forehead, has filtered this affection bordering on worship into the book by allowing Diana the last word on political matters. Amazingly, she has written an almost context-free book; and without this crucial factor, the reader cannot truly see how gutsy and independent Trilling truly was in opposition to the leftist zeitgeist of the 1930s.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.

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