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A Life of Significant Contention

November 03, 1996|MORRIS DICKSTEIN | Morris Dickstein teaches English at the City University of New York. He is the author of several books, including "Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties" and, most recently, "Double Agent: The Critic and Society," which has just been reissued in paperback by Oxford University Press

When Diana Trilling died on Oct. 23, at the age of 91, she had fulfilled at least one burning ambition: to be remembered not as the widow of Lionel Trilling, the celebrated literary critic, but as a writer and cultural figure in her own right. She was someone who brought the values of an older intellectual tradition to bear on more recent issues of national concern. She had first appeared in print as the regular fiction reviewer for the Nation in the 1940s. In the '50s she began contributing lengthy essays to Partisan Review, the house journal of New York intellectuals, on sensational Cold War subjects like the Alger Hiss case and the denial of security clearance to J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the inventors of the atomic bomb.

Where her husband dealt with culture and politics from his airy perch as a literary man, Diana Trilling was irresistibly drawn to political controversy and quickly developed a reputation as a high-minded, relentless polemicist. She took stands, signed ads and petitions, sat on committees and quickly made many enemies.

While all the New York intellectuals despised Stalinism, she became known, largely because of her strenuous style, as a "hard" anti-communist, someone who wielded anti-communism as a litmus test of political virtue. In fact, she was a classic liberal and lifelong centrist, as critical of McCarthyism as of communism, just as in the '60s she would condemn both the Vietnam War and the illiberal tactics of some of its opponents.

Trilling's detractors were right in one sense: Her sharpest darts were always directed at the progressives, with their sometimes reflexive radicalism; it was their arguments, or lack of them, that she would subject to patient, often humorless rational analysis. Ponderously, she castigated the "reluctance of our critics to submit to rigorous examination any political or social idea which is presented to them under the aspect of enlightened dissidence."

Her style of debate could keep her willfully blind to the moral passions that surrounded her. In the aftermath of her stringent report on the Columbia student uprising of 1968, poet Robert Lowell pictured her as "some housekeeping goddess of reason, preferring the confines of her mind to experience, and pronouncing on the confusion of the crowd." With typical fairness, she reprinted Lowell's attacks and her spirited replies in a collection of her essays.

I, too, had long been put off by the censoriousness of her writing. The first piece I read, a report on the famous Beat reading at Columbia in the late 1950s, offended me for its middle-class self-satisfaction, its condescension not only to the poets but also to their young audience ("so many young girls, so few of them pretty . . . so many young men, so few of them--despite the many black beards--with any promise of masculinity"). I was a Columbia undergraduate at the time and though I had little initial liking for the Beats, it took me years to understand the mixture of affection, disapproval and fascination that attracted her to the rebellious subjects she invariably wrote about. She had always been subject to crippling fears and phobias. But her cloistered domestic life and protective marriage only increased her feeling for contingency, risk and self-display, which she could neither condone nor quite set aside.

Trilling had an exquisite sense of propriety. Sixty years was not long enough for her to forget any social slight or breach of manners. She devoted her energy to defending something most intellectuals undervalued: the middle-class family, the strict code of behavior and morality, the rational habits of mind, that she thought made social life possible. In her writing, large simple words like "loyalty," "integrity," "honor" and "courage"--words that Hemingway said were hollowed out by war, words that Orwell tried to resuscitate--come suddenly alive. "To witness his courage was a privilege of my life," she said of the behavior of Richard Ellmann, the biographer of Joyce, when his wife took gravely ill.

She loved the talk of intellectuals, "the easy discursiveness, the free range of reference, the refusal of received ideas, the always ready wit," but it shocked her that brilliant, gifted people could behave rudely or dishonorably.

When Lionel Trilling died in 1975, his widow, already past 70, had published only a single collection of essays. She might have occupied herself with sorting out his archive. Indeed, she collected his letters and articles and brought out a 12-volume edition of his work. But she also went on in her 70s and 80s to do her best writing, more vivid, vibrant and independent than almost anything she had previously written. To the last, her clarity of mind remained formidable. The shadow of his reputation had been lifted from her. More and more, she came to seem like the intellectual conscience of New York, a figure of probity and integrity out of a different era. This was when I came to know and admire her.

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