For the literary cognoscenti, the title of this study of twentieth-century literary critic Diana Trilling is an obvious clue, referencing her husband Lionel Trilling’s unpublished novel The Middle of the Journey and her memoir The Beginning of the Journey.
Author Natalie Robins’s initial interest in Diana Trilling was sparked by her investigation into Lionel Trilling’s FBI files for a book she was writing; she visited Diana to get her perspective on the information contained therein.
To write about Diana, Robins searched the well known couple’s diaries and extensive archives. In contemporary jargon “Di and Li” would be known as a “power couple.” From the 1930s through the late 1960s they were part of a group of New York, mostly Jewish, intellectuals whose literary criticism and political activities received major attention.
The couple was involved with the prestigious Partisan Review,edited by Philip Rahv and William Phillips, and attended parties with writers such as Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Gertrude Himmelfarb. There, Diana, in the shadow of her famous husband, whose work she frequently edited, often felt “snubbed.” Throughout her life she suffered family tensions, personal jealousies, and acerbic outbursts, all of which are detailed by Robins from a psychoanalytic perspective.
Eventually Diana worked her way up to become a highly-respected critic. She had her own column in The Nation writing fiction reviews, some of which earned the wrath of writers, including Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Her opinion pieces — about Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and the death of Marilyn Monroe — also courted controversy. In 1980, Diana published a bestselling book, Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor. She continued to write, mentor, and lecture until her death in 1996.
When Diana died, her New York Times obituary recognized her as “an uncompromising cultural and social critic and a member of the circle of writers, thinkers, and polemicists of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, known as the New York Intellectuals.”
With this biography, one thinks of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage/and then is heard no more.” Robins has given Diana Trilling an encore.