Journeys Without End
by Natalie Robins
Columbia University Press, 424 pp., $32.95
Diana Trilling was a celebrated 20th-century writer, a literary critic, an essayist and memoirist, and an energetic participant in her era’s countless ideological controversies. She was also the wife of Lionel Trilling, who could be described as the greatest mid-century American critic. Theirs was an intellectual marriage. It was creative and fraught, and from their private conversation arose two distinct public careers, though, according to biographer Natalie Robins, Diana Trilling was not just a discussant and editor of her husband’s work. She was an unacknowledged co-author, a muse who sat behind the typewriter.
Robins develops this thesis throughout The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling. Robins’s title is an allusion to an allusion to an allusion. Lionel Trilling borrowed the title of his 1947 novel, The Middle of the Journey, from the celebrated first line of Dante’s Divine Comedy about finding oneself in a dark wood at the middle of life’s journey. Diana Trilling, in turn, punned on the title of her husband’s novel in the title of her memoir of their marriage, The Beginning of the Journey, published after his death in 1975. Diana’s journey was not exactly untold; indeed, she was fond of telling it, but never has her story been so extensively narrated as it is in The Untold Journey.
Lionel Trilling and Diana Rubin were both born to middle-class Jewish families in 1905. They met in New York in their early twenties and married in 1929. Lionel launched an illustrious academic career at Columbia in 1932, rising to eminence in the late 1940s through essays on politics, society, and culture that were equally timely and timeless. Drawing on interviews with Diana as well as on extensive archival material, Robins argues that by the mid-1930s, Diana Trilling was already her husband’s writing partner.