In the early 1980s, my father, the philosopher Sidney Hook, had a stroke and almost died. He had been working on his autobiography but had not yet completed it. I sought to preserve some of his unrecorded memories on tape should he die before he finished the book. He recovered, and his autobiography, Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century, was published in 1987. He passed away in 1989 at the age of 86. While some topics we discussed were eventually included in the autobiography, others were not, among them these remembrances of the critics Lionel Trilling (1905–1975) and his wife Diana Trilling (1905–1996). What follows is an edited and somewhat reorganized version of my father’s spoken recollections about them.
first met Lionel Trilling at the artists’ colony at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, in the summer of 1931 (or maybe 1932; I was at Yaddo for two or three years). I was impressed by a certain gentleness of outlook. He had just come to terms with the fact that he was Jewish, though his own longing would have been to have been born into an English literary family. He was then engaged in writing a dissertation on Matthew Arnold. That summer I believe I won him over to a kind of revolutionary Marxist position—it was the climate of the times, the depths of the Depression, and the general movement of intellectuals toward the left. For a period of six weeks, I saw him daily. We would walk and talk together about many things. I was impressed by his sensitivity to modern literature. I still recall his attempts to make James Joyce’s Ulysses intelligible to me.
After we left Yaddo, we were in touch by phone quite often, and on many occasions he would call me to sound me out, mostly on political questions of the time. In general he would talk about political affairs and complain bitterly about the factionalism of the Marxist groups. Diana Trilling, his wife, was, I think, more interested in politics than Lionel.1 She contributed to his political development. Before long, he and Diana Trilling were regarded as Trotskyites by virtue of their association with Herbert Solow2 and with me—though actually they never had any organizational connection with the Trotskyist groups and were not very clear about the importance of the division among the warring factions of the left.
We discussed the factions within the non-Communist Marxist groups and also the outrageous behavior and actions of the American Stalinists. Even during those halcyon days of fellow-traveling, we constituted a rather special group. Our fundamental orientation, I think, was civil-libertarian and even traditionally liberal. We believed that the transformation of the social order would be one way of furthering these liberal values, which we didn’t question. We knew very little about the Soviet Union, and since Hitler was already on the scene, we tended to discount some of the adverse reports that came from critics and some pilgrims to the USSR, on the ground that the main enemy was Fascism and the threat of a victory by Hitler would plunge the world into war.
Lionel was also very much interested in Freudian analysis. It was one subject on which we did not see eye to eye. I made no bones about my critical attitude toward Sigmund Freud, and Lionel was in no position to counter the methodological objections I raised to the superstructure of Freudianism. In fact, I was much better read in the literature of Freud and psychoanalysis than were he and Diana.
At that time, although I didn’t know about it until much later, Diana had become a fanatical believer in psychoanalysis and in the great vision and psychological insight of D.H. Lawrence. Many years later, after the political wars were over, so to speak, at a party at the home of Irving and Bea Kristol,3 I asked Lionel about the rumor I had heard that Diana Trilling regarded Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a great work of art. I had examined a few pages, and it had left me cold. I said to Lionel, “Well, I am rather critical of Lawrence, particularly of his social views. What do you think? Shall I discuss my critical attitude towards Lawrence with Diana?” And I still recall him saying to me, “If you do, she’ll scratch your eyes out.” I don’t think she would have. Anyhow, she really was a very intelligent woman.
Diana was a very aggressive believer in Freudianism and very much annoyed with people like me who, whenever the question arose, raised critical objections. I still remember with amusement an incident. One evening she turned on me and said, “Well, I don’t see why you’re a critic of psychoanalysis since it gives such an obvious explanation of your career and behavior.”
I asked her what she meant. She said, “Well, you’re very aggressive, you’re very analytical, and you’re very argumentative, so it’s obvious this is compensatory.”
I said, “What is it compensatory for?”
“A small penis,” she said!
I laughed, and I said, “How do you know? It’s purely a priori!” It’s part of Freudian theory, I suppose.
Lionel’s interest in Freud developed before that in Marx, and persisted afterwards. He had an astonishingly profound interest in sexuality. But the extraordinary thing about Lionel and Diana is that they were exceedingly proper in their manner. I remember the first time that Ann Zinkin and I, before we married, had dinner at their home. Ann, in her typical uninhibited way, expressed some dismay, if not disdain, for the elaborate appointments of the apartment and the refinements of the service, to a degree that was almost impolite on her part. She felt that people who claimed to be revolutionists ought not to live either on that level or be so mindful of the proprieties.
Eliseo Vivas,4 to whom they had sublet their apartment one summer while he was teaching at Columbia and they were living in their home at Westport, made an interesting but possibly unjust comment about them. He was a Venezuelan and had a bravura personality. He said to Ann and me once that he liked the Trillings very much indeed but they had a sort of chilling effect on his exuberance, and that he would never dream of telling an off-color story to them. Now, if I ever reported that to the Trillings, they would have been devastated, because Diana and to some extent Lionel talked a great deal about sexuality—but in a literary way.
It was quite clear to me that Lionel wasn’t very highly sexed, but on the basis of his literary reading, he had a very deep ambition for sexual adventures that he never indulged in. Diana lived in perpetual fear that he might get involved with someone else. Although she made a fetish of women’s independence and so on, she would have been utterly devastated if he had ever left her. And, I think, she kept him on a pretty tight leash. Not obviously, but wherever he went, she went.
There were, of course, exceptions. In 1932 or 1933, he once called to ask me to join him for lunch with Whittaker Chambers5 in the hope of converting him to my brand of Marxism. That night Trilling called me, and I asked him, “How did it go?” And he said, “Sidney, I don’t understand—I don’t understand Whit. When you left, I turned to him and said, ‘Well Whit, you heard what he said. What do you think about it?’ And you know what he said to me? He said, ‘Lionel, I don’t trust that man, he has a Social Democratic face.’ ” Now that was typical Whittaker Chambers.
When Diana read that in an article I’d written for Encounter magazine in 1976, she called me to say that I must have been mistaken about Lionel’s being at the meeting. It must have been with Herbert Solow or Meyer Schapiro6 or someone else, she insisted.
In fact, she later called Schapiro to find out whether it had been him. Meyer told her, “It couldn’t have been me because Sidney told me that story.” Indeed, I told that story very often before I wrote about it. And I’m only sorry that I didn’t write about it while Lionel was alive.
In correspondence that was published in Encounter, it becomes clear why she objected so bitterly to my description of that episode. She didn’t deny that I had the meeting with Whittaker Chambers, but she maintained that it couldn’t have been with Lionel, too. She was so insistent because after the publication of Lionel’s novel The Middle of the Journey, Lionel denied that the leading character had some resemblance to Chambers. But later he conceded that. He also assessed Chambers as an honorable man. But, although he admitted knowing Chambers, he described his knowledge as if it were a very distant acquaintanceship.
The Middle of the Journey is about a man who is very much drawn to the Communist Party and is visited by a friend who is a member of the Communist Party. The friend asks him to do very confidential work for the Party. You have to read the novel to see its appropriateness, and you must remember that, although it was set in the 1930s, it was published in 1947—before the revelations by Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers in 1948, about American Communists who served as spies for the Soviet Union.
One day when Ann and I were having tea or dinner with the Trillings and we spoke about Whittaker Chambers, Diana told us that he had approached Lionel and asked Lionel, or the Trillings, to be a letter drop for him. And then Diana added, cocking her head at Lionel, “And that dope said yes! Until I put my foot down.”
Lionel had written that the last time he saw Chambers was in ’32. The tentative year that I gave to my meeting was ’33, though it could very well have been ’32. I don’t remember the year. But I still remember Diana writing to me and saying, “Show me your datebook for those years which notes you dined with Lionel and Chambers!” This was many years later. I never had a datebook in my life! And if I had a datebook for 1933 or ’34, would I have kept it to then? But what she implied was this: If I had had this meeting with Lionel, then it would be giving Lionel the lie, in a sense that it would show that he had met Chambers after the date when he said was the last time he saw him.
I pointed out that first, it might be possible that Lionel forgot the date and second, I indicated I wasn’t sure of the year. And third, I indicated it didn’t make a particle of difference. I was talking about Chambers, and the significant thing about that lunch was not the people with whom Chambers was dining but the aftermath: Chambers’s comment after I left, having criticized the Stalinist’s theory of social fascism without hearing anything except grunts from Chambers.
So it wasn’t very important that I met him with Lionel Trilling, or with anybody else—though the Lord knows that I couldn’t have made that mistake since I’d been telling the story about 50 times before I wrote about it.
I also got annoyed a little bit with Lionel because, although he did say that Chambers was an honorable man, he gave the impression that he knew him at a distance. As if he thought, well, he didn’t want to be tarred with the revolutionary pitch of those years. He couldn’t have been this kind of a casual acquaintance since Chambers had asked him to be a letter drop, among other things. And we knew that he was very, very close to Chambers in these years.
But that’s not important. What is important is the fact that none of us close to him recognized Trilling’s literary stature—Elliot Cohen,7 Herbert Solow, and Lionel Trilling’s associates at Columbia, Meyer Schapiro and Ernest Nagel.8 If we’re to take the measure of Lionel Trilling by contemporary standards, then most of us simply were opaque in our judgments.
We liked Lionel, but he never could offer an argument in defense of a position. He was well-spoken and articulate, but not argumentative. He was closer to Jacques Barzun,9 who was not political at all and who had from our point of view a suspicious association with Mortimer Adler10 and the Neo-Thomists. We were very contemptuous of Barzun because of his book Darwin, Marx, Wagner, in which he was critical of Darwin and, as I recall, took a sort of a Lamarckian position. I don’t know the details of that, but Ernest Nagel and Meyer Schapiro, all who used to meet at Columbia, passed that judgment.
So I was surprised by the adulation Lionel later received. When I look back, he was a target of all sorts of attacks by radicals in Partisan Review. They all were trying to prove that his thinking was as bourgeois as his personality. This was greatly unjust. In fact, in response to criticisms of him in the Partisan Review by Irving Howe (“This Age of Conformity,” January/February 1954), I wrote a piece in defense. I sent the article to Partisan Review, and they sent me the galleys. But to my astonishment, they didn’t print my article, because, the editors told me, Lionel didn’t want me to publish it. He didn’t want to get into a controversy.
I believed that at the time. But I’m beginning to wonder. Many years later I wrote to him and told him what had happened. He denied that he had asked the magazine not to run the piece. I had been planning to republish the piece elsewhere, but it was already dated by then.
Some of the criticisms of Lionel—that he wanted to be an English squire, an English gentleman—were very unfair. In his book New York Jew, Alfred Kazin accused Lionel Trilling of a desire to achieve great respectability and even of a desire to cover up his Jewish antecedents. Kazin didn’t hesitate even to invent incidents. He maintained, to prove how great Lionel Trilling’s desire for respectability was, that in the ’30s he asked Lionel Trilling to review some book for the New Republic. At that time Kazin was working at the magazine, and he reported that Lionel Trilling said that he would not write for any publication unless it enhanced his reputation. On the face of it, Trilling could not have said that for the simple reason that in the ’30s any contribution to the New Republic would have enhanced his reputation. He would never have given that as an argument for not writing. Kazin, by implying that Trilling was trying to cover his Jewish antecedents, showed both ignorance and malice. Lionel Trilling, in a series of articles in the Menorah Journal,11 long before Commentary existed, in the ’30s wrote about the Jewish problem and the problem of Jews in the academy, and so on. Actually writing about it so conspicuously, if anything during those anti-Semitic years, imperiled or prejudiced his academic career.
Lionel has been called a literary milquetoast. But that would be unfair. He did take positions that ran counter to the dominant stream. He was critical of Stalinists. He was critical of the sociological interpretations of literature. And he became aware of the adversary nature, that phrase of his that’s become part of literature: the “adversary culture” of the intellectual life in America. It was directed against the status quo in the United States—and that, in a way, there were no conservative ideas, only liberal ones, and they took a form that was perverted by either admiration or an uncritical attitude toward the Soviet Union.
He should be given credit for his leadership on this point. It is significant and deplorable that just as soon as he died, people who had attacked him as betraying the pure milk of radicalism, people like Irving Howe and, at that time, William Barrett,12 wrote essays to prove that they really were in agreement with him all the time.
Compared with other critics, he must be first-rate. But I don’t know the literature, I can’t judge. But I do think Lionel Trilling had no impact on the ideas of intellectuals in this country, outside of literature and literary issues. His primary significance was to lend certain academic and literary significance to the anti-Stalinist movement, since most of the fellow-traveling Communist intellectuals in the academy were drawn from English departments. But he also, I think, had a healthy influence on younger radical literary people, those of a generation later than ours who saw in him a model of critical integrity and political and social independence. So I think that his greatest influence, though I am not in a position to measure it, has been on left-leaning literary people in the ’50s and ’60s.
Now, there is one hiatus in this portrait of his thought. During the Vietnam War, although he, together with most of us, felt that the United States, having entered Vietnam, ought to finish the job, before it was over he fell under the influence of the English intellectuals, all of whom were bitterly anti-American, particularly to involvement in the Vietnam War. Before the war wound down to its melancholy, disastrous conclusion, he and Diana signed one of those round robins denouncing the United States. He died soon after.
That was the end of Diana Trilling’s political career, too. She couldn’t bring herself to join in the New Left crusade against the United States, but she ceased exposing the Communist machinations against the free world, on which she was an authority, and on which she had been a very effective spokesman.
1 Diana and Lionel Trilling were married from 1929 until his death in 1975.
2 Herbert Solow (1901–1964) was a Columbia University classmate and friend of Lionel Trilling, Meyer Schapiro, and Whittaker Chambers at Columbia. He became a Trotskyite in the 1930s but remained a loyal friend of Chambers despite the latter’s turn to Stalinism. Later, Solow helped Chambers emerge from the Soviet espionage underground.
3 Better known as the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb.
4 Eliseo Vivas (1901–1993) was a philosopher and literary critic.
5 Whittaker Chambers (1901–1961) became a Soviet spy in the 1930s but broke with Communism in 1938. He achieved national attention after his revelations about Soviet espionage in which he participated, and his naming of numerous fellow conspirators, notably Alger Hiss—about which he wrote his autobiography, Witness.
6 Meyer Schapiro (1904–1996), a boyhood friend of Hook and classmate of Trilling, Chambers, and Solow, became a famous art critic and professor of art history at Columbia. A Trotskyite in the 1930s, he opposed American participation in the fight against Nazi Germany during World War II.
7 Elliot Cohen (1899–1959) was the founding editor of Commentary.
8 Ernest Nagel (1901–1985) was a professor of philosophy at Columbia and close friends with Sidney Hook and Meyer Schapiro from early years.
9 Jacques Barzun (1907–2012) was a professor of history at Columbia.
10 Mortimer Adler (1902–2001) had been an undergraduate at Columbia with Whittaker Chambers. As a professor of the University of Chicago, he became a great supporter of a neo-Thomist Aristotelian perspective, at odds with viewpoints widely held in Marxist and “liberal” communities.
11 Menorah Journal was the first serious intellectual Jewish magazine; one of its managing editors was Elliot Cohen.
12 William Barrett (1913–1992) was a professor of philosophy at New York University. Initially a self-styled non-Stalinist Marxist, he later became an early interpreter of the existentialists.