The Trillings

Sidney Hook, "The Trillings," October 1, 2015.


I 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.