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The Trilling family "romance": report of a psychoanalytic autopsy.


IN 1999, I edited a book addressing the critical legacy of Lionel Trilling. The volume was entitled Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves, with the sub-title representing a nod both to Trilling's own essay collection, The Opposing Self(1955), and to his endless modulations and modifications of being. Lionel Trilling and the Critics charted and evaluated the critical reputation of Trilling, taking the story of his career, influence, and heritage from the 1930s through the late 1990s.

This essay concerns what I deem to be a new, and in some ways quite alarming, turn in his reputation, which may indeed signal the emerging twenty-first century image of Trilling, characterized by a fascination and even an obsession with the man's character flaws and personality quirks.

I say all this because I have been struck by the fact that his two most powerful, and in many ways subversive, critics in the last dozen years have been members of his own family, his widow Diana and his son James, both of whom have probed his psychological condition and discussed aspects of his private life that he worked carefully to veil. I will argue here that, although both Diana and James Trilling have told me personally that their intentions were not at all to shift public focus from Trilling's impressive body of literary criticism and fiction to his personal conduct and his private life, let alone to damage his reputation or tarnish his legacy, their critiques have indeed set in motion a process of revisionism that has already begun to overshadow Trilling's intellectual achievement.


In September 1973, the British poet John Holloway wrote: "In our literary-academic world, Trilling has to be called a heroic figure, almost the only one." (1) Since his death in November 1975 at the age of seventy, the encomia to Trilling as a culture hero, at least among Anglo-American literary intellectuals, have only reaffirmed Holloway's tribute--as witnessed by the scholarly books devoted to his career and by the polemical Right-Left battles for his mantle. (2)

Trilling's own great culture hero was Sigmund Freud, whom he admired for his brilliant, pioneering intellectual feats and his defiance of Victorian prudery. So it is ironic that, as the new century opens, Trilling's own life has come to resemble a Freudian family romance, with his widow Diana displaying what some harsh critics have deemed an unseemly envy of her famous husband, and with his son James engaging in nothing less than vengeful patricide. The conversation among the Trilling critics and scholars who gathered in November 2005 for the "Lionel Trilling Centenary Conference" at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette was much preoccupied with the "case" of Trilling, with all of the psychoanalytic resonances of the term.

Because the chief impetus toward a revisionist view of Trilling's life began with Diana Trilling's 1993 memoir, The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling, and because the contentions of James Trilling about his father's mental health, are based on the private cassette tapes that Mrs. Trilling (who had become legally blind by the time she was finishing her memoir) recorded as drafts of her book, this article will draw on my correspondence and interviews with Mrs. Trilling about her motivation for writing her memoir of the marriage. As I hope to show, they disclose her not as a harsh critic, but--in her own eyes--as Lionel's staunch defender, the champion of his truest self. In her view, she combats the false, genteel literary critic, the Trilling voice of Sincerity, and instead honors the daring, creative would-be writer, Trilling the novelist, the man beneath the masks and beyond the myths, the voice of Authenticity.


The key document in the posthumous Trilling "case history"--or psychoanalytic autopsy--is James Trilling's memoir in the spring 1999 issue of The American Scholar. (3) In that essay James proposed an understanding of Lionel's suffering that differs from Lionel's own self-understanding. "My father's worst problem was not neurosis, it was a neurological condition, Attention Deficit Disorder," James Trilling writes. He is not a medically trained diagnostician--he is an independent scholar specializing in Byzantine art and the history of ornament. But he seeks to make a case by drawing on his own experience as someone who suffers from A.D.D., a cognitive disorder affecting the mind's ability to focus.

Yet much of the conduct that James mentions--most notably, Lionel's battles with writer's block, his drinking problem, his bouts of depression, and his periodic rages against his wife, Diana, during which he would castigate her for all hardships and struggles in his life--was described by Diana in The Beginning of the Journey--her last substantial statement about her husband before her death in 1996. "I very much disliked the image of Lionel as someone immune to profanation," she wrote. "I felt that it lessened and falsified him. I preferred him in all his vulnerable humanity." She wanted to present a rounded picture of the man, including his shadow self and darker sides, so that he would be seen in Arnoldian terms plain and whole, rather than "so narrowly."

When Diana's memoir was published, I was among those who were surprised, if not at moments shocked, by it. I had been corresponding with her about her husband, but I was unaware of the iconoclastic drift of her thinking about his reputation. In September 1989, Mrs. Trilling replied in a letter to my contention that Trilling's exalted status among American intellectuals resembles George Orwell's revered standing among most British intellectuals (except on the Marxist Left). She endorsed this view and added:
  Your analysis of the Orwell myth-making is very impressive. I should
  be most interested to see you track down the myths about my husband.
  You must just be patient until I get my book out. I suppose that wives
  are inevitably the greatest myth-makers of all, but I hope that I
  don't fall into this category.

She concluded that she felt the Lionel Trilling myths were so discrepant from the man's life and character because younger intellectuals who never knew him that well, or sometimes never even met him, were projecting their neuroses and fantasies onto him.
  I at least knew my subject for almost fifty years, which is more than
  I can say for the people who came to their personal conclusions wholly
  on hearsay. In fact, it's the snowballing of mere rumor that irritates
  me. I understand [that such] people [are] having their own symbolical
  images of their friends and, even more, their teachers or fellow
  writers. (4)

The motivation and the thrust of The Beginning of the Journey had not been clear to me until I came to see that challenging Trilling's intellectual colleagues--and shattering their genteel image of him (which I shared and which he certainly promoted)--was the driving force behind Mrs. Trilling's passion, though she was near-blind and in her 80s, to write her memoir. She elaborated her views in another letter to me:
  The [Steven] Marcuses, [Norman] Podhoretzes, and [Irving] Howes, et al
  have all been part of the myth-making process. It is because I agree
  with your belief that this process serves complex needs other than
  biographical accuracy that I decided to write this book. The
  prevailing picture of Lionel as the gentle, well-mannered man of
  letters would have sickened him as it sickened me. In many ways his
  life was complicated and hard, consonant with the hard complexity of
  his thought. He was also gentle and well-mannered.

Instead Mrs. Trilling responded to my request to pursue a biographical essay on Trilling and make use of her husband's papers at Columbia as follows:
  I am afraid that at the present time I cannot encourage you to
  undertake a biography of Lionel Trilling or any study which
  importantly depends on biographical material. You are apparently
  unaware that I am myself just completing a book which, while not
  exactly a biographical study, at least temporarily usurps that field:
  the book is called The Beginning of the Journey and is about the lives
  of Lionel Trilling and myself as children and as adults, separately
  and together, up to the year 1950, when we both reached the age of 45
  and when both of our careers were well established.

Rather like Orwell's widow, Sonia, who severely restricted access to the Orwell Archive at London University until almost twenty years after his death (after the publication of her husband's four-volume Collected Essays, Journals, and Letters, 1968), Mrs. Trilling insisted on keeping all of Lionel's papers under her exclusive control until her memoir appeared. Unfortunately for me, she underestimated how long her book would take to complete, and I opted instead to do the aforementioned critical heritage volume on Trilling (which was published in 1999 under the title Lionel Trilling and the Critics). She told me:
  Obviously I cannot share this personal material with you now. But my
  proprietary claims will end with its publication sometime (I hope)
  next year when I will also open Lionel's archives at Columbia Library.
  You will then be free to pursue your own investigations and amend,
  contradict, expand my story as you wish. You will also, of course,
  have the material for new and wonderful insight into the connection
  between my husband's life and his work--I myself deal with this only
  cursorily. Mine is not an intellectual biography. All the relevant
  facts about my husband are included, many of them unknown not only to
  his memoirists and literary critics but also to his professional
  associates and even to his close friends. (5)

When I interviewed Mrs. Trilling in June 1990, and again in her Claremont Avenue apartment near Columbia University in July 1994, she expressed surprise that her revelations about her husband would disturb and dismay many of his admirers. In my 1994 interview, which occurred after the publication of The Beginning of the Journey, she told me that intellectuals tend not to possess much grace and generosity of spirit because "they are fiercely competitive and also self-obsessed." But she also confessed a certain empathy for self-absorbed intellectuals. She went on:
  To keep up this lonely work of being a writer, a literary
  intellectual--how else do you keep at it? It's so hard, it's so long
  and lonely a road, isn't it? If you don't think you have something
  special to offer, you wouldn't have the impulse to go on with it, I
  don't think.

Mrs. Trilling added that her generation was "naive and innocent" compared to young intellectuals today, especially in connection with "establishing themselves as writers, making a name for themselves in the literary world, and so on." Younger writers today seemed so much shrewder to her than intellectuals of her generation, but they also lacked a grace and generosity of spirit. She said:
  They've been given the gift of narcissism--which we were not given--we
  had to fight for it. The right to be narcissistic counted for
  something in the past. Nobody in my generation was given this gift.
  You got it because you knew that you had to have it in order to write.
  But these kids today have simply been handed the gift of narcissism.
  They are not intellectuals. And I am not just talking about "kids." I
  am talking about adults who are now in their forties and fifties. Just
  because they have published a story in The New Yorker or gotten tenure
  at a major university doesn't make them intellectuals. (6)


Whereas Diana Trilling's 400-page memoir simply mentions her husband's infrequent outbursts as occasional incidents in a long marriage, James Trilling goes much further, not only adding new information but also devoting exclusive attention and sustained analysis of his father's psychological condition--and diagnosing other family members (and himself) as well.

In a letter to me written in response to my invitation to contribute to Lionel Trilling and the Critics in May 1998, just weeks before his essay appeared in The American Scholar, James told me that he had made a policy of not writing about his parents because he did not want to trade on their reputations. I remember being very surprised when I saw his published essay shortly thereafter. (7) But he explained himself in similar terms to Ann Fadiman, daughter of Lionel's friend and Columbia classmate, Clifton Fadiman, and herself an old family friend of the Trillings. As the editor of The American Scholar, she had accepted James Trilling's essay for publication. "I have written a reminiscence of my family," James wrote her. "I do not wish to make a profession of being the son of the Trilling's, and this is the only article I plan to write about them. I knew that I had to write something almost as soon as I figured out my father had had A.D.D.," James continued:
  That was more than ten years ago. But I knew I couldn't publish it
  during my mother's lifetime. After she died, I thought I would write
  a short, simple piece. The further I got, the more I realized how
  complicated, and how exhausting, it was going to be to set the record
  straight. The emotional turmoil was considerable. But to my surprise,
  when I finished, I found that it had accomplished what I had hoped
  for. It let out much of the pressure I had built up from my
  bewildering childhood. It carried out my desire to perform a service
  for other people with ADD by showing that an intellectual leader could
  have it. And it enabled me, twenty-five years after his death, to
  understand my father much better than I ever did when he was alive.

James concluded: "I sensed that large areas of his personality were a facade, but only with the diagnosis of my own A.D.H.D. could I start to understand what might have led him to build it the way he did." (8)


Whatever his motives or his purposes in his American Scholar essay, James Trilling stresses his father's "near-total obliviousness to his surroundings," which James sees as the empty reality behind his father's social "mask." That word comes from a 1952 journal entry of his father in which Lionel confessed that his exalted status "really needs a mask." And Trilling evidently accepted this fact--and donned it, at the price of masking himself even to himself.

Lionel's self-alienation allegedly reflected a deep-seated fear of his own rage and "his struggle for self-control." James Trilling writes: "All my father's personality flaws, which continued to haunt my mother almost 20 years after his death, were symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder." He blames his father's absent-mindedness, secretiveness, anger, impatience, indecisiveness, bad driving, bad swimming, and bad tennis on the disorder.

Then he lays out the diagnoses of the rest of his family. His mother's affliction was "panic disorder with agoraphobia, which made her an emotional cripple for many years." His aunt had Tourette's Syndrome. His grandfather suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder. And so does he. Attention Deficit Disorder, he emphasizes, is "the most insidious culprit in my family." The son has few doubts about his diagnosis. "I have it, my father almost certainly had it, and in all likelihood his father had it too." Its main feature is "the inability to maintain a productive level of concentration ('focus') through the normal range of daily activities." (On hearing this, one Trilling admirer wrote jeeringly to the New York Times: "Gee, I wish I could have Lionel Trilling's disorder, the kind that is so crippling that you are forced to write important books, become a judicious critic, teach at a major university, and have a family too.")

Titled "My Father and the Weak-Eyed Devils" (the latter phrase alludes to Conrad's Heart of Darkness), James Trilling's essay concludes that Trilling Sr. was so blinded by his love of Freud and psychoanalysis that he missed his real disease and instead suffered unknowingly from Attention Deficit Disorder. The most damning charge the son levels against his father is the idea that Lionel Trilling's very thinking--not only his love of Freud, but his whole moral universe--was determined by Attention Deficit Disorder: "He saw the world as a practical and moral obstacle course, but it was the obstacles that fascinated him, not the ways around them. He loved to follow the path of most resistance, and where obstacles were lacking he turned all his ingenuity to inventing them."

James Trilling then challenges his father's literary judgment, particularly his attention to "complexity": "During his entire career as an interpreter of literature, I doubt my father ever solved a problem, in the sense of marshaling evidence to prove or disprove a theory. On the contrary, he built his career on the mistrust of certainties and was rarely content with a simple answer when a complex one could be found.... Of all 'simple' solutions, he mistrusted happiness the most. The idea of living happily ever after must have seemed almost crass to him. Certainly it left him all dressed up with no place to go."


Immediately upon its publication, James Trilling's essay triggered a firestorm of controversy in intellectual circles. The essay raised numerous large literary, cultural and psychological issues that reflected how significant Trilling's example remains to many intellectuals today and how controversial a subject such as A.D.D. has also become. For instance, James's essay caused literary-minded readers to wonder about the tradition of the essay and of "the American scholar" in the Emersonian sense--and indeed in a journal of that very title. Comparisons between Lionel and Emerson himself, as well as to James's analysis as reminiscent of George Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys!," were voiced by readers.

A second observation was that Lionel specialized in cultural criticism that often had a critical edge itself, and though some readers were damning about what they deemed James's "vulgar" article, other readers admired him for having treated a most delicate family matter that clearly had been agonizing for him to share publicly. But third, still other readers also dismissed his effort as that of a layman playing professional psychiatrist, a comment quick to be raised by trained psychiatrists themselves, who sometimes seemed to treat James as treading on their professional turf.

A fourth, related issue addressed the burdens and responsibilities that a child of famous parents such as Lionel and Diana Trilling faces. Did James betray his father? Or was he--as Diana saw herself--ultimately serving his father's best interests--and, moreover, aiding succeeding generations by informing them about how the disease had damaged his family and how liberating it had been for him to unburden himself in the act of writing this essay?

A fifth, linked issue was the question of whether A.D.D. was a serious medical or social issue that deserved such public treatment. Was it like dyslexia or alcoholism? Or was it so shameful, or still so much a private matter, that it was not fit for public disclosure unless Lionel himself had chosen to share it? Sixth, and finally, the essay raised the whole question of whether Lionel Trilling as an intellectual icon, a figure rather like George Orwell, who occupies a symbolical place in the wider culture, possesses a moral and political importance far greater than the cultural criticism alone of the scholar-writer warrants.

So the treatment of Lionel Trilling in his son's essay provoked both strong castigation and commendation from a wide variety of readers, and the accusations of exploitation, Oedipal revenge, and psycho-autopsy were legion. The mainstream press, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as opinion journals on the Right and the liberal-Left ranging from the The New Criterion and the Wall Street Journal to the New Republic, responded to James Trilling's essay. (9) Paul R. McHugh, the director of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, resigned from the editorial board of The American Scholar. He told the New York Times that he was outraged by the essay's "ignorance of diagnostic methods in psychiatry that let its author choose, on the most untrustworthy grounds, the trendy category of Attention Deficit Disorder, to pin on one's father, a serious and brilliant man of letters." Dr. McHugh went on not only to dismiss James's method but also to condemn his "hateful" motives:
  The essay serves no purpose other than the egotism of its author. He
  draws from a privileged relationship to attach a psychiatric label to
  his father. But, we learn nothing from this diagnosis--putting its
  inaccuracy aside--about those aspects of Lionel Trilling that make him
  an interesting figure in American letters and education....

  This essay is little more than sophisticated name-calling directed
  against a figure with high cultural visibility. As a piece of
  dabbler's psychiatry, it would have no general interest if the subject
  were unknown.... And for me more damning--is the use of psychiatric
  diagnoses and interpretations to settle personal scores. This is a
  hateful practice on its face--doubly so for a son to employ against a
  dead, defenseless father. But it is deplorable for other, more
  general, reasons. It debases an esteemed cultural figure by claiming
  to unveil secret mental flaws and unsuspected weaknesses of character.
  It augments the stigma attached to this mental illness by alleging it
  engendered an inadequate father, an inadequate teacher, an inadequate

The American Scholar published an extensive selection of the replies. The British literary critic Anthony Crafton wrote:
  The retrospective diagnosis of Lionel Trilling as suffering from
  attention deficit disorder didn't convince me. This seemed a sign of
  our own times, in which certain forms of medical explanation play the
  multiple, highly problematic roles in society and culture that
  Freudian ones played in the fifties, rather than a cogently argued

  It's a deeply felt effort to come to terms, looking not only
  backwards, but upwards from the child's infinitely vulnerable
  position, with the looming figure of a great adult. Such memoirs--
  George Orwell's essay "Such, Such Were the Joys" is a greater specimen
  of the genus--rarely do full justice to their subjects. But they shed
  a light of their own nonetheless, and they have a place in the
  tradition of English and American essay writing.

Meanwhile, Trilling admirer Robert Boyers, the editor of Salmagundi and author of the first critical study of Trilling, (10) declared:
  The son reduces his father to a pathetic symptomatology, a figure
  stripped of the qualities that can alone account for the extraordinary
  works he produced and the powerful effect he produced on many who knew
  him better than I....

  Is it not "vengeful" to portray one's father as a man inordinately
  committed to maintaining a facade of Olympian invulnerability and
  whose triumphs were in the main the product of fortunate circumstances
  and, in general, "a charmed life"? Only a writer in the grip of a
  "vengeful" ambition could so entirely fail to appreciate what is
  entailed in the struggle to produce a first-rate scholarly study, a
  shapely and strenuously argumentative literary essay, literary
  biography that decisively alters the thinking of a generation about an
  important figure like Matthew Arnold.

But James also had his defenders. Priscilla L. Vail praised him for "apply[ing] his intellect, his emotional archeology, and his humor to understanding the private people who lived inside his parents' public images, and that he then shares with us his insights about them and his honesty about himself, is an act of generosity." Several respondents went much further and castigated Dr. McHugh for his intemperate reaction and professional arrogance. Gregory Ludwig even made a harsh surmise about Dr. McHugh himself:
  Dr. McHugh seems to believe that only doctors, not family members,
  have the authority to make psychological interpretations of family
  matters. This constitutes the bureaucratizing of the most personal
  aspects of human life, and it is inimical to the very dedication to
  learning and self-knowledge that Phi Beta Kappa stands for....

  Might Dr. McHugh have been thinking that, with James Trilling's
  medical and psychological history, he couldn't possibly be a credible
  source on anything, let alone on the unimpeachable cultural icon of
  Lionel Trilling?

Summing up the jurisdictional dispute about whether the intellectual property rights in such psychological assessments belong to the experts or to the laymen was a letter by A.C. Willament that, although not formally siding with James, came down firmly against Dr. McHugh's "patronizing" assumption that "M.D." means "medical deity":
  The [psychiatrist's] objection boils down to a turf fight--that as the
  credentialed one, he has the sole prerogative to toss about jargon
  glibly, etc. I further object to his patronizing assumption that the
  laypersons among The American Scholar readership need an M.Diety-in-
  residence to protect us from the opportunity to weigh the article;
  apply the ill breadth of our intelligence, learning, and experience;
  and decide for ourselves.

Still other readers felt moved by James's essay to speak in autobiographical terms about their own similar family issues and personal struggles. For instance, David Lattimore wrote:
  I too was the late-born only child of liberal intellectuals, a private
  afterthought in the public lives of an academic-cum-journalist couple
  quite obliviously engrossed in their careers and admirers, in each
  other, and (in the case of my father, Owen Lattimore) in himself. With
  us, too, there was a public and civil facade that had to be
  maintained. My father's alcoholism went untreated and, after my
  mother's death, nearly destroyed him. So here, too, was treatment

It was surprising how few readers addressed the simple question of whether James Trilling's psychological judgments about his father were appropriate to the specific case of Lionel Trilling himself. Mark Krupnick, a literary academic at the University of Chicago and author of an excellent book on Trilling's cultural criticism, (11) was one of the few. Krupnick argued:
  Certainly the A.D.D. diagnosis makes it possible to understand Lionel
  Trilling's career in a new way that is compatible with the sense I had
  of him from his writings and from limited access to information about
  his life. Take, for example, Trilling's mannered style in person and
  in his writing. But James offers an alternative (or complementary) way
  of thinking about that style as deriving from his father's fear and
  shame about his A.D.D.

Going even further, Krupnick downplayed any shortcomings in James's essay and adds: "But what Mr. Trilling has produced, occasionally awkward as it may be, has a virtue highly prized by his father, and that is sincerity." Krupnick then levels a thinly veiled attack on Trilling's self-appointed literary guardians such as Robert Boyers:
  Those who have put themselves forward in this debate as defenders of
  Lionel live in a Manichaean world of good and evil. They give us, on
  the one hand, Lionel the moral and intellectual exemplar, and on the
  other hand, James the villainous pretender. They are angry at James
  because, with his allusions to A.D.D., he threatens their
  idealization: How can so great a critic as Lionel Trilling have been
  so erratic in his personal life? What can he possibly have had in
  common with hyperactive little boys who disrupt grade school
  classrooms and wind up in disproportionate numbers in prisons?
  Suggesting that Trilling may have suffered from A.D.D. is felt to
  degrade him as a scholar and as a man.

Krupnick's closing sentences also amounted to a stern rebuke of former students and colleagues of Trilling who had publicly derided the essay as an amateurish Oedipal assault upon their teacher and friend. They also weighed in with their verdicts. For instance, in The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, the magazine's literary editor and a former Trilling student, took the attack a step further, charging that James Trilling sought to "relieve himself" of the pressure of a vocation demanding high aspirations. His memoir is "banal and low," an exercise in "filio-porn."

Wieseltier emphasized the bigger "stakes in James Trilling's exhibitionism." As an intellectual son of Lionel Trilling, Wieseltier was challenging James Trilling's filial prerogative and asserting his own claim to the Trilling legacy. (Wieseltier and James Trilling are generational coevals, both in their late 50s.)

By implication, Wieseltier was asking: What does it mean to be an intellectual today? Is it all just a "mask"? Here we return again to Trilling's "example" and to his status as a culture hero.

For Wieseltier, James Trilling's essay was a social case of intellectual pseudo-toughness: a case of disillusion with the intellectual calling, given vindictive expression via a skewering of the major postwar American intellectual who had seemed to embody that calling. The "aim" of the son's essay is "to relieve himself, and us, of a certain lofty notion of the intellectual calling.... His diminishment of his father's view of life into a clinical condition is designed to bring us all the gift of relaxation." That intellectual slackness leads the son to "degrade precious things" by degrading nuance and promoting oversimplification.

But James Trilling told me himself, in two lengthy phone conversations in July 2003 and August 2004, respectively, that his aim in writing about his father's likely medical condition was nothing of that sort. Indeed, James confessed that he felt very "wounded" by what he considered the presumptuous and denigrating attacks on him and his motives by Trilling's colleagues, students, and acquaintances. "None of them knew him intimately, none of them had access to his private life, none of them understood the difference between the public man of letters and distinguished professor and the father whom I knew."

James felt that many of Trilling's admirers were beholden to the image of the man, not to the man himself in all of his human foibles and all-too-human weaknesses. Instead they did indeed exalt a "lofty" image of Trilling that was a projection of their own ego ideal and bore little resemblance to the human being as not just scholar-intellectual but as husband and father too. James insisted that he intended not to "diminish" his father's life into a "clinical condition" but rather to help other sufferers of an under-diagnosed illness recognize their condition and more fully and quickly accept themselves in the knowledge that even brilliant and successful intellectuals such as Lionel Trilling were also burdened by it yet made significant cultural contributions.

James Trilling elaborated in similar terms on these comments to me in The American Scholar:
  I would like to thank all those who read my essay with open minds, and
  who did not let reverence for my father's legendary complexity obscure
  the fact that complexity is a two-way street. They accept that the
  famous understander deserves to be understood, that the addition of
  new complexities does not invalidate the old, and that I would not,
  probably could not, have written about my father as I did if he had
  not been my first and most valued teacher.

James then replied to his leading critics, both in the literary and in the psychiatric worlds:
  On what basis does [Dr. McHugh] claim to grasp my motives, while
  denying me the right to understand those of my own father? The only
  basis I can imagine is that he is a medical professional, while I
  belong to the underclass of laymen, of patients. Like A. C. Willament
  and others, I find the conclusion inescapable: Dr. McHugh's pious
  crusade against "pseudo-psychiatric practices" conceals a ruthless
  defense of his professional privilege.

  As for Professor Boyers, he appears driven by the desire to shield my
  father from a dreadful posthumous injury. The suggestion that Lionel
  Trilling had A.D.D. is, for him, an assault, to be resisted tooth and
  nail. The heart of his response is that "the son reduces his father to
  a pathetic symptomatology, a figure stripped of the qualities that
  alone can account for the extraordinary works he produced." What are
  these mysterious "qualities" on which my father's reputation depends,
  and which the diagnosis of A.D.D. negates with such finality?
  Certainly not his ideas, his writing, or his magic as a teacher: the
  diagnosis not only leaves these things intact, but makes them more
  impressive for being achieved against previously unsuspected odds. I
  fear that Professor Boyers, and others of my father's devotees, have
  invested more heavily in Lionel Trilling's image than in his ideals.
  The only "quality" of my father's that really does vanish like smoke
  is the facade of self-mastery, which he himself knew to be a sham.

James concluded on a personal note and insisted his motives were altruistic.
  If it is anathema to suggest that "a serious and brilliant man of
  letters" suffered from a minor neurological disorder, the message is
  clear: a person may have a mind or a disorder, but not both. This
  deeply ignorant assumption will bring pain and discouragement to
  anyone who is trying to come to terms with a learning disability, and
  justified anger to anyone who has struggled, with or without medical
  help, to overcome a handicap. I first learned about A.D.D. from a
  first-person account in a magazine, and one of my reasons for writing
  as I did was to return the favor by helping others recognize this
  elusive yet damaging condition. The need was greater than I could have


The last decade has opened another new stage in Lionel Trilling's reputation. Following upon Mrs. Trilling's disclosures about her husband, James Trilling's American Scholar essay has focused attention on his father's family life and personality. The ironic outcome thus far is that Diana Trilling is--apparently in direct contradiction to her intention to demythologize Lionel--ultimately responsible for launching a new, deflationary myth about her husband and turning him into a case study for the psychobiographers and psychohistorians. Whatever the eventual result, it is clear that the psychoanalytic autopsy reports of her husband, triggered by her 1993 memoir of their marriage, represents a complex, fascinating portrait of "the Trilling family romance"--with all the Oedipal implications of Freud's original phrase.

JOHN RODDEN taught in the Department of Speech Communication at The University of Texas at Austin and is the author, most recently, of Text-book Reds: Schoolbooks, Ideology, and Eastern German Identity (2006).

1. John Holloway, "Sincerely, Lionel Trilling," Encounter, September 1973. 2. Ironically, although Trilling was obsessed with the possibility of fame and reputation, he despaired of both of them. Fame, he observed, "feeds on itself" and is "insatiable"--and as soon as he himself gets more, he confesses, he wants still more. Trilling's reputation endures at his centenary; he is not at all culturally dead today even though he wrote in the epigraph to his novel The Middle of the Journey: "Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him." And yet, alas, the idea of death did not enable Trilling to live better. Or as Yeats put it: "The innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time." Trilling already felt old at 42, the time of his novel's publication. Unlike the Crooms in his novel, who possessed "youth, vigor, and a passionate expectation of the future," Trilling did not. 3. James Trilling (1948-) is a trained art historian who earned a Ph.D. from Brown University in 1980. He is also the author of The Language of Ornament (Seattle, 2001). 4. Letter from Diana Trilling to the author, 28 September 1989. 5. All these excerpts are from Mrs. Trilling's letter to me of 12 September 1989. 6. Interview with Diana Trilling at her home, 14 July 1994. 7. James Trilling wrote me on May 25, 1998: "Thank you for your letter and for the invitation to contribute to your volume of essays on my father. I have, however, made a decision not to involve myself in projects having to do with my parents' work." 8. Ann Fadiman, "Family Secrets," American Scholar, Vol. 68 (Spring 1999). 9. Among the replies were the following: Leon Wieseltier, "Filio porn," New Republic, 17 May 1999; James Bowman, "Integrity Deficit Disorder," Wall Street Journal, 4 June 1999; Matt Mcmillen, "Paying Attention to Adult ADHD," Washington Post, 30 July 2002; Mark Krupnick, "Diagnosing Trilling: Why the Critics are Wrong," Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 June 1999; Sarah Boxer, "A Son's Simple Diagnosis of his Father's Complexities," New York Times, 24 April 1999; Gertrude Himmelfarb, "Lionel Trilling and his Family," The New Criterion, July 1999. 10. See Robert Boyers, Lionel Trilling and Negative Capability (St. Louis, Mo., 1977). 11. Mark Krupnick, Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism (Madison, Wis., 1986).
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Author:Rodden, John
Publication:Modern Age
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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