I was too young to experience the heyday of Partisan Review and the associated “New York intellectuals” in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Nevertheless, I am unsure how I finished an English major and five years of grad school in English pretty much without hearing Lionel Trilling’s name. Trilling is clearly a major figure in 20th century letters, and he appears to be a cult object among some readers, too, but not much is said about him in the critical mainstream. As part of a personal effort to reclaim this lost intellectual territory, I recently read his only novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947). Trilling is not nearly as good a novelist as he is an essayist and critic, but it is worthwhile to understand the less good along with the extremely good in his career. The novel’s problems also suggest some of the problems that can be seen in the works of later 20th century novelists.
At the start of The Middle of the Journey, John Laskell, who has a small trust-fund income, has just recovered from a near-fatal case of scarlet fever in New York. His nurse has urged him to leave the city to visit his friends, Arthur and Nancy Crooms, at their summer home in pastoral Crannock, Connecticut to finish recuperating. Both Arthur and Nancy are Communist sympathizers.
On the eve of Laskell’s trip to Crannock, he is visited by his old friend Gifford Maxim. Maxim has been underground for the past year doing Party work, but he has broken with the Party and has arrived at Laskell’s apartment to appeal for help. Maxim clearly, and even melodramatically, fears retaliation from the Party for his break. Laskell helps Maxim get a job before leaving for Crannock.
In Crannock, Laskell meets a series of local characters, who show him a perspective on life different from his comfortable, cut-and-dried, citified views. Although Gifford Maxim is a friend of the Crooms as much as of Laskell, he hesitates to tell the Crooms of Maxim’s break with the Party. The Crooms are fellow travelers, they sympathize with the Communist Party but are not members, at least as far as Laskell knows, but to discuss Maxim’s break and the reasons for it would, in Laskell’s view, open the door to disagreements with his good friends. On the other hand, as Laskell’s sensibility expands, he senses more and more conflict between himself and the Crooms. Finally, he tells them about Maxim’s break. In the course of the discussion, he intuits that Nancy, unbeknownst to her husband, is closer to the Party than she lets on and actually in sympathy with the worst Stalinist abuses.
Gifford Maxim comes to visit the Crooms, exacerbating the differences between the Crooms and Laskell. With Maxim present, there are many set-piece debates on ends, means, and political philosophy.
Meanwhile, Laskell has been having an affair with the wife of Duck Caldwell, the Crooms’ alcoholic handyman. Susan, their daughter, has a heart condition that Duck, her father, doesn’t know about, but Laskell does, her mother having told him about it during a sexual encounter. When Susan bungles a line in reciting a poem at a church social, Duck, drunk, slaps her, and she promptly dies of a heart attack.
Separately, Arthur Croom suddenly understands that Nancy, unbeknownst to him, has been a willing enabler of Maxim’s underground work. And on that note, all the summer people leave Crannock, including Laskell, who returns to New York with his sensibilities much expanded, but with no particular plan for his life.
If you think this is awful, by the way, I agree. The Middle of the Journey is a frustrating and disappointing book. In part, Trilling was wrong-footed by history: the novel was published in 1947 and in 1948, Whitaker Chambers, the real life basis for the character of Maxim, himself became a truly public character beginning with his accusations against Alger Hiss in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. The Sam Tanenhaus biography of Chambers says that he and Trilling were classmates at Columbia in the early 1920s, but that Chambers’ pranks were so extreme that Trilling in later years observed that Chambers was a good person to stay away from. The best evidence of their relationship and Trilling’s process, then, shows that Trilling observed Chambers from a careful distance.
But the novel isn’t really about Maxim/Chambers, and the really interesting Chambers material – Hiss, the prothonotary warbler, the pumpkin papers, Witness — had yet to come out. Instead, the novel is about John Laskell, a literary grandnephew of Lambert Strether, the perceptive but passive protagonist of Henry James’s The Ambassadors. Laskell’s Strether-like, barely discernible expansion of sensibility, and what it means for his relationship to Nancy and Arthur Crooms is at the heart of the story. These three are living secondhand lives, though the novel doesn’t make this specific observation. Laskell and the Crooms adhere to what are, at least on the surface, innocuous views on the Soviet Union. The Crooms are sympathizers, not Party members, while Laskell is a, “sincere liberal”, presumably aligned with the Popular Front interpretation of Soviet interests. But it doesn’t matter. They’re comfortably middle-class. Laskell himself, with a trust fund, is a “bourgeois” in the strict Marxist sense. No character makes any observation about this apparent contradiction; neither does the narrator.
Maxim is the only character who appears to behave with real consistency. The big dilemma he poses to the other characters is whether his fear of retaliation for breaking with the Party is justified. Everyone the Crooms know who is connected with the Party is a really nice guy, after all. Who would need to spend the night on a roof, as Maxim does, to avoid running into a really nice guy? This is a dilemma connected with the book’s world that the book never quite faces head-on, at least in my view. Chambers himself is the person who journeyed to hell and did not come back empty-handed. Like Maxim, he feared his life was in danger from Party retaliation. He eventually went on to become revered as a kind of hero by some. The book is mainly about people who are mildly puzzled over what all the fuss is about.
I’m not sure why, but Alger Hiss’s request to the House Un-American Activities Committee at the start of its hearings on his Communist Party association has always stuck in my mind:
May I interrupt at this point, because I take it this will take more than 10 or 15 minutes. Would it be possible for one of the members of the committee to call the Harvard Club and leave word that I won’t be there for a 6 o’clock appointment?
Here is a committed revolutionary – whom declassified intelligence records strongly suggest worked as a Soviet agent until he was eased out of the government in 1945 – lording it over the various committee members with the complaint that their hearing will make him late for an appointment at the Harvard Club. What on earth did he think would happen to the Harvard Club when the revolution arrived? What on earth did he think would happen to him when the revolution arrived?
The incongruity of Hiss, the social climber who was also a secret Soviet agent, carries over to the social situation in The Middle of the Journey. The Crooms are “nice” people: Arthur is preoccupied with getting tenure; Nancy is preoccupied with rearing one child and pregnant with another. Nancy, as it happens, agreed to perform espionage-related tasks for Maxim during Maxim’s underground Party days, and her commitment to the Party is something closer to Hiss’s than her husband’s. This was consistent with Chambers’s observation in Witness, that it was the “nice” people who chose to believe Hiss in the controversy.
Yet the outcomes for the “nice” people who found their clandestine ties to the Party exposed weren’t often happy. Harry Dexter White, incriminated by some of the pumpkin papers, died of a sudden heart attack when he learned of them. Several others chose suicide. Hiss went to prison for perjury, the statute or limitations for espionage having expired. The actual stakes for people like the Crooms were higher than is made out in Trilling’s novel. Certainly by 1947, an assistant professor up for tenure whose wife is exposed as a willing abettor of Soviet intelligence could have some anxious moments at best.
But we get absolutely no sense of the psychology involved in issues like espionage or fellow traveling in Trilling’s novel. Instead, it often falls into the kind of scene we think of in the stereotypical English detective novel, wherein the brilliant inspector takes just enough time out from his study of 16th century sonnets or African violets to ratiocinate on a murder as all the suspects sip cocktails in evening clothes:
But Arthur was not to be drawn into anger again. He said, as if Maxim had given him a perfectly satisfactory reply, “What’s your position then?”
”Yes, position,” Arthur said, his mouth now set and his jaw out.
Maxim gave way. “I have no position, Arthur,” he said kindly.…
[Nancy] said, “But meanwhile, all the suffering people all over the world – You’ll sit and consider while they die in their misery?”
For a moment Maxim did not answer. Then, “Is it not strange,” he said, “do you not find it strange that as we become more sensitive to the sufferings of mankind, we become more cruel?… .”
He was speaking in a quiet, too quiet voice. They could see the sweat breaking out on his forehead. He rose and poured himself a glass of champagne.
There’s nothing here more subtle than one might find in a debate among sophomores in a Columbia dorm room, except that real sophomores – indeed, real people – get mad in a debate like this. Not Arthur. Not Nancy. Not Maxim. They advance rather simple-minded philosophical positions, jaws set, in too-quiet voices, over champagne. They may as well be disembodied figures speaking in an allegory. This is especially puzzling because Trilling as an essayist is capable of much psychological insight, and he’s certainly capable of identifying this sort of ineptitude in other writers.
There are other problems with Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey. What of the peculiar affectlessness that, except for the scenes involving Gifford Maxim, pervades The Middle of the Journey? The real action in most of the novel is a series of small events in which the personalities of Laskell and the Crooms begin to grate on each other in a continual but low-key way, such that by the end of a summer that began with good intentions, they’re completely, though politely, at odds.
Laskell got up as if to stretch his legs and to see if the train was coming. Then he stood before them as they sat on the bench. “It was good of you to have me up. I really –“ He was about to say, conventionally, “enjoyed it.” But he could not say that, for it was not true, “—had great benefit from it,” was what he said. And as he heard the stiff little phrase, he thought that in some difficult way it was true. He said, “I’m sorry that we seemed to get into so many disagreements.”
Arthur began to brush this aside, but Nancy said, “We did, didn’t we? Why did we?” And she rose and stood facing him to make the question real.
He wanted very much to be able to answer her. He was on the point of saying, “Because we are parts of history, elements in the dialectic.” But it would have been a wry joke. He said, “I don’t know.”
What I find unsatisfying about this final dialogue is that it’s Laskell’s – and the novel’s – conclusion when faced with Gifford Maxim, the image of the man who’s been to hell and come back. “I don’t know,” is Laskell’s penultimate remark; “I hope it’s not true” is the last thing he says. Yet elsewhere, in his essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature”, Trilling says of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,
Is this not the essence of the modern belief about the nature of the artist, the man who goes down into that hell which is the historical beginning of the human soul, a beginning not outgrown but established in humanity as we know it now, preferring the reality of this hell to the bland lies of the civilization that has overlaid it?
Trilling can see these potential issues, but his character Laskell simply sidesteps them. The conventional wisdom about the novel seems to be that Laskell’s irresolution reflects the dilemma of the liberal caught between ideologies, but that’s not enough for a novel.
It seems to me that Trilling has misconceived his audience. The comment has been made that there are no Jewish characters in The Middle of the Journey. On the other hand, the debates on subjects like Stalinism in the pages of little magazines like Partisan Review had many Jewish participants.
One difficulty is Trilling’s apparent need to write a Henry James novel about a Lambert Strether-like character when the real issues in the novel – you can’t avoid the fact that someone here, if not Laskell, has journeyed to hell and back – demand an A. Gordon Pym, a White Jacket, an Ishmael, or even a Henry Chinaski. There must have been an expectation in Trilling’s mind – that if he were to write a novel, it would have to be very much like a Henry James novel. This leaves aside Trilling’s own argument in his essay on The Princess Casamassima that James, when he chose to be, was a very accurate recorder of a broad social tapestry and a novelist of plot. It also neglects James as a humorist, and of course in the light of more recent scholarship, the for-that-time almost unthinkable side of James as a gay writer.
I think this odd bloodlessness in characterization is related to Trilling’s choice of the pastoral environment in the novel. Under the greenwood tree, after all, we fear no enemy but winter and rough weather. But while some of the conflicts among the characters deal with how they are to take Crannock locals like Duck Caldwell and his family, these conflicts simply mirror the preoccupations the city characters bring with them, their ideologies, their ambitions, and even the question of whether or not there are real enemies dogging Gifford Maxim’s trail. The city won’t go away.
The failure of The Middle of the Journey can be best summed up by saying that Trilling took a story that had strong elements of political drama, personal betrayal, hotly contested ethical debate , more than a little Jewish flavor, and even the fate of nations, and did everything he could to fit it into a world not much different from The Ambassadors, where Lambert Strether discovers the truth about Chad and Madame de Vionnet by accident on a day trip to the country. That Trilling saw things this way is probably a scholarly reflex. The Ambassadors is respectable. From a literary-critical standpoint, James represents, or at least has until very recently represented, ultimate artistic respectability.
A current cultural problem that The Middle of the Journey reflects is the now well-established tendency to subsume literary art as a category of literary scholarship. Trilling as a scholar and critical essayist is brilliant, but as a literary artist his work is troubled by fairly basic problems. The whole story bears too many tool marks, as well as errors in execution. I think this reflects a too-circumscribed view of what novels should attempt which has become increasingly common in the academy – and I think it’s a partial explanation for why, in the decades since, we seem to have fewer and fewer novels that are satisfactory in any but a closely circumscribed way.