I must have studied that novel in at least two classes as an undergraduate. In fact, looking at my beat-up copy from back then, I have a sinking feeling that I even had to teach it one year in freshman comp. That was when I had to go over it carefully enough to explain to students what was good about it, and I always had the nagging suspicion that whatever it was, I’d missed it.
The portrayal of political conspiracy in the novel has imaginative force enough to do what it needs to do. But The Princess Casamassima isn't, as far as I can see, primarily about revolution. It is perhaps James's fullest depiction of society and the full scope of life that he saw around him. Revolutionary conspiracy is part of the picture, though James understands both the fecklessness on one hand, and the utter cynicism on the other, of radical politics, and he doesn't offer them as a viable way to parse out what a careful observer sees of the world in its complexity and confusion.
The Middle of the Journey can be summed up by saying that Trilling took a story that had strong elements of political drama, personal betrayal, hotly contested ethical debate with more than a little Jewish flavor, even the fate of nations, and did everything he could to try to fit it into a world not much different from James' The Ambassadors.
© 2006 Hanna Mandelbaum