Sunday, January 02, 2011

Symbolic Journey

The Middle of the Journey (New York Review Books Classics)

The Middle of the Journey

by Lionel Trilling

"Laskell himself was committed to no party, but he nevertheless faced reality in the busy life of committees.  He was what was then known by radicals as a 'sincere liberal'"(p 37)

The Middle of the Journey is a novel of ideology and ideas. Written in 1947 and set in the years just preceding, it details the lives of several characters, including a protagonist, John Laskell, who is conflicted about his life, his friends (radical and otherwise) and the ideology that influences them. His friend Gifford Maxim has left the Communist Party and the book contains dialogues among the characters and him, about this, and about other seemingly more mundane matters, which take up most of the story (in his introduction to the 1975 edition, included here, Trilling comments about the character of Gifford Maxim:
"He might therefore be thought of as having moved for a time in the ambiance of history even though he could scarcely be called a historical figure; for that he clearly was not of sufficient consequence. This person was Whittaker Chambers. . . only a few months after my novel was published. . . the Hiss case broke upon the nation and the world and Chambers became beyond any doubt an historical figure."(pp xv-xvi))
That Chambers was the model for Maxim was intended by Trilling, but he claims that he did not know Alger Hiss and did not use him as a model for another character named Arthur Croom who, in retrospect has an uncanny resemblance to Hiss. This, presumably, was merely fortuitous. Trilling's drama of the educated is a twentieth-century variation on a theme in American literature reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Blithedale  Romance and Henry James' The Princess Cassamassima.   All novels of political insight and caution.  Had The Middle of the Journey not been a roman a clef, weirdly prescient of the Hiss case, it would probably have not received the attention it did receive upon publication.  Reading Samuel Tanenhaus' fine and surprisingly objective biography of Whittaker Chambers a year after having read Trilling I was taken aback when I recognized episodes from Chamber's life about which I had previously read in Trillings' novel.
 Exceptionally well-written, with literary references, symbolism (undoubtedly much of which I did not grasp) and slowly-built suspense, this singular novel by the noted essayist, educator and critic Lionel Trilling, is a challenging and interesting book to read. While Trilling, according to the introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, was impressed by the work of Faulkner and Hemingway among American writers, I found his style reminded me more of the early Henry James.

(a GoodReads update)

The Middle of the Journey by Lionel Trilling. NYRB Classics, 2002 (1947)

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