“Yech,” said my neocon friend when I told him that I admired The Middle of the Journey. Yet Lionel Trilling’s 1947 novel—Trilling himself—is more admired on the Right than on the Left these days. Nothing like liberal anti-Communism, which Trilling championed, exists any more; and not just because Communism has been discredited everywhere except on the academic Left. It is not clear any more what tyranny the Left is anti-, other than a firefighter who objects to being discriminated against on the basis of race.
His theme, as Trilling wrote in an Introduction when the novel was reissued in 1975, was “the powerful attraction to Communism felt by a considerable part of the American intellectual class during the Thirties and Forties.” And the equally powerful revulsion from it, he might have added, on the part of ex-Communists. The opposing forces are dramatized in the character of Gifford Maxim, “this huge, dedicated man,” and the reaction he provokes. By now everyone knows that the character was based on Whittaker Chambers, who had “pledged himself to the cause of Communism and had then bitterly repudiated his allegiance.” At the time the novel was published he could “scarcely be called a historical figure,” but less than a year later Chambers testified in a public hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee that an “underground group” whose purpose was “the Communist infiltration of the American government,” although espionage as “certainly one of its eventual objectives,” included former State department official Alger Hiss and two other members of the Roosevelt administration. Since that moment Trilling’s novel has been treated as a footnote to history, but there is a case to be made for its literary interest. Especially because readers on the Left will have nothing to do with Chambers’s 1952 autobiography Witness—the greater book on Communism’s powerful attraction—The Middle of the Journey deserves to be more widely read.
Right off it must be admitted that you either put up with Trilling’s style or lose patience with it. Exquisiteness and tact may serve the purposes of criticism, depending as it does on incongruities of wit, but few novelists besides James have succeeded in writing such prose without sounding fussy—particularly when the care is being taken to distinguish between abstractions and approximations. John Laskell, the novel’s protagonist, a young scholar who has written Theories of Housing, has a private income:
The Crooms are radicals. They are “the decent people, the people of good will.” They wear “the armor of idealism.” They belong to “the near future—not the far future when the apocalyptic days would come, but the time now at hand before things got very bad.” They take pains “to think in terms of mankind in general.” They oppose war, but make an exception for revolution. They “grant or refuse requests according to nothing but reason.” Their passion of mind and will is so pure that they “could not believe that anything that opposed it required consideration.”
Their reaction to the news that Gifford Maxim has broken with the Communist Party is incredulity. They stare at Laskell as if had had just told them of the Reichstag fire. Although not themselves members of the Party—they are what used to be called fellow travellers—they assess political action in reference to it. For them “the Party [is] a fixed point from which all deviation implied something wrong with the person deviating.” There are only two possible explanations for Maxim’s break. Either he has gone insane or has “moved so far as to be on the other side,” becoming “the blackest of reactionaries.” Thus, when Laskell appears to take Maxim’s own explanation seriously—when he seems to be saying, in effect, that Maxim is telling the truth about the Party—he becomes, in the Crooms’ eyes, “touched with Maxim’s guilt.”
Maxim’s explanation is simple. He was a Party professional, not an idealist; he cared only for results. “[I]f you take the professional attitude about revolution,” he explains to Laskell, “you don’t permit yourself the luxury of ideas.” At some point, though, the results ceased to please him; they were more than he had bargained for. They were, in fact, evil.
Then as now, the use of the word evil separates Right from Left. The Crooms are not mistaken: Maxim has joined the other side, the side of law in open antagonism to evil. “Is it not strange,” he says,
“Nancy’s dilemma is an inevitable one,” Maxim observes. “She refuses to say that Caldwell has any responsibility, any blame or guilt. And then she refuses to allow him to come near her.” He explains the advantage of the system with which he has replaced Communism. To his new way of thinking, the child’s father is “wholly responsible for his acts,” and all men are responsible for one another. To use his exact words: “if we are all members of one another, then each of us is in some part God.” Thus Nancy Croom can embrace the man who killed his daughter only in the abstract, while rejecting him in the flesh. Maxim is able to reconcile the two impulses. “Absolute responsibility,” he concludes: “it is the only way that men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than mere things.”
In the end, then, Maxim triumphs. The Left’s refusal to acknowledge the evils perpetrated in the name of Communism—even to speak the name of evil—divides it against itself. But this is not the claim that Trilling’s novel has on the attention of readers in 2009. Nor is the novel most interesting, as several critics have pointed out, in prophesying the rise of neoconservatism. “The time was getting ripe for a competing system,” Laskell decides. The Middle of the Journey is that rare thing, a successful novel of ideas. And the key to its success is that Trilling takes what Aristotle called dianoia (“thought,” which he defined as a lesser element of tragedy), and makes it indistinguishable from ethos, character. To accept or reject a man is to accept or reject his thinking. At the end of the novel, Laskell includes the radical Crooms among the dangers of the world, and so does Lionel Trilling’s attentive reader.