Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408
Set in the 1930s, Lionel Trilling’s novel explores the relationships between politics and friendship among upper-middle-class American intellectuals. The novel is primarily located at a Connecticut summer retreat.
When he takes the train there from New York to stay with friends, John Laskell talks with his old college friend, Gifford Maxim. Both men are entering an apparent mid-life crisis, although they are only in their early 30s. Laskell is just recovering from scarlet fever and his fiancée's death. His friends, Arthur and Nancy Croom, have invited him to spend much of the summer at their home. Maxim, in contrast, has been living a double life and believes that a crisis of conscience has prompted him to change his ways. A dedicated Communist, Maxim had been spying for the Soviet Union but has renounced his allegiance.
Arriving at the Crooms' house, Laskell finds himself in the middle of political squabbling between the Crooms, who are Party sympathizers, and Maxim. Nancy seems personally affronted by Maxim's change of position, and Laskell often must be the voice of reason. Their arguments concern religion as well, as the Crooms are agnostic and Maxim now declares himself a Christian.
Also visiting is Kermit Simpson, who publishes the liberal New Era journal; Laskell had been instrumental in getting Maxim a writing position there. Maxim is anxious to revindicate his reputation, but the Crooms do not believe that an anti-Communist crackdown is imminent. Arthur, an economics professor, and Nancy cling to their idealistic belief in the promise of the Revolution and their Marxist faith in the proletariat (of which their experience is largely through the workers at their home). In particular, they admire the handyman, Duck Caldwell, despite warnings that he is not just irresponsible—often drunk—but also violent.
Laskell, alienated from his hosts when they downplay the seriousness of his illness, seeks solace in an affair with Caldwell's wife, Emily. Her class-climbing aspirations are largely focused on her pre-adolescent daughter, Susan, whom she encourages to think not only of college but an elite women's school (such as Vassar).
Distrustful of her husband and protective of the girl, she never told him Susan has a heart condition. Duck's total lack of understanding for his wife and daughter flares up in an outburst: he lashes out and strikes the girl. Because of her heart condition, the blow proves fatal. The Crooms must finally acknowledge their myopia, and political issues recede before personal tragedy.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479
John Laskell is thirty-three and is recovering from a serious illness that almost cost him his life. He is also mourning the recent death of his fiancée. In many ways, he is facing a midlife crisis. At one stage of his sickness, he longs for death, spending his time admiring the perfection of a flower that will soon fade out of existence. The Crooms have invited him to their summer home in the hope of speeding his return to good health.
On the train taking Laskell to visit the Crooms is Gifford Maxim, who has gone through his own time of trial. He has lived underground as a Communist agent and then sought sanctuary with friends, whom he asks to help protect him from the Party in his transition to the role of prominent anti-Communist. The Crooms, particularly Nancy, are shocked by Maxim’s turnabout, and it becomes Laskell’s task to mediate between the apostate and his friends, who are “fellow travelers” who still believe in the Party.
Maxim pays a disturbing visit to the Crooms with Kermit Simpson, the publisher of a “rather sad liberal monthly,” The New Era. With Laskell’s help, Maxim has managed to get a job writing for Simpson and to have his name put on the masthead of the journal—an important achievement for a man who believes that his safety depends upon the establishment of a public identity. The Crooms dismiss Maxim’s fears as paranoia, even though they have no firsthand knowledge of the Party’s secret subversive activities. As Lionel Trilling points out in the 1975 introduction to his novel, in the 1930’s it was “as if such a thing [espionage] hadn’t yet been invented.”
What especially disturbs the Crooms about Maxim is that in opposition to the Party he has become a Christian. As a result, he attacks not simply their faith in the Party, but also in all socialist and secularist ideology. Maxim has become a theist who has now put his whole faith in God, not in man. The utopian Crooms, who idealize the working class and believe in a perfectible future, cannot abide their comrade’s about-face.
Because they are intellectuals who respond to life with a veneer of abstractions, the Crooms retreat from Maxim’s revelations that changing history is a dangerous, even deadly business. Similarly, they reject Laskell’s efforts to explain how he almost died, how he nearly accepted the fact of his demise. To them, his thinking—like Maxim’s—is reactionary. They must be jolted into reassessing their view of Duck Caldwell, whom they have virtually idolized as an example of the rugged, direct working man, by a melodramatic twist of the plot—Duck’s striking and killing his frail child. In this novel of ideas, action without thought is shown to be as disastrous as thought without action.
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