The Middle of the Journey

by Lionel Trilling

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

The Middle of the Journey, written in 1946 and 1947 by Lionel Trilling, is a novel that portrays the response of a small group of New York intellectuals to the McCarthy era immediately during and following World War II. This was a period during which the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was as its height, and much of United States society was in the grip of anti-communist hysteria, stirred up in particular by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers on the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Lionel Mordecai Trilling (July 4, 1905 – November 5, 1975) himself was a literary critic, essayist, and professor at Columbia University who was associated with a group known as "the New York Intellectuals." This group consisted mainly of people of Jewish immigrant descent who were liberal but anti-Stalinist and affiliated with the magazine Partisan Review. While many intellectuals of the period were sympathetic to communism, the atrocities committed by Stalin horrified many American sympathizers with the Communist Party, and they sought an ideological compromise that balanced Marxist ideals with repudiation of Stalin. Many admired Leon Trotsky as an exemplar of the balance. Trilling and many of his associates evolved from communists in the 1940s when the novel was written into neo-conservatives by the 1960s and 1970s.

The Middle of the Journey reflects this ideological conflict, with Gifford Maxim representing someone who was initially a communist but repudiated the party and became a vehement anti-communist, the Crooms representing “fellow travelers” who were ideologically enthralled to communism to the point of not seeing the evil in Stalin, and John Laskell representing Trilling's own ideological liberalism. The Caldwell family serve as an example of the working class and function as a test for the ideologies of the intellectual bourgeois characters of the novel. As Trilling himself stated in an April 1975 article in the New York Review of Books, Maxim was based on an actual person, Whittaker Chambers, who became a celebrity for his role in the Alger Hiss trial shortly after the book was published. Trilling stated,

Into the creation of Gifford Maxim there had gone not only such imagination as I could muster on his behalf but also a considerable amount of recollected observation of a person with whom I had long been acquainted . . . Whittaker Chambers.

As many critics point out, the major interest of the novel is in its portrayal of how ideological positions affect characters emotionally and the ways in which rigid ideology are harmful. It is an important insider's portrait of an American intellectual movement but is, at times, more essayistic than novelistic, with plot and characters serving primarily as a framework for discussion of political ideas and their consequences.

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