Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Since its reissue in 1975, The Middle of the Journey has steadily gathered a significant new audience. In the past ten years, the novel has sold more than fifty thousand copies, a total that far surpasses the very modest sales of the first edition. The recent critical reception has also been more favorable, for in 1947, reviews were mixed, and they disheartened the author, who has been far better known for his literary criticism, particularly The Liberal Imagination (1950).

The Middle of the Journey has been criticized for being too much a novel of ideas and too schematic in its presentation of characters. Robert Warshow, who is often quoted as the authority for this kind of critique, praises the eloquence of Trilling’s writing but complains that the author argues too much with his characters and presents too much of a case against them. Similarly, Joseph Blotner has called the novel “static” and “prolix,” meaning that discussions of ideology dominate characters that never quite come to life, except for Maxim, who has been a man of ideology.

These objections, however, obscure the genuine interest that Trilling shows in his narrator, John Laskell. The theme of death, of how it can enter a life and radically change it, is done well and is convincingly tied to the political discussions. In fact, it is the author’s goal to demonstrate that the Crooms’ political debates are arid precisely because these well-meaning liberals do not incorporate a holistic understanding of life into the ideology that they espouse. They are narrow-minded, in other words, not simply because their politics are simplistic but also because their understanding of human beings is so limited. They lack, finally, what Trilling calls in his criticism the “liberal imagination,” which follows and adapts to the modulation of ideas and personalities as they are conceived in the great novels of this prominent American critic’s exemplars: Henry James (1843-1916) and E. M. Forster (1879-1970).