The Middle of the Journey

by Lionel Trilling

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

As the novel opens, John Laskell is in the midst of a period of melancholy reflection. Although he looks forward to spending time in Connecticut for a much-need rest, having just recovered from a debilitating illness, he understands that his dissatisfaction with life is the onset of a mid-life crisis. He had looked forward to marrying soon, but his fiancée unexpectedly passed away. These thoughts occupy him on the train, especially after his friend, Gifford Maxim, disembarks.

For quite a time now his everyday life had been beautifully taken care of by someone else; it was not so very strange that he should be aware of a vague danger now that his life was once again his own responsibility. Possibly he had accepted illness with too much willingness, but even that was not beyond understanding—a man at thirty-three might find advantage in an enforced momentary retreat.

The friends he stays with had helped him considerably during his illness, and when he arrives at the house, he wants to tell them all the details. Despite being such close friends, somehow the two of them form such a complete couple that he feels awkward. John is not sure if he envies their marriage or their passionately committed attitude toward the whole world.

More than most people they were committed to life. Their commitment was expressed in their youth, their vigor, their unquestioning attachment to each other, the child they had and the child to come, but it did not stop there . . . it went beyond, expressing itself in their passionate expectation of the future . . . in their troubled but clear sense of other people all over the world, suffering or soon to suffer. Life could not reach further, could not pitch itself higher, than it had in these young Americans.

Maxim has been an important figure in the Crooms’s life, for he is an ardent, avowed Communist, and they are deeply moved by leftist causes, although they never actually joined the Communist Party. When they learn that Maxim has not only left the Party but denounced his former political affiliation, they are extremely upset. Maxim shares only the fact that he had done “secret” work for the Soviets. Nancy, in particular, is disgusted by one of his essays about the issue and cannot manage to forgive him. She is also angry that Laskell has helped him get a job writing for a progressive magazine. When his editor, Kermit, writes and says they are coming to visit, she explodes and threatens to refuse to see them. Laskell urges her to take a more moderate stance.

“Look, Nancy—I don’t blame you for not wanting him around. But don’t exaggerate things. He hasn’t turned into a devil, he doesn’t have horns . . . And I want to tell you . . . that I was struck by a kind of honorableness he still had, even though he did desert the Party. For example, he wouldn’t tell me what his secret and special work was.”

When Maxim and Kermit arrive, the political and ethical disagreements with the Crooms occupy much of their conversation with Laskell and the Crooms. Maxim is not convinced by Nancy’s attitude toward his reversal of principles. He accuses her of having only an emotional attachment rather than an intellectual or even moral understanding of Communism. He dismisses her as “middle-class.”

“You happened to be part of the disaffected portion of the middle class. It was not that you consciously responded to external necessities but rather that you expressed certain internal conflicts which reflected contradictions in the world outside . . . [Y]ou were drawn only to the ideational aspects of the movement, to the emotional superstructure of the movement, not to its base in reality.”

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