The Unfinished Journey of Lionel Trilling

Until recently, it was assumed that Trilling had written only one long fiction, The Middle of the Journey (1947). Now, thanks to Geraldine Murphy we know that Trilling was a third of the way through another novel, begun years earlier

In 1950, Lionel Trilling published The Liberal Imagination, a collection of essays that established him as the most subtle and influential mind in contemporary American culture. Sixteen discussions of the interplay between literature and society taught a generation of Americans to believe in the power of literature (for mischief as much as elevation). Trilling’s subjects ranged from Tacitus to Wordsworth, Mark Twain, Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser and Henry James. The essays were not political, but they assumed an intimate connection between literature and politics. They also staked out, on “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet”, an adversarial position with respect to the liberalism that had hardened into Stalinism in the early years of the Cold War.

Trilling’s “first mature critical undertaking” had been his book entitled Matthew Arnold (1939), which he called a biography of Arnold’s mind. He had been drawn to Arnold, he said, for two reasons: a desire to understand Arnold’s melancholy (exemplified in Dover Beach) and a sense that, like Arnold, he was a liberal whose major effort in criticism was to call into question the substance of contemporary liberal thought. He felt himself to be, in Arnold’s words, “a Liberal, [but] a Liberal tempered by experience, reflection, and renouncement, and … above all, a believer in culture”. Arnold’s critique of Victorian liberalism deplored certain habits of mind, especially the herd instinct. Trilling, similarly, declared that “a criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general righteousness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time”. Trilling also had a target: those American liberals who had been living contentedly as supporters of Stalinist totalitarianism.

There was a third, unacknowledged reason for Trilling’s attraction to Arnold. If you sat in Trilling’s undergraduate course in 19th-century English literature, as I did in 1956-57, you could notice his interest in Arnold’s justification, in the 1865 essay The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, of his “career move” from poetry to criticism, from “creative” to “critical” activity. Readily admitting that “the critical faculty is lower than the inventive”, Arnold asked: “Is it true that Johnson had better have gone on producing more Irenes instead of writing his Lives of the Poets; is it certain that Wordsworth himself was better employed in making his than when he made his celebrated Preface? ”Some of us were aware that Trilling had published several short stories as well as a novel, and we assumed he was invoking the precedent of Arnold to justify his own shift from creation to criticism. (By creation, Arnold meant poetry, not fiction. Indeed, he once haughtily remarked: “No Arnold could write a novel.”)

We have known for a long time that Trilling was far from content with his role as a critic. In notes for a talk he gave at Purdue University in 1971, Trilling wrote: “I am always surprised when I hear myself referred to as a critic … My early conception of a life in literature did not include criticism … What it envisaged was the career of a novelist.” Posthumously published excerpts from Trilling’s notebooks showed that he contrasted himself unfavourably with Hemingway and used the word “writer” as if it were synonymous with “novelist”. On July 3 1961, he wrote: “Death of Ernest Hemingway … How much he existed in my mind – as a reproach? He was the only writer of our time I envied.” In her memoir of 1993, Diana Trilling recalled that her husband believed he had sacrificed his hope of being a novelist to conscience, and that “he scorned the very qualities of character – his quiet, his moderation, his gentle reasonableness – for which he was most admired in his lifetime and which have been most celebrated since his death”.

Until recently, it was assumed that Trilling had written only one long fiction, The Middle of the Journey (1947). Now, thanks to Geraldine Murphy, a learned and imaginative editor, we know that Trilling was a third of the way through another novel, begun years earlier, when The Middle of the Journey appeared. The manuscript of the unfinished work, which Murphy has entitled The Journey Abandoned, had lain for decades in Trilling’s papers at Columbia University. Was it ignored because the critic Trilling’s grave eloquence and beautiful reflective calm had made him seem a mere belle-lettrist to literary theorists in the Age of Stupefying Opacity? Or did researchers examine it and conclude that its publication would not help his reputation? In any case, its appearance affords us the opportunity to reflect not only on Trilling’s inner division but on the way in which the virtues of critical work may turn into the defects of creative work.

The title of Trilling’s first novel derived from the opening of Dante’s Inferno: “Midway along the journey of our life … I had wandered off from the straight Path.” The book dealt mainly with, in Trilling’s words, “the moral and intellectual implications of the powerful attraction to Communism felt by a considerable part of the American intellectual class during the Thirties and Forties”. The protagonist, John Laskell, a fellow-traveller of the Communist cause who had given up a literary career to become a city planner, has survived a nearly fatal illness. His rehabilitation is conjoined with a spiritual recovery from the characteristic weaknesses of liberalism, though not from liberalism itself.

His friends Arthur and Nancy Croom do all they can to help him recover, but they do not want to hear talk of death, a “politically reactionary” subject. They do want to hear about their mutual friend Gifford Maxim, who has defected from the Communist party. The Crooms embody the follies, hypocrisies, and failures of imagination that Trilling imputes to liberalism in his discursive essays. They cannot believe that Maxim’s life is in danger; they will not believe that the Communist party is controlled by the Soviet Union; they are full of the liberal condescension (a favourite Trilling target) that imputes all bad behaviour by the poor and members of minority groups to inescapable environment and circumstances. Nancy, a repository of jejune cliches, speaks of the Stalin regime as “a great social experiment” that cannot be judged by old-fashioned moral standards.

The most richly conceived character is Maxim, modelled on Trilling’s old college acquaintance Whittaker Chambers (as Trilling knew him before the Alger Hiss spy case, which commenced in 1948). Maxim challenges all that the Crooms believe in, by his polemical sharpness as much as by his defection. He enters the novel to unmask the inflated rhetoric of the party. No, he tells them, the party has nothing to do with equal rights or trade unionism, only with cruelty, oppression and mass murder. Like Camus, Maxim has come to believe that the deepest desire of every progressive intellectual is to rule by force, to follow in the footsteps of the Grand Inquisitor.

Laskell too had been a liberal fellow-traveller, refusing to acknowledge the ruthlessness of the Communist party and the danger to Maxim’s life. But he is swayed not so much by Maxim’s arguments as by the obtuseness of Nancy Croom’s resistance to them. True, he is repelled by Maxim’s newly adopted religious and authoritarian views, but more appalled by the Crooms’ imbecilic reaction to them. They bristle at the suggestion of religion (“mysticism”) as the alternative to Communism. The moral shallowness and intellectual dimness of the Crooms shock Laskell more than Maxim’s conversion.

At the novel’s end, Laskell finds himself with a great vacancy in his thought. In Stalinist liberalism, he now sees “an absolute freedom from responsibility” that he no longer wants; but Maxim’s insistence on the doctrine that “we are all part of one another” is also unpalatable: “An absolute responsibility – that much of a divine or metaphysical essence none of us is.” When Trilling rep rinted the novel in 1975, he stated that its “polemical end” had been to show how Stalinist Communism had negated political life among intellectuals. Looking back from 2008, one may usefully view the book’s themes as a foreshadowing of what today is called neoconservatism, especially in its recognition that “liberalism is always being surprised”, of the difficulty that many liberals have in recognising and confronting evil, and their vulnerability to the ideological bullying of authoritarian leaders.

Trilling’s letters of 1947-48 expressed the hope of establishing himself as a novelist rather than a critic. As The Middle of the Journey was going to press, he told a colleague, Richard Chase, that he was at work on another novel, which he expected to “be better … richer, less shaped, less intellectualized, more open”..

The new book (of which we have 24 chapters, or about 150 pages) left the realm of politics for that of the literary life in the late 1930s, and placed Vincent Hammell, an ambitious young teacher and would-be biographer, at its centre. In a document that Murphy calls Trilling’s preface, he defines the hero’s literary pedigree. “His ambitions are intellectual and, at 24, he has won some intellectual distinction in his own city … Think of him as practical, energetic, not a dreamer or a moon-calf. He has real talent and he does not have the mechanical ‘shyness’ of a sensitive young hero … He has what in a young man passes for maturity. He is decent, generous; but he is achingly ambitious … He wishes to be genuine, a man of integrity; yet he also wishes to be successful. His problem is to advance his fortunes and still be an honest man. He is conscious of all the dangers; he is literate and knows the fates of Julien Sorel, of Rastignac, of Frederic Moreau – all the defeated and disintegrated young men of the great 19th century cycle of failure. He … is determined not to make their mistakes.

This Young Man from the Provinces is very much a “programmed” character in a Bildungsroman, which may explain why he never quite comes alive. Trilling came to feel, after he had completed “a very decent third of the book”, that he was “experiencing discouragement because this kind of unconscious movement of the mind isn’t now going on”.

In the course of the story, Vincent, having given up his projected history of late 19th-century American literature, is rescued from unrewarding part-time teaching jobs by Harold Outram. Outram has, after successes as a critic and novelist, given up literature to head the Peck Foundation. A Stalinist in opinions, though not practice, he is the only major character in the book who seems to have wandered in from the pages of The Middle of the Journey “Literature is dead … Russia is our future and our hope. And Russia has not produced one single notable work of art.” It is he who selects Vincent to become the biographer of the octogenarian Jorris Buxton, “the last manifestation of heroism in the human race.”

Buxton’s life too was shaped by a daring shift away from the arts – poetry, painting, novels – into (of all things!) mathematical physics. Trilling says that Buxton was modelled on the English Romantic poet Walter Savage Landor (previously fictionalised as Boythorn in Bleak House, whose numerous eccentricities included a reckless fondness (like Ruskin’s) for women much younger than himself. But Murphy, in her ingenious reading of the book as a roman à clef, suggests that it is not Landor but Henry James (with a large admixture of brother William) who is Buxton’s model, and that this “anti-Stalinist version of James” was Trilling’s way of carrying on the Cold War struggle against fellow-travelling liberals who derided the novelist James as reactionary, “impotent in matters sociological” and inferior to Dreiser. She suggests that Trilling’s 1948 essay, The Princess Casamassima, provides a key to his novel’s intentions. That essay argued that James’ political vision anticipated the collapse of European civilisation in th e Second World War and the Holocaust. “Henry James in the Eighties understood what we have painfully learned from our grim glossary of wars and concentration camps, after having seen the state and human nature laid open to our horrified inspection.”

But since one can’t publish a novel with marginalia signalling biographical and historical parallels, the book must stand on its own; and this it does not do well. Parading Buxton’s mistresses does not exactly establish his intellectual potency. Moreover, Trilling’s critical virtues here often dwindle into irritating verbal idiosyncrasy. “Nor was she pretty. But she was remarkably good-looking.” “Marion Cathcart was a quick graceful person and tall. But now she seemed rather short than tall.”

There are some vividly realised scenes: Vincent’s childhood, his creative-writing class for women, his discovery that having the papers of the man whose biography you are writing gives you only what people have written to him, not he to them. But too often we are told that an experience was “intense” for a character without being shown why it is so. Frequently the supremely intelligent narrator analyses and explains a character before that character has had a chance to open his or her mouth. If James had reviewed this novel, he might have said what he did of George Eliot: “Certainly the greatest minds have the defects of their qualities and as George Eliot’s mind is preeminently contemplative and analytic, nothing is more natural than that her manner should be discursive and expansive.”

And there is something more. Murphy reports the astonishing fact that, in 1948, Trilling, reflecting on the burgeoning career of Irving Howe (born Horenstein), thought: “How right for my Vincent!” and by 1952 considered reviving his moribund novel by making Vincent “specifically Jewish”. How he could have done this without rewriting the entire book is hard to say. Whatever obstacles impede Vincent’s career, being Jewish is not one of them; yet Trilling’s career at Columbia nearly fell victim to the then deeply entrenched opposition to hiring Jews in English departments.

Trilling had always bristled at the suggestion he might be a Jewish writer. In 1944, he wrote: “I know of no writer in English who has added a micromillimetre to his stature by ‘realizing his Jewishness’.” He was stung by Robert Warshow’s criticism of The Middle of the Journey in the magazine Commentary for concealing the Jewish background of the world of fellow-travellers. He responded to Elliot Cohen’s invitation to join the board of Commentary with the sad, foolish remark that this was an attempt by Cohen “to ‘degrade’ me by involving me in [a] Jewish venture”. When Howe began working on his A Treasury of Yiddish Stories in the early 1950s, Trilling told him that he was altogether “suspicious” of Yiddish literature, a remark that (Howe wrote to me in 1983) “hurt and angered me deeply, and I -never forgave him for it”. Did Trilling now, in a startling reversal, come to think that, as Cynthia Ozick has famously said, literature springs from the tribe, not from the urge to Esperanto? Did he think he had taken a wrong path as a novelist in keeping distant from his deepest personal experience? We shall never know.

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