Commentary Magazine


The Journey Abandoned by Lionel Trilling

The Journey Abandoned: The Unfinished Novel
by Lionel Trilling
Columbia. 256 pp. $26.95

Although his name no longer commands the recognition it once did, and although the critical principles that motivated his life’s work have largely fallen out of fashion, Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) remains a singular and powerful figure in the intellectual life of 20th-century America. He was, famously, the first Jew to have received a permanent appointment in the English department of Columbia University, where over the decades he trained generations of students in the subtleties of literature and, more consequentially, the intersection of literature with moral thought and with the recalcitrant facts of history and politics. The same wide-ranging preoccupations imbued his own writings with a complexity and richness rarely equaled even among the endlessly gifted members of his milieu, the group now known as the “New York intellectuals.” Out of fashion though Trilling’s corpus may be, it remains a testament to an era when serious intellectual and ideological debate still enjoyed high billing among the thinking classes.

It was the singularly capacious form of the novel that served Trilling as a special point of fascination and the occasion for some of his most penetrating insights into society and culture. And, like many impassioned students of fiction, from Edmund Wilson to James Wood, he also attempted to write his own. In addition to his early and formidable reputation as a critic, he established a name for himself as a writer of stories, the best-known (and best) of which is the academic parable “Of This Time, Of That Place” (1943). In 1947, he published The Middle of the Journey, a novel notorious for its fictional portrayal of Whittaker Chambers, the former Communist—and acquaintance of Trilling’s—who in the following year would emerge to testify against Alger Hiss and thereby inaugurate one of the most bitterly contested political debates in postwar American history.

The Middle of the Journey is a book eerily prescient of that still-reverberating struggle: a book concerned with the fatal delusions of utopian radicalism and, no less, with the related delusions of what Trilling called the liberal imagination. This, in his definition, was a sensibility properly dedicated to the enhancement of political freedom and the human spirit but cripplingly unmindful of the tragic limitations inherent in every human institution and indeed in human existence. The Middle of the Journey took as its test case the nexus of attraction between Stalinism and fellow-traveling liberalism.

After the publication of The Middle of the Journey, Trilling devoted himself with even greater fervor to his pursuits as a critic. His first and perhaps most influential collection, The Liberal Imagination, was published in 1950; it had been preceded by books on Matthew Arnold and E.M. Forster and would be followed by a study of Freud and by an outpouring of essays, including in this magazine, collected under titles like The Opposing Self (1955), A Gathering of Fugitives (1956), Beyond Culture (1965), and the posthumous Speaking of Literature and Society (1980). But no further fiction appeared in his lifetime.

Now a previously unknown work has appeared. Its title, The Journey Abandoned, a clever play on The Middle of the Journey, has been bestowed by its discoverer, editor, and annotator, Geraldine Murphy, who has published widely on Trilling and other members of his circle. Thanks to her labors, we have been given a window both onto Trilling as a working artist and onto what may have led him to leave off the writing of fiction.

_____________

 

The Journey Abandoned, which Murphy dates to the late 40’s and early 50’s, comprises 24 chapters running to 153 pages in print. It follows the fortunes of Vincent Hammell, a shabby-genteel young writer from the Midwest who is attempting to scale the heights of literary accomplishment. Vincent is hampered in this quest by a premature feeling of sterility, by an inescapable attachment to bourgeois life, and by the suspicion that his talent is unequal to his ambitions. But he has nevertheless attracted the attention of Harold Outram, a once-brilliant critic and upscale journalist now occupying a prestigious post as a grants administrator. Outram offers Hammell a project: serving as biographer to the reclusive Jorris Buxton, another ex-literary man who is now (improbably) a world-renowned physicist.

What follows are the opening skirmishes of a murky battle over Buxton, into which Vincent learns he has been conscripted in order to immortalize the old man while at the same time safeguarding the comfort and peace of his seclusion. Against him in this enterprise are arrayed a woman named Geraldine Post and her protégée Perdita Aiken. (From his notes on the work, also uncovered by Murphy, it would appear that Trilling was intrigued by a similar entanglement that had beset the 19th-century British poet Walter Savage Landor.) But just as the machinations surrounding Buxton begin to reveal themselves to both Vincent and the reader, Trilling’s manuscript cuts off.

It is tempting to ascribe this abrupt termination to a simple loss of authorial steam. But a closer look at The Journey Abandoned—and at Trilling’s own running commentary on it, which Murphy has included—suggests deeper roots. Near the beginning of the novel, Vincent parts ways with a close friend who has made a sarcastic remark about Vincent’s alleged moral purity. The narrator reads his hero’s mind:

What a year ago would have been kidding, now reverberated as malice. They would meet again, but the friendship was finished. Vincent did not reply. He was too concerned with the meaning of the moment. He understood it fully and he marked it to himself by thinking in clear, articulate words, “My youth is over.”

This passage is itself clear and articulate; but do we, its readers, experience Vincent in the act of thinking, or is the author doing all the thinking for him? Similarly, here is Vincent enduring his mentor Outram’s pitiless dissection of an essay he has prepared on the duties of the writer:

[A] wave of misery swept over Vincent. Yes, all the irony and all the magic had gone from his poor little essay. He had been dealing, after all, with facts. The man across the table was taking them as facts. Indeed, the man across the table was living proof of the reality of facts. “No,” Vincent heard himself saying, “I am quite a common type, really quite ordinary. I want to live the life, not be the thing.”

Again well said; and again the same question obtrudes. An unwillingness to let his story and characters speak for themselves pervades even those scenes in which Trilling catches Vincent playing tennis, or swimming, or drinking cocktails. The flesh-and-blood figure into whose mind and heart we are meant to look as into a crucible of moral conscience comes to us missing both flesh and blood; he is merely a place holder.

_____________

 

In his notes, Trilling seems indeed to be holding a conversation with himself, half pep-talk, half chastisement, about the progress and the defects of his incomplete manu-script. “Up to now,” goes one such note,

though reasonably dramatic, the story has been going along the ground. So long a stretch of taxiing must argue a long novel. We have to face up to this: the pace of what has occupied us until now can be the introduction only to a long story. We must give up all craven hope of making it short. If it is to be short, it must begin with Vincent’s arrival at Outram’s. But that isn’t what you want. So best make up your mind to length.

This is a rare spectacle: a critical intelligence of the first rank turned in upon itself, examining, in a mixture of ruthlessness and self-defense, the product of its own exertions. Trilling’s eye is so acute that it discloses not only the weakness at the core of his novelistic conception but also the probable cause of its abortion and, it may be conjectured, of his decision not to try his hand at fiction again.

The entirety of Trilling’s work as a critic suggests he possessed a mind too fine for false comfort to violate it. But the failure—there is no other word for it—of The Journey Abandoned does offer an instructive instance of how different are the real talents of the critic and the novelist. One is analytical, the other synthetic; one is exigent and refining, the other generative and messy. For this reason, though it seems paradoxical, Trilling’s admirers can take heart from this dispiriting book. Though he failed as a novelist, he failed for the best possible reason, leaving The Journey Abandoned among his papers without further comment. That long silence itself constituted an act of the most discerning criticism.

About the Author

Sam Munson, who reviewed Elizabeth Bishop’s Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box in May 2006, is online editor of COMMENTARY.




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