Lionel Trilling: Cold War Prophet


Depending who wants to claim as one of their own, literary critic Lionel Trilling has been called a conservative, a neoconservative (a direction we are assured by neocons of where he was headed before his death in 1975), and a liberal anti-communist.

One thing missed in this game of ideological scrabble is how much of a Cold War prophet Trilling was in point of fact.

This is evidenced by his one and only novel, The Middle of the Journey, now seventy years old. When it debuted in 1947, the novel came and went, garnering praise only in England.

And so it might have remained, were it not for the fact that, one year later, the Alger Hiss case came to dominate the nation’s headlines.

A State Department official accused of being a Soviet spy by former Soviet courier and journalist Whittaker Chambers, Hiss was found guilty of perjury when Chambers produced documents proving the charge. Disgraced, Hiss spent the rest of his life proclaiming his innocence, against mounting documents to the contrary. The case validated conservatives’ thesis that there were indeed communist spies and that they had infiltrated the American government as high up as the State Department.

Since 1947, Middle of the Journey has been grouped along with primary documents as a window into the Hiss’s world that both Alger and wife Priscilla kept hermetically sealed all their lives. Trilling did not know the Hisses, but this in no way lessens the value of the novel for dealing with the unanswered questions of the Hiss case. Specifically, what sort of personalities did the Hisses have that kept them in denial about the reality of communism for so many years? How did they reconcile Soviet atrocities with their own doctrines, which argued that only the American government could be guilty of such crimes?

The “journey” of the title is made by the liberal protagonist, John Laskell. Laskell convalesces from a fever illness one weekend in 1937 Connecticut with the Crooms, a wealthy fellow-traveling couple that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Hisses. Himself a fellow traveler, Laskell experiences doubts about the communist cause due to the appearance and revelations of an ex-spy named Gifford Maxim, a character Trilling acknowledged was based on his Columbia classmate, Whittaker Chambers.

Like George Orwell, who based much of his distrust of the Stalinist purge trials on the fury Stalinists in his own country directed toward those who questioned their validity, Laskell believes the Soviets did in fact frame and murder innocent victims. Witnessing the knee-jerk anger with which Nancy Croom greets Maxim’s revelations about the communist underground, Laskell concludes that, had she the secret police in tow, the ex-spy would not have lived through the weekend.

Despite not knowing the Hisses, Trilling perfectly captured the characters of both. The husband, Arthur, is a clear analog to Alger Hiss. Puffing on his pipe, he is extremely contained, viewing each infuriating revelation Maxim volunteers about communist crimes with outward calm. His wife Nancy is brittle, explosive and full of ideological zeal. At one point, she lauds a thieving handyman for his proletariat background, which makes him “real” to her. By contrast, when Maxim says that Soviet spies engage in murder, an outraged Nancy responds by calling him “vile.”

It is impossible to miss Nancy’s startling resemblance to the volatile Priscilla Hiss. Priscilla was the witness the prosecution hungered for during the Hiss trial, mainly because of her nervous disposition. In the long run, she didn’t weather the years after the trial as well as her husband. In the late 1960s, she reportedly exploded in rage about being tired of “all the lies and cover-ups” and complained of how “Alger was willing to sacrifice us all on the altar of his vindication.” Because of her reportedly emotional commitment to communism, even Alger’s defense attorneys believed Hiss was shielding his wife from espionage charges. Trilling, beating this theory by a year, had Maxim successfully recruit Nancy Croom to the cause before his defection.

Meanwhile, Alger Hiss for the remainder of his life treated the case as Arthur did Maxim’s revelations: as something that could be evaded by a smart strategist. “Legalism to the point of madness,” critic Dwight MacDonald wrote about Alger’s 1957 book, In the Court of Public Opinion. “One misses the passionate vindication of the wronged,” noted scholar Sidney Hook complained about the book. Hiss himself in later years offered the startling revelation that he never felt “guilty about anything”–a trait that Arthur Croom exhibits with every possible indication of Soviet wrongdoing throughout the novel.

Like Hiss, Arthur Croom never expresses emotion of any kind, preferring to quote theory instead. Beneath the tweeds and pipe smoke, one has trouble seeing a real human being.

That Trilling did not know the Hisses but caught their character so successfully reveals what objective scholars of the Hiss case have always known: namely that the Hisses—wealthy, with impeccable resumes—were a type particularly susceptible to the pull of Stalinism in the 30s. One need only recall the cast of characters exposed by the Venona telegrams — among them Owen Lattimore, Lauchlin Currie, Harry Dexter White — all upper-class New Dealers, who nevertheless trucked with the lower-class dictator Josef Stalin. A penetrating portrait of the liberal intelligentsia in the early years of the Cold War, Middle of the Journey reminds us that class distinction was no shield against the appeal of communism. Then as now, the most beautiful people subscribed to the ugliest doctrines.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.

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