Trilling, Babel, and the Rabbis
When The Middle of the Journey was published in 1947, one of the criticisms made of the novel was that Lionel Trilling had erred in not making his characters Jewish. The intellectual circles in which Trilling moved in the 1930s and 1940s, where he found the originals of the novel's fellow-traveling liberals, were largely made up of first-generation American Jews, like himself. While he taught at Columbia, then still a Protestant bastion, Trilling published his essays in Partisan Review and Commentary, the house organs of the New York Jewish intellectuals. Yet "not one of the essential characters is, incredibly, a Jew," complained Leslie Fiedler, "though much of the flavor of the Communist experience in America is their flavor."
This may not be entirely correct. There is, in fact, a glancing allusion to Jewishness in the novel, when John Laskell, the character who comes closest to being the author's proxy, is quizzed about his name by his British nurse, Miss Paine. "‘It sounds quite English,' Miss Paine said. She spoke it again, as if testing it. ‘John Laskell,' she said. ‘It sounds like a Lancashire name. Are you English?'. . . No, he was not English. There was a modification he might make—his mother had been born in the first year of his grandparents' long English visit. But that did not make her English, or him." This is Trilling's own history: His grandparents had emigrated from Eastern Europe to England, before moving finally to New York. It seems we are to deduce that, like his creator, Laskell bears a Jewish name that happens to function as Anglo-Saxon camouflage.
The sound of his name helped Trilling early in his career, when he was the first Jew to be hired in the Columbia English Department. As Diana Trilling wryly observed, "Had his name been that of his maternal grandfather, Israel Cohen, it is highly questionable whether the offer would have been made." But the very Englishness of the name sometimes raised suspicions that it must have been adopted as a disguise—a corollary to Trilling's reserved, imposing, professorial demeanor.
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