"A Not-Exactly-Good Man": Lionel Trilling on Law and Judgment

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Date: June 2018
From: Twentieth Century Literature(Vol. 64, Issue 2)
Publisher: Duke University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 12,249 words
Lexile Measure: 1480L

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The discrepancy between legality and justice could never be bridged because the standards of right and wrong into which positive law translates its authority ... are necessarily general ... so that each concrete individual case with its unrepeatable set of circumstances somehow escapes it.

--Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

So when we come to look at liberalism in a critical spirit, we have to expect that there will be a discrepancy between what I have called the primal imagination of liberalism and its present manifestations.

--Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination

Probably the most influential literary critic in mid-century America, Lionel Trilling famously argued that literary taste and aesthetic experience were central to the formation of political ideology. That belief is on conspicuous display in his only novel, The Middle of the Journey, published in 1947. Although Trilling's characters engage in several pointed political debates, it is an act of literary interpretation that solidifies the terms of their dispute. Maxim, a Marxist revolutionary turned religious conservative, pens an essay on Billy Budd for the fictional literary magazine The New Era. This prompts an argument among Maxim's friends about whether Captain Vere is justified in his execution of the titular Billy (a saintly sailor who blindly strikes and accidentally kills Claggart, the ship's sinister master-at-arms). Maxim's reactionary interpretation lionizes Vere as the expression of the "world of Necessity" (MJ 182) to which the morally pure Billy must be sacrificed, a view that Nancy Croom--still a committed leftist--surprisingly agrees with, evoking the architects of the Moscow trials, who learned to sacrifice subjective innocence to the necessities of history. John Laskell, the novel's sympathetic liberal consciousness, is horrified by their reactions yet finds he is unable to dispute them. "He did not defend his own reading of it" (186), Trilling writes.

While Trilling suggests that their respective interpretations of Melville illuminate his characters' politics, it is curious that we never gain access to Laskell's own interpretation of the novel. Remarking that he did not "defend his own reading of it," the narrator is most directly referring to Laskell's interpretation of Maxim's essay as a reactionary defense of "the rule of force" (183). Yet Laskell also refuses to provide his own reading of Billy Budd, either to his friends or to the reader. If both Maxim and Nancy find Billy's execution justified, does Laskell advocate exoneration? We get a possible answer at the close of the novel, when Maxim, Nancy, and Laskell are confronted by a real-life Billy. When Duck Caldwell, a local handyman and notorious drunk, strikes and accidentally kills his daughter Susan, following her botched poetry recital, Maxim finds him fully responsible, while Nancy reads him as a victim of his class position. Laskell, in his final epiphany, declares that Duck is neither guilty nor innocent but, like each of us, both a product of his environment and an autonomous agent responsible for his actions. What, then, of Billy? Is he both guilty and innocent too? And what would that mean for...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A543464875