Whittaker Chambers 1901-1961
(Born Jay Vivian Chambers) American memoirist, short story writer, journalist, editor, and essayist.
The following entry provides criticism on Chambers's works from 1951 through 1997.
Chambers is remembered for his seminal role in the Alger Hiss case, which is regarded as one of the most significant episodes in American history during the mid-twentieth century. His controversial testimony and anti-communist views are believed to have contributed to the rise of anti-communist fervor during the Cold War and to have greatly influenced the conservative movement in the United States. Chambers recorded his role in this notorious event in his memoir, Witness (1952), which is considered one of the more notable political autobiographies of its time.
Chambers was born in Philadelphia on April 1, 1901. He attended Columbia University in the early 1920s and became interested in social and political issues. In 1925 he joined the Communist Party, spending six years as an underground espionage agent in New York and Washington, D.C. Disillusioned with the tyrannical Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union and profoundly influenced by a religious awakening, Chambers left the Communist Party in 1939 and began working for Time magazine under Henry Luce. He first wrote book reviews and later worked as a writer of editorial articles and cover stories. In 1948, while senior editor at the magazine, he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities about Communist infiltration of the U.S. government. Specifically, he accused Alger Hiss, a State Department official and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of being part of an underground communist cell in Washington, D.C., during the 1930s. When Hiss sued Chambers for libel, Chambers then provided proof that Hiss was part of an espionage ring that provided government documents to the Soviet Union. Hiss was indicted for perjury, and was eventually found guilty and imprisoned. Chambers remained a divisive figure; he was embraced by conservatives and maligned by liberals for his actions. He justified his role in the Hiss case in Witness. He died on July 9, 1961.
Witness is considered Chambers's best-known work. It traces his conversion from Communist Party member to religious, anti-communist conservatism. Moreover, it is regarded as a fascinating account of the infamous Congressional hearings and trials in the late 1940s that catapulted Chambers, Hiss, and Richard Nixon into national prominence. Witness also provides a history of the American Communist and anti-communist movements during a period known as the “Red Scare.” Cold Friday (1964) is a collection of letters, journalism, diary entries, and reminiscences from the later years of Chambers's life. His correspondence, collected in Odyssey of a Friend: Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954-1961 (1969) and Notes from the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Letters, 1949-1960 (1997), offers insight into his political ideology and perspective on world events. Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959 (1989) is comprised of his essays and journalistic work from his years at Time magazine.
Historians view the Hiss case as an incident in American history that had serious implications, particularly on the rise of anti-communist fervor during the Cold War. Therefore, Chambers and his role in the matter have continued to attract critical debate, and Witness is regarded as a valuable account of Chamber's life and ideology. Because he remains a polemic figure in American political history, his work has inspired a plethora of critical opinions. Witness has been viewed as a fascinating character portrait of a complex and erudite man, as well as a religious tract and a prime example of political confession. Some critics deem Witness a persuasive account of the role Chambers played in the Hiss case as well as a well-written, sympathetic autobiography. Others consider the book to be portentous, overblown, and self-aggrandizing. Although Chambers is remembered primarily as a central figure in the anti-communist movement, several commentators have urged a reassessment of his oeuvre. The impact of Chambers's writings on the modern conservative movement in the United States has been investigated by several critics; for example, former president Ronald Reagan named Chambers as a very influential figure in his political development.
Witness (memoir) 1952
Cold Friday (essays, lectures, diaries, and memoir) 1964
Odyssey of a Friend: Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954-1961 (letters) 1969
Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959 (essays) 1989
Notes from the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Letters, 1949-1960 (letters) 1997
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SOURCE: Raynolds, Robert. “Of Human Achievement.” American Scholar 21, no. 4 (autumn 1951): 492, 494.
[In the following review, Raynolds discusses Witness as a piece of crime fiction, a work of political philosophy, and a testament to moral corruption.]
Witness is an impressive report on a representative crime of our day. The crime is treason. This particular instance, now known as the Chambers-Hiss Case, had a theatrical exposure; but the same sordid crime has been committed over and over again in the past thirty years in almost any country one could name. Whittaker Chambers, who spent thirteen years as an active Communist, seven years in the open Party and six more as an underground espionage agent in New York and Washington, reveals a moral rot in our political life, particularly among young, clever and effective appointees in public office. That many such men and women have engaged in treasonable activity in the name of communism has been attested by a series of confessions and some convictions. The reader of Witness is justified in believing that this crime has been repeated many times, and that more persons than Whittaker Chambers were involved in committing it.
The book also persuades me of the probability, without proving the actuality, that the same sort of moral rot persists and the same sort of treason is still being practiced at vital centers of our...
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SOURCE: Cogley, John. “Witness: Whittaker Chambers.” Commonweal 56, no. 7 (23 May 1952): 176-77.
[In the following review, Cogley derides what he perceives as Chambers's overblown, messianic self-image in Witness.]
In the opening pages of Witness Whittaker Chambers writes,
It is a terrible book. It is terrible in what it tells about men. If anything, it is more terrible in what it tells about the world in which you live … Much more than Alger Hiss or Whittaker Chambers was on trial in the trials of Alger Hiss. Two faiths were on trial. Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies. At issue in the Hiss Case was the question whether this sick society, which we call Western civilization, could in its extremity still cast up a man whose faith in it was so great that he would voluntarily abandon those things which men hold good, including life, to defend it. At issue was the question whether this man's faith could prevail against a man whose equal faith it was that this society is sick beyond saving, and that mercy itself pleads for its swift extinction and replacement by another. …
At heart, the Great Case was this critical conflict of faiths; that is why it is a great case. On a scale personal enough to be felt by all, but big enough to be symbolic, the two irreconcilable...
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SOURCE: Howe, Irving. “God, Man, and Stalin.” In Irving Howe: Selected Writings, 1950-1990, pp. 19-25. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.
[In the following essay, originally published in The Nation in 1952, Howe explores the role of religion and Chambers's approach to Stalinism in Witness, and deems the autobiography disjointed, historically inaccurate, and often hypocritical.]
That Whittaker Chambers told the truth and Alger Hiss did not seems to me highly probable. Personal tragedy though their confrontation was, it had another, almost abstract, quality: the political course of the thirties made it inevitable that, quite apart from this well-groomed man and that unkempt one, there be a clash between two men, one a former Communist who repudiated his past and then, as his Witness testifies, swung to the politics of the far right, the other a “liberal” recruited from the idealistic wing of public service. If not these two, then two others; if not their shapes and accents, other shapes and accents. And that is why most of the journalistic speculation on their personalities proved so ephemeral: for what did it finally matter whether Hiss was a likable man or Chambers an overwrought one? what did it matter when at stake was the commitment of those popular-front liberals who had persisted in treating Stalinism as an accepted part of “the left”? and why should serious...
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SOURCE: Cort, David. “A Dedicated Madness.” The Nation 210, no. 6 (16 February 1970): 185-86.
[In the following review of Odyssey of a Friend, Cort asserts that Chambers's letters expose a superficiality and intellectual narcissism.]
The ghost of the late Whittaker Chambers declines to rest in peace, and for very good reasons. He magnificently played a child's game of masquerade, and too many adults believed in him. Richard M. Nixon believed, and in ultimate consequence became the President of the United States. William Frank Buckley, Jr. of National Review still keeps a nonpareil faith and love and has brought out a whole book [Odyssey of a Friend] (first privately printed, now regularly published) of Chambers' letters to him from 1954 to 1961, when his correspondent became extinct.
Whittaker Chambers was not the name of the man, but just the most convenient of a dozen or so aliases. The name, if you care, was Jay Vivian Chambers. In this book of progressively less posturing letters to a friend one begins to detect that he never called anything by its right name, being deeply involved in an old secret game of pretenses and false faces. Since few people are accustomed to a world of deceits, Chambers' iridescent bluffs and impostures were a smash hit and encouraged him to higher effort.
An authentic persona rises out of these letters. Here is a...
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SOURCE: Galbraith, John Kenneth. “A Revisionist View.” The New Republic 162 (28 March 1970): 17-19.
[In the following review, Galbraith provides his perspective on the Hiss-Chambers case and emphasizes the insight and value of the letters in Odyssey of a Friend.]
One evening in January, 1950, I was stopped on Fifth Avenue by an acquaintance who served as the intellectual MVB for the House of Morgan. He told me, without visible regret, that the jury in the second Hiss trial had just returned a verdict of guilty on two counts of perjury. My pain was greater than his. Clearly the enemies of the New Deal, all who hated FDR, his works and legions, would now have a field day. My sense of abstract moral concern is always usefully enhanced by being personally involved. I had been politically and emotionally a part of the Administration and though a later arrival than Alger Hiss—whom I knew but casually—had held a rather more important post. I had another thought. Were Hiss in fact innocent no one was exempt from a monstrous frameup. Were he guilty no one would be exempt from suspicion. I continued on my way in a thoughtful mood.
In time, like most liberals, I came to accept the guilt of Hiss. The importance of the information that he passed to the Soviets from his State Department job having to do with trade agreements was probably slight. It could have been negative. Considering the...
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SOURCE: Sheed, Wilfred. “Private Chambers v. Public Chambers.” Encounter 36, no. 3 (March 1971): 61-5.
[In the following positive review, Sheed maintains that Odyssey of a Friend provides insight into Chambers's true political ideology, religious beliefs, friendships, and personality.]
A reviewer is not, thank God, often required to judge an author on his legal merits. But the strange warp of Whittaker Chambers' career insists that even a benign collection of posthumous letters, Odyssey of a Friend1 must be read in the gloomy light of litigation. Never mind about his literary virtue—would the writer of this prose lie under oath or wouldn't he? When he testified against Alger Hiss, Chambers went for good from the anonymity of a Time editor to a desk in Macy's window where his words and his personality could never be separated again.
William F. Buckley, who received the letters in the first place, bows to the inevitable and introduces them as a character reference. They are not a bad one at that: certainly better than Chambers' own floundering attempt at one, the elephantine Witness. It could be that the subject was more plausible in private than in public; and he was certainly more plausible by 1961, when the collection ends, than in 1954 when it starts.
The Hiss case was largely a question of character even then (to younger...
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SOURCE: Niemeyer, Gerhart. “Rewitness.” National Review 30, no. 31 (4 August 1978): 964-67.
[In the following review of Odyssey of a Friend, Niemeyer explores the enduring impact of the Hiss-Chambers case.]
Apart from the praiseworthiness of Henry Regnery's initiative, what is the meaning of re-publishing Whittaker Chambers' Witness a quarter of a century after the fact? One can probably dismiss as coincidence the simultaneous appearance of an exemplary piece of research, by Allen Weinstein, into the problem of Hiss's guilt. Other, similar efforts may still be in store, for we do feel a periodic urge to rehash this case.
Within the last hundred years, three long-drawn-out trials—those of Dreyfus, Sacco and Vanzetti, and Hiss—have brought into collision formidable political forces. There is a myth that legal verdicts can shape the historical course of nations. I doubt it. Dreyfus—sentenced, degraded, and deported—was eventually tried again, acquitted, and rehabilitated. It once seemed that this legal victory enabled the Left permanently to cripple the French Right. Later, however, Sacco and Vanzetti were condemned and executed, and Hiss imprisoned for perjury, but the Left emerged with its strength and convictions unscathed—in fact, enhanced. The Sacco and Vanzetti case, legally closed, remains morally and politically open. Hiss, after his prison term, was...
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SOURCE: McGurn, William. “The Witness of Whittaker Chambers: A Bitter Hope.” Modern Age 28, nos. 2-3 (spring 1984): 203-07.
[In the following essay, McGurn addresses the repercussions of the Hiss-Chambers case, particularly on the conservative movement in the United States.]
Twenty-three years after his death, thirty-two years after the publication of Witness, and thirty-six years after he first appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the name Whittaker Chambers still provokes. On the one side line up the stout-hearted partisans of Alger Hiss. To these people, whose resolute faith in the innocence of Mr. Hiss puts to shame that of the American bishops in divine Providence, Chambers is the black villain. He is the man who ruined everything and, in the process, bequeathed to us Richard Nixon. To the other side, which includes the current occupant of the White House, Chambers is reverenced as a founding father of conservatism in a country borne of the Enlightenment. In a nation that, as philosopher William Barrett has put it, “cannot grasp the passion of an idea,” this was no small feat. When on March 26, 1984, President Reagan awarded Chambers a posthumous Medal of Freedom—America's highest civilian honor—he acknowledged a personal respect at the same time he formally recognized the public debt to this sadly misunderstood man. For in the midst of a deceptive...
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SOURCE: Nieli, Russell. “The Cry against Nineveh: Whittaker Chambers and Eric Voegelin on the Crisis of Western Modernity.” Modern Age 31, nos. 3-4 (summer 1987): 267-74.
[In the following essay, Nieli contends that both Chambers and Eric Voegelin, a political writer and teacher, have similar ideas about Western modernity.]
Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah, the son of Amitai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
Whittaker Chambers and Eric Voegelin were born in the same year (1901); and although they had vastly different personal experiences—the one as a university professor and refugee from Nazism, the other as a left-wing journalist and Communist spy—they were both in their mature years to adopt a nearly identical position on what they saw as the crisis of Western modernity. Somewhat surprisingly in view of the great similarities between them, the ideas of these two men have rarely been compared. The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to present their two assessments of Western modernity and to show how both men stood within a common mystic-prophetic line of protest that sought to judge man and his world sub specie aeternitatis.
Eric Voegelin began his academic career...
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SOURCE: Abbott, Philip. “Judging: Whittaker Chambers and Lillian Hellman.” In States of Perfect Freedom: Autobiography and American Political Thought, pp. 91-124. Amherst, Mass.: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Abbott contrasts Witness and Lillian Hellman's Scoundrel Time, contending that “both these autobiographies fail from the standpoint of political theory.”]
Consider the testimony of these two witnesses before the House of Representatives' Un-American Activities Committee.
“Almost exactly nine years ago—that is, two days after Hitler and Stalin signed their pact—I went to Washington and reported to the authorities what I knew about the infiltration of the United States Government by Communists. For years, international Communism, of which the United States Communist Party is an integral part, had been in a state of undeclared war with this Republic. With the Hitler-Stalin pact that war reached a new stage. I regarded my action in going to the Government as a simple act of war, like the shooting of an armed enemy in combat.
“At that moment in history, I was one of the few men on this side of the battle who could perform this service. I had joined the Communist Party in 1924. No one recruited me. I had become convinced that the society in which...
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SOURCE: Sobran, Joseph. “Chambers without Hiss.” National Review 41, no. 10 (2 June 1989): 48, 50.
[In the following review, Sobran praises the erudition, positive tone, and diversity of the subject matter of Ghosts on the Roof.]
The price of believing Alger Hiss has been to cut oneself off from Whittaker Chambers. It has never been a mere question of choosing which of two contradictory stories to accept. Siding with Hiss has always meant diminishing his accuser—reducing Chambers to something he most certainly wasn't: not only a liar, but a bore; a man with nothing to say, whose eloquence was nothing but fantastic loquacity.
In Ghosts on the Roof, we finally meet Chambers alone, without the shadow of the Hiss case, though its foreshadowing is here and there inescapable. The book is a collection of Chambers's magazine articles, written over a span of thirty years, from his early fiction in New Masses to his final ruminations for National Review. Most of these pieces belong to the Forties, the years between his defection from Communism and the controversy that ended his career as a journalist. His real career, in fact, lasted only the decade during which he wrote for Time, Life, and American Mercury.
It looks now like a brief intermission from the apocalyptic struggle that consumed him before and after. Here are thoughtful essays...
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SOURCE: Horner, Charles. “Why Whittaker Chambers Was Wrong.” Commentary 89, no. 4 (April 1990): 56-8.
[In the following essay, Horner assesses Chambers's work as a writer for Time and Life magazines, asserting that “although for some, Chambers's way of looking at things will retain its powerful emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic appeal, his sensibility never did have a wide following in the country.”]
Whittaker Chambers (1901-61) was a Communist who left the party in 1938 to become one of its most determined enemies. He also became famous for his testimony against Alger Hiss, and was admired by many for Witness (1952), a compelling autobiographical account of his conversion/deconversion experience. In and of itself, a journey to and from Communism was not uncommon among American intellectuals; many toyed with it, fewer ended up as hard-core disciples, fewer still as operational agents under Soviet direction. In addition to having been a real spy, what made Chambers distinctive in this group, and what really fueled the controversy which dogged him, were the direction and distance of his migration.
His deconversion was one not of degree but of kind. He did not remain on the Left and replace his prior Stalinist allegiance with some softer substitute—Democratic socialism, Democratic liberalism, moderate Republicanism, or any such. Instead he embraced a...
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SOURCE: Tanenhaus, Sam. “Whittaker Chambers, Man of Letters.” New Criterion 8, no. 8 (April 1990): 11-19.
[In the following essay, Tanenhaus surveys Chambers's literary and journalistic work.]
Within the space of a generation—that is, since 1964, when Cold Friday was published to tepid reviews—Whittaker Chambers has been all but forgotten as a writer. Those conversant with the Alger Hiss case know, of course, that from the 1920s through the 1950s Chambers was frequently—at times steadily—in print. But his most enduring utterance seems to be the testimony he gave before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948. Scholars of the Cold War seldom look beyond it to the ample personal record he left behind in his poetry, fiction, and journalism; few bother even with Witness, Cold Friday, and Odyssey of a Friend.1 The work is there. It just doesn't seem important. Charitable verdicts usually go no further than Sidney Hook's late judgment, recorded in his autobiography Out of Step (1987), that had Chambers “escaped involvement in politics, he probably would have blossomed into a poet of stature.” This view—of Chambers as writer manqué—neatly fits the demonology of the Hiss case. But is it accurate?
It is indeed the case that Chambers abandoned a burgeoning literary career in 1932, when he slipped into the mousehole...
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SOURCE: Brogan, Colm. Review of Cold Friday, by Whittaker Chambers. National Review 47, no. 23 (11 December 1995): 127.
[In the following review, Brogan maintains that Cold Friday provides much insight into Chambers's life and character.]
A man who knew Whittaker Chambers well once told me that he did not believe there was anybody who knew him with full intimacy. At the core of Chambers's being there was something elusive, something not responsive to ordinary standards of judgment and understanding. “There is an element of Dostoyevsky there,” he said.
The majestic Witness gave much evidence to support that perception. But this posthumous assembly of diary notes, fragments, and short pieces [Cold Friday] strongly suggests that Chambers had also a large element of Thoreau. Thoreau turned his eyes away from contemplating the Himalayas because he had “some business with a drop of dew.” He turned from the overwhelmingly immense to what was private and particular and could also be made personal.
Whittaker Chambers did the same. Caught in the Himalayas of a worldwide conspiracy, he made his escape only to endure an ordeal that almost certainly shortened his life. When that was over he retired to a farm at Westminster, Maryland, to find consolation and renewal from the small good things of the natural earth. In this book there are pages of...
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SOURCE: Review of Notes from the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Correspondence, 1949-1960, by Whittaker Chambers. Kirkus Reviews 65, no. 18 (15 September 1997): 1431.
[In the following review, the critic provides a favorable assessment of Notes from the Underground.]
[Notes from the Underground] is an intriguing and illuminating correspondence between two of America's earliest cold warriors.
In 1948, Whittaker Chambers (himself a former Communist agent then employed as a senior editor at Time magazine) exposed Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy. At no small cost, he made his accusation stick, and the liberal poster boy eventually served five years in a federal penitentiary on perjury charges. In the meantime, Manhattan-based de Toledano (then a Newsweek reporter) became a trusted friend of the wary Chambers, who had retreated to a working farm he owned in Maryland. The two soon began writing each other with some regularity, and their letters offer the hair-down commentary of insiders on an eventful era during which Hiss was twice in the dock; de Toledano published Seeds of Treason, a conservative tome; Chambers had an even more successful bestseller (his memoir Witness); the Korean conflict raged; and the political fortunes of Richard Nixon waxed, then waned. Deeply concerned about the Red Menace, the perceived perfidy of the...
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SOURCE: Buckley, William F., Jr. “The Poetry of Friendship.” National Review 49, no. 22 (24 November 1997): 57-8.
[In the following laudatory review of Notes from the Underground, Buckley describes the friendship between Chambers and journalist Ralph de Toledano, asserting that the letters “beckon to sensitive readers who care about great feats of literary expression.”]
Readers drawn to this book [Notes from the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Letters, 1949-1960] will come in looking for yet more from the numinous pen of Whittaker Chambers, and they will find his special idiom abundantly there. But they will have also absorbing material from Ralph de Toledano. “You are essentially a poet,” Chambers wrote him in 1958. “Hence I suspect that, like me, your grasp of pretty damned near all is intuitive.” Chambers was ever so gently discouraging Toledano from publishing a book on atomic espionage, which advice Toledano—a poet, but also a working journalist—did not take, suffering the displeasure of a press critical of any enterprise that focused on domestic subversion (has any book on clandestine domestic Communist activity—ever—been welcomed by the establishment press?). The friendship had taken root when Toledano covered the Chambers-Hiss trial for Newsweek. From it, much that is wonderful issued. Mutual support and affection, and a...
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SOURCE: Draper, Theodore. “The Drama of Whittaker Chambers.” New York Review of Books 44, no. 19 (4 December 1997): 22-4.
[In the following essay, Draper traces Chambers's involvement with the Communist party, his part in the Alger Hiss trial, and the importance of his ideas.]
Unlike Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers left no mystery about his political beliefs. He was not a systematic thinker, but he was a man of ideas. Without his ideas, he was merely an informer who soon would have been forgotten. Chambers's ideas lay at the root of his actions, and both books under review, Sam Tanenhaus's biography of Chambers and Allen Weinstein's Perjury, now in a new edition, are notably weak in this respect, although they provide much information about Chambers.1
Witness is a detailed story of Chambers's life, including its seamier aspects. But Chambers was not altogether satisfied with the book, because he had not wished to alarm his general readers. “More and more,” he wrote regretfully to a devotee, Ralph de Toledano, “it seems clear to me that I smoothed too many rough points in Witness, for the sake of sparing Americans the harsh import of history. The result is that almost nobody knows what I really said in that book.”2 Late in the 1950s he tried to write another book to clarify his thought but ended by burning a volume half the size of...
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Tanenhaus, Sam. Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997, 638 p.
Comprehensive biography of Chambers.
Zeligs, Meyer A. Friendship and Fratricide: An Analysis of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. New York: The Viking Press, 1967, 476 p.
Biographical account of the lives of Chambers and Hiss.
Hausknecht, Murray. “Confession and Return.” Antioch Review 14 (spring 1954): 76-86.
Hausknecht discusses Witness as a work of political confession.
Martin, Kingsley. “The Witness.” The New Statesman and Nation 44, no. 1115 (19 July 1952): 60-1.
Mixed review of Chambers's Witness.
Tanenhaus, Sam. “Hiss: Guilty as Charged.” Commentary 95, no. 4 (April 1993): 32-8.
Examines new evidence on the Hiss case and speculates on Hiss's guilt.
Thompson, James H. A review of Odyssey of a Friend: Whittaker Chambers' Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954-1961, by Whittaker Chambers. Library Journal 95, no. 6 (15 March 1970): 1018.
Positive assessment of Odyssey of a Friend.
Wechsler, James A. “American Melodrama.” New Statesman and Nation 37, no. 937 (19...
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