Study Guide

Whittaker Chambers

by Sam Tanenhaus

Whittaker Chambers Essay - Chambers, Whittaker

Chambers, Whittaker

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Criticism

Robert Raynolds (review date autumn 1951)

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 society.

After thirteen years of subversive and treasonable work, Chambers deserted the Communist conspiracy; a year or so later he partially but ineffectually testified against himself and his few familiars; then, almost ten years later, when subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he publicly informed against and helped to destroy the particular pocket of treason in which he had worked. This is an ugly story; but it is better that he confessed the crime and stopped the action than it would have been if he had protected himself by silence (or by suicide, which he attempted) and perhaps allowed the crime to continue.

Witness is also a dreary modern autobiography, eloquent and miserable, with many parallels in the modern novel of spiritual negation, from Madame Bovary to The Naked and the Dead. It is written from a center of pain, in that mood of German romanticism which favors morbid introspection and encourages a man to misconstrue himself as the protagonist of the human race. This mood of hate-breeding solitude is evident in the Communist Manifesto, in Nietzsche, in fascism, and in public men at least as far back as Caligula, whose power was exceeded only by his egotism, and who, in the midst of his cruelties, would often quote: “Let them hate me, so they but fear me.” There are characters of the same destructive hybris in Dostoevski's novels; but Witness is as if one of Dostoevski's characters—say Raskolnikov—had written his own life, or as if Kurtz, instead of Conrad, had told us the tale of The Heart of Darkness. The tragic religious insight of Dostoevski, the profound human integrity of Conrad are lacking. The story is impressive, but miserable and almost hopeless. It...

(The entire section is 1324 words.)

John Cogley (review date 23 May 1952)

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...

(The entire section is 1416 words.)

Irving Howe (essay date 1952)

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...

(The entire section is 2756 words.)

David Cort (review date 16 February 1970)

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...

(The entire section is 1159 words.)

John Kenneth Galbraith (review date 28 March 1970)

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...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)

Wilfred Sheed (review date March 1971)

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...

(The entire section is 3195 words.)

Gerhart Niemeyer (review date 4 August 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 2075 words.)

William McGurn (essay date spring 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 2802 words.)

Russell Nieli (essay date summer 1987)

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.”

—Jonah, 1:1

Whittaker Chambers and Eric Voegelin were born in the same year (1901); and...

(The entire section is 4809 words.)

Philip Abbott (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 13928 words.)

Joseph Sobran (review date 2 June 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 915 words.)

Charles Horner (review date April 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 1501 words.)

Sam Tanenhaus (essay date April 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 5749 words.)

Colm Brogan (review date 11 December 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1208 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 September 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 351 words.)

William F. Buckley Jr. (review date 24 November 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 1116 words.)

Theodore Draper (essay date 4 December 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 4454 words.)