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.