Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul

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Overview

In 1952, Random House published Whittaker Chambers's Witness. Not only did it immediately become a bestseller; it was recognized by many as one of the great spiritual autobiographies of the twentieth century. In Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul, editor Patrick Swan marks the fiftieth anniversary of Witness's publication by anthologizing 23 of the best essays ever written on Chambers, Hiss, or both. Essays by literary luminaries such as Leslie Fiedler, Arthur Koestler, Lionel Trilling, Rebecca West, Murray Kempton, and William F. Buckley Jr. tell the story of these two fascinating (and ultimately mysterious) men and of what they and their conflict represented. Sampling the entire spectrum of respectable thought on Hiss and Chambers, these pieces do not, as a rule, trouble themselves much with the facts of the case; Hiss's guilt was not so much in doubt then, and is certainly well documented by now. But the essayists' divergent opinions on the nature of communism (and anticommunism), liberalism, the proper relationship between religion and politics, and many other issues remain provocative-perhaps even more so now than when they were written.
About the Author

Patrick Swan served as research assistant to Terry Teachout for the Teachout's edited collection of essays by Chambers titled Ghosts on the Roof. Swan is the former recipient of the Army's Journalist of the Year award. He is currently Public Affairs Liaison in the Chief Information Office of the Army.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In August 1948, Alger Hiss, a former State Department bureaucrat, was accused of being a Soviet spy (he was tried and ultimately found guilty). The case quickly became a cause c l bre, the center of the bitter battle between conservatives (long out of power but smelling blood) and liberals over the history of the previous 20 years and the direction in which the country should proceed. This is a collection of 23 essays from such heavyweights as Diana and Lionel Trilling, William F. Buckley Jr., Rebecca West, Hugh Kenner, Sam Tanenhaus, Murray Kempton, and others. They not only comment on various aspects of the case but also shed light on the broader controversies that engulfed the country, such as the defensiveness of liberals with regard to their past support of the USSR, the abusive investigative tactics of McCarthy, Nixon, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the pervasive climate of fear. The publication dates range from 1950 to 2001, so the later writings were done after the opening of Soviet archives, showing that Hiss was almost certainly a spy. Contributors' notes identify the writers and offer brief background characterizing their position on the case. Although it helps to be well versed in the intellectual history of the period, this book is recommended for academic and larger public libraries.-Daniel K. Blewett, Coll. of DuPage Lib., Glen Ellyn, IL Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781882926916
  • Publisher: ISI Books
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 391
  • Sales rank: 1,440,313
  • Product dimensions: 6.08 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul


ISI Books

Copyright © 2007 Patrick A. Swan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-882926-91-6


Introduction

For many readers, particularly those under the age of twenty-five or so, an encounter with the contents of this book may feel rather like the discovery of a time capsule, filled with the brilliant fragments and curious remains of a singular world that has all but vanished. This will seem a surprising assertion to those who were mature and politically aware adults in the early years of the Cold War, when the Hiss-Chambers case was literally inescapable, and when every sentient person was expected to have an opinion about the furiously contested question of Alger Hiss's guilt or innocence. Yet the memory of those turbulent times has faded, and so too, perhaps, has the historical awareness and imagination of those who would preserve their memory. Those of us who make a living teaching American history to young people know all too well that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get them to grasp what the Cold War was even about-its high stakes, its issues, its hatreds and pathologies, its immense psychological intensity.

This is not an entirely unfortunate state of affairs. Indeed, it is probably one of the inevitable wages of victory. Once-fearsome dangers come to be retrospectively downsized, and even pitied, once they have been vanquished. And immunity from a certain kind of idealism can also provide immunity from a certain kind of corruption. But something is inevitably lost, too, as our sense of the Cold War fades into cliched obscurity. A sense of gratitude, for one thing, gratitude to those who struggled and prevailed. And, even more fundamentally, a sense of what the fighting was all about. For better or worse, today's young people, whose principal examples of ideological passion come from the hapless hippie retreads of the anti-globalization movement, or the murderous nihilism of Timothy McVeigh and al-Qaeda, cannot quite conceive of what might have motivated intelligent and highly educated Western men and women to embrace the Communist cause with a fervor that can only be called religious-or to resist it with a fervor of equivalent power. It all seems so bombastic, so terribly overwrought, overblown, and uncool, in the eyes of a generation accustomed to breathe a more relaxed moral atmosphere, a generation more comfortable (at least on its uneasy surface) with the self-defensive pose of irony and parody, rather than the more robust and dramatic impulse toward heroism and idealism. How can such a generation, a generation most decidedly not on trial, begin to comprehend what Chambers meant when he wrote that "life is pain," and "each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself"? What will keep them from saying of Chambers, as one of my students did, that "the dude needed to chill"?

This book cannot pretend be a remedy to that problem, but it can be a beginning. It doesn't propose to give a full account of the Cold War. But as a way of jumping in, and sampling the reactions of intellectuals to the Cold War in the writ-small form of their unfolding reactions to the Hiss-Chambers case, it succeeds admirably well. Those who take the plunge into these pages will find themselves pulled irresistibly into the whirl of a heated debate, or set of debates, that has coursed around and through the past half-century of American history. The ideological element in the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union is here miniaturized and personalized in the improbable encounter of these two strange and enigmatic men, and in the endless debates that their encounter left in its wake. It was a case of genuine world-historical importance; but it also was an intensely personal psychological drama. As these essays show, the Hiss-Chambers case quickly became one of those iconic moments of symbolic politics, like Jackson's Bank War or Bryan's "free silver" campaign or the Sacco-Vanzetti case, that endure and come to define the landscape of American history-events which may or may not be important in their own right, but which are chiefly significant for the way they reveal and embody the grand social forces and larger meanings that stand behind them, straining for expression. As such, the conflict between Hiss and Chambers was not merely a cynosure of history, as the self-dramatizing Chambers was so eager to portray it. It also was a puzzle, even to the convinced. It posed a near-endless set of riddles, whose precise answers remain to this day a subject of endless dispute.

Therefore it was not a coincidence, one might say, that the case has proved the source of some extraordinarily inspired and stimulating prose. How could it not be? Psychological complexities (and historical cynosures) draw talented writers the way mountains draw climbers. Chief of those prose works is Chambers's own masterpiece Witness, which even Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who differed from Chambers in so many ways, rightly credited as one of the greatest of American autobiographies. No one has done a better job of conveying the psychological and moral appeal of Communism, and the metaphysical stakes involved in accepting or rejecting it. Witness forms the object, direct or indirect, of a great many of the essays reprinted herein. Those who have not read it before, or have not reread it for many decades, will feel compelled to do so, and make up their minds for themselves what manner of man Chambers was, and how prophetic his vision may have proved to be.

Even so, in many respects these essays give one a more adequate historical introduction to the era, and provide a valuable framework for thinking about Chambers's book. For one thing, they give one a better sense of the extent of the "uproar" (Hilton Kramer's word) that the publication of Witness caused, and the diversity of reactions it produced, then and now. One runs the whole gamut here, from the dismissive personal assault of Kingsley Martin to the stiffly reserved "yes, but" of Diana Trilling to the tender recollections of William F. Buckley, Jr. These essays offer a kaleidoscopic overview of the historical situation, fragments of a large and complex story that one has to piece together for oneself, like the perspectives of a hundred partial witnesses, in order to gain some independent sense of the truth of the matter.

More importantly, readers of these essays will find themselves tantalized by the case's unresolved mysteries, which run through these pages like haunting Wagnerian leitmotifs. Even those who are firmly convinced, as the overwhelming body of evidence by now clearly indicates they ought to be, of Alger Hiss's guilt, will find themselves bothered by certain enduring questions. At their core, nearly all of these questions involve mysteries of the human psyche, mysteries that revolve around the interplay between loyalty and truth-telling.

To be sure, there are elements in the drama that, though they struck many contemporary observers forcibly, seem far less significant now. For example, there is the vivid class contrast between the protagonists-the handsome, elegant, and impeccably pedigreed Hiss against the disheveled and unprepossessing Chambers, with his ever-remarked-upon bad teeth. Chambers himself commented on the bad casting choices that history seemed to have made in this case. But the casting seems less suspect today, when the term "the best and the brightest" can hardly be uttered without overtones of sarcasm, and when the role of accredited elites in American life seems more morally problematic than ever.

But the psychological mysteries are, if anything, more unfathomable to our confessional age. Chief among these is the matter of Alger Hiss's demeanor, an issue that comes up again and again in these pages. How is one to account for his equipoise and his silence, by which is meant his dogged refusal to confess, or provide even so much as a scintilla of corroboration for the charges against him? Was outward serenity a sign of his innocence, that he seemed so unruffled, so completely remorseless and unbowed, because his conscience was so completely clear? Or was it paradoxically a sign of his guilt, that he never behaved as one would expect a man who had been so comprehensively wronged-that he was in fact secretly satisfied with what he had done, that he had been loyal to the only "truth" that matters, and that his martyrdom only added to his sense of smug moral superiority? Neither explanation, if truth be told, seems entirely satisfactory.

How, too, to account for the passionate and enduring loyalty shown to Hiss by his followers? Of especially perplexing interest is what Leslie Fiedler calls "the half-deliberate blindness of so many decent people." (21) The problem invites-indeed insists upon-a psychological explanation. Was there simply too much at stake-politically, intellectually, emotionally-for Hiss's guilt to be an admissible thought? Was there, as Sidney Hook claimed, "no arguing with symbolic allegiances"? Was it so important to defeat the Right that it could not be allowed a victory, even when the Left was clearly at fault? Was the disagreeable shiftiness of Chambers, and the seeming venality of Hiss's other foes (such as Richard Nixon) to be taken to be sufficient evidence of Hiss's righteousness? Were Hiss's alleged crimes to be understood as acts that, to a committed person of the left, were comparatively trivial, particularly compared to the patent monstrousness of the right-wing foe? Was it the case, then, that it didn't really matter whether or not he was a spy-just as it didn't really matter whether or not Bill Clinton had sex with an intern, and if asked about it, he was entitled to lie? Or is it possible that they were, and are, honestly and rationally convinced of Hiss's innocence, partly swayed by Hiss's unflappable demeanor? No one explanation seems to dispel the mystery. As was demonstrated by the O.J. Simpson case-another of the American "dervish trials" that Rebecca West so aptly describes herein-there will always be a constituency of those convinced by a man who stubbornly refuses to admit his guilt, particularly if there is a "symbolic allegiance" that can be played upon.

Some of the essays have worn the passage of time better than others. Leslie Fiedler's "Hiss, Chambers, and the Age of Innocence" is as fresh as if it were written yesterday, and it reminds us of what a powerful and imaginative literary and cultural critic he could be. The same can be said of the nearly forgotten Granville Hicks, whose generous examination of Witness is full of sympathetic insight, and much superior to the formulaic put-down of Irving Howe. Yet both Hicks and Howe, and nearly all the critics herein, seem to agree in one respect: that Chambers's book, even if it is to be accounted a magnificent achievement, goes too far in asserting that the Cold War was ultimately a theological struggle, against those who have perfected "the vision of man without God," and who see "man's mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world." Even Hicks, who openly admired Chambers, even considered him a "great man," nevertheless felt it necessary to say emphatically that "I reject Whittaker Chambers's conclusions," so far as the ultimate meaning of the Communist experiment was concerned.

Were they right to do so? Until recently, it might have seemed that they were. Yet, as Hilton Kramer's superb concluding essay hints, the cultural upheaval of the Sixties reintroduced the problem of faith in a form that the liberal mind found much harder to answer. And the same question, of the primacy of man or God, now poses itself to us in an entirely new form, with the advent of biotechnologies that, literally, place in human hands the power to make over the human condition.

Suddenly Chambers's rhetoric does not seem so extreme. When he spoke of "the vision of man's liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man's destiny and reorganizing man's life and the world," (59) he was speaking specifically of Communism. But he was also, perhaps without having known or intended it, addressing himself to something like the very prospect we now face, not because of some foreign threat, but because of the flourishing of certain aspects of our own victorious civilization. Even if he did not know specifically what was to come, he clearly understood that Communism was not something alien to the history of the modern West, but represented the purest and most logically consistent expression, in political and economic terms, of one of the most powerful and distinctive strains in that Western history. Communism was, he argued, merely "the next logical step which three hundred years of rationalism hesitated to take, and said what millions of modern minds think, but do not care or dare to say: If man's mind is the decisive force in the world, what need is there for God? Henceforth man's mind is man's fate."

Such a statement may well have seemed overdrawn a half-century ago. We will see if it seems less so in the half-century to come.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul Copyright © 2007 by Patrick A. Swan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction by Wilfred McClay
Preface by Patrick A. Swan
1. Hiss, Chambers, and the Age of Innocence
Leslie A. Fiedler
Commentary, August 1951
2. A Memorandum on the Hiss Case
Diana Trilling
Partisan Review, May-June 1950
3. The Complex Issue of the Ex-Communists
Arthur Koestler
New York Times Magazine, Feb. 19, 1950
4. Whittaker Chambers' Testament
Granville Hicks
New Leader, May 26, 1952
5. The Faiths of Whittaker Chambers
Sidney Hook
New York Times Book Review, May 25, 1952
6. God, Man and Stalin
Irving Howe
Nation, May 24, 1952
7. History in Doublethink
Elmer Davis
Saturday Review, June 28, 1952
8. The Witness
Kingsley Martin
News Statesman and Nation, July 19, 1952
9. Whittaker Chambers
Rebecca West
Atlantic Monthly, June 1952
10. Of Guilt and Resurrection
David Cort
Nation, March 20, 1067
11. The Misfortune of a Nation
Mark DeWolfe Howe
Nation, May 18, 1957
12. The End of Whittaker Chambers
William F. Buckley Jr.
Esquire, September 1962
13. A Narodnik from Lynbrook
Murray Kempton
New York Review of Books, Jan. 29, 1970
14. Whittaker Chambers and The Middle of the Journey
Lionel Trilling
New York Review of Books,1975
15. The State of the Art of Alger Hiss
Philip Nobile
Harper's, April 1976
16. Why Hiss Can't Confess
Alfred Kazin
Esquire, March 28, 1978
17. Chambers' Music and Alger Hiss
Hugh Kenner
American Spectator, 1979
18. The Two Faces of Whittaker Chambers
John Judis
New Republic, April 16, 1984
19. Alger Hiss: A Glimpse Behind the Mask
Eric M. Breindel
Commentary, November 1988
20. Whittaker Chambers: Man of Letters
Sam Tanenhaus
New Criterion, April 1990
21. Sifting through the Evidence
Sam Tanenhaus
Appendix to Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, 1997
23. Thinking about "Witness"
Hilton Kramer
New Criterion, March 1988
Appendix: A Hiss-Chambers Bibliography
Notes
Index
AUTHORBIO: Patrick Swan served as research assistant to Terry Teachout for the Teachout's edited collection of essays by Chambers titled Ghosts on the Roof. Swan is the former recipient of the Army's Journalist of the Year award. He is currently Public Affairs Liaison in the Chief Information Office of the Army.
END
ISBN: 1882926919
TITLE: Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul
AUTHOR: Swan, Patrick
DESCRIPTION: In 1952, Random House published Whittaker Chambers's Witness. Not only did it immediately become a bestseller; it was recognized by many as one of the great spiritual autobiographies of the twentieth century. In Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul, editor Patrick Swan marks the fiftieth anniversary of Witness's publication by anthologizing 23 of the best essays ever written on Chambers, Hiss, or both. Essays by literary luminaries such as Leslie Fiedler, Arthur Koestler, Lionel Trilling, Rebecca West, Murray Kempton, and William F. Buckley Jr. tell the story of these two fascinating (and ultimately mysterious) men and of what they and their conflict represented. Sampling the entire spectrum of respectable thought on Hiss and Chambers, these pieces do not, as a rule, trouble themselves much with the facts of the case; Hiss's guilt was not so much in doubt then, and is certainly well documented by now. But the essayists' divergent opinions on the nature of communism (and anticommunism), liberalism, the proper relationship between religion and politics, and many other issues remain provocative-perhaps even more so now than when they were written.
TOC:
Introduction by Wilfred McClay
Preface by Patrick A. Swan
1. Hiss, Chambers, and the Age of Innocence
Leslie A. Fiedler
Commentary, August 1951
2. A Memorandum on the Hiss Case
Diana Trilling
Partisan Review, May-June 1950
3. The Complex Issue of the Ex-Communists
Arthur Koestler
New York Times Magazine, Feb. 19, 1950
4. Whittaker Chambers' Testament
Granville Hicks
New Leader, May 26, 1952
5. The Faiths of Whittaker Chambers
Sidney Hook
New York Times Book Review, May 25, 1952
6. God, Man and Stalin
Irving Howe
Nation, May 24, 1952
7. History in Doublethink
Elmer Davis
Saturday Review, June 28, 1952
8. The Witness
Kingsley Martin
News Statesman and Nation, July 19, 1952
9. Whittaker Chambers
Rebecca West
Atlantic Monthly, June 1952
10. Of Guilt and Resurrection
David Cort
Nation, March 20, 1067
11. The Misfortune of a Nation
Mark DeWolfe Howe
Nation, May 18, 1957
12. The End of Whittaker Chambers
William F. Buckley Jr.
Esquire, September 1962
13. A Narodnik from Lynbrook
Murray Kempton
New York Review of Books, Jan. 29, 1970
14. Whittaker Chambers and The Middle of the Journey
Lionel Trilling
New York Review of Books,1975
15. The State of the Art of Alger Hiss
Philip Nobile
Harper's, April 1976
16. Why Hiss Can't Confess
Alfred Kazin
Esquire, March 28, 1978
17. Chambers' Music and Alger Hiss
Hugh Kenner
American Spectator, 1979
18. The Two Faces of Whittaker Chambers
John Judis
New Republic, April 16, 1984
19. Alger Hiss: A Glimpse Behind the Mask
Eric M. Breindel
Commentary, November 1988
20. Whittaker Chambers: Man of Letters
Sam Tanenhaus
New Criterion, April 1990
21. Sifting through the Evidence
Sam Tanenhaus
Appendix to Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, 1997
23. Thinking about "Witness"
Hilton Kramer
New Criterion, March 1988
Appendix: A Hiss-Chambers Bibliography
Notes
Index
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