The View from Alger's Window: A Son's Memoirby Tony Hiss
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The View from Alger's Window is Tony Hiss's remarkable memoir of the trial and imprisonment of one of the most famous victims of the Cold War witch-hunts: his father. Tony Hiss was seven years old when Whittaker Chambers first accused Alger Hiss of passing secrets to the Russians. For the rest of his childhood, Tony and his family experienced the cruelties and intimidations of the time.
Drawing on hundreds of letters Alger sent from prison, the author counters public perceptions of Hiss and shows the fundamental decency and essential goodness of his father and, along the way, draws a compelling portrait of an innocent man. At the same time he lets us see how adversity drew this father and son together, allowing them to achieve a closeness they might never have been able to otherwise.
Beautifully written, wise, The View from Alger's Window sheds new light on a family, a time, an accusation, and a man whose guilt or innocence continues to inspire debate.
"Letters are, for me, the most effective biographies and almost equally valuable as history," wrote Alger Hiss from the United States Penitentiary at Lewisburg in 1954, " not only the writers but their social settings come alive more truly than through any other form of literature." In The View From Alger's WIndow, Hiss's son takes this statement as an article of faith. Through excerpts and interpretation of letters his father sent from prison, Tony Hiss brings to light the sympathetic side of the accused cold war spy, contending that the warm, upright, vital man they portray is the real Alger Hiss.
The public knew Hiss only as the man convicted of spying for the Soviets in the late 1930s and '40s. Before charges were leveled against him in 1948, Hiss appeared to be a patriot, serving as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a State Department official under FDR (and one of the senior American officials at Yalta in 1945), and as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. When Whittaker Chambers denounced Hiss before the House Un-American Activities Committee (first claiming that Hiss was a Communist and later alleging that he was a spy), Hiss's family and friends were shocked. The Hiss they knew was not the cold, cruel man Chambers described. But, as Tony Hiss points out, "you can't prove a negative," and Hiss was found guilty of perjury (though not of espionage; the statute of limitations on espionage had expired).
Tony Hiss's memoir doesn't exactly seek to prove a negative. In fact, it doesn't face the issue of Hiss's guiltorinnocence head-on. Instead Tony introduces us to his father, a family man who worked hard to be present for his wife and son even as he was physically absent from them, with visits allowed only once a month for two hours. Hiss was a faithful correspondent, and The View From Alger's WIndow consists largely of extracts from his letters from prison, discovered by Tony after Hiss's death, along with other family correspondence.
Tony Hiss makes one thing clear from the outset: "There is nothing in any of the six decades of letters that in any way either corroborates the accusations of treason and espionage...or gives even a suggestion or hint that he was the kind of man willing to betray his country." But he does not seek to show his father's innocence through documentary proof; what he instead tries to prove is his father's innate decency, kindness, and warmth.
In this, he succeeds. The letters from prison are charming. While Hiss the public figure could come off as clipped and remote, the private man seems engaging and playful. His letters are sprinkled with private family jokes, groan-worthy puns, rebuses, and clever drawings. He tells Tony imaginative, instructive stories about the Sugar Lump Boy, casting Tony as the mentor to the goofy and fearful "S. L. B." Hiss understood that he needed to keep morale high at home; his letters speak of stargazing with other inmates, making tasty drinks out of melted Life-Savers and chocolate bars, and, in the book's most affecting passages, teaching an illiterate fellow inmate ("B. R." the Beginning Reader) to read and write.
Even so, Tony believes Hiss was not just putting up a good front for the folks at home. He asserts that prison left Hiss not embittered but sweetened: "Alger's inner sweetness deepened and intensified, so that when the fires actually surrounded him, he was not consumed or even badly scorched. He emerged intact."
Indeed, people in Hiss's inner circle worried that this sweetness and decency did him a disservice. "Chambers was able to slap a label on you and the label stuck," wrote one of them, "and the reason why the label stuck is that you are not oily enough or greasy enough for it to slide off harmlessly. You were much too clean, too forgiving, too gentle, too honest, too loving. Such persons refuse to be slippery and so the labels stick." But to Tony, his father's serenity was invaluable. Tony speaks candidly about the problems he had as a result of the tumult during his childhood depression, anxiety, a strange string of accidents but is quick to assert that his father's loving guidance, even from prison, helped stabilize him during those difficult times.
Tony Hiss sidesteps the issues that interest political historians today, primarily the guilt or innocence of his father. Although he obviously believes in Hiss's innocence, he is much more intent on proving the goodness in his father's character and not his actions. The value of The View From Alger's WIndow is more subtle than a definitive declaration; it's a rare story of how a loving father's influence can sustain a troubled boy despite physical absence.
The Washington Monthly
The New York Observer
"In this intimate and appreciative memoir, Tony Hiss . . . has achieved what must surely have been his boyhood dream: to free his father from history's imprisonment." The Boston Globe
"Poignant, wonderfully written and deeply troubling. . . . A haunting record." The New York Times
"[A] tender hagiography . . . heartbreakingly sweet." Time
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From Chapter One
On a muted, misty late-November morning in 1997, I made an unremarkable, unmarked right turn off a suburban highway strip in north-central Pennsylvania--and abruptly, a year after his death, began a strange, rewarding period of vividly renewed contact with my father, Alger Hiss. I've seen again the full person he was, his strengths and gaps and the ways he changed, and I've revisited the rich inner world that sustained him and that only a very few people ever got to see. I've been learning how much of him there is in me, particularly in areas I've liked to think were my own invention. He's also been jogging my mind, it seems, posing questions, pointing out possibilities, suggesting strategies and next steps. From out of the anywhere, it arrived--this wild rose, this lovely, sweet-smelling, prickly gift--with nothing more complicated than a right turn.
The only explicit piece of fatherly advice I can remember my father giving me was: Whatever you're going to do, get it up and running before you're seventy, because that's when the machinery inside starts to break down. Now I've collected a second piece of advice for my own son to think about someday (he's still only seven): You won't--can't--know ahead of time when some not-to-be-ignored idea may overtake you.
Since once-upon-a-time wishes, like wanting to spend more time with your father, don't expire just because you haven't thought about them for decades--the fairy tales that deal with the subject of wish-granting don't spell out all the rules, such as the fact that deliveries are erratic and unscheduled. So try not to let your calendar get too cluttered.
I don't thinkthere's anything either unique or spooky (or ennobling or neurotic, for that matter) about what's been happening to me. My father himself even had a name for a kind of ongoing closeness between people in which death is sometimes only an irrelevance. He called it "the Great Span," a sort of bucket brigade or relay race across time, a way for adjacent generations to let ideas and goals move intact from one mind to another across a couple of hundred years or more. He thought its purpose was to keep unifying memories alive.
As Alger explained it, it had been his privilege as a young lawyer to hear a series of Great Span stories from Oliver Wendell Holmes, the man he most admired in life--Holmes was then eighty-eight, ramrod straight, with a booming voice and an elegant white handlebar mustache, and still a Supreme Court Justice. Alger was his clerk. Alger could repeat these stories, word for word, for the rest of his life. In the Civil War, the young Lieutenant Holmes, from the 20th Massachusetts Volunteers, was wounded three times, and at Ball's Bluff, when he was twenty, he was shot in the breast and left for dead when the Union forces retreated across the Potomac. His sergeant, who had heard him moaning, "How will I get to the other side?" said, "Well, Holmesy, you don't have to worry about that. You believe in Jesus Christ and all that, so you'll be all right." "I got so damn mad," Holmes said later, "that I decided to live!"
In the Holmes story Alger treasured above all others, the Justice told him that when he had been very young, his grandmother, a woman he revered, had shared her memories of the day at the beginning of the American Revolution when she was five and had stood in her father's front window on Beacon Hill in Boston and watched rank after rank of Redcoats marching through town. Ever after, my father said, the awed, scared experience of a little girl born more than a century and a quarter before him had been a bright presence in his own mind.
The Beacon Hill house later became headquarters for Lord Howe, the British commandant, and Holmes owned an old mirror from that house. Holmes left the mirror to Alger, and it now hangs in my living room. "Sometimes when I look into the glass, I think I can see Lord Howe's bewigged face staring back at me," Holmes told Alger. "Can you see it, sonny? Can you see it?"
Although I've thought of the Great Span as an illuminating idea, blazing a sort of Appalachian Trail across time, I wasn't looking to get caught up in such a journey. My father, who had become physically frail for the first time in his final year, died in November 1996, four days after his ninety-second birthday. Growing up, I would have thought of such an age as not quite old enough for him (I had always assumed that he would try to make it to ninety-three, like Holmes). My Pennsylvania trip, taken a year and five days after Alger's death, had been planned as the end of an ending, a day for making a final, peaceful farewell.
The month after Alger's death there was a long, affectionate memorial service in New York that more than eight hundred people came to--quite a huge crowd, but I would have been surprised only by a smaller turnout; I've never known anyone else with so many and such devoted friends.
Having said that first good-bye in New York, where I'd known Alger for most of my life, and then another one the following summer in Peacham, the tiny town in northern Vermont where we spent summers when I was a small boy, I wanted to go back for the last time ever to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. To complete my own circle of remembrance from deep inside an enormous, high-walled, red brick building there, the institution in which he'd been confined during what had once upon a time felt like an endless time--the forty-four months between March 1951 and November 1954.
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Tony Hiss lives in New York City.
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