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The View from Alger's Window: A Son's Memoir

The View from Alger's Window: A Son's Memoir

by Tony Hiss, Anthony 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


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A loving, beautifully written tribute by a son to a father who suffered and, in spirit, prevailed." —The Atlanta Journal-Consitution

"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

Alger Hiss remains a controversial figure, even after his death. Was he, in fact, a spy, or was he simply the victim of Cold War-era hysteria? In his book The View from Alger's Window, Hiss's son, Tony, doesn't attempt to answer that question directly, but he does strive to present the father he knew, to make the world aware of the man's "innate decency, kindness, and warmth."
The Barnes & Noble Review
"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.

Julie Robichaux

Ann Douglas
[The book] unfolds a painful story of the family as a factory of denial, offering a haunting record less of the father's innocence than of the son's loyalty....A supremely expressive son tries here to endow his inexpressive father with his own gift. We all need, sometimes desperately, not to feel fatherless. One can only be glad that Tony Hiss has found so much blood in this particular stone, but to this outsider's eyes, a stone it remains. —The New York Times Book Review
David Ignatius
...A loyal and loving memoir....The letters are endearing, if nothing else for Alger Hiss's absolute refusal to admit guilt, confess weakness, feel sorry for himself, or blame others....The larger purpose of Tony Hiss's memoir, in addition to asserting his father's innocence, is to argue that prison may actually have been the best thing that ever happened to him.
The Washington Monthly
Richard Hoffman
The View from Alger's Window is less about setting the record straight than about sharing with tthe world the example of a man who showed his son that a life can be well-lived, well-loved, and lit from within, even in dark times, even when it appears that one's enemies have truimphed.
Boston Globe
Francine Prose
Drawing on childhood memories, on his parents' extensive correspondence, and on the reports of other relatives and friends, Hiss pieces together, in this affecting 'son's memoir,' his ownview --- not only of Alger and of family history, but of something even harder to get into focus. He fixes his sights on the nature of evil and forgiveness, on the damaging effects of anger, fear, and lies, on the importance of loyalty, on the responsibilities of parenthood, and on the challenge of ever understanding the people we love and know best.
Library Journal
Fifty years ago, the Hiss case transfixed the country and launched the political career of Richard Nixon. Whether or not Alger Hiss was a spy has been the subject of numerous books, but beginning with Allen Weinstein's Perjury (LJ 3/1/78), the scholarly consensus has been that Hiss was guilty. The opening of the former Soviet Union's archives has further cemented this impression, as revealed in new books like Sam Tanenhaus Whittaker Chambers (LJ 2/1/97), John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr's Venona (LJ 4/15/99), and Weinstein's recent The Haunted Wood (LJ 11/15/98). Despite all this, Tony Hiss steadfastly maintains his father's innocence, and through an analysis of the letters Alger wrote to his family while serving a 44-month sentence for perjury, the son seeks to understand his father's mind and life. The result is an intriguing picture of the soul of one our country's most infamous figures. Tony Hiss's account may not change many minds as to the guilt or innocence of his father, but it does provide another piece in a complicated puzzle that still awaits solution. For libraries large and small.--Edward Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Charles Wright
The author doesn't rehash the Hiss case or attempt an explicit defense....If The View from Alger's Window is to be believed, Hiss served his term with patience; but Lewisburg never managed to confine his imagination or his spirit.
Christopher Caldwell
One can condemn the crimes of Alger Hiss and remark his sons' delusions without faulting Tony Hiss for writing this book....Indeed, one of the most curious things about Communists turns out to have been their consistent inability to triumph over their bourgeois feelings for their families.
National Review
Beautifully written...artful, insightful...The View from Alger's Window provides such a vivid portrait that perhaps one day Alger Hiss will be remembered as a person as well as a court case.
The New York Observer
Kirkus Reviews
In a painful, poignant memoir, the son of Alger Hiss (The Experience of Place, 1990, etc.) proudly recalls his late father's life, trial, and sufferings. The author does not fail to sketch the well-known trajectory of Alger Hiss's tragic fall from grace: a brilliant lawyer and preeminent New Dealer, Alger Hiss became the target of allegations that he spied for the Soviet Union. Ultimately, convicted of perjury, he served over three and a half years in federal prison. The author visits the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pa., the somber product of 1930s penal reform that was his father's home during those years, in an effort to understand his father and bid him farewell. Though Tony Hiss's belief in his father's innocence and contempt for his accuser, Whittaker Chambers, are apparent, his goal here is not primarily to persuade the reader, but to pay tribute to a father he loved and to trace the transformative effects of his father's conviction and imprisonment on his own innocent life. Using his father's letters from prison as a starting point, the author paints a portrait of a warm, generous man, philosophical and unembittered about his experiences, whose main concern in the horror of prison life was to keep up the morale of his family, and whose integrity and kindliness, evident in his correspondence, showed the son that Alger Hiss was "the mirror image of the man he was accused of being." Tony Hiss constantly juxtaposes the image of Alger Hiss the spy, held by many people who did not know him, with that of the honorable and deeply patriotic father of his own experience, apparently shared by most of those who did. Timely in view of a recent judicial decision to declassify thegrand jury testimony in the Hiss case, this is a warm and eloquent tribute that will add to the knowledge of the principal of that case, even if it does not change many minds. (First printing of 40,000)

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.21(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.54(d)

Read an Excerpt

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 think there'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.

What People are Saying About This

Kurt Vonnegut
It can be now said with certainty that the excellent writer Tony Hiss, when very young, managed to be as strikingly civilized as his father and mother in barbarous times. It seems probable to me that his father's particular hero and former boss, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., would have liked this book.
Lawrence Weschler
Tony Hiss's book about his father, Alger --- remarkable on its own terms (warm, loving, nuanced, and revelatory) --- is likely to have a profound effect on the ongoing debate over Alger's character and culpability. Hiss's detractors will now have to square their version of the man with the person who comes shining through Tony's narrative, based largely on a never previously published trove of intimate family papers, especially Alger's letters home from prison. How could a man capable of penning such letters ever have behaved in the manner they persist in alleging? That is a question which The View from Alger's Window brings compellingly to our attention.
John Guare
Memoir is an inadequate word to describe Tony Hiss's remarkable, lyrical, passionate achievement. His chronicle of growing up as the son of one of the most controversial and mysterious figures in twentieth-century history is absolutely unique. I loved this book.

Meet the Author

Tony Hiss lives in New York City.

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