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From Barnes & NobleThe 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.