Levin, (1924-1998), the Thomas Jefferson Professor of Arts
and Sciences at the University of Virginia, was a leading
scholar of American literature and history, a biographer and
a poet. He approached the Hiss case skeptically, convinced
at first that Alger Hiss was guilty as charged. Levin offers
a critical analysis of Sam Tanenhaus's "Whittaker Chambers,"
questioning the way the author accepts Chambers' own story
at face value.
THE AUTHORITY OF WITNESS IN
WHITTAKER CHAMBERS: A BIOGRAPHY
celebrated biographies published in the spring of 1997 differ
sharply in their treatment of their respective subjects' autobiographical
writings. In "Charlie Chaplin and His Times," Kenneth
Lynn hunts down discrepancies between the surviving evidence
and Chaplin's version of his own childhood and youth. One
reviewer even chided Lynn for overdoing the superb research.
Yet none of the critics who favorably reviewed Sam Tanenhaus's
"Whittaker Chambers" has discussed the technical
challenge that Tanenhaus shared with biographers of Chaplin,
Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, Mark Twain, Lincoln Steffens:
how would this narrative treat the subject's memorable version
of his own life?
reader who looks at the endnotes will perceive that Chambers
himself is the authority for much of the story, but that in
the main text Tanenhaus does not distinguish between his own
authority and that of Chambers. Over and over again Tanenhaus
reports as undisputed fact interpretations and incidents (sometimes
startlingly bizarre) for which the sole or chief authority
is Whittaker Chambers.
two passages concerning events in the summer of 1924 when
the twenty-three-year-old Chambers "had his first love
affair, with a woman he later referred to as Mrs. Mainland.
Married and a mother; she lived on Long Island's North Shore
in a house overlooking the beach. Her husband was not much
in evidence. Chambers spent languorous afternoons lounging
on the porch in a deck chair, watching Mrs. Mainland's two
children splash in the surf at high tide. To Meyer Schapiro,
his confidant in these matters, Chambers proclaimed his great
does not suggest that Schapiro ever saw "Mrs. Mainland"
or her children. Yet he treats the particulars, based solely
on Chambers' word, as facts even when Chambers, while
"in a confused state," boasts of "having lied"
to the dean of Columbia College in a letter in which he sought
readmission. Tanenhaus seems to assume that readers will simply
accept his own inference that underneath the confused young
rebel's other fabrications, which Chambers flaunted in a letter
to Mark Van Doren, "Mrs. Mainland" and her alleged
suggestions that he "try college again" were solid
skeptical reader may be astonished, then, to read only a few
lines later of a love affair that can only have preceded Chambers'
first love affair! "Late in 1924 Chambers drunkenly confided
to Meyer Schapiro that an unnamed mistress, evidently not
Mrs. Mainland, had borne him a son. Henry Zolinsky also remembered
hearing of this incident, from Louis Zukovsky. But nothing
further is known of this child." Tanenhaus neither questions
the child's existence nor revises his declaration on the preceding
page that the affair with Mrs. Mainland was Chambers' first
the chronology of human gestation notwithstanding.
Although Chambers is clearly the sole source for everything
known about Mrs. Mainland, Tanenhaus does not suggest a connection
between Chambers' alleged affair with her and his other fictions
before Chambers subjected himself to any discipline of the
Communist Party or the underground, he had invented similar
tales about his exploits. Tanenhaus does report some of the
fantastic episodesmost notably a bogus visit to Moscow
which convinced Schapiro that Chambers had actually made the
trip, and he describes a series of letters purporting to come
from western mining camps when Chambers was nowhere else but
at Columbia College in New York. But in the central narrative
Tanenhaus continues to rely on Chambers' uncorroborated versions.
of the most suspect is Chambers' first experience as a laborer
replacing railroad tracks "within blocks of the Capitol"
in Washington, D.C. If my relentlessly skeptical friend Kenneth
Lynn had been confronted with Chambers' narrative of this
boyhood escapade, he would have checked contemporaneous newspapers
or at least asked experts in the history of such construction
whether, "in the speed-up, rails sometimes fell on men's
feet and crushed them"; whether a laborer named Manuel
actually "touched a third rail with a shovel" and
was hospitalized after "the current flowed up the damp
handle"; whether an inexperienced young worker such as
Chambers actually "had to lie prone on a heap of rubble"
while "the third rails, the full power of the Capital
Transit System flowing through them, were about two inches
above"; whether, "in that cramping position,"
one "had to break concrete" while a "sudden
turn" of the head or "a slip of the hammer or chisel"
might have been fatal. If obliged to report this memorable
passage from "Witness," Mr. Lynn or many another
biographer would surely have incorporated into the narrative
some indication that Chamber's version, the sole source, written
more than thirty years afterward, made his manly acceptance
a central moment in his coming-of-age. Others dreaded the
dangerous assignment, Chambers said in 1952. But his "soft
hands," onto which a sympathetic worker had poured iodine
after the first day's work had made them raw, "outlasted
almost every man" who had started with him. "One
by one, they tired of the heat, the work, the food, the boss
something and drifted on their aimless way.
I stuck to become a veteran." This passage in "Witness"
reads like the tales with which fliers entertained themselves
during World War II: there I was, flat on my back at 30,000
feet, three engines dead, and still climbing.
cites "Witness" in a note as the sole source for
his version of this experience, and he emphasizes the danger
of being assigned to the pneumatic drill. He reports as fact
the anointment with iodine, but he ignores both Manuel's electric
shock and the heroic details that I have quoted about the
tough young veteran Chambers' perilous labor two inches below
the third rail. Instead of questioning the tall tale, then,
Tanenhaus makes it markedly less tall. Thus he omits strong
evidence that Chambers was still telling stretchers in 1952.
five pages of the paradoxical first love affair, moreover,
Tanenhaus's literary technique relies on Chambers' "Witness"
in a much more sturdily reinforcing way. He gives some of
his narrative moments an unusual immediacy by adopting minute
dramatic details from Chambers' retrospective accounts prepared
at least twenty-three years after the events. For Chambers'
decision to join the Communist Party, Tanenhaus seats him
on a concrete bench at Columbia near a statue of Alexander
Hamilton. And, when Chambers is ordered to join the underground,
Tanenhaus provides a closeup of Chambers and his commander
at "the BMT subway station on Fourteenth Street. Someone
was waiting for them: John Sherman, the Daily Worker staffer
whom Chambers had last seen during the Lovestone purge, his
egg-bald head bent sobbing over his typewriter.... Sherman
deflected Chamber's questions concerning his whereabouts and
activities since 1929. 'You're in the underground now,' Sherman
said gaily, 'where I ask questions but don't answer them,
and you answer questions but don't ask them.'" Later
that afternoon, Chambers kept another rendezvous on the uptown
IRT. "He had just seated himself," Tanenhaus writes,
"when Sherman materialized beside him."
again the circumstantial detail should prompt the skepticism
of a reasonably attentive reader. A biographer might independently
confirm the hairlessness of Sherman's wonderfully egg-bald
head, if not its sobbing over the typewriter. But how, if
nobody else was there, can the biographer know that Sherman
spoke his ominous epigram gaily, that the words were so wittily
chosen, or that Sherman materialized on the seat beside Chambers?
By following Chambers' account so closely, Tanenhaus confers
his own authority on the autobiographer's fictive memory in
"Witness." The simple difference between writing
that Chambers "later remembered" (or Chambers "says")
and declaring that "Sherman materialized" has an
immeasurable effect on Tanenhaus's narrative. When Tanenhaus
does, in these early chapters, distinguish slightly between
what he endorses and what Chambers said, the doubt usually
finds expression in an endnote rather than in the narrative,
and almost all the authorial corrections point out minor discrepancies
that leave the most extraordinary details unchallenged.
finds his suicidal brother, Richard, unconscious in a gas-filled
room and saves his life for a time. Whittaker finds
their father beating Richard (now in his twenties) for having
used a cottage on the parents' property for sexual liaisons,
and Whittaker knocks down their father with his fists, only
to embrace him as they weep together. Whittaker, in his twenties,
roams the streets of Lynbrook at night, following Richard
from one bar to another to protect him. Whittaker has to protect
the household at night from a mad maternal grandmother, who
denounces Jews, John D. Rockefeller, and her son-in-law and
who "sometimes wandered the house in ghostly silence,
clutching a kitchen knife and sometimes scissors. It was Whittaker's
task to disarm her. There was usually a 'sharp scuffle,' and
he was left with lifelong scars on his fingers." Whittaker
bursts into her locked room to prevent a fire, and he meets
her by chance one night "on one of his own brooding rambles,"
some miles from home, whereupon she takes a trolley to Jersey
City, rents a room in the YWCA, flees to the street in her
nightgown, and complains that "those old Jews had bored
a hole in her ceiling and begun to pump gas into it."
Whittaker's mother brings her home and tells him: "You
will have to stay up tonight. She may try to kill us all."
uncorroborated episodes not only sound the recurrent theme
of young Whittaker as the family's protector, but they also
resemble the hoaxes and fictions that he had foisted on various
people and recall the Dostoyevskian and Conradian aura in
which he steeped his recollections as a young man and again
in "Witness." The most perceptive and meticulous
biographer would find a challenge for the subtlest skills
in representing this household and Chambers' years underground.
By choosing to report Chambers' fictive details as facts,
Tanenhaus risks inscribing a logical circle. One presumes
that because he has accepted the central accusation against
Alger Hiss, he accepts Chambers' authority for the earlier
years; then, by the time he reaches the Hiss trials, the accumulation
of circumstantial detail tends to bolster the prosecution's
abler biographer convinced of Hiss's guilt might have written
a life of Chambers that avoided the pratfalls I have singled
out. It is possible that Chambers repeatedly lied, fantasized,
and misremembered about matters large and small, yet that
Hiss really did spy for the USSR. When Tanenhaus declares,
however, that Chambers, on a bad day in December 1948, feeling
that the House committee and the federal grand jury would
soon reject him, "wandered despondently in the narrow
lanes of downtown Manhattan, his Nineveh," bought rat
poison at two different stores, "stashed the tins in
a Penn Station locker," took them to his mother's house
in Lynbrook late that night, "and put the poisons in
his dresser," I prepare myself for the same narrative
pattern as in the first hundred pages. The botched suicide
attempt, which Chambers later "came to see as 'the high
point of the case,'" appears in unmediated detail in
Tanenhaus's narrative as Chambers had written it in his own:
the "involuntarily dislodged" towel that let the
deadly fumes escape, the vomiting next morning, the mother's
rebuke verbatim, the pot of coffee Chambers says he drank,
and his chastened return though apparently (in Tanenhaus's
version) none the worse physically and morally much better
to his duty in the federal building in Foley Square.
accept the report that Chambers thought of himself as resembling
Jonah in Nineveh; the story of the poisonous fumes that Chambers
involuntarily escaped has always struck me as suspect. When
I read about them in Chambers or Tanenhaus, I see young Whittaker
again, lying prone on the rubble within two inches of the
live third rail. Fantasy or fact, they belong in Chambers'
indelible version of his adventures and his state of mind;
undissipated by the fresh air of the biographer's critical
distance, they have a toxic effect on Tanenhaus' book.
other literary decisions, analogous to those I have been questioning,
give Chambers' credibility artificial support in the central
sections of the biography, 315 pages devoted to the years
between 1937 and 1950. Tanenhaus keeps Alger Hiss virtually
out of the heavily chronological narrative until Chambers,
years after defecting from the GRU, accuses him publicly in
1948. Not even in the lively chapters on Chambers' career
at Time, do we learn that Chambers wrote a piece "extolling"
Hiss at the United Nations in 1945. (This appears only as
the defense attorney asks Chambers about it at trial in 1949.)
Tanenhaus does name Hiss in a footnote as a member of "the
Ware group," formed in 1934; and on two or three occasions
Tanenhaus identifies an otherwise anonymous confederate of
Chambers as Alger Hiss, but he defers specific representation
of Hiss's role until the dramatic hearings and trials of 1948
and 1949. Whether intentionally or not, Tanenhaus thus
saves himself and Chambers' authority considerable
difficulty. If he had used the same techniques that I have
been highlighting here, he might have been obliged to give
the authority of such narrative immediacy to some of Chambers'
strangest pictures: Alger and Priscilla Hiss driving all the
way across Washington in November 1937 to pick up Chambers,
then driving him forty miles to Baltimore so that Priscilla
could close out her savings account and lend Chambers $400
in cash to buy a new car; Priscilla at night, in the winter
and early spring of 1938, copying confidential documents on
the family typewriter, week after week, for Chambers
the good friend who doesn't want to hurt Alger Hiss but is
continuing his espionage while collecting an incriminating
"life preserver" to be stashed away for future use
to retrieve; Alger and Priscilla, in December 1938,
feeding Chambers dinner in their house and, in an all-night
debate, refusing to grant the defector's plea that they join
him but saying nothing about the money he has not repaid after
thirteen months or their suspicion that, after Chambers had
already decided to defect, he endangered them by having Priscilla
do that copying; Alger and Priscilla, in fear of that danger,
foisting off on their maid's sons Priscilla's incriminating
typewriter in mid-April 1938, eight months before they served
their suspected betrayer the farewell dinner; Alger defending
his own loyalty to the USSR and weeping in his reaffirmation
of his principled devotion to the revolution; Priscilla scorning
as "mental masturbation" Chambers' conscientious
revulsion from Stalinism.
he been able to make them credible, these scenes might have
made reading at least as impressive as closeups that Tanenhaus
does reproduce. But surely one reason for the decision to
omit detailed representations of the Hisses must have been
the difficulty of portraying Chambers' motives. Chambers looks
much better pocketing the two thousand dollars given to him
by his Soviet "handler" for the new car and other
expenses than if his declaration of "war" against
Stalinism and his insistence on avoiding harm to his friends
had to be portrayed in specific scenes with the Hisses. In
narrating the story of the two thousand dollars (November
1937), Tanenhaus coyly omits the Hisses' names; and when he
comes, during his account of the perjury trials, to the alleged
loan from Priscilla, he does not report that Chambers (exaggerating
the amount) remembered the transaction only after the FBI,
in February 1949, learned Priscilla had withdrawn $400 in
November 1937. Nor do we learn that Chambers' wife remembered
her mother-in-law as the source of the loan. It is far easier
to portray Chambers' handing over his packet of lifesaving
documents to his wife's nephew than to dramatize the scenes
of Priscilla's alleged typing of confidential documents or
the dash to Baltimore to withdraw her money.
author's decision to forgo such scenes in the chronological
narrative has a much more important effect on a casual reader's
view of the case against Hiss. The circumstantial evidence
was strong enough to convince eight of the twelve jurors in
the first trial and the entire jury of the second trial (before
a judge who admitted testimony that another judge had ruled
inadmissible) that Hiss had perjured himself in denying espionage
with Chambers. So strong is the evidence as Tanenhaus presents
it that few readers unfamiliar with the arcane details would
find unreasonable the concluding line of his last chapter
on the trials:
sets the Hiss case apart, then and now, was not its mystery
but the passionate belief of so many that Hiss must be innocent
no matter what the evidence."
believers and others who have studied "the evidence"
will notice, however, that Tanenhaus's rhetorical choices
give readers a much clearer look at the incriminating evidence
than at the evidence that elicits our doubt. Besides leaving
Hiss virtually outside the story until Chambers has testified
before HUAC, Tanenhaus narrates the central tale as it develops
at the hearings, both secret and public. He acknowledges the
prejudicial release of secret testimony and the confidential
relationship between Richard Nixon and a reporter. But the
chosen narrative method makes Hiss's alleged evasiveness or
legalistic responses, his original request to see Chambers
face to face, his anger about prejudicial leaks and about
a deceptive secret hearing in New York even his impassioned
appeal to his record seem like the conduct of a guilty
man. When Hiss appeals to his record after his character has
been tainted by the evasions and inaccuracies, he thus seems,
in these pages, to distract our attention from the real issue.
When he appears unruffled while testifying, he seems to be
a cool and canny liar. The substance of his most impassioned
defense of his career appears in a brief summary here only
as the full text did appear in the notorious televised hearing
of August 25, 1948 after the fierce contention and
blunt challenges by congressional interrogators about his
1929 Ford etc. have underlined the reasons to suspect him.
For the reader of this biography, then, the question whether
Hiss knew Chambers at all, and then whether a 1929 Ford was
disposed of in one way or another, becomes almost as damning
to Hiss's character before we see the evidence of Hiss's
connection to the confidential documents as it was
in the press reports and selective releases of information
in 1948. We don't learn in this book that Chambers had to
revise his original testimony about both the 1929 Ford and
the car he said he had bought with the Hisses' money in 1938.
Nor do we see more than a few of the false and inaccurate
statements Chambers made about Hiss. Only belatedly do we
learn that Hiss, whom Tanenhaus repeatedly describes as the
neatly clothed, polished diplomat, was six feet tall, four
inches taller than the man who claimed to have been his "close
friend" had sworn that he was. And in an appendix subtitled
"Sifting the Evidence," Tanenhaus does not mention
the declaration in 1976 made by two jurors who had found Hiss
guilty that they would have voted to acquit if they had known
some concealed evidence.
second literary decision means that virtually all reference
to Chambers' homosexual liaisons is omitted from the narrative
of his years in the underground. Much earlier in the book
just after the brief passage about "Mrs. Mainland"
Tanenhaus has given a sensitive and persuasive account
of Chambers' homosexual feelings, and he will present a full
report of Chambers' secret confession to the FBI just before
Hiss's first trial in 1949. But no suggestion of the many
meetings with anonymous partners in places that Chambers'
confession will explicitly name to the FBI and during some
of the very years when Chambers found his homosexual impulses
"impossible to control" complicates Tanenhaus's
persistent emphasis on incidents showing Chambers' devotion
to his family and his political duty. Just as these pages
omit details of the allegedly close friendship with Hiss,
so they mention no habit of visits to the places of homosexual
liaison. The oversimplification tends to make Chambers seem
preoccupied with higher matters.
biographer who stays too close to his protagonist's perspective
risks the neglect of important distinctions. In explaining
the familial, psychological, and historical reasons for Chambers'
enlistment in the revolution, Tanenhaus seems to forget that
in the 1920s and 1930s many intellectuals who had read as
widely as Chambers in history and literature did not threaten
"all intellectuals" with "annihilation"
as the punishment "history" would visit on dissent;
did not enforce Stalin's will, as Chambers did both before
and after recognizing the dictator's tyranny; did not decide
that the best way to help the poor was to steal documents
from the departments of Agriculture, State, and War; did not
insist that civilization was dying; did not then in the 1940s
make "property owning. . . a pillar of their evolving
creed"; did not declare that "no man can serve his
country loyally unless he has invested in its soil";
did not reduce "history" to a choice between "Belief
in God or Belief in Man."
reader of this biography can approach some compassionate understanding
of Whittaker Chambers' decisions. But, especially when he
reports Chambers' scorn, during and after his defection, for
the "dilettantes" among New Deal liberals and other
leftists, Tanenhaus seems to confer on Chambers an unearned
moral superiority. The partially penitent sinner, even as
he negotiates with federal authorities for his own immunity,
claims his very crimes as authentication which he denies to
those who were wiser, more perceptive, more aware of historical
complexity than he was. "I have spent fifteen years of
my life actively preparing for Foreign News," Chambers
replies "grandly" when Henry Luce is about to replace
him as editor of that department at Time."
of those years were spent close to the central dynamo that
powers the politics of our time." Tanenhaus faithfully
portrays Chambers' grandiosity, his highhanded insistence
on replacing with his own judgment the reports of expert correspondents
in China and the USSR; yes, Chambers did throw away reports
written by John Hersey and others. "On the other hand,"
Tanenhaus writes, "Chambers' guesses caught the drift
of history far better than the reports he was getting."
Like Henry Luce, Tanenhaus often seems to be "awed"
by Chambers' "grasp of history, 'the science [Luce said]
of knowing where we have been.'" Even in 1944 and 1945
Chambers was hardly alone in seeing Stalin's intentions, and
there was much more to history than the impending Cold War.
Living close in this book to Chambers' mind, at once grandiose
and narrowly obsessive, a reader may be glad to escape into
a much less simplistic view of where we have been.
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