A friend asked me to recommend a book about Whittaker Chambers as a Christmas gift for her smartly conservative daughter. Chambers stands at the center of an incredible drama and four fantastic books that I know of about him. There is still much to be learned from him and his case. It occurred to me that these books might be worth a mention in the spirit of the season.
1. Witness is Chambers’s autobiography. It has been in print continuously since it was published in 1952. The linked edition is the fiftieth anniversary paperback edition with new forewords by William F. Buckley, Jr. and Robert Novak. Several conservatives including a friend or two of mine have mentioned the impact this book had on them. The book figures prominently, for example, in Andrew Ferguson’s 2011 Weekly Standard cover story on David Mamet.
2. Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case by Allen Weinstein. As a liberal historian who was given access to the files of Hiss’s lawyers, Weinstein sought to write the definitive account of the case. He did all that and more in this meticulous work of reconstruction, now kept in print by the Hoover Institution Press in an updated edition published this year. Weinstein takes the reader inside the Communist espionage ring that infiltrated the Roosevelt administration. In the introduction to the updated 1997 edition of the book, Weinstein writes: “With the new evidence blended into the ‘old,’ most of the troubling questions about the Hiss-Chambers case can be answered.” I thought he had done that when the book was originally published in 1978, when George Will hailed the publication of the book as a historic event. I couldn’t put it down.
3. Whittaker Chambers: A Biography by Sam Tanenhaus. Theodore Draper wrote of this book in the New York Review of Books: “Tanenhaus had the ingenious idea of filling out what Chambers wrote by going to the memoirs, letters, papers, FBI interrogations, and testimony of all the others in the story. As a result, he rounds out Chambers’s account from different angles, drawing on the accounts of many people who knew Chambers.”
4. The Anti-Communist Manifestos by John V. Fleming. The author is a retired English professor who spent his career at Princeton teaching Chaucer. Pursuing his bookbinding avocation in retirement, he came upon a book that sent him on a voyage of discovery to the other three books that he takes up here along with the one he was about to pulp. Witness is the fourth; Professor Fleming writes that “by any just canon of literary history [it] should claim its place within the great tradition of American autobiography.” Professor Fleming’s aptly named blog is Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche, derived from Chaucer’s description of the Oxford philosophy student in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. “Gladly lerne, gladly teche” is the spirit that suffuses Fleming’s — in my opinion, great — book.
PAUL ADDS: I have read the first three of these books and, based on Scott’s recommendation, intend to read the fourth. If you read only one of them, I strongly urge you to read Witness. It is, as Professor Fleming says, a great American autobiography, but it transcends that genre, in my opinion.