A Whitaker Chambers Xmas revisited

A friend asked me to recommend a book about Whittaker Chambers as a Christmas gift for her smartly conservative daughter a few years ago. Chambers stands at the center of an incredible drama and several fantastic books that I know of about him. There is still much to be learned from him and his case. I want to revisit and expand the list this year with a little help from the eminent historian Harvey Klehr:

1. Witness is Chambers’s autobiography. It has remained in print continuously since it was published in 1952. The linked paperback edition with new forewords by William F. Buckley, Jr. and Robert Novak derives from the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication. 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 originally published in 1978 and now kept in print by the Hoover Institution Press in an updated edition published in 2013. 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.

5. Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America by Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Alexander Vassiliev. Harvey Klehr is the preeminent historian of American Communism. He has explored the Hiss case in several of his books. I wrote Professor Klehr to ask him which of his books he would recommend to readers interested in the case. Professor Klehr writes: “The best, I think, is Spies. It’s based on the the most complete and latest information from KGB archives. We titled the chapter on Hiss ‘Case Closed,’ since we quote from KGB documents that use his real name and identify him as a Soviet agent.”

Professor Klehr adds: “I was at a conference marking the 100th anniversary of the CPUSA founding at Williams College last month and a paper written by Bruce Craig was read (he was not present). Craig has been writing a bio of Hiss for many years. He started believing Hiss had been framed; he now accepts that he did work for the GRU. The panels have been posted on YouTube. There are some head scratchers, but a number are quite good – including John Haynes’s keynote and, immodestly, my defense of the point I have been arguing for far too many years – that the CPUSA was a creature of the USSR and efforts to explain its failures and anti-Communism by reference to American repression or hostility to civil rights, labor, etc., miss the mark. It was hated because it was the tool of a hostile and anti-democratic foreign nation. You can also see how much Maurice Isserman has acceded to our viewpoint.”

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