A Whitaker Chambers Xmas

A friend asked me to recommend a book about Whittaker Chambers as a Christmas gift for her smartly conservative daughter several years ago. Chambers stands at the center of an incredible drama and several fantastic books about him. There is still much to be learned from him and his case. Here I revisit and expand the list 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 includes forewords by William F. Buckley, Jr., Robert Novak, Milton Hindus, and Alfred Regnery, collected from previous editions of the book. 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. Odyssey of a Friend: Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr. 1954-1961, edited with notes by Buckley: Privately printed and long out of print, the book conveys Chambers’s “Dostoyevskan temperament” (as Terry Teachout puts it) and weary voice reflecting on the case. Pulling the book down from my bookshelf this morning, I note that Buckley writes in the introduction “it was I who opened the envelopes that brought these communications, finding in them a sublimity which I most frankly acknowledge as having been as much influential as the goddamn Woodstock typewriter in convincing me of the credentials of Whittaker Chambers.”

3. 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 returned to 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.

4. 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.” Terry Teachout’s 1997 appreciation of Tanenhaus’s book is collected in A Terry Teachout Reader.

5. 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 Professor Fleming’s — in my opinion, great — book.

6. 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 responded: “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.”

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