Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Faith and Anti-Communism

Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (Modern Library Paperbacks)

Whittaker Chambers: A Biographyby Sam Tanenhaus

"To many Chambers remained a puzzle.  He had offered himself to the nation as both sinner and savior.  .  . His moral attitude at times recalled the stoic resignation of the ancient tragedians, at times the anti-heroism of Sartre or Beckett, at times the torment of the twice-born soul." (p 514)

For three months in the summer of 1952 Witness sat atop the New York Times list of bestselling books. It would end the year in the top ten of all nonfiction books published that year. it was the culmination of a life lived first in the secret shadow of communist underground and then in the glare of publicity over the two perjury trials of Alger Hiss. Whittaker Chambers: A Biography by Sam Tanenhaus beautifully relates the life of the author of that book - a man who was for many the epitome of the outspoken anti-communist in the middle of the twentieth century. But Whittaker Chambers was much more. He was an intellectual educated at Columbia, although he did not receive a degree. He studied with Mark Van Doren and other academic luminaries there and continued his personal journey of learning until his last days in 1961. Tanenhaus presents all the details of Chambers' journey as a Communist, his departure into a sort of isolation where, with good reason, he was in fear for his life, his days as editor at Time Magazine at the side of Henry Luce, and most of all a thorough examination and analysis of the trials. His was a life that was based on beliefs held strongly and ultimately a life that was not tragic, but one that was fulfilled through those beliefs. I found Chambers blend of faith, liberalism and anti-communism made him a more complex thinker. He grew to be close friends with many other anti-communists, but never shared the conservative free-market views that most of them espoused, especially his friend William F. Buckley, Jr.  
The book includes a valuable appendix where Tanenhaus highlights documentation that was found in Communist archives in the 1990s, in spite of Soviet attempts to destroy all evidence of Hiss's career as a spy.  Further evidence from the American NSA files confirmed that Hiss had continued to be an agent long after Chambers's defection.  Through it all Tanenhaus presents the details with lucid prose that is worthy of the epic tale that was the life of Whittaker Chambers.

Whittaker Chambers: A Biography by Sam Tanenhaus. Modern Library, New York. 1998 (1997)

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