If you are looking for a piece of new evidence that will finally vindicate or convict Alger Hiss with certainty, you won’t find it in Tony Hiss’s poignant father-son memoir, A View From Alger’s Window. But there are new citations from a cache of unpublished family letters from 1924 to 1971, 445 of which Alger wrote from Lewisburg Penitentiary. Tony feels that “they are a window flung wide open onto a life, a bird of spirit springing into the air, a heart made plain.” And he asserts, “There is nothing in any of the six decades of letters that…gives even a…hint that he was the kind of man willing to betray his country.”
The letters and a thousand or more photographs were carefully boxed and stored in the back of a closet by his mother, Priscilla (“Prossy” in the family). About a year after his father died, Tony dug out and examined the contents. Until then he hadn’t fully realized how much and in what ways the prison years had shaped his own and Alger’s life. For Tony, the act of writing A View From Alger’s Window was a Houdini-like attempt to throw off the handcuffs of history.
Unlike phone calls or e-mail, letters are composed, rewarding on second and even third readings. And these letters gave Tony a prism, “a kind of 50s/90s vision of events, in which decades keep unspooling, side by side, each one showing how to peer more deeply into the other.” The letters reawakened the pain of his childhood, when Tony was temporarily sent away to live with friends, the humiliation of hearing his father called a traitor and the paranoia that the family phone was tapped (“Hello, George and the FBI”). He also recalled the warm support of the Vermont village he summered in and the safety of books he dove into for weeks on end.
Sifting through the letters, Tony discovered that games he thought he’d invented for his son, Jacob, were actually devised by Alger. Letter games were part of Alger’s strategy to maintain a father-son relationship. One of them assigned Tony the task of going out into the world (an art gallery, a museum, Grand Central Station) to be his eyes and ears.
Alger did not have any special fondness for modern journalism. He wrote home, “Not only the reporter but his readers have been onlookers not participants.” Good-boy Tony, in a show of independence, parted company with his father, feeling a kinship with journalists. After graduating from Harvard, he found a job at The New Yorker, where he became the eyes and ears of William Shawn, the editor in chief. “It was almost like joining a family business.”
For Tony there are three Algers: the private man, the public servant and the creature invented by Whittaker Chambers. The Alger that family and friends knew was an engaging, thoughtful man. His letters home are lively, insightful, caring and cheerful–even jokey at times. The public Hiss, in contrast, seemed exasperatingly formal. And his wooden book-writing style did not help bolster his legal case or convince the world of his innocence.
The third Alger Hiss, according to Tony, was the creation of Chambers, the man who claimed intimate friendship with Alger in the thirties. Chambers outlined a story in which he and Alger were underground Communist conspirators who stole State Department documents and turned them over to the Soviet Union.
Chambers’s accusations of perfidy in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities created a firestorm in the tense atmosphere after World World II. The ambitious young Richard Nixon led the charge to nail Hiss and, not incidentally, attack the “twenty years of treason” of Roosevelt’s New Deal.