The Great Pumpkin

The Great Pumpkin

Some years ago, after I had completed a biography of the radical writer Josephine Herbst, I gave serious thought to writing a biography of Whittaker Chambers.


Some years ago, after I had completed a biography of the radical writer Josephine Herbst, I gave serious thought to writing a biography of Whittaker Chambers. He had crossed my path in the Herbst biography as exactly who he had said he was: an underground agent of the Communist Party known as “Carl,” responsible for transmission of documents from a sympathetic cell of government employees in Washington, D.C., to Communist authorities in New York; Alger Hiss had crossed it in the opposite way, as a man who went out of his way to tell me the lie that he had not known Josephine Herbst’s then-husband, John Herrmann, a lesser member of the Washington group, when Herrmann’s widow, who had spent a decade in exile with him in Mexico to avoid involvement in the case, told me that the two had been friends; and, in addition to being excited by the sheer intellectual and literary possibilities of a book that would have to be at the same time the story of the life and the story of the case, I felt that as someone who had received my previous opinions on the Hiss-Chambers confrontation simply via the cultural airwaves, like “Viva La Quince Brigada!”, and had unexpectedly turned up disturbing information, I had something of an obligation to learn more.

At the same time, there were major drawbacks. The case that made the biography so compelling also made it daunting. In a regular biography, facts such as where the subject lived, who his or her friends were, when an event took place, are mainly skeletal, a framework on which to hang an interpretation, but in the case of Chambers, there would be no detail, large or small, that had not already been contested. Take, for instance, the single moment when, having turned over to HUAC the material he hid at the time of his break from the underground in 1938, Chambers is told by a furious Congressman Richard Nixon that the microfilm was manufactured in 1945 and thus can prove nothing about the espionage Chambers claimed Hiss and others were involved in earlier. In most biographies, Chambers’s “It cannot be true but I can’t explain it. God must be against me” would offer a fine literary opportunity for dramatizing the inner state of the subject at a black moment, but here it is something of a quagmire. Several of the most disputed points in the case — from whether Chambers had indeed hidden the documents he claimed to have received from Hiss in his nephew’s dumbwaiter all along, to why he produced them when and how he did — are involved with it. If Chambers’s final version is true and he came painfully and reluctantly to the exposure of his friend Hiss only because of the errors of Hiss’s own attorneys and the pressures of HUAC, his cry has a certain Job-like appeal, but if he was involved in the creation and manipulation of evidence against Hiss by the F.B.I. and HUAC, it is a farce. Since it is Chambers himself who first told the story, there is also the possibility that he never actually said it at all but later wrote it into Witness because as a writer he knew it worked. For a biographer seeking to show the natural grandiosity of Whittaker Chambers that is so much a part of his character, it is a great scene. But resting as it does on an accumulation of elements the truth of every one of which is uncertain, it becomes instead merely frustratingly…postmodern.

A second argument against the biography of Whittaker Chambers was the company of Whittaker Chambers. The man was so excessive. Huge, heavy-lidded and dangerously morose, he lurked around the alleys of the American political consciousness, Sydney Greenstreet on the outside, Peter Lorre within. He liked casting shadows. He was also endlessly unreliable. A powerful writer, possessed of great literary imagination, he was never content with simple facts but always embellished them. In his interviews with the F.B.I. on the subject of John Herrmann and Josephine Herbst he began reasonably enough with what seemed to be accurate descriptions of their relations to the Washington underground in 1934-35, then invented the story, more impossible than I can even begin to tell, that after their divorce Communist Party chief Earl Browder had awarded their nice home in Erwinna, Pennsylvania, to Herbst. This is not to say that liars do not deserve to have their biographies written, but with Chambers you would never know where you stood. I knew enough about the interdependence of biographer and subject to doubt I would ever enjoy it.

A third problem with writing the biography of Whittaker Chambers was — paradoxically — its importance. Before he was a man of the right, Chambers was a man of the left, arguably one of the most significant figures the U.S. Communist movement ever produced. From his direct contact with the Soviet police and intelligence apparatus he had a closer look than most Americans at Stalin’s Russia, and from his own dark nature he understood and ultimately communicated what he saw. Like it or not, Chambers’s witness and his Witness are among the small number of American statements about the god that failed that belong on the same shelf with the great European literature of disillusion and exposure from Koestler to Solzhenitsyn. Yet his position in world history and his position in U.S. history are not the same. In America one did not simply tell one’s story. However much he might have wished it otherwise, Chambers made his spiritual witness through the medium of political forces with far less scruple than he had. McCarthyism depended on the Hiss conviction. In America his name is indelibly associated with a movement that hurt untold comrades whose only crime was responding to the apparent collapse of capitalism by wishing to help their fellow man. To weigh these matters fairly, Chambers’s biographer should have a capacity for moral and political judgment I was not sure I possessed. Tempted regardless, I got as far as drafting letters to several of the important people in Chambers’s life, from his friend William F. Buckley Jr. to members of his family, but as Chambers himself might have put it, “something stayed my hand.” When I learned a few years later that a young writer named Sam Tanenhaus had undertaken the biography, I did not envy him his task.

Now Whittaker Chambers has arrived, and it is important to say at once that it is an honest and indispensable book that goes a long way toward restoring to Chambers an elementary human plausibility that, between his own inconsistencies and lies told about him by others, he has always lacked. It is written in a clear, unpretentious prose that makes it a pleasure to read. Tanenhaus is particularly good at summarizing complicated historical and political information in a few words, and though I admit to a start at seeing the history of the Russian Revolution from the death of Lenin to the deportation of Trotsky reduced to seventeen lines — the Bukharin-Lovestone heresy takes forty-eight — it is right for the progress of the narrative. His accounts of literary and intellectual matters ranging from Chambers’s earliest writings to Witness itself, as well as the works of others, are equally smooth and succinct. I particularly admire the sections of the book about Chambers’s years at Columbia and his years at Time. Seeing Chambers on the campus in the early twenties alongside Lionel Trilling, Meyer Schapiro, Herbert Solow and the other brilliant undergraduates who became his friends — writing for the literary magazine, now stunning his friends with his powerful talent, now getting into trouble with the administration — gives reality to his stature before entering the Communist Party and provides a foundation for the curious cameos his friends play later on: Schapiro with his Bokhara rug advice, Trilling with The Middle of the Journey, Solow with his door-opening introductions and his memos.

Seeing Chambers at Time, where from 1939 to 1948 he played a central role in shaping the perceptions of Communism that would lead the country from its wartime alliance with Stalin into the cold war, is to be reminded that despite being fat, demon-ridden and in such poor health that he often wielded his editorial powers lying down, even apart from the Hiss case Chambers would still be an important figure. In 1941 he wrote an attack on Malcolm Cowley called “The Revolt of the Intellectuals,” which opened up the discussion of the role of literary Communists and fellow-travelers beyond the elite readership of the Partisan Review to a mass audience. As Time‘s foreign news editor in 1944-45, he filled its pages with grim anti-Communist assessments of events in Europe and China literally over the copy — not to mention the protests — of such distinguished field reporters as John Hersey and Theodore White, who held more benign views of what was going on. In 1945 he wrote a political fantasy called “The Ghosts on the Roof,” showing the Romanovs gloating over the imperial conquests of Stalin, that dismayed many people when it appeared, only to be reprinted with honors three years later. The point here is not that he was prescient but that he was effective. What the Time chapters show is a man dedicated to communicating his views on Communism in whatever venues became available and using all of his vast powers to do so. He was not invented by HUAC.

Tanenhaus is unfortunately less successful in re-creating Chambers’s life in the Communist underground, which should have been the heart of the book. For the “life” best to be able to illuminate the “case,” certain episodes need to be told forward, from contemporary accounts, so that when we look back at them later in the form of conflicting testimony we have a better sense of who — if anyone — is telling the truth. In the case of the friendship that Chambers claimed and Hiss denied and that is the likeliest source of the case’s most crucial mysteries, including why Chambers withheld the evidence of espionage for so long, ideally the biographer should discover a diary written in 1936 that says, “Drove out with Alger today to see tumbledown farm in Westminster, Maryland. Fine spot. Discussed birdwatching. He told me he had seen a prothonotary warbler along the C&O Canal. Lucky man. Wish I could see one too.” A Hiss diary — “That bum Crosley is after me again. Gave him my apartment, now he wants my car. His teeth are horrid” — would also do. Alas, there are no such diaries. Nor are there letters between Esther Chambers and Priscilla Hiss, nor recipes in the handwriting of one in the cupboard of the other, nor did Chambers give Hiss a signed first edition of his famous translation of Bambi that would turn up on the shelves of a Washington bookseller later on.

The sources for Tanenhaus’s chapters on Chambers’s underground life in the thirties cluster around the time of the 1948-49 investigation, which is no doubt unavoidable but still disappointing. In the very section of the book in which both the Hiss-Chambers family friendship and Hiss’s role as a Communist, if such existed, need to be brought to life, there are only two personal references to Hiss: a footnote identifying him as the “contact” who provided Chambers a Washington apartment in the spring of 1935, with general post facto references only, and the assertion that when Chambers called on his former associates, including “an idealistic young married couple, Alger and Priscilla Hiss,” to tell them of his break with the underground, the woman dismissed his concerns as “mental masturbation.” The latter is a choice piece of evidence that does indeed have a contemporary source — a letter from Chambers to Solow dated January 1939 — but it is not clear whether it is in the letter or only the book that the Hisses are mentioned by name. In any case, it is not enough.

Even more important than the absence of evidence is the lack of any discussion of the problems of evidence. Nowhere in the book does Tanenhaus so much as hint at any of the methodological issues that must have given him pause. He seems to have decided that rather than address the old arguments he would more or less cast his lot with Chambers on the basic truth of the matter and get on with the story — a reasonable enough approach in the case of most biographical subjects, but not here. In a life as controversial as this one, whether the decision was made for intellectual, political or literary reasons is something the reader needs to know. Tanenhaus is similarly reticent about his opinion of Chambers: I got the impression that the biographer did not like the subject very much, but he never owns up. On the matter of Chambers’s character he does not provide adequate guidance. Chambers’s life as husband, father and farmer, which has a different texture from his public life, is not sufficiently explored. For certain characteristic turns of behavior Tanenhaus uses the word “Chambersian,” showing that he has indeed seen them, but he never tells the reader what they are. His ideas have to be ferreted out. If the shortage of interpretation stems from Tanenhaus’s desire to keep the narrative flowing, he has succeeded, but he may also prefer not to say what he thinks. Scene by scene the book is beautifully executed, but it does not stray very far from the surface.

In a terse observation at the point in the book at which Chambers is forced by Hiss’s attorney to provide documentary proof of his relationship with Hiss, Tanenhaus states what appears to be his theory of the case: The demand “subverted Chambers’s intended effect. Those he had hoped to satisfy with generalities about Communist infiltration had instantly detected suspicious lacunae in his story. Hiss, whom Chambers had been trying to protect, had misread the signals altogether, concluding from Chambers’s hedges and denials that he lacked substantiating evidence.” It is an interesting and important idea that accords with the views of many people who had reason to believe that Hiss’s claims of ignorance of Communist activity in Washington in the early thirties were, to say the least, overdone.

One of them was Josephine Herbst. “I think the Hiss case was handled wrongly; he should have been more frank,” she wrote to a friend in 1949. “He should have boldly admitted to certain ideas now termed subversive but which were only honestly enlightened and leftish [then]. Instead he took too pure a stand, denied too much, admitted nothing. A jury isn’t made up of lawyers…they sense the truth. You suspect a man who denies everything and is a pinnacle of proper conduct…. Admitting smaller things would have validated major denials. Any novelist could have told them that.” Another was Hope Hale Davis, who was also associated with the underground. “Really, you wouldn’t need more than the absurdity of Hiss’s assertions about his lack of liberal ardor in Washington in the thirties to make you know he was a liar,” she wrote to me a few years ago. “The Washington spectrum ranged only from pink to red at that time.” A letter from John Herrmann to Herbst tells of a party at the Soviet Embassy in late 1934. “The entire new deal was there with the exception of the President,” he wrote her. Only Hiss, it seems, was excluded.

If the truth about the whole complicated story lies not precisely with one man or the other but in something wordless between them as the drama that began with Chambers’s HUAC subpoena unfolded, it seems to me there are implications not only for history and politics but for biography, for it means the lives of Hiss and Chambers are inextricable. Long ago a friend of Hiss’s who had given him nothing but support told me that he believed it would not be until Hiss’s death that the full story would finally come out. Now we will see if he is right. The great case may turn out to be a figure-ground situation where you have to switch back and forth to grasp the whole. Whether a biographer exists with the endurance to show the meanings of every relevant moment in both men’s lives the way they need to be shown I have no idea. But until then, as Chambers knew when he went off to find the papers he finally brought forth from the pumpkin, there will always be something missing.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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