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.