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For forty years the accepted establishment view of Whittaker Chambers was that of a fat, rumpled weirdo, obsessed, presumably for some kind of degenerate sexual reasons, with the destruction of Alger Hiss, a man who was in every way his better.  Even the publication and excellent sales of his extraordinary memoir, Witness, could not erase that caricature from the minds of the elites.  I remember a PBS miniseries about the Hiss case, which must date from the late 70's or early 80's (I checked; it looks like it was, fittingly, broadcast in 1984), which portrayed Hiss as a victim, if not an outright innocent.  But then the pendulum began to swing :

    -First came the 1978 publication of Allen Weinstein's authoritative book, Perjury : The
    Hiss-Chambers Case, which convinced most of the holdouts of the guilt of Alger Hiss.

    -Then, in 1984, Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded Chambers the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

    -Five years later came this collection of the journalism of Whittaker Chambers, Ghosts on the Roof,
    which began the process of restoring his literary reputation.

    -The fall of the Soviet Union unleashed a flood of government secrets from both US and Russian
    files which exposed both the extent and success of Soviet efforts to penetrate the US government,
    media and Hollywood in the 30's & 40's and peace groups in the subsequent decades.

    -In 1995, the VENONA intercepts were revealed, with their decoded messages confirming that the
    Rosenbergs and Hiss, among others, had been Soviet agents.

    -Finally, the publication in 1997 of the first serious biography, Whittaker Chambers : A Biography
    by Sam Tanenhaus, and the truly bizarre moment on Meet the Press when Clinton CIA nominee
    Tony Lake could not bring himself to declare Alger Hiss guilty, even fifty years after the fact,
    forced a major re-examination of Chambers, his legacy, and the legacy of those who were simply
    unable to accept his charges no matter the evidence (like Lake and like CNN in their Cold War

After all of that, it is perhaps now possible to contemplate Chambers the writer in a somewhat more neutral, less partisan, light.  This collection includes everything from political essays to reflections on the Hiss case to movie and book reviews to a set of historical essays on Western Culture written for LIFE.  Among the best pieces are a review of Finnegans Wake and a tribute to Joyce on his death; a review of the movie version of Grapes of Wrath, which Henry Luce said was the best film review ever published in TIME; a really scathing review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged; and the prophetic title essay.

Chambers is too adulatory about Joyce's achievement in Finnegans Wake for my taste, but he does an admirable job of explaining its literary importance.

    As a gigantic laboratory experiment with language, Finnegans Wake is bound to exert influence far
    beyond the circle of its immediate readers.  Whether Joyce is eventually convicted of assaulting the
    King's English with intent to kill or whether he has really added a cubit to her stature, she will
    never be quite the same again.

And his description of Joyce's final days in wartorn Europe is genuinely moving, even to someone like me who would have voted for conviction in the trial Chambers posited above.

In his review of Grapes of Wrath he masterfully differentiates between the bloated novel and John Ford's superb film, describing how Ford's version, stripped of political cant and excess verbiage, renders a stronger story than the original :

    The Grapes of Wrath is possibly the best picture ever made from a so-so book.  ... It would be the
    best John Ford had directed if he had not already made The Informer.

    Part of the credit belongs accidentally to censorship and the camera.  Censorship excised
    John Steinbeck's well-meant excesses.  Camera-craft purged the picture of editorial rash that
    blotched the Steinbeck book.  Cleared of excrescences, the residue is the great human story which
    made thousands of people, who damned the novel's phony conclusions, read it.  It is the saga of an
    authentic U. S. farming family who lose their land.  They wander, they suffer, but they endure.
    They are never quite defeated, and their survival is itself a triumph.

The Rand review, Big Sister is Watching You (available online), offers a textbook example of how to dismantle an author even though they share some of your political views.  Even if you like Ayn Rand's books, and I think they are okay if taken with a large grain of salt, you have to agree with his line :

    From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity,
    commanding : 'To a gas chamber--go!'

Though clearly a harsh assessment, this nicely captures her unfortunate stridency and intolerance for anyone who doesn't accept the most extreme tendencies of her ethos of individualism.

The outstanding piece though may well be the one that Teachout chose for the title.  Ghosts on the Roof ran in TIME on March 5, 1945, shortly after the Yalta Conference, when the Allies were still basking in the glow of having cooperated to defeat Hitler.  With admirable foresight, Chambers pricked this gonfalon bubble.  The essay fantasizes that the ghosts of Nicholas and Alexandra and the other murdered Romanovs descend upon the roof of the Livadia Palace at Yalta to watch the goings-on.  There they meet Clio, the Muse of History, who has likewise come to observe the Big Three Conference.  When History expresses her surprise at finding the Romanovs there, they reveal that they have become fans of Stalin and have converted to Marxism, actually Stalinism.  The Tsar and Tsarina explain that Stalin is achieving conquests which even Peter the Great never dared and now come Britain and America as virtual supplicants, unwittingly giving him the opportunity to grab more land in the East in exchange for entering the war with Japan.  They share the Marxist belief that in the years following the war, England and the U.S. will collapse because of the internal contradictions of capitalism.  Clio tells them that this will not happen, that the years to come will see a conflict between two opposing faiths, leading to "more wars, more revolutions, greater proscriptions, bloodshed and human misery."  The Tsarina asks why she does not intervene to avert this, and Clio answers that humans never learn from History and :

    Besides, I must leave something for my sister, Melpomene to work on.

Melpomene, Clio's sister, is the Muse of Tragedy.  Here, years before he became embroiled in the Hiss case, long before the Cold War started, before the Atomic Age had even dawned, is Whittaker Chambers warning the West of the future it faces and forecasting it uncannily.

These essays, and the many others included here, make for really interesting reading.  They reveal Chambers to be both a gifted and a prescient writer.  His opinions on the Arts stand up extremely well.  His assessments of political situations were as much forty years ahead of their time; particularly perceptive in this regard is one ("Soviet Strategy in the Middle East" [National Review October 26, 1957]) in which he predicted how the Soviets would foster Arab radicalism in the Middle East.  All in all, the book serves to add depth and heft to a man who spent almost half a century as a caricature, who was more an undeserving victim of Anti-Anti-Communism than any of those who were blacklisted were "victims" of Anti-Communism.  It is altogether fitting that the 20th Century, which Chambers did so much to redeem, ended with his reputation ascendant and those of his opponents in rapid decline.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Whittaker Chambers (2 books reviewed)
Whittaker Chambers Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Whittaker Chambers
    -ESSAY: Whittaker Chambers’ Lenten Faith (Michael Lucchese, March 24, 2023, Providence)
    -ESSAY: Two Faiths: The Witness of Whittaker Chambers (Richard M. Reinsch, Religion & Liberty)
-ESSAY: Hannah Arendt on the New Right: Thinking like a communist (Samantha Rose Hill, March 4, 2024, Commonweal)
    -LETTER: 142- Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers New York, May 13, 1953
-ESSAY: Witness to a Crisis: The spiritual testimony of Whittaker Chambers holds up after seventy years. (Daniel J. Mahoney, 8/08/22, American Mind)
    -ESSAY: The informers : Hannah Arendt's appraisal of Whittaker Chambers and the ex-Communists (William Peter BAEHR, January 2014, European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology)
    -CHAPTER 5: Whittaker Chambers and the Confessions of Ex-Communists (Nolan Bennett, The Claims of Experience: Autobiography and American Democracy)
    -ESSAY: Rooted in the Nation: Whittaker Chambers’s Agrarian Conservatism : Conservative political action can, in fact, be a bulwark of counterrevolution. This is why Whittaker Chambers was a “conservative of the heart,” even if he did not consider himself a “conservative of the head.” In the final analysis, he was a witness to the permanent things. (Michael Lucchese, 3/19/24, Public Discourse)
    -ESSAY: Witness to a Crisis: The spiritual testimony of Whittaker Chambers holds up after seventy years. (Daniel J. Mahoney, 8/08/22, American Mind)
    -ESSAY: Whittaker Chambers’ Spiritual Journey (Thomas Hubert, July 12th, 2021, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Exposing evil: ‘Witness’ has its 60th anniversary (Stephen Smoot, Jul. 31st, 2012, Human Events)
    -ESSAY: Whittaker Chambers’ “Witness”: A Story for the Ages (Chuck Chalberg, June 1st, 2023, Imaginative Conservative)
-ESSAY: Whittaker Chambers through the Eyes of Rebecca West (PETER BAEHR, April 2, 2020, National Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "whittaker chambers"
    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Chambers, Whittaker
    -BOOKNOTES : Author: Sam Tanenhaus Title: Whittaker Chambers: A Biography Air Date: February 23, 1997 (C-SPAN)
    -Presidential Medal of Freedom
    -OBIT :  Chambers Is Dead; Hiss Case Witness (WILLIAM FITZGIBBON, NY Times, July 12, 1961)
    -EXCERPT : Foreward in the Form of a Letter to my Children from Witness  by Whittaker Chambers
    -ESSAY : St. Benedict (Whittaker Chambers, Catholic Encyclopaedia)
    -REVIEW : of Atlas Shrugged (Whittaker Chambers, National Review, December 28, 1957)
    -Whittaker Chambers (Spartacus)
    -ARTICLE : Hiss and Chambers: Strange Story of Two Men (ROBERT G. WHALEN, Sunday, December 12, 1948, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Whittaker Chambers: The judgment of history. (Hilton Kramer,  New Criterion, Feb97)
    -ESSAY : The Alger Hiss Spy Case : Fifty years later people still ask the question about Alger Hiss: Was he or wasn't he a Communist spy?  (James Thomas Gay , History Net)
    -ARCHIVES : More on Whittaker Chambers : From the Archives of The New York Times
    -ARCHIVES : "whittaker chambers" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "whittaker chambers" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of Witness by Whittaker Chambers (Les Sillars , World)
    -REVIEW : of Witness by Whittaker Chambers (Lane Dolly, NeoPolitique)
    -REVIEW : Jan 29, 1970 Murray Kempton: A Narodnik from Lynbrook, NY Review of Books
               Odyssey of a Friend: Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954-1961 by
               Whittaker Chambers, edited with Notes by William F. Buckley, Jr., and
               Foreword by Ralph De Toledano
    -REVIEW : Nov 19, 1964 Conor Cruise OíBrien: The Perjured Saint, NY Review of Books
               Cold Friday by Whittaker Chambers
    -REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (William F. Buckley, Jr., First Things)
    -REVIEW : of WHITTAKER CHAMBERS A Biography By Sam Tanenhaus (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of WHITTAKER CHAMBERS A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Theodore Draper: The Case of Cases, NY Review of Books
               Whittaker Chambers by Sam Tanenhaus
               Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (updated edition) by Allen Weinstein
    -REVIEW : Theodore Draper: The Drama of Whittaker Chambers, NY Review of Books
               Whittaker Chambers by Sam Tanenhaus
               Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (updated edition) by Allen Weinstein
    -REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (Mark Falcoff, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (LANCE MORROW, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (Elinor Langer, The Nation)
    -REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers : A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (Jude Wanniski, Polyconomics)
    -REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (PAUL JACKSON, Calgary Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (Roger Miller, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (John C. Chalberg , Crisis)
    -REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (Mindszenty Report)
    -REVIEW : Apr 20, 1978 Garry Wills: The Honor of Alger Hiss, NY Review of Books
               Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case by Allen Weinstein
    -REVIEW : of THE LAST PUMPKIN PAPER By Bob Oeste (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)

    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "hiss, alger"
    -OBIT : Alger Hiss, Central Figure in Long-Running Cold War Controversy, Dies (Nov. 16, 1996, NY Times)
    -Alger Hiss (Spartacus)
    -ESSAY : Lessons of the Alger Hiss Case, by Richard Nixon (Jan. 8, 1986, NY Times)
    -RESPONSE : The Lessons of the Richard Nixon Case, Alger Hiss' response to Nixon's article (Jan. 21, 1986, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : ëVenona and Alger Hiss' (John Lowenthal, Intelligence and National Security)
    -ESSAY : THE FAITHFUL TRAITOR :  Alger Hiss's refusal to recant helped create the myth of his innocence (Eric Breindel, National Review)
    -ESSAY : Alger Hiss, Perjurer (Sue Schuurman, Weekly Wire)
    -TRIBUTE : Flowers for Alger Hiss : What if they gave a funeral for a cold-war icon - and no one came? (DAN KENNEDY, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Alger Hiss (Victor Navasky, The Nation)
    -G-FILES : Alger Hiss spy case (APB News)
    -The Alger Hiss Spy Case (History Net)
    -Minicourse on the Alger Hiss Case
    -REVIEW : of RECOLLECTIONS OF A LIFE By Alger Hiss (Dennis H. Wrong, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Recollections of a Life By Alger Hiss  (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEWS : of  A View from Alger's Window: A Son's Memoirs by Tony Hiss, and Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America by John Earl Hatnes and Harvey Klehr (David Ignatius, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of JOSEPHINE HERBST By Elinor Langer (Robert Gorham Davis, NY Times Book Review)
    -LETTER : Alger Hiss Responds (Alger Hiss, NY Times, September 2, 1984)
    -INTERVIEW : "We're a long way from the end of this" : Alger Hiss' son talks about his new memoir, "The View From Alger's Window," and the espionage case that wouldn't die. (DAN CRYER, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of THE VIEW FROM ALGER'S WINDOW A Son's Memoir. By Tony Hiss (Ann Douglas, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The View from Alger's Window : A Father and a Spy : A son's memoir and Soviet cable decrypts provide different perspectives on Alger Hiss (David Ignatius , Washington Monthly)

    -LINKS : Documents Relating to American Foreign Policy :The Cold War
    -Rosenbergs Trial: An Account of the Trial with links.
    -Venona : Soviet Espionage and the American Response, 1939-1957 (
    -The VENONA Home Page (NSA)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Venona Decoding Soviet Espionage in America By JOHN EARL HAYNES and HARVEY KLEHR
    -REVIEW : of Venona (Maurice Isserman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Venona : Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (Rorin M. Platt, American Diplomacy)
    -REVIEW: of Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. By John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr & The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America-The Stalin Era. By Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev (Andrew J. Bacevich, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America by John Earl Haynes and Harvey
 Klehr (Michael Smith,, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Venona Secrets:  Exposing Soviet Espionage  and America's Traitors  by Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel (Daniel McGroarty, American Spectator)
    -ESSAY : Tales From Decrypts  (Victor Navasky, The Nation)
    -ESSAY : The Selling of the KGB : The post-Cold War world is awash in tantalizing tales from the KGB archives. But the new literature on Soviet espionage may be much less revealing than it appears.
(Amy Knight , Wilson Quarterly)
    -ESSAY : The Legacy of the Anti-Communist Liberal Intellectuals (Ronald Radosh, Partisan Review)
    -ESSAY : Rethinking McCarthyism (Daniel J. Flynn, Accuracy in Academia)
    -ESSAY : Cold War Without End : With the opening of long-secret files and a spate of new books, the battle over moles and spies and Redbaiting rages on -- even without Communism. For those naming names and crying smear, the political is all bitterly personal. (JACOB WEISBERG, NY Times Magazine)
    -ESSAY : The Enemy Within : What has come to be known as McCarthyism should, with more respect to chronology and power, be known as Hooverism (James T. Patterson, Atlantic Monthly)
    -EXCERPT : from The Twilight of the Intellectuals  by Hilton Kramer  Introduction: On the Style and Politics of an Intellectual Class
    -ARTICLE : Revelations, Secrets, Gossip and Lies: Sifting Warily Through the Soviet Archives  (Steven Merritt Miner, NY Times, May 14, 1995)
    -ESSAY : Disloyalty As a Principle: Why Communists Spied : During the 1930s and especially during World War II, some Communists felt they served a greater cause by spying for the Soviet Union. (Maurice Isserman)
    -ESSAY : On Loyalty : Some critics complain that Americans have made a fetish of Polonius's pompous admonition, "To thine own self be true," forsaking loyalties to family, community, and faith in the name of personal freedom. Yet in the modern world, the author says, the ancient virtue of loyalty imposes different obligations-and many are striving to fulfill them. (Alan Wolfe, Wilson Quarterly)
    -ESSAY : Soviet Spys : Did They Make a Difference? (Tim Weiner)
    -ESSAY : Tales From the K.G.B.  (Walter Schneir, The Nation)
    -ESSAY : Exhuming McCarthy (Joshua Micah Marshall, The American Prospect)
    -ESSAY : Secrets and Lies (Jacob Heilbrunn, The American Prospect)
    -ESSAY : Recalling Reds Under the Bed (Michael Barone, US News and World Report)
    -BOOKNOTES : Title: Allen Weinstein  Author: The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage In America--The Stalin Era  Air Date: March 14, 1999 (C-SPAN)
    -REVIEW : of THE HAUNTED WOOD Soviet Espionage in America -- The Stalin Era By Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE HAUNTED WOOD Soviet Espionage in America -- the Stalin Era. By Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev ( Joseph E. Persico, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Haunted Wood (Lynnley Browning, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : May 11, 2000 Thomas Powers: The Plot Thickens, NY Review of Books
               The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in AmericaóThe Stalin Era by