by Sam Tanenhaus
Random House, 638 pp., $35.00
Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (updated edition)
by Allen Weinstein
Random House, 622 pp., $20.00 (paper)
Unlike Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers left no mystery about his political beliefs. He was not a systematic thinker, but he was a man of ideas. Without his ideas, he was merely an informer who soon would have been forgotten. Chambers’s ideas lay at the root of his actions, and both books under review, Sam Tanenhaus’s biography of Chambers and Allen Weinstein’s Perjury, now in a new edition, are notably weak in this respect, although they provide much information about Chambers.
Witness is a detailed story of Chambers’s life, including its seamier aspects. But Chambers was not altogether satisfied with the book, because he had not wished to alarm his general readers. “More and more,” he wrote regretfully to a devotee, Ralph de Toledano, “it seems clear to me that I smoothed too many rough points in Witness, for the sake of sparing Americans the harsh import of history. The result is that almost nobody knows what I really said in that book.” Meanwhile, he sent letters to friends in which he elaborated the ideas he had sketched out in Witness. Three volumes of his post-Witness letters have appeared; they are necessary for a full understanding of his post-Communist attitudes and thought. His posthumously published letters are far less guarded and fill out many of the themes in Witness.
Chambers came from a very troubled family. As he explained, his radicalism began at Columbia University in the early 1920s. He entered it as a conservative, he said, and ceased to be one at the end of his sophomore year. His literary career began at Columbia, where he published a long story and an irreverent play. In 1923, he made a trip to Europe with Meyer Schapiro, later the famous art historian, then a fellow student; he visited Germany at its most desperate state after World War I. It taught him, he wrote in Witness, that “the world we live in was dying” and that “only surgery could now save the wreckage of mankind, and that the Communist Party was history’s surgeon.” In 1925, sitting on a concrete bench on the Columbia campus, he decided to leave college and join the Communist Party, then a small, isolated sect, which at first he did not know where to find. He was soon in the Party and working on the Daily Worker. He was twenty-four years old.
The first crisis he experienced in the Party came in 1929 in connection with the downfall of Jay Lovestone, the Party leader, after his humiliating inquisition in Moscow directed by Stalin himself. Chambers stayed out of Party work for about two years but did not lose his faith in communism. During this period, he decided to write some stories, the first of which proved to be a phenomenal success. Called “Can You Make …