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Whittaker Chambers: A Biography

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Whittaker Chambers is the first biography of this complex and enigmatic figure. Drawing on dozens of interviews and on materials from forty archives in the United States and abroad--including still-classified KGB dossiers--Tanenhaus traces the remarkable journey that led Chambers from a sleepy Long Island village to center stage in America's greatest political trial and th Whittaker Chambers is the first biography of this complex and enigmatic figure. Drawing on dozens of interviews and on materials from forty archives in the United States and abroad--including still-classified KGB dossiers--Tanenhaus traces the remarkable journey that led Chambers from a sleepy Long Island village to center stage in America's greatest political trial and then, in his last years, to a unique role as the godfather of post-war conservatism. This biography is rich in startling new information about Chambers's days as New York's "hottest literary Bolshevik"; his years as a Communist agent and then defector, hunted by the KGB; his conversion to Quakerism; his secret sexual turmoil; his turbulent decade at Time magazine, where he rose from the obscurity of the book-review page to transform the magazine into an oracle of apocalyptic anti-Communism. But all this was a prelude to the memorable events that began in August 1948, when Chambers testified against Alger Hiss in the spy case that changed America. Whittaker Chambers goes far beyond all previous accounts of the Hiss case, re-creating its improbably twists and turns, and disentangling the motives that propelled a vivid cast of characters in unpredictable directions. A rare conjunction of exacting scholarship and narrative art, Whittaker Chambers is a vivid tapestry of 20th century history.


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Whittaker Chambers is the first biography of this complex and enigmatic figure. Drawing on dozens of interviews and on materials from forty archives in the United States and abroad--including still-classified KGB dossiers--Tanenhaus traces the remarkable journey that led Chambers from a sleepy Long Island village to center stage in America's greatest political trial and th Whittaker Chambers is the first biography of this complex and enigmatic figure. Drawing on dozens of interviews and on materials from forty archives in the United States and abroad--including still-classified KGB dossiers--Tanenhaus traces the remarkable journey that led Chambers from a sleepy Long Island village to center stage in America's greatest political trial and then, in his last years, to a unique role as the godfather of post-war conservatism. This biography is rich in startling new information about Chambers's days as New York's "hottest literary Bolshevik"; his years as a Communist agent and then defector, hunted by the KGB; his conversion to Quakerism; his secret sexual turmoil; his turbulent decade at Time magazine, where he rose from the obscurity of the book-review page to transform the magazine into an oracle of apocalyptic anti-Communism. But all this was a prelude to the memorable events that began in August 1948, when Chambers testified against Alger Hiss in the spy case that changed America. Whittaker Chambers goes far beyond all previous accounts of the Hiss case, re-creating its improbably twists and turns, and disentangling the motives that propelled a vivid cast of characters in unpredictable directions. A rare conjunction of exacting scholarship and narrative art, Whittaker Chambers is a vivid tapestry of 20th century history.

30 review for Whittaker Chambers: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Christopher Saunders

    Sam Tanenhaus untangles the messy life of Whittaker Chambers, one of the 20th Century's unlikeliest figures. A struggling writer and autodidact from New York, brilliant but tortured by a horrific childhood (a closeted gay father, a neurotic mother, an insane grandmother and a suicidal brother), he drifted into Communism in his youth, eventually worked as a spy for the Soviet Ware Group, left the Party out of disgust with the Hitler-Stalin Pact and spent a decade working for Time Magazine while t Sam Tanenhaus untangles the messy life of Whittaker Chambers, one of the 20th Century's unlikeliest figures. A struggling writer and autodidact from New York, brilliant but tortured by a horrific childhood (a closeted gay father, a neurotic mother, an insane grandmother and a suicidal brother), he drifted into Communism in his youth, eventually worked as a spy for the Soviet Ware Group, left the Party out of disgust with the Hitler-Stalin Pact and spent a decade working for Time Magazine while trying to alert the government to Soviet subversion. Finally, in August 1948 HUAC, Alger Hiss, Richard Nixon and instant notoriety as a Cold War hero. Chambers' life reads like a Gothic novel and Tanenhaus needn't embellish anything to make it compelling. His real challenge comes in weighing the truthfulness of Chambers' later recollections; while the broad outlines of Chambers' confession are accurate, he concealed, distorted and exaggerated his own role to a degree that, one suspects, was deliberate - whether to avoid prosecution, to shore his credibility or some unfathomable reason. Tanenhaus suspects, in part, it stems from a tortured vanity: Chambers viewed himself as a figure from Dostoyevsky, emerging from the Underground when his conscience grew intolerable; or a Jeremiah whose apocalyptic perorations about the clash of civilizations struck a chord in postwar America, when nuclear annihilation was a button away. Perhaps Tanenhaus doesn't fully resolve the contradictions in Chambers' character; he does an excellent job measuring his personality, actions and importance, resulting in an absorbing biography.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lee Ann

    Wow. This is a book to re-read. It is thorough, slow and in-depth. ST covers not just the facts but the implications of WC's life. I have read Witness and was blown away. It has been called the greatest autobiography of the 20th century and deservedly so. ST highlighted several aspects of Witness that I had overlooked, such as how heavily WC's thought was influenced by the great Russian novelists. ST also develops WC's political philosophy, showing how WC always maintained a European rather than Wow. This is a book to re-read. It is thorough, slow and in-depth. ST covers not just the facts but the implications of WC's life. I have read Witness and was blown away. It has been called the greatest autobiography of the 20th century and deservedly so. ST highlighted several aspects of Witness that I had overlooked, such as how heavily WC's thought was influenced by the great Russian novelists. ST also develops WC's political philosophy, showing how WC always maintained a European rather than American mentality. WC saw the world through a class-based Marxist dialectic. His rejection of Communism developed from the same philosophy that first lead to his rejection of capitalism. It's easy to see why WC never really felt at home in the conservative movement. Then again, it is telling that it was the conservative movement that made a place for someone like WC to write and think as he pleased while the progressive movement could not. WC was too cultured to be much interested in commerce and the economically oriented conservative movement did not sit well with his quietist humanism. ST's book also provides a kind of parallel biography of mid-century liberalism. The progressive movement became more rigid and more class based as it became the default setting for the intellectual classes. Anti-anti-communism became more about distinguishing oneself from the goatherds as it was about principles. The liberal establishment rejected WC mainly for being a fat working-class slob. Admitting Hiss' guilt would be to admit that the enemy was not the Other but was one of the progressives themselves. Worse, they'd have to admit that the Right was right. A pathological denial of Hiss' guilt was better than admitting that the hoi polloi got it right. Here is ST on the liberal failure to see past political labels: “This failure, suggested by one shrewd analyst, the literary critic Leslie Field, grew out of 'the implicit dogma of American liberalism,' which inflexibly assumed that in any political drama 'the liberal per se is the hero.' For Hiss's supporters to admit his guilt also meant admitting 'that mere liberal principle is not in itself a guarantee against evil; that the wrongdoer is not always the other – “they” and not “us”; that there is no magic in the words 'left' or 'progressive' or 'socialist' that can prevent deceit and abuse of power.” This is a brilliant work and is highly, highly recommended.

  3. 4 out of 5

    ALLEN

    An intriguing public figure deserves an excellent biography, and in Sam Tanenhaus's WHITTAKER CHAMBERS (1997), we are in the realm of the very best. With massive documentation and succinct yet elegant prose, Tanenhaus profiles the famous writer-turned-Soviet-spy-turned-informer with all his warts and wrinkles, but with a real understanding of the mid-Twentieth Century and Whittaker Chambers' role in it. Just yesterday I read a book about HIGH NOON the movie and its role in the Hollywood Blacklis An intriguing public figure deserves an excellent biography, and in Sam Tanenhaus's WHITTAKER CHAMBERS (1997), we are in the realm of the very best. With massive documentation and succinct yet elegant prose, Tanenhaus profiles the famous writer-turned-Soviet-spy-turned-informer with all his warts and wrinkles, but with a real understanding of the mid-Twentieth Century and Whittaker Chambers' role in it. Just yesterday I read a book about HIGH NOON the movie and its role in the Hollywood Blacklist, in which Chamber's friend-turned-nemesis Alger Hiss pops up not once, but six times. These times deserve a sympathetic reading of Chambers' WITNESS (1952) and the update and more thorough understanding that Tanenhaus' biography affords. It is best to read both. Witness

  4. 5 out of 5

    Charles Lindsey

    Almost five stars; call it 4.75 stars. A deeply pleasurable read, thanks to Sam Tanenhaus' lean, propulsive prose. Rarely do I read a biography so full of facts that still refuses to get bogged down in them (even though this is of the genre that has the subject being born on the first page. Gimme context first!). A great grounding in a founding figure in postwar American anti-communism, one in which personality shines, if anything, even brighter than history. And Chambers' bizarre personality, a Almost five stars; call it 4.75 stars. A deeply pleasurable read, thanks to Sam Tanenhaus' lean, propulsive prose. Rarely do I read a biography so full of facts that still refuses to get bogged down in them (even though this is of the genre that has the subject being born on the first page. Gimme context first!). A great grounding in a founding figure in postwar American anti-communism, one in which personality shines, if anything, even brighter than history. And Chambers' bizarre personality, and undeniable talents, are inextricable from his role. My missing 0.25 stars are due only to lost opportunities. In my dreams, this book would have been a twice-as-fat dual biography of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. How they created themselves, how they met, how they diverged, how America judges them today. I can also imagine reading about how Chambers' closeted sexuality might have fit into his guilty repudiation of political subversion (or have I heard too many jokes about J. Edgar Hoover in drag?); Tanenhaus, however, devotes no more than a page to what seems like it should have been political dynamite in the 1950s. There also should have been a lot more photos. This was a highly visual book -- cinematic, really -- and I wanted to see Chambers' family, and the notorious pumpkin, and photostats of those incriminating scribbles. But the deep themes, such as Chambers' shifting messianism, his turning from one zealotry to another, how he inspired religious conservatives of my parents' generation to treat communism as not just America's enemy but God's, come through bright and clear. I enjoyed reliving the ebb and flow of Americans' perception of the USSR and communism. Do kids today even know how infatuated intellectuals once were with Lenin and Stalin? How American communists had to pivot on their heels every time Uncle Joe did something like shake hands with Hitler, and then go to war against Hitler? How "Mission to Moscow" made it seem patriotic for Americans to work with Soviet communism? And how the postwar climate that tried to reckon with communism's ghastly reality slid into monotonous, mindless Red-baiting? The best thing I can say about this biography is that it drives you straight to the Internet to look for the freshest take on the Venona intercepts and other clues about the extent of communist spying in that era. You want to read what Hiss's defenders insist upon. You want to ponder the difference between McCarthyism and reasonable national self-scrutiny. Can America still find room for people with subversive ideas (who may repent of them) if they refrain from subversive acts? How elastic can loyalty be?

  5. 4 out of 5

    David Simonetti

    This is well written and compelling. Whittaker Chambers is an American Hero who hasd the courage to expose an avowed communist who betrayed his country, yet the left continues to this very day to live in a world of denial about Alger Hiss. Soviet archives clearly established that he was a spy, but the NY Times, Eleanor Roosevelt and other hypcrites defened this scum. This is a great American story and well worth reading for anyone who is interested in learning about the McCarthy era and what was This is well written and compelling. Whittaker Chambers is an American Hero who hasd the courage to expose an avowed communist who betrayed his country, yet the left continues to this very day to live in a world of denial about Alger Hiss. Soviet archives clearly established that he was a spy, but the NY Times, Eleanor Roosevelt and other hypcrites defened this scum. This is a great American story and well worth reading for anyone who is interested in learning about the McCarthy era and what was really at stake in terms of Communist infiltration of the US Government.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Nathan

    An amazing and intimate account of a man's journey into and out of Communism, as a spy, as a political philosophy, as a life. He not only leaves Communism but then finds the courage to expose and fight it. An amazing and intimate account of a man's journey into and out of Communism, as a spy, as a political philosophy, as a life. He not only leaves Communism but then finds the courage to expose and fight it.

  7. 4 out of 5

    John

    The subject matter is as advertised. I only had a general understanding of the Chambers-Hiss affair, and knew nothing about Chambers' background. Some classic Nixon in the book, profanity and all. This book fair to the subject, who was a very complicated person. Now I need to read more on Hiss! PS - in case you were wondering, the author believes Hiss was guilty. The subject matter is as advertised. I only had a general understanding of the Chambers-Hiss affair, and knew nothing about Chambers' background. Some classic Nixon in the book, profanity and all. This book fair to the subject, who was a very complicated person. Now I need to read more on Hiss! PS - in case you were wondering, the author believes Hiss was guilty.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Neal

    By tracing the arc of Whittaker Chambers's seduction and disillusionment with Communism, and then conversion into one of the leading voices of the conservative movement in the United States, Sam Tanenhaus illuminates the attraction of Communism to young intellectuals in the interwar years. Tanenhaus's writing is clear, even-headed and exciting. This last adjective is no exaggeration. As a young reader who has grown up after the end of the Cold War, I found the biography explained why talented in By tracing the arc of Whittaker Chambers's seduction and disillusionment with Communism, and then conversion into one of the leading voices of the conservative movement in the United States, Sam Tanenhaus illuminates the attraction of Communism to young intellectuals in the interwar years. Tanenhaus's writing is clear, even-headed and exciting. This last adjective is no exaggeration. As a young reader who has grown up after the end of the Cold War, I found the biography explained why talented individuals would devote their lives to a political struggle, and what the personal costs of such devotion entails. Retrospectively, it's easy to dismiss Communism as one large lie; but it's insufficient to understanding why millions of citizens were drawn to it in real time.

  9. 5 out of 5

    FiveBooks

    Professor Harvey Klehr has chosen to discuss  Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers   , on FiveBooks as one of the top five on his subject - Communism in America, saying that: "Whittaker Chambers was a key figure in the first major post-World War II spy cases. He was a disillusioned communist who is a fascinating man, and one of the attractions of this book is that it really gives Chambers his due." The full interview is available here: http://thebrowser.com/books/interview... Professor Harvey Klehr has chosen to discuss  Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers   , on FiveBooks as one of the top five on his subject - Communism in America, saying that: "Whittaker Chambers was a key figure in the first major post-World War II spy cases. He was a disillusioned communist who is a fascinating man, and one of the attractions of this book is that it really gives Chambers his due." The full interview is available here: http://thebrowser.com/books/interview...

  10. 5 out of 5

    Charles Kerns

    Tanenhaus shows Chambers to be a mess, but he does so sympathetically in the beginning and then, as the book proceeds to the trial and beyond, heroically. Nixon comes off as only he could and Hiss as someone who could have avoided it all if only he had followed John Foster Dulles advice. If you are upset about the rants going on in the 2010s, then this book puts the US fight between raving righters and liberals into perspective. It hints at the lure of commies in the '20s, it shows the infightin Tanenhaus shows Chambers to be a mess, but he does so sympathetically in the beginning and then, as the book proceeds to the trial and beyond, heroically. Nixon comes off as only he could and Hiss as someone who could have avoided it all if only he had followed John Foster Dulles advice. If you are upset about the rants going on in the 2010s, then this book puts the US fight between raving righters and liberals into perspective. It hints at the lure of commies in the '20s, it shows the infighting between true believers, but it dwells on the HUAC days. A good history read if you are young and need background to understand today's US politics. Also, if you do not believe that the world is run by the arrogant, self-serving, and ruthless, this is a good antidote to your naïveté.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kbrew

    Political conservitive is radicalized at Columbia- Joins the Party, eventually is spymater for East Coast, is disinchanted by Stalin's coniving with Hitler, drops out of the party.Rtas his cohorts out in the 40's.Riviting history of the Communist movement and activities during the 1920's 30's period. Peoples motivation for joining, quiting or sticking it out. The effect it had on US politics in the 40's and 50's. Political conservitive is radicalized at Columbia- Joins the Party, eventually is spymater for East Coast, is disinchanted by Stalin's coniving with Hitler, drops out of the party.Rtas his cohorts out in the 40's.Riviting history of the Communist movement and activities during the 1920's 30's period. Peoples motivation for joining, quiting or sticking it out. The effect it had on US politics in the 40's and 50's.

  12. 4 out of 5

    David

    Really good biography -- very even-handed, even detached, although still perhaps sympathetic to Chambers, but not an apologist. Detected no bias here, although some lefties might call it "pro-Chambers." Read following Chambers's book "Witness." Much, much more ground covered here than in "Witness," and myriad sources make for a thorough examination of the Hiss cases and the tenor of the times. Extremely fast-moving and clear writing. Would highly recommend. Really good biography -- very even-handed, even detached, although still perhaps sympathetic to Chambers, but not an apologist. Detected no bias here, although some lefties might call it "pro-Chambers." Read following Chambers's book "Witness." Much, much more ground covered here than in "Witness," and myriad sources make for a thorough examination of the Hiss cases and the tenor of the times. Extremely fast-moving and clear writing. Would highly recommend.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Paul Leddy

    Another wonderful biography that gives a glimpse into the world that Whittaker Chambers lived in. The court proceedings surrounding the libel case against Alger Hiss (whom Chambers had stated was a communist spy) are particularly riveting.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Monica Perez

    Excellent, fair, thorough biography of Whittaker Chambers, a fascinating character. I would still read Chambers' Witness first--it's essentially the same story but first hand. Excellent, fair, thorough biography of Whittaker Chambers, a fascinating character. I would still read Chambers' Witness first--it's essentially the same story but first hand.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

    The word that comes up more than any other in reviews of this book is "magisterial," and since that about sums it up I'll leave it at that. The word that comes up more than any other in reviews of this book is "magisterial," and since that about sums it up I'll leave it at that.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Anson Cassel Mills

    This is a fine biography, carefully researched and exceptionally well written, certainly worthy of its 1998 Pulitzer nomination. Tanenhaus is sympathetic to his subject but not simple-mindedly so. Chambers comes across as a gifted individual freighted with the baggage of an awful childhood and a considerable quotient of personal failings who nevertheless stands for truth at a moment when his courage made a difference. Tanenhaus’s biography is in the same league with Chambers' own superb Witness, This is a fine biography, carefully researched and exceptionally well written, certainly worthy of its 1998 Pulitzer nomination. Tanenhaus is sympathetic to his subject but not simple-mindedly so. Chambers comes across as a gifted individual freighted with the baggage of an awful childhood and a considerable quotient of personal failings who nevertheless stands for truth at a moment when his courage made a difference. Tanenhaus’s biography is in the same league with Chambers' own superb Witness, one of the finest autobiographies of the twentieth century and one that might be better known had Chambers been temperamentally able to trim say, a quarter of its 800-page length. There are two morals to Tanenhaus’s biography. The first is the “ugly duckling” story we should all have internalized before leaving grade school. The other is the less popular cautionary truth that uneducated, religious inhabitants of provincial backwaters may be absolutely right when sophisticated urban and secularist representatives of the government and the academy are dead wrong. Because religion played such an important role in Chamber's worldview following his abandonment of Communism, I only wish Tanenhaus had treated Chambers' religious development in more detail.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    I had only a passing familiarity with the Hiss case and really did not know much about Whittaker Chambers. Having completed this chronicle of Chambers' tortured, complicated, fascinating, and sad life, it is hard for me to see how another biography could possibly surpass what Sam Tanenhaus has written. This is the definitive last word. If Chambers had not lived, a novelist would have had to create him and many would not have found the character believable. There were sections in this biography th I had only a passing familiarity with the Hiss case and really did not know much about Whittaker Chambers. Having completed this chronicle of Chambers' tortured, complicated, fascinating, and sad life, it is hard for me to see how another biography could possibly surpass what Sam Tanenhaus has written. This is the definitive last word. If Chambers had not lived, a novelist would have had to create him and many would not have found the character believable. There were sections in this biography that felt like episodes of 'The Americans.' But its all here in often gripping, revealing - and sometimes exhaustive - detail. More than 70 years removed, it is hard for us to appreciate the import and impact of the Hiss case. It was a political demarcation line in mid-20th century American politics. You can draw a line from the Chambers-Hiss conflict right on through McCarthyism, the influence of the John Birch Society, the coming of the new Right, and the rise of Reagan. Even though this biography was published in 1997, one can also see the seeds of Trumpism. Whittaker Chambers: A Biography is thus an important, illuminating, and recommended read.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Brent Davis

    This book is a great complement to the magnificent masterpiece, Witness. Witness, of course, was one man's fairly honest take on his own life, the great Hiss case, and defining conflict of our time: communism versus freedom, a conflict that continues to this very day. It fills in a lot of gaps with the less varnished, ugly truth along with some important and uplifting insights. Here was a flawed and yet brilliant man, whose motives were not always pure but who honestly tried to do the right thin This book is a great complement to the magnificent masterpiece, Witness. Witness, of course, was one man's fairly honest take on his own life, the great Hiss case, and defining conflict of our time: communism versus freedom, a conflict that continues to this very day. It fills in a lot of gaps with the less varnished, ugly truth along with some important and uplifting insights. Here was a flawed and yet brilliant man, whose motives were not always pure but who honestly tried to do the right thing. And man, could he write!! Tanenhaus takes the proper level to analyze Chambers and mainly sticks to the facts, leaving me with more empathy for the man who broke open the mantel of righteous indignation the left was using to hide its treachery and justified the Republican search for traitors in government.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Dave Summers

    Solid biography of one of the most truly unusual and yet important historic figures of modern times. Whittaker Chambers was a human node, around which the multiple gears of US/Soviet post-war tension, the birth and death of McCarthiest paranoia, and most importantly, the trial of Alger Hiss, spun hard and fast. Highly recommended.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Silliman

    A really well done biography. Thorough, with plenty of context, but didn't attempt to try to include everything. The author could have gone further in trying to say what Chambers says about his time, or Americans, or American conservatives, or something like that, but given its focus on his particularity, this was excellent. A really well done biography. Thorough, with plenty of context, but didn't attempt to try to include everything. The author could have gone further in trying to say what Chambers says about his time, or Americans, or American conservatives, or something like that, but given its focus on his particularity, this was excellent.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Meatwadmammie

    In-depth study After reading Perjury and Witness, I was surprised to learn additional information from this book. Tanenhaus provided an interesting insight into Chambers’ motivations. Definitely would recommend reading this book

  22. 5 out of 5

    Russ Weimer

    An interesting read on a very interesting person rarely heard about now. He lived and wrote during a very turbulent time in America and his story was a window into the 30’s 40’s and 50’s.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Joe Walton

    I was motivated to read this story because of two reasons. The major part of the events took place from about 1935 and concluded in 1960. This period was from my birth until my graduation from college. My interest in politics began at the age of 11 or 12. TV coverage became available in 1948. I remember Whittaker Chambers and many of the other names, Harry Dexter White, Richard Nixon, and many others. When Don Imus on his morning show reviewed this biography, it reminded me of the story and he w I was motivated to read this story because of two reasons. The major part of the events took place from about 1935 and concluded in 1960. This period was from my birth until my graduation from college. My interest in politics began at the age of 11 or 12. TV coverage became available in 1948. I remember Whittaker Chambers and many of the other names, Harry Dexter White, Richard Nixon, and many others. When Don Imus on his morning show reviewed this biography, it reminded me of the story and he was very enthusiastic in promoting it. After several years had passed, I finally purchased a copy. I was not disappointed. Whittaker Chambers was a sad, very complicated man. He was an operative of Communist Russia who became a patriot and defender of American Liberty. He exposed Alger Hiss as a Russian Agent. Hiss was the number two man in the US State Department. Hiss was not alone in his efforts to undermine our government. The cast of characters is extensive. It is an important because many of its elements can be found in today's political climate. Sam Tanenhause tells a remarkable story of great complexity, cruelty and politics, and he performs with great style.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Gene

    Sam Tanenhaus's biography of Whittaker Chambers was a fair and informative account of the life of the man who provided evidence that Alger Hiss and he had both been Soviet agents providing government documents to the enemy. Chambers did so hesitantly, after having left Communism, and after having tried to get Hiss and other spies to abandon the cause that now had become Stalin's ruthless regime. He became more actively in pursuit of flushing out these agents after WWII. This was not a work of hag Sam Tanenhaus's biography of Whittaker Chambers was a fair and informative account of the life of the man who provided evidence that Alger Hiss and he had both been Soviet agents providing government documents to the enemy. Chambers did so hesitantly, after having left Communism, and after having tried to get Hiss and other spies to abandon the cause that now had become Stalin's ruthless regime. He became more actively in pursuit of flushing out these agents after WWII. This was not a work of hagiography, though it is obvious that Tanenhaus is convinced of Chambers's eventual honesty upon full disclosure. All the disgraces of Chambers's family life and personal life are spelled out so that there is no doubt that this is a deeply flawed man living out a tragic life. Having read WC's Witness, I felt that this account gave a more clear and detailed reason to believe Hiss had perjured himself and had been involved in a Washington-based Communist underground, though there have been countless famous persons who to their dying days insisted he was innocent. What struck me most were three things. First, I was shocked by ST's insistence that Chambers had not really changed character, but had only changed sides. He always was sensitive to the downtrodden and was always fully engaged in whatever he believed in, to the extreme that countless times he nearly worked himself to death. Secondly, I saw that Chambers viewed all philosophies as falling into one of two categories. Either God exists, or He does not. If the former, it only makes sense to be whole-heartedly active as a servant of God and reverer of man. If not, it only made sense to try to create a humanistic utopia and reshape man into something worthy of being revered. Western civilization was the outgrowth of the former, Communism of the latter. It was this understanding that kept Chambers from hating his eventual opponents. It also makes me scorn the consumeristic materialism that has become the norm in the West. Chambers would have disdain for those conservatives today who worship economic progress and care nothing for culture or the plight of the needy. Lastly, I see parallels with today's struggle in our society against radical Islam. The deep conviction of those Muslims who want to destroy the West is very similar in nature to the devoted Communists of almost a century ago. And as men like Chambers were drawn to Communism by the vanity of modern capitalism, so are many of the Islamic extremists today rightly horrified by the vulgarity and sensuality of our post-Christian world. Chambers spoke of the threat of post-Stalinist Communism and stated that the West would have to "match that resonance (the appeal of Communism's answers) from some depths within itself. Therein lies the threat to it of the great turn, the drama, now playing out among its inveterate enemies." Does such depth remain in the post-Christian West to fight off this new/old totalitarianism? And will God in His grace provide a Whittaker Chambers from the midst of the world of Islamic terrorism to point out our risks today and provide a vision of a Christian world worth giving one's life for, as Chambers had sacrificed himself to the cause of liberty? My only regret was that Tanenhaus did not work to provide us with a more thorough account of Whittaker Chamber's conversion to Christianity and its impact on his conversion from Communism and his resolve to overcome some of his other flaws.

  25. 4 out of 5

    James Henderson

    "To many Chambers remained a puzzle. He had offered himself to the nation as both sinner and savior. . . His moral attitude at times recalled the stoic resignation of the ancient tragedians, at times the anti-heroism of Sartre or Beckett, at times the torment of the twice-born soul." (p 514) For three months in the summer of 1952 Witness sat atop the New York Times list of bestselling books. It would end the year in the top ten of all nonfiction books published that year. it was the culmination o "To many Chambers remained a puzzle. He had offered himself to the nation as both sinner and savior. . . His moral attitude at times recalled the stoic resignation of the ancient tragedians, at times the anti-heroism of Sartre or Beckett, at times the torment of the twice-born soul." (p 514) For three months in the summer of 1952 Witness sat atop the New York Times list of bestselling books. It would end the year in the top ten of all nonfiction books published that year. it was the culmination of a life lived first in the secret shadow of communist underground and then in the glare of publicity over the two perjury trials of Alger Hiss. Whittaker Chambers: A Biography by Sam Tanenhaus beautifully relates the life of the author of that book - a man who was for many the epitome of the outspoken anti-communist in the middle of the twentieth century. But Whittaker Chambers was much more. He was an intellectual educated at Columbia, although he did not receive a degree. He studied with Mark Van Doren and other academic luminaries there and continued his personal journey of learning until his last days in 1961. Tanenhaus presents all the details of Chambers' journey as a Communist, his departure into a sort of isolation where, with good reason, he was in fear for his life, his days as editor at Time Magazine at the side of Henry Luce, and most of all a thorough examination and analysis of the trials. His was a life that was based on beliefs held strongly and ultimately a life that was not tragic, but one that was fulfilled through those beliefs. I found Chambers blend of faith, liberalism and anti-communism made him a more complex thinker. He grew to be close friends with many other anti-communists, but never shared the conservative free-market views that most of them espoused, especially his friend William F. Buckley, Jr. The book includes a valuable appendix where Tanenhaus highlights documentation that was found in Communist archives in the 1990s, in spite of Soviet attempts to destroy all evidence of Hiss's career as a spy. Further evidence from the American NSA files confirmed that Hiss had continued to be an agent long after Chambers's defection. Through it all Tanenhaus presents the details with lucid prose that is worthy of the epic tale that was the life of Whittaker Chambers.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lynda

    I found the life & times of Whittaker Chambers fascinating on so many, many levels. The book encompasses more that just the persona of Chambers as within is woven the flow of far left - far right politics in America from the late 20's to post WW II. Telling the story of Chambers brings a fairly forgettable man into very public status once allied with disclosing of Communists in the late 40's -- events leading to the infamous Alger Hiss Spy Trials. As a themed story, this is one of committed peopl I found the life & times of Whittaker Chambers fascinating on so many, many levels. The book encompasses more that just the persona of Chambers as within is woven the flow of far left - far right politics in America from the late 20's to post WW II. Telling the story of Chambers brings a fairly forgettable man into very public status once allied with disclosing of Communists in the late 40's -- events leading to the infamous Alger Hiss Spy Trials. As a themed story, this is one of committed people. People on all political fronts are extremely committed to their ideals. In fact Chambers' story is of first being committed in his diehard support of the Soviet-affiliated Communist Party in America, and then, upon self review & reflection, reemerge as a crusader to expose the evils of Communism and it's potential affect on the United States. I could not help thinking of and make comparisons between Chambers and Kim Philby, the British Soviet spy within MI6. Family issues aside, both men went to the "right" college (for their circumstances), a factor that served them well in associations & connections through out their lives. Then, once their commitment to Soviet Communist Party ideology had been made, both men had complete and total unquestioning commitment; same thing when Chambers did a 180 in his political thinking - it was like a dial turned to a new station; full tilt, no doubts. Yet what is most noteworthy to me is the ability these men had for making and maintaining friendships, while at the same time having the distinction of having used, and unabashedly abused the kindness of friends with little or no remorse, through out their lives.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Bap

    I wonder how many people outside my generation remember that Whitaker Chalmers accused Alger Hiss of being a communist which morphed into hearings before the HUAC committee and later two perjury trials which resulted in a 5 year conviction for Alger Hiss,a Harvard law school graduate and later Supreme Court clerk to Felix Frankfuter, who accompanied Roosevelt to Yalta, was instrumental in planning the initial conference leading to the formation of the United Nations and right before the accusati I wonder how many people outside my generation remember that Whitaker Chalmers accused Alger Hiss of being a communist which morphed into hearings before the HUAC committee and later two perjury trials which resulted in a 5 year conviction for Alger Hiss,a Harvard law school graduate and later Supreme Court clerk to Felix Frankfuter, who accompanied Roosevelt to Yalta, was instrumental in planning the initial conference leading to the formation of the United Nations and right before the accusations was the head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In a word Hiss was a person of impeccable credentials accused of being a spy by a professed former communist, chalmers, who had been underground for the party for about 10 years. This book adds greater detail to Chalmers book "Witness", which was once considered the bible of the conservative lexicon. We learn more about Nixon and the microfilm hidden in a pumpkin on Chalmers farm in Westminster Md and more about Hiss. Also, Chalmers went to Western Maryland (now called McDaniels college) college at age 60 to earn his undergraduate degree shortly before his heart attack and death. This is a sympathetic biography which also acknowledges that the Chalmers accusations morphed into McCarthy and the red scare. The consensus now (see wikipedia) is that Hiss was indeed a spy but that Nixon and others may have railroaded Hiss at his trial. Unless you are a cold war junkie like me, I'd skip this biography and read Chalmers autobiography "Witness". It is more fun.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Thing Two

    Whittaker Chambers made a name for himself in 1948 by accusing State Department official, Alger Hiss, of being a Communist spy. He testified before a committee of young senators - including Richard Nixon - and lent credibility to the McCarthy era Commie-hunts to follow. Hiss spent time in prison, Chambers lost his job at Time, but Nixon and McCarthy prospered. Alger Hiss proclaimed his innocence until he died in 1996. Whittaker Chambers wrote a memoir in 1948 called "Witness" where he lays out f Whittaker Chambers made a name for himself in 1948 by accusing State Department official, Alger Hiss, of being a Communist spy. He testified before a committee of young senators - including Richard Nixon - and lent credibility to the McCarthy era Commie-hunts to follow. Hiss spent time in prison, Chambers lost his job at Time, but Nixon and McCarthy prospered. Alger Hiss proclaimed his innocence until he died in 1996. Whittaker Chambers wrote a memoir in 1948 called "Witness" where he lays out for the American people the facts as he saw them. Sam Tanenhaus fills in the details, but ultimately, sides with Chambers. This book is an interesting, fact-packed piece, but doesn't come close to being as interesting a read as Chambers' own writing. If you're going to choose one, read "Witness".

  29. 4 out of 5

    Richard F.

    It was remarkable that Chambers stumbled through the process of renouncing his earlier conversion to Communism and then back to fanatical anti-Communism at the expense of his friend Alger Hiss. He wanted Hiss to leave the dark side with him, but ultimately was forced to turn against his long time fellow traveler. It is an aspect of Chambers sad story that Sam Tanenhaus brings to the narrative that I was unfamiliar with up to now. My view of Communism was sharpened while serving with the US Air F It was remarkable that Chambers stumbled through the process of renouncing his earlier conversion to Communism and then back to fanatical anti-Communism at the expense of his friend Alger Hiss. He wanted Hiss to leave the dark side with him, but ultimately was forced to turn against his long time fellow traveler. It is an aspect of Chambers sad story that Sam Tanenhaus brings to the narrative that I was unfamiliar with up to now. My view of Communism was sharpened while serving with the US Air Force as a communications analyst (spy) during the 60's and 70's.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Chris Bartholomew

    Interesting. Whittaker Chambers was a news maker at the time. Famous for being the individual to bring Alger Hiss to trial. Whittaker joined the communist party during his college years (where he came to know Alger Hiss), but left the party during the Stalin purges and became an avid anti-communist working for many years at Time magazine before being outted as a former communist and using his knowledge of the communist party to avoid prosecution. For me a historical vignette of the communist hun Interesting. Whittaker Chambers was a news maker at the time. Famous for being the individual to bring Alger Hiss to trial. Whittaker joined the communist party during his college years (where he came to know Alger Hiss), but left the party during the Stalin purges and became an avid anti-communist working for many years at Time magazine before being outted as a former communist and using his knowledge of the communist party to avoid prosecution. For me a historical vignette of the communist hunting era.

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