Witness over Sixty Years
Visitors to Ronald Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo, just north of Santa Barbara, will discover that the late president’s large bookshelf, just inside the front door of the main house, is filled largely with books on Western life, outdoor living, the care of horses, and other unprepossessing topics. But among this fare there also sits an anomaly: a well-thumbed edition of Whittaker Chambers’s autobiography Witness.
This shattering work—a saga of spiritual growth from materialist unbelief to faith in God during and after the author’s service as a spy for the Soviets in America—was published sixty years ago. It stirred America’s intelligentsia upon its appearance, sold well, and exercised a lasting effect upon Reagan, confirming with finality what he had already come to believe about Communism. Citing Witness periodically during the years of his presidency, Reagan was as one with Chambers in viewing communism in spiritual terms, as an evil concept of life against which free men ought to take an impassioned stand. Interestingly, Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, had a favorable opinion of Witness, as well. Reviewing the book in the San Francisco Chronicle upon its publication in 1952, Weinberger described Chambers’s work as a “long, detailed and brilliantly written story.” For all its eloquence, grimness, and existential anguish, Witness proved over time to be an enduring classic and a key artifact in the literature of the Cold War.
And yet, to much of America, the work’s author was and remains something of a nonentity—portrayed after World War II as an overweight, snaggle-toothed country bumpkin, a self-dramatizing nobody whose testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1948 and ’49 destroyed the career of suave, handsome Alger Hiss, whom Chambers accused of spying for the Soviets. After Hiss—an impeccably credentialed Washington insider and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—was convicted of perjury and sent to Lewisburg Penitentiary in 1951, Diana Trilling spoke for many within America’s progressive-minded element when she wrote, “Alger went to jail for all our sins.”
To Trilling and others, Chambers’s testimony against Hiss was simply the cowardly betrayal of a good man who, regardless of his guilt, was basically on the “correct” side of history. Worse, to their mind, Chambers made it emphatically clear that the successful penetration of the uppermost reaches of American government by Soviet operatives had been made possible because, as he saw it, liberalism and Marxism are blood-relations in their shared vision of humanity as perfectible through education and state-guided behavior modification, their rejection of belief in Original Sin (and thus that humanity has a natural bent toward selfishness, self-centeredness, cruelty, and violence), their drive for economic leveling through appeals to envy masked as appeals to compassion, and their contempt for tradition. Not surprisingly, to the American progressive, Chambers’s claims were considered inflammatory and intolerable, regardless of their accuracy. As late as 1984, one contributor to the Nation saw fit to describe Chambers as “a pathological liar who uttered more untruths than a computer can count.”
The publication of Witness a year after Hiss’s conviction intensified hostilities between the American Left and Right. Liberals within the American government, press, and academy expressed a grudging respect for Witness but unremitting contempt for the heavyset, awkward Chambers while claiming Hiss as a political martyr, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. A handful of major reviewers, notably Irving Howe and Brendan Gill, weighed in sourly and dismissively about Witness, but most major reviewers, including anti-Communist liberal spokesman Sidney Hook, found it powerful and persuasive.
In Witness, descriptions of Chambers’s upbringing read like something out of Dostoevsky—one act of oddity, betrayal, ugliness, and casual brutality after another, interspersed with passages of deeply moving tenderness and beauty. Readers of Witness will recall the more stirring episodes Chambers recounts, among them the descriptions of his fragmented family; the mental deterioration of his grandmother and of Chambers breaking up fights between that unfortunate woman and Chambers’s father (“I suppose nobody ever sleeps quite peacefully in a house where a woman sometimes wanders around with a knife,” he remarks dryly at one point); the incident in the schoolyard involving the mean-spirited schoolboys and the lollipop; the discovery of a field full of flowering thistles and goldfinches (to which young Chambers can only exclaim, “God!”); the suicide of Chamber’s brother; the furtive meetings with communist operatives; the ordeal of the HUAC investigation; and Hiss’s melodramatic posturing and strange claim that he remembered Chambers’s face but recalled his name as being “George Crosley.”
One minor but telling incident is worth mentioning, as it speaks to the question of liberal bias within the national media. One day during the HUAC hearings, Chambers was handed a folded note containing a question scribbled by New York Times reporter James (“Scotty”) Reston. As best as Chambers could remember, the note read, “Are you the G. Crosley who wrote a book of poems in 1905?” Suspecting this question was a wry joke, Chambers sent a written note back to Reston: “I was born in 1901. In 1905, I was four.” In Witness, he notes, “Later, Reston was to accuse me of refusing to answer his question.” In this and other episodes throughout the hearings, Chambers was alerted that he would pay heavily for sending “Alger” to jail for all our sins.
In 1948 Chambers famously declared, “I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism.” Subsequent events proved him wrong on that count, though the collectivist impulse remains strong in the West, with the ever-lingering desire on the hope of otherwise intelligent people to be “taken care of” by a wise and beneficent government. The thwarting of Soviet Communism, though mightily significant, was one victory in a world in which there are no final victories or final defeats. But that victory did demonstrate that hope feeds upon hope: that if a people, however beleaguered by the temptation to despair, can summon the will, imagination, wisdom, and resources to work a renewal, they can bring about a turning for needful reform. Such people can transform a culture’s rearguard of seemingly inevitable defeat into the vanguard of victory. As Russell Kirk, another admirer of Chambers, was to declare, it is all a matter of belief.
After sixty years, Witness still holds up well, both as an intriguing spiritual autobiography and as a stark record of the initial Hiss-Chambers investigations before HUAC. Harold Phelps Stokes of The Yale Review spoke for many readers of Witness when he declared, “It is written with extraordinary intensity and power. It is filled with the drama of action, scene, and soul. It contains passages of rare eloquence. Dealing with the raw stuff of history and the mounting crisis of our times, it offers a challenge to the Western world to find in its own freedom and faith a ‘reason to live and reason to die’ at once more valid and more potent than the Communist’s.”
With the fall of Soviet Communism, it may be tempting to view Witness as merely an artifact from another time. But re-reading Chambers’s masterwork at a time when pleasant, cultured voices have been raised to encourage Americans to learn to respectfully co-exist with statist and theocratic ideologies, it is plain that Witness retains its relevance. As Reagan noted, within its pages are a prescient warning that “within the next decades will be decided for generations whether . . . civilization as we know it is to be completely destroyed or completely changed.” Chambers’s work remains one of the literary touchstones for those who seek and value ordered freedom.
James E. Person Jr. is a biographer and longtime book reviewer and essayist. His reviews have appeared in The University Bookman since 1990. He is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (1999) and Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow (2005).
Posted: January 8, 2012 in The Classics Revisited.