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Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (Modern Library Paperbacks) Paperback – April 28, 1998

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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Paperbacks
  • Paperback: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library; Modern Library ed edition (April 28, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375751459
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375751455
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #238,778 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

A coolly objective look at the most controversial figure in the postwar crusade against American Communists. Whittaker Chambers (1901-61) made headlines in 1948 with his sensational accusation that former State Department official Alger Hiss was not only a Communist, but a spy, charges Hiss denied until his death in 1996. This scrupulously evenhanded biography concludes that Chambers told the truth, even as it pitilessly delineates his tortured family background, anguished sexual confusion, and political ruthlessness, which might well prompt doubts about his trustworthiness. Chambers' life makes a perfect case study of the most morally fraught period in American history. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

One of the strangest political martyrs was the disheveled, overweight, once-bohemian defector from communism Whittaker Chambers, the nemesis of Alger Hiss. A sterling State Department intellectual, Hiss by 1948 was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Then Chambers, a disillusioned former Soviet courier who had turned his writing flair into an editorship at Time, charged that Hiss had been an agent for Moscow since the early 1930s. In a retrial after a hung jury, Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950. Tanenhaus takes the position that Chambers's accusation was thereby validated. The case made a national figure of House Un-American Activities Committee member Richard Nixon and lent credibility to the Reds-everywhere charges by a reckless senator, Joseph McCarthy. Hiss spent almost four years in prison, Nixon and McCarthy prospered for a time and Chambers, suddenly jobless, wrote his anguished memoir, Witness. He contended that even at the risk of self-destruction, it was important to examine why some of the best and brightest of the interwar years had embraced communism, why some persisted in self-deception and disloyalty and why others broke ranks and recanted. Tanenhaus (Literature Unbound) persuasively and movingly examines such double lives of these communists, lives which were driven by a perverse idealism that functioned almost as a new religion. Only when the Cold War exposed Soviet infiltration into policy-making levels of government and the wartime snatching of atomic secrets did politically orchestrated paranoia begin in the U.S. The Washington apparatus served by Chambers had been of little practical use to the Soviets, but when he saw it anew as the worm in the goodly apple, he committed what Arthur Koestler would admiringly call "moral suicide" to confront Hiss and his like with the bankruptcy of their illusions. To some a toweringly humane hero, Chambers nonetheless made McCarthyism possible, and?posthumously, as he died in 1961?made Nixon President. Here a tarnished saint, Whittaker Chambers is a John le Carre figure in the extreme. Photos not seen by PW. BOMC dual main selection; History Book Club selection. (Feb.) FYI: The 92-year-old Alger Hiss died in Manhattan this past November 15.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

The story of Chambers' life is also told by Chambers himself in his powerful autobiography "Witness".
Craig Matteson
I read a great deal, and this is one of the very best books I have ever read -- and I was only tepidly interested in the subject before I read it.
Sam Hill
I finished the book comfortably assured that I hadn't been manipulated or slanted away from any important truth.
R. Schultz

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

85 of 89 people found the following review helpful By Orrin C. Judd VINE VOICE on November 26, 2000
Format: Hardcover
A defining moment in the ongoing Cultural Wars; several years ago, when Anthony Lake was up for the job of National Security Advisor to President Clinton, he appeared on Meet the Press. Tim Russert asked him if, in light of new access to Soviet files & the revelation of the Venona Intercepts, he would be prepared to acknowledge that Alger Hiss was a spy. Lake sat there like a deer in the headlights & then mumbled some bilge about how it was still an open question. And there you had it; for 50 years now, this seemingly simple question has lain at the fault line of the Left/Right divide in American politics. You could tell where someone stood on the political spectrum simply by getting their answer to whether Chambers or Hiss had told the truth. (If you think this overstates the case, compare Victor Navasky's obituary editorial from The Nation with Brent Bozell's analysis of the Hiss obituaries). For the American Left (never mind the European Left), the innocence of Alger Hiss was an article of faith. After all, if such a mainstream New Deal figure as Hiss had actually been part of a secret underground cabal, spying on the US for the Soviets, even as WWII was underway, then a whole battery of conservative attacks would gain legitimacy and the whole of FDR's legacy (both New Deal and Grand Alliance) would be called into question. Well, it's time for our entire society to face those questions and this celebrated Chambers biography by Sam Tanenhaus offers an excellent starting point.
The story of Whittaker Chambers is familiar enough, yet remains fundamentally elusive. Born on April 1, 1901, his life journey is a virtual parable of Modern man.
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44 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Berger VINE VOICE on May 29, 2005
Format: Paperback
Chambers' autobiography "Witness" had left me speechless. It was a magnificent book, but unknown in most circles. I was hungry to learn more about Chambers' own life and times. It didn't take me long to get to Tanenhaus's fine biography, which gave me an outside perspective and did not disappoint. Tanenhaus is at his most valuable recounting Chambers' post-Hiss-Case life, not covered in "Witness"; in fleshing out the HUAC cast like Nixon, Mundt and Hebert, putting their careers and ambitions into perspective; and in covering the seamier sides of Chambers' personal and family background in even greater detail than Chambers had.

In "Witness", Chambers focuses on his spiritual journey, managing to keep a reader fascinated when that might easily have become eye-glazing. Tanenhaus pounds facts, availing himself of documents and accounts not available to Chambers in 1951. He remains objective about Chambers but ultimately finds little to criticize. Chambers was a man who put his career and life on the line to expose a conspiracy, as he saw it, threatening the world and eating away this nation from within. Despite circumstances strongly suggesting his veracity - would anyone throw away a lucrative career, as he did, to falsely accuse someone? - few believed him. History proved he was telling the truth - one worth hearing, since Chambers was the second-ranking U.S. man in the Communist underground espionage network.

Certain striking aspects of Chambers' character emerge here, some suggested by his autobiography but better to have confirmed independently. He was one of the great intellectuals of his time, the equal of better known friends and contemporaries from his Columbia days - Mark Van Doren, Lionel Trilling and Clifton Fadiman among them. His command of languages was exceptional.
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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Robert J. Donahue on April 22, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I grew up under the cultural shadow of Alger Hiss, stupidly thinking the term "commie" was a funny way to mock anyone concerned about the threat of Communism.

But, being a victim of bad education, I knew nothing of the epic, mid-twentieth century showdown between Hiss (now known to have been a communist spy and traitor, though still, ludicrously revered as innocent by left intelligentsia) and Whittaker Chambers, the moral lodestone of the twentieth century ,who offered up his own life as a sacrifice of sorts to unmask and quell the poison tentacles of communist Russia that reached high into the U.S. Government of the New Deal era. And Chambers was not only a former communist spy himself, but a burgeoning literary icon. This is the history of a clash of ideas, submerged in the clash between two men caught up in the rush of modern history. The truth, as always, is right in front of us. Only ideological dogma can prevent one from pretending not to see it.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Nom de Plum on April 3, 2005
Format: Paperback
I found this book endlessly fascinating. Whittake Chambers emerges as a complex, torn figure, one who is driven by an overwhelming sense of what's right -- but all through his own perspective. There is no smarmy, politicized cheerleading or criticism, just the poignant portrayal of a complex man who placed himself at a vortex of American history. A wonderful, wonderful story, and an amazing accomplishment. It is rare that I cannot put down a biography, but this is one.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Craig Matteson HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on January 31, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Whittaker Chambers still arouses great passions. He accused Alger Hiss (and others) of spying for the Soviet Union and claims he knew that it was true because he was himself a communist spy and was Hiss's contact. But that story, while a part of this book, isn't the sole focus of this magnificent book. You can read the story of the trials of Alger Hiss, the testimony given, and more about that story in Allen Weinstein's very fine "Perjury" (a book which also arouses strong emotions).
The story of Chambers' life is also told by Chambers himself in his powerful autobiography "Witness". His life is a rather involved tale, and though the spy story is why Chambers became famous (infamous) it isn't reason why he is important. It is hard to recapture the vast esteem in which Stalin and the Soviet Union were held by the "literate" classes in American Society. But it doesn't take too much reading to peel back current revisionist writing that pretends the left rejected Stalin. It wasn't so. They loved Uncle Joe at the time of the Hiss case and made apologies for him even after the horrors of the Gulag were revealed. Even after Hiss' guilt has been proven beyond all but the most determined and self-blinded doubt, you can find those who insist on his innocence.
Whittaker Chambers was a gifted writer and a well regarded editor at Henry Luce's Time magazine. When he admitted his role in spying for the USSR and International Communism it represented the initial break in the dam. In "Witness", Chambers' autobiography, Chambers describes the agony he went through in realizing he had no choice but to take the course of trying to stop Hiss and thereby ruining his own life and irreparably harming his family.
Chambers was pessimistic about the West surviving a mortal struggle with Communism.
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