Maxwell Geismar

On Alger Hiss

Maxwell Geismar (1909-1979) was a noted literary critic and biographer. He was the author of a four-volume history of American novelists as well as two biographies, Henry James and the Jacobites (1963) and Mark Twain: An American Prophet (1970). He was also the editor of several literary collections, including those of works by Ring Lardner, Thomas Wolfe and Walt Whitman. This piece on Alger Hiss is excerpted from Geismar’s unpublished autobiography, The Memoirs of a Reluctant Radical.

It was Mary Heathcote who introduced us to Alger Hiss after the publication of my Henry James book. Alger had written me a seven-page letter about it; and, at this party I discovered what I should have known: that Alger Hiss knew a great deal about the political uses of Henry James and the cult of James. What I came to know and admire was Hiss’s detailed knowledge of the literary establishment to which I had belonged, and whose true nature I was coming to understand. Hiss knew it, almost instinctively, I decided, for somebody not directly involved, though of course those same critics had taken a definite and powerful stand against him as part of the Cold War propaganda. He knew so much of what I was still struggling to discover! Later on, at a dinner at the Aronsons [James Aronson was the editor of the National Guardian], I discovered that Hiss was an avid reader of Edmund Wilson’s, and was outraged that Wilson had sold out – even if he had never quite admired him. At dinner he made the remark that the Cold War ideology of the contemporary period had been fashioned largely in leading literary magazines and by the dominant group of our leading intellectuals.

Yes, and they were anxious to do it, I said, and they enjoyed the power and prestige, the academic prizes, honors and financial rewards which went with the job. And that was why the literary establishment of this period was different from the ones of my youth. It now had the power and arrogance of being a semi-political and public organization closely tied in with the large cultural foundations at their highest levels. They were using these intellectuals, these magazines, these literary revivals and academic courses in the colleges and graduate schools for their own purposes. Never before in our history had literature so clearly been a tool of government, or the governing classes; never had it been rewarded so richly, so conscious of its power, and willing to use that power! And consciously or not, it really did not matter – that was the brunt of my discussion with Alger Hiss, while I kept marveling that he knew what most of my friends would angrily deny. And when Stephen Spender left Encounter to make a lecture tour defending his own ignorance of CIA funding, and also stating that it did not affect the editing of the magazine – he was probably right. Very intelligently the CIA used what was there; and this was a strange historical coincidence of literary taste and political behavior. But the great tradition of American literature had always been in revolt against our government, our politics and finance. From Thoreau and Melville to Howells and Twain and Dreiser, the line was clear and solid and powerful. And the reason why contemporary literature, like the criticism which helped to form it, had dwindled away so badly to almost nothing, was that conformity and respectability and gentility were never at the matrix of great literature. Nothing good could ever come, nothing had come in twenty-five years, from the present literary establishment and its prevailing fashions and values.

That was the substance of our talk that night; and while Hiss had been described to me as remote or reserved, I came to see that this was not true at all. The truth was that Hiss was almost purely an intellectual and lived in the world of ideas; when people did not have any, he did not always know how to behave with them. In our friendship he has always been open and easy, full of gossip that he shared more with Anne, human and cultivated: an altogether charming man. In the recesses of my mind I had the immodest notion – Hiss was very modest – that he had taken me on as his favorite literary critic after his disenchantment with Wilson; and I hoped this was true. I remember when I was reviewing Meyer Zelig’s book on Hiss, Friendship and Fratricide, for the Minority of One in 1967, that the book proved again Hiss’s innocence since it established the psychological – or pathological – base of Chambers’ motivation, which had often been a missing factor in the case.

I had read what now amounted to a small library of books on the Hiss case, which established either the fact of his innocence or the reasonable doubt of his guilt which, as the distinguished English jurist the Lord Chancellor Earl Jowitt said, would have prevented English law from calling him guilty. But it was useless to discuss these books with our liberal or New Deal friends who were convinced of his guilt by the newspaper stories of the day; and waxed positively hysterical in denouncing Alger Hiss for betraying them. We used to think it might be the reverse; it was their guilt about betraying him which made them hysterical. His defenders, who presumably knew him well, remained, like Hiss himself, calm; and when I wrote him, in the midst of reviewing the Zeligs book, that this was another book which established the case against Chambers, he replied that he did not think highly of it just because it was too psychological in essence. But I thought the book was a decisive portrait of why a Whittaker Chambers had to destroy an Alger Hiss, as he had a series of other such figures in his life, with the active connivance of a young and vicious congressman called Richard Nixon.

Hiss’s own book about the case had discussed Nixon’s fantastic trickery in Hiss’s inimitably composed manner; for that, too, some of our friends had said, he was not human; he was not even angry! While I was at work on my review of Zeligs, some friends came to see us with concern and asked if I had seen Meyer Schapiro’s front-page review of Zeligs in the New York Review of Books. I had not read it, and I read it right away with equal concern. Schapiro demolished the Zeligs book, and his attack had me worried.

Either in the review or in the biographical note on Schapiro there was a mention of his early friendship and admiration for Whittaker Chambers which had not diminished with the years, and the fact that Chambers’ picture still adorned Schapiro’s room. In the review itself, were details that suggested an intimacy not only with Chambers but with the Hiss trials.

Anne and I reread our books on the case and, sure enough, Meyer Schapiro had testified in favor of Whittaker Chambers and at Chambers’ request had purchased a rug for him which Chambers gave to Hiss and subsequently used to attempt to imply Hiss’s guilt. I could not believe that the New York Review of Books would give this book by a distinguished psychiatrist – who had been able to destroy much of Chambers’ testimony by analysis and close legal knowledge of the case – to a reviewer who was not only an old and loving friend of Chambers but who had been a participant in the trials. In my day a critic would never have thought of reviewing a book in which he had such a role. I wondered what had induced a scholar like Meyer Schapiro, whom I had admired, to practice this sort of journalism, and how the New York Review of Books could possibly be ignorant of the history of the case. It was clear to me, too, that if Hiss was proved innocent, as finally he would be, these cold warriors’ own guilt, morally and intellectually, as the sellout liberals of the Cold War establishment, would be apparent. They had to keep Hiss guilty in order to save themselves! I was not surprised, either, to discover another equally vicious attack on the Zeligs book in the Atlantic Monthly by Frank Kermode, who turned out to be another Encounter-CIA-affiliated editor. Of course! They were determined to destroy this book which drew such a devastating portrait of the morally debased personage of Whittaker Chambers: perhaps the most able and evil of the long list of informers developed under the McCarthy-Nixon-Cold War inquisition.

Meyer Zeligs himself did not in any way understand the workings of this establishment. A little later on, he came to visit us and brought an elaborate and voluminous file of vicious attacks on his book. The value of his book on Chambers and Hiss lay partly in the fact that he was so unpolitical, and that his main interest lay in the pathological workings of Whittaker Chambers’s mind; and he had substantiated this effectively in his documentary casebook, the evil Dostoyevskian portrait of Chambers.

But now he was planning to write another book on the bad reviews he had received and to describe them in equally Freudian terms! I could not make him realize that he had opened a Pandora’s box of political reprisals on a key social-historical–political case of the period, and I think he left our house in disappointment, while I studied in horror the file of abusive reviews he had received on such a fine book.

Well, this is a long excursion about a single review I wrote. But in the Left press of the sixties I found myself writing only reviews that I wanted to, and reviews of books which had a social and historical meaning to me, so that this was my best and happiest period of journalism.

But Alger Hiss was not naive about the political scene, at least by the time we got to know him, since he was much less surprised by the hostile reception of the Zeligs book than I. But he himself used to comment on what a slow learner he was, and what a square he had always been, and one evening he told us how surprised he had been to discover that his name had disappeared from the Johns Hopkins fraternity whose president he had been. To them he was a non-person; and he had been more surprised and chagrined to discover, at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the United Nations whose inception he had helped to usher in, and whose establishment was still in his mind the most important achievement of his government career, that his picture had been cropped out of the pictorial record of the San Francisco Conference in 1945. This was shortly after Roosevelt’s death, when Alger had been Executive Secretary of the Founding Committee for the UN.

He had with him that evening at his home some of the other State Department people who had worked with him during this period, and their gossip about Roosevelt and Truman – none of them much admired Truman who had been anti-Russian as soon as he took office – and other high governmental figures in the forties was fascinating. One of these associates in the State Department was vigorously denouncing the dropping of the atom bomb on the two Japanese cities as an act of sheer barbarism and an attempt to end the war before the Russians entered the Asian theater. But Alger as usual took a moderate view and said it had been a common decision of all concerned at that time, though some had lived to regret it. During that evening he showed us some of his early pictures as a student at Johns Hopkins and during earlier periods of his career. Some of those early pictures of the square young American, ambitious and solemn, anxious to get ahead in the great American success story of our society, reminded me somehow of my own earlier pictures; I said that I thought we both had improved with age and experience. Alger Hiss was still an attractive-looking man in later life, despite – or maybe because of – all that had happened to him. I was teasing, of course, but behind the banter lay the fact that we both had recognized the failure of the Horatio Alger myth in American society, and we both realized that the Alger Hiss story was a better parable of our period.