David Levin (1997)

David Levin (1924-1998), the Thomas Jefferson Professor of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, was a leading scholar of American literature and history, a biographer and a poet. He approached the Hiss case skeptically, convinced at first that Alger Hiss was guilty as charged. Levin offers a critical analysis of Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers, questioning the way the author accepts Chambers’ own story at face value. (This is the third of Levin’s three close readings and textual analyses of Hiss-case books on this site.)

“The Authority of Witness in Whittaker Chambers: A Biography

by David Levin

Reprinted from The Sewanee Review, Fall 1997

Two celebrated biographies published in the spring of 1997 differ sharply in their treatment of their respective subjects’ autobiographical writings. In Charlie Chaplin and His Times, Kenneth Lynn hunts down discrepancies between the surviving evidence and Chaplin’s version of his own childhood and youth. One reviewer even chided Lynn for overdoing the superb research. Yet none of the critics who favorably reviewed Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers has discussed the technical challenge that Tanenhaus shared with biographers of Chaplin, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, Mark Twain, Lincoln Steffens: how would this narrative treat the subject’s memorable version of his own life?

Any reader who looks at the endnotes will perceive that Chambers himself is the authority for much of the story, but that in the main text Tanenhaus does not distinguish between his own authority and that of Chambers. Over and over again Tanenhaus reports, as undisputed fact, interpretations and incidents (sometimes startlingly bizarre) for which the sole or chief authority is Whittaker Chambers.

Consider two passages concerning events in the summer of 1924, when the 23-year-old Chambers “had his first love affair, with a woman he later referred to as Mrs. Mainland. Married and a mother she lived on Long Island’s North Shore in a house overlooking the beach. Her husband was not much in evidence. Chambers spent languorous afternoons lounging on the porch in a deck chair, watching Mrs. Mainland’s two children splash in the surf at high tide. To Meyer Schapiro, his confidant in these matters, Chambers proclaimed his great happiness.”

Tanenhaus does not suggest that Schapiro ever saw “Mrs. Mainland” or her children. Yet he treats the particulars, based solely on Chambers’ word, as facts – even when Chambers, while “in a confused state,” boasts of “having lied” to the dean of Columbia College in a letter in which he sought readmission. Tanenhaus seems to assume that readers will simply accept his own inference that, underneath the confused young rebel’s other fabrications, which Chambers flaunted in a letter to Mark Van Doren, “Mrs. Mainland” and her alleged suggestions that he “try college again” were solid fact.

The skeptical reader may be astonished, then, to read, only a few lines later, of a love affair that can only have preceded Chambers’ first love affair! “Late in 1924, Chambers drunkenly confided to Meyer Schapiro that an unnamed mistress, evidently not Mrs. Mainland, had borne him a son. Henry Zolinsky also remembered hearing of this incident, from Louis Zukovsky. But nothing further is known of this child.” Tanenhaus neither questions the child’s existence nor revises his declaration on the preceding page that the affair with Mrs. Mainland was Chambers’ first – the chronology of human gestation notwithstanding. Although Chambers is clearly the sole source for everything known about Mrs. Mainland, Tanenhaus does not suggest a connection between Chambers’ alleged affair with her and his other fictions and hoaxes.

Long before Chambers subjected himself to any discipline of the Communist Party or the underground, he had invented similar tales about his exploits. Tanenhaus does report some of the fantastic episodes – most notably a bogus visit to Moscow, which convinced Schapiro that Chambers had actually made the trip, and he describes a series of letters purporting to come from western mining camps, when Chambers was nowhere else but at Columbia College in New York. But in the central narrative Tanenhaus continues to rely on Chambers’ uncorroborated versions.

One of the most suspect is Chambers’ first experience as a laborer replacing railroad tracks “within blocks of the Capitol” in Washington, D.C. If my relentlessly skeptical friend Kenneth Lynn had been confronted with Chambers’ narrative of this boyhood escapade, he would have checked contemporaneous newspapers, or at least asked experts in the history of such construction whether, “in the speed-up, rails sometimes fell on men’s feet and crushed them”; whether a laborer named Manuel actually “touched a third rail with a shovel” and was hospitalized after “the current flowed up the damp handle”; whether an inexperienced young worker such as Chambers actually “had to lie prone on a heap of rubble” while “the third rails, the full power of the Capital Transit System flowing through them, were about two inches above”; whether, “in that cramping position,” one “had to break concrete” while a “sudden turn” of the head or “a slip of the hammer or chisel” might have been fatal.

If obliged to report this memorable passage from Witness, Mr. Lynn or many another biographer would surely have incorporated into the narrative some indication that Chambers’ version, the sole source, written more than 30 years afterward, made his manly acceptance a central moment in his coming-of-age. Others dreaded the dangerous assignment, Chambers said in 1952. But his “soft hands,” onto which a sympathetic worker had poured iodine after the first day’s work had made them raw, “outlasted almost every man” who had started with him. “One by one, they tired of the heat, the work, the food, the boss – something – and drifted on their aimless way. I stuck to become a veteran.” This passage in Witness reads like the tales with which fliers entertained themselves during World War II: there I was, flat on my back at 30,000 feet, three engines dead, and still climbing.

Tanenhaus cites Witness in a note as the sole source for his version of this experience, and he emphasizes the danger of being assigned to the pneumatic drill. He reports as fact the anointment with iodine, but he ignores both Manuel’s electric shock and the heroic details that I have quoted about the tough young veteran Chambers’ perilous labor two inches below the third rail. Instead of questioning the tall tale, then, Tanenhaus makes it markedly less tall. Thus he omits strong evidence that Chambers was still telling stretchers in 1952.

Within five pages of the paradoxical first love affair, moreover, Tanenhaus’s literary technique relies on Chambers’ Witness in a much more sturdily reinforcing way. He gives some of his narrative moments an unusual immediacy by adopting minute dramatic details from Chambers’ retrospective accounts, prepared at least 23 years after the events. For Chambers’ decision to join the Communist Party, Tanenhaus seats him on a concrete bench at Columbia, near a statue of Alexander Hamilton. And, when Chambers is ordered to join the underground, Tanenhaus provides a closeup of Chambers and his commander at “the BMT subway station on Fourteenth Street. Someone was waiting for them: John Sherman, the Daily Worker staffer whom Chambers had last seen during the Lovestone purge, his egg-bald head bent sobbing over his typewriter…. Sherman deflected Chambers’ questions concerning his whereabouts and activities since 1929. ‘You’re in the underground now,’ Sherman said gaily, ‘where I ask questions but don’t answer them, and you answer questions but don’t ask them.'” Later that afternoon, Chambers kept another rendezvous on the uptown IRT. “He had just seated himself,” Tanenhaus writes, “when Sherman materialized beside him.”

Here again the circumstantial detail should prompt the skepticism of a reasonably attentive reader. A biographer might independently confirm the hairlessness of Sherman’s wonderfully egg-bald head, if not its sobbing over the typewriter. But how, if nobody else was there, can the biographer know that Sherman spoke his ominous epigram gaily, that the words were so wittily chosen, or that Sherman materialized on the seat beside Chambers? By following Chambers’ account so closely, Tanenhaus confers his own authority on the autobiographer’s fictive memory in Witness. The simple difference between writing that Chambers “later remembered” (or Chambers “says”), and declaring that “Sherman materialized,” has an immeasurable effect on Tanenhaus’s narrative. When Tanenhaus does, in these early chapters, distinguish slightly between what he endorses and what Chambers said, the doubt usually finds expression in an endnote rather than in the narrative, and almost all the authorial corrections point out minor discrepancies that leave the most extraordinary details unchallenged.

Whittaker finds his suicidal brother, Richard, unconscious in a gas-filled room and saves his life – for a time. Whittaker finds their father beating Richard (now in his twenties) for having used a cottage on the parents’ property for sexual liaisons, and Whittaker knocks down their father with his fists, only to embrace him as they weep together. Whittaker, in his twenties, roams the streets of Lynbrook at night, following Richard from one bar to another to protect him. Whittaker has to protect the household at night from a mad maternal grandmother, who denounces Jews, John D. Rockefeller, and her son-in-law, and who “sometimes wandered the house in ghostly silence, clutching a kitchen knife and sometimes scissors. It was Whittaker’s task to disarm her. There was usually a ‘sharp scuffle,’ and he was left with lifelong scars on his fingers.” Whittaker bursts into her locked room to prevent a fire, and he meets her by chance one night “on one of his own brooding rambles,” some miles from home, whereupon she takes a trolley to Jersey City, rents a room in the YWCA, flees to the street in her nightgown, and complains that “those old Jews had bored a hole in her ceiling and begun to pump gas into it.” Whittaker’s mother brings her home and tells him: “You will have to stay up tonight. She may try to kill us all.”

These uncorroborated episodes not only sound the recurrent theme of young Whittaker as the family’s protector, but they also resemble the hoaxes and fictions that he had foisted on various people, and recall the Dostoyevskian and Conradian aura in which he steeped his recollections as a young man and again in Witness. The most perceptive and meticulous biographer would find a challenge for the subtlest skills in representing this household and Chambers’ years underground. By choosing to report Chambers’ fictive details as facts, Tanenhaus risks inscribing a logical circle. One presumes that because he has accepted the central accusation against Alger Hiss, he accepts Chambers’ authority for the earlier years; then, by the time he reaches the Hiss trials, the accumulation of circumstantial detail tends to bolster the prosecution’s case.

An abler biographer convinced of Hiss’s guilt might have written a life of Chambers that avoided the pratfalls I have singled out. It is possible that Chambers repeatedly lied, fantasized, and misremembered about matters large and small, yet that Hiss really did spy for the USSR. When Tanenhaus declares, however, that Chambers, on a bad day in December 1948, feeling that the House Committee and the federal grand jury would soon reject him, “wandered despondently in the narrow lanes of downtown Manhattan, his Nineveh,” bought rat poison at two different stores, “stashed the tins in a Penn Station locker,” took them to his mother’s house in Lynbrook late that night, “and put the poisons in his dresser,” I prepare myself for the same narrative pattern as in the first hundred pages. The botched suicide attempt, which Chambers later “came to see as ‘the high point of the case,'” appears in unmediated detail in Tanenhaus’s narrative as Chambers had written it in his own: the “involuntarily dislodged” towel that let the deadly fumes escape, the vomiting next morning, the mother’s rebuke verbatim, the pot of coffee Chambers says he drank, and his chastened return – though apparently (in Tanenhaus’s version) none the worse physically and morally much better – to his duty in the federal building in Foley Square.

I accept the report that Chambers thought of himself as resembling Jonah in Nineveh; the story of the poisonous fumes that Chambers involuntarily escaped has always struck me as suspect. When I read about them in Chambers or Tanenhaus, I see young Whittaker again, lying prone on the rubble within two inches of the live third rail. Fantasy or fact, they belong in Chambers’ indelible version of his adventures and his state of mind; undissipated by the fresh air of the biographer’s critical distance, they have a toxic effect on Tanenhaus’s book.

Two other literary decisions, analogous to those I have been questioning, give Chambers’ credibility artificial support in the central sections of the biography, 315 pages devoted to the years between 1937 and 1950. Tanenhaus keeps Alger Hiss virtually out of the heavily chronological narrative until Chambers, years after defecting from the GRU, accuses him publicly in 1948. Not even in the lively chapters on Chambers’ career at Time, do we learn that Chambers wrote a piece “extolling” Hiss at the United Nations in 1945. (This appears only as the defense attorney asks Chambers about it at trial in 1949.) Tanenhaus does name Hiss in a footnote as a member of “the Ware group,” formed in 1934; and, on two or three occasions, Tanenhaus identifies an otherwise anonymous confederate of Chambers as Alger Hiss, but he defers specific representation of Hiss’s role until the dramatic hearings and trials of 1948 and 1949. Whether intentionally or not, Tanenhaus thus saves himself – and Chambers’ authority – considerable difficulty.

If he had used the same techniques that I have been highlighting here, he might have been obliged to give the authority of such narrative immediacy to some of Chambers’ strangest pictures: Alger and Priscilla Hiss driving all the way across Washington in November 1937 to pick up Chambers, then driving him 40 miles to Baltimore so that Priscilla could close out her savings account and lend Chambers $400 in cash to buy a new car; Priscilla, at night, in the winter and early spring of 1938, copying confidential documents on the family typewriter, week after week, for Chambers – the good friend who doesn’t want to hurt Alger Hiss but is continuing his espionage while collecting an incriminating “life preserver” to be stashed away for future use – to retrieve; Alger and Priscilla, in December 1938, feeding Chambers dinner in their house and, in an all-night debate, refusing to grant the defector’s plea that they join him, but saying nothing about the money he has not repaid after 13 months or their suspicion that, after Chambers had already decided to defect, he endangered them by having Priscilla do that copying; Alger and Priscilla, in fear of that danger, foisting off on their maid’s sons Priscilla’s incriminating typewriter in mid-April 1938, eight months before they served their suspected betrayer the farewell dinner; Alger defending his own loyalty to the USSR and weeping in his reaffirmation of his principled devotion to the revolution; Priscilla scorning as “mental masturbation” Chambers’ conscientious revulsion from Stalinism.

Had he been able to make them credible, these scenes might have made reading at least as impressive as closeups that Tanenhaus does reproduce. But surely one reason for the decision to omit detailed representations of the Hisses must have been the difficulty of portraying Chambers’ motives. Chambers looks much better pocketing the $2,000 given to him by his Soviet “handler” for the new car and other expenses, than if his declaration of “war” against Stalinism and his insistence on avoiding harm to his friends had to be portrayed in specific scenes with the Hisses. In narrating the story of the $2,000 (November 1937), Tanenhaus coyly omits the Hisses’ names; and when he comes, during his account of the perjury trials, to the alleged loan from Priscilla, he does not report that Chambers (exaggerating the amount) remembered the transaction only after the FBI, in February 1949, learned Priscilla had withdrawn $400 in November 1937. Nor do we learn that Chambers’ wife remembered her mother-in-law as the source of the loan. It is far easier to portray Chambers’ handing over his packet of lifesaving documents to his wife’s nephew, than to dramatize the scenes of Priscilla’s alleged typing of confidential documents or the dash to Baltimore to withdraw her money.

The author’s decision to forgo such scenes in the chronological narrative has a much more important effect on a casual reader’s view of the case against Hiss. The circumstantial evidence was strong enough to convince eight of the 12 jurors in the first trial, and the entire jury of the second trial (before a judge who admitted testimony that another judge had ruled inadmissible), that Hiss had perjured himself in denying espionage with Chambers. So strong is the evidence as Tanenhaus presents it that few readers unfamiliar with the arcane details would find unreasonable the concluding line of his last chapter on the trials:

What sets the Hiss case apart, then and now, was not its mystery but the passionate belief of so many that Hiss must be innocent no matter what the evidence.

Passionate believers and others who have studied “the evidence” will notice, however, that Tanenhaus’s rhetorical choices give readers a much clearer look at the incriminating evidence than at the evidence that elicits our doubt. Besides leaving Hiss virtually outside the story until Chambers has testified before HUAC, Tanenhaus narrates the central tale as it develops at the hearings, both secret and public. He acknowledges the prejudicial release of secret testimony, and the confidential relationship between Richard Nixon and a reporter. But the chosen narrative method makes Hiss’s alleged evasiveness or legalistic responses, his original request to see Chambers face to face, his anger about prejudicial leaks and about a deceptive secret hearing in New York – even his impassioned appeal to his record – seem like the conduct of a guilty man. When Hiss appeals to his record after his character has been tainted by the evasions and inaccuracies, he thus seems, in these pages, to distract our attention from the real issue. When he appears unruffled while testifying, he seems to be a cool and canny liar. The substance of his most impassioned defense of his career appears in a brief summary here only as the full text did appear in the notorious televised hearing of August 25, 1948 – after the fierce contention and blunt challenges by congressional interrogators about his 1929 Ford, etc. have underlined the reasons to suspect him.

For the reader of this biography, then, the question whether Hiss knew Chambers at all, and then whether a 1929 Ford was disposed of in one way or another, becomes almost as damning to Hiss’s character – before we see the evidence of Hiss’s connection to the confidential documents – as it was in the press reports and selective releases of information in 1948. We don’t learn in this book that Chambers had to revise his original testimony about both the 1929 Ford and the car he said he had bought with the Hisses’ money in 1938. Nor do we see more than a few of the false and inaccurate statements Chambers made about Hiss. Only belatedly do we learn that Hiss, whom Tanenhaus repeatedly describes as the neatly clothed, polished diplomat, was six feet tall, four inches taller than the man who claimed to have been his “close friend” had sworn that he was. And in an appendix subtitled “Sifting the Evidence,” Tanenhaus does not mention the declaration in 1976 made by two jurors who had found Hiss guilty, that they would have voted to acquit if they had known some concealed evidence.

Tanenhaus’s second literary decision means that virtually all reference to Chambers’ homosexual liaisons is omitted from the narrative of his years in the underground. Much earlier in the book – just after the brief passage about “Mrs. Mainland” – Tanenhaus has given a sensitive and persuasive account of Chambers’ homosexual feelings, and he will present a full report of Chambers’ secret confession to the FBI just before Hiss’s first trial in 1949. But no suggestion of the many meetings with anonymous partners – in places that Chambers’ confession will explicitly name to the FBI and during some of the very years when Chambers found his homosexual impulses “impossible to control” – complicates Tanenhaus’s persistent emphasis on incidents showing Chambers’ devotion to his family and his political duty. Just as these pages omit details of the allegedly close friendship with Hiss, so they mention no habit of visits to the places of homosexual liaison. The oversimplification tends to make Chambers seem preoccupied with higher matters.

The biographer who stays too close to his protagonist’s perspective risks the neglect of important distinctions. In explaining the familial, psychological, and historical reasons for Chambers’ enlistment in the revolution, Tanenhaus seems to forget that, in the 1920s and 1930s, many intellectuals who had read as widely as Chambers in history and literature did not threaten “all intellectuals” with “annihilation” as the punishment “history” would visit on dissent; did not enforce Stalin’s will, as Chambers did both before and after recognizing the dictator’s tyranny; did not decide that the best way to help the poor was to steal documents from the Departments of Agriculture, State, and War; did not insist that civilization was dying; did not then in the 1940s make “property owning … a pillar of their evolving creed”; did not declare that “no man can serve his country loyally unless he has invested in its soil”; did not reduce “history” to a choice between “Belief in God or Belief in Man.”

A reader of this biography can approach some compassionate understanding of Whittaker Chambers’ decisions. But, especially when he reports Chambers’ scorn, during and after his defection, for the “dilettantes” among New Deal liberals and other leftists, Tanenhaus seems to confer on Chambers an unearned moral superiority. The partially penitent sinner, even as he negotiates with federal authorities for his own immunity, claims his very crimes as authentication which he denies to those who were wiser, more perceptive, more aware of historical complexity, than he was. “I have spent 15 years of my life actively preparing for Foreign News,” Chambers replies “grandly” when Henry Luce is about to replace him as editor of that department at Time“:

Some of those years were spent close to the central dynamo that powers the politics of our time.

Tanenhaus faithfully portrays Chambers’ grandiosity, his highhanded insistence on replacing, with his own judgment, the reports of expert correspondents in China and the USSR; yes, Chambers did throw away reports written by John Hersey and others. “On the other hand,” Tanenhaus writes, “Chambers’ guesses caught the drift of history far better than the reports he was getting.” Like Henry Luce, Tanenhaus often seems to be “awed” by Chambers’ “grasp of history, ‘the science [Luce said] of knowing where we have been.'” Even in 1944 and 1945, Chambers was hardly alone in seeing Stalin’s intentions, and there was much more to history than the impending Cold War. Living close in this book to Chambers’ mind, at once grandiose and narrowly obsessive, a reader may be glad to escape into a much less simplistic view of where we have been.