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Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (edition 1997)

by Sam Tanenhaus

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275441,194 (4.52)4
Member:surlysal
Title:Whittaker Chambers: A Biography
Authors:Sam Tanenhaus
Info:Random House (1997), Edition: 1st, Hardcover, 638 pages
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Whittaker Chambers: A Biography by Sam Tanenhaus

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"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. ( )
  jwhenderson | Jan 11, 2011 |
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/interviews/harvey-klehr ( )
  FiveBooks | Mar 5, 2010 |
I read this book about ten years ago after seeing Sam Tanenhaus on Booknotes in an extremely interesting interview. The book was even more so - a multi-nuanced social and political history of three decades.

Hiss was such a controversial figure with such strongly entrenched partisans or accusers from a spectrum of political views that it will take several generations to pass before all the dissonance is sufficiently dampened to let objectivity have a better chance. But, the human mind doesn't seem to work that way, so don't bet on it.

Tanenbhaus is remarkably courageous in having taken on Chambers as a subject and he is very persuasive in establishing his case.

If you are interested in bio and like WW2, pre and post, and don't have a dog in this fight, this is as good as it gets. You can get it on line for $0.01, an incredible bargain! Is this a great country, or what? Five stars plus. ( )
1 vote polo9 | Sep 22, 2009 |
3093. Whittaqker Chambers / A Biography, by Sam Tanenhaus. This is an exceptionaly well-written bio, of a figure many do not want to know about, Chambers had many flaws, but we have to conclude that he told the truth about Alger Hiss--I surely hoped he did not in the years when Chambers was a household name. This is one of the best biographies I've ever read. (read July 17, 1998) ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | Dec 12, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0394585593, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:44:55 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Nearly half a century after giving the testimony that sent Alger Hiss to prison, Whittaker Chambers remains among the most controversial of twentieth-century Americans, hated by many, revered by others. 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 - Sam 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. Whittaker Chambers is rich in startling new information about every phase of its subject's varied life: his 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, 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 merely a prelude to the memorable events that began in August 1948, when Chambers was summoned by a congressional committee to testify about his past as a Communist agent. Reluctantly, he divulged his key part in a spy ring that had penetrated the most sensitive areas of the U.S. government, including the State Department, where one of his accomplices, Alger Hiss, had risen to a senior position. Chamber's allegations, and Hiss's prompt, emphatic denial, held the nation spellbound - and initiated a drama that changed the face of America. Drawing on an array of new sources, including transcripts of secret HUAC testimony, Whittaker Chambers goes far beyond all previous accounts of the Hiss case, re-creating its improbable twists and turns, and disentangling the motives that propelled a vivid cast of characters in unpredictable directions.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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