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Witness (1952)

by Whittaker Chambers

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8501225,134 (4.24)33
First published in 1952, Witness was at once a literary effort, a philosophical treatise, and a bestseller. Whittaker Chambers had just participated in America's trial of the century in which Chambers claimed that Alger Hiss, a full-standing member of the political establishment, was a spy for the Soviet Union. This poetic autobiography recounts the famous case, but also reveals much more. Chambers' worldview--e.g. "man without mysticism is a monster"--went on to help make political conservatism a national force.… (more)
  1. 20
    The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War by John V. Fleming (prosfilaes)
    prosfilaes: Fleming gives context to Witness, giving some history of anti-Communist works before him, and showing the facts and history surrounding Whittaker Chambers and his book.
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» See also 33 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
This is another book I read years ago, now cannot recall what it was like, and still don't know what the real story is. ( )
  mykl-s | Jul 24, 2023 |
I have known and read around the biography/memoir of Whittaker Chambers for years. Now, I have finally read it. Chambers was a communist engaged in espionage in the United States in the 1930s, and he knew of communists and spies in the environs of the federal government. When he broke with communism, in a kind of religious and political conversion, he told people in the government, but was pretty much ignored until the full specter of communism became apparent with the beginning of the Cold War after World War II. In 1948 he accused Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, of being a communist and, after some hesitation, a spy. This became high drama: committee hearings, grand juries, suits, claims, investigations, etc. And it became a cause célèbre. Those Americans, conservatives and Republicans mostly, who feared communism, the Soviet Union, and possible skullduggery in the government rallied to Chambers. Those Americans, liberals and Democrats mostly, who were Fabian, New Dealers, progressives, peaceniks, and unafraid or incredulous of Soviet espionage rallied to Hiss. It is a battle whose lines are still manned to the present day, like, say, the scar of a border in Korea is still manned since the start of the Cold War. This despite the overwhelming weight of evidence shows Hiss was a communist and a spy, his most vociferous and naïve defenders notwithstanding.

Now, to Chambers's book itself. Witness is well-written and engaging. It strives for literary pretentiousness but does not come off as pretentious (at least not too much). Chambers was a professional writer, he worked for TIME (he was a translator too, penning the English translation of Bambi). Even seventy years after its 1952 publication it still has sections of literary beauty, bon mots of present-day utility, and a pro-life, pro-Christian, pro-work, pro-American philosophy. No wonder it is still well-known and recommended by a whole set of conservative intellectuals in the tradition of William F. Buckley conservative intellectualism. I first knew of Chambers due to reading Buckley and the old Intercollegiate Review (a journal which, as an aside, has been saddeningly killed off as a sort of blog/e-mail newsletter). This book earned all of its plaudits.

As a piece of history, it is an important memoir and an important window into the Soviet espionage of the era, the mind of early communists, and the appeal and reach of communism amongst its adherents and sympathizers in a capitalist, democratic, successful United States. ("Why would someone like Hiss do this?" Chambers is asked multiple times.) There have been new developments since 1952. A score of books, at least, have been written on Chambers, Hiss, and the Hiss-Chambers case. These should be read in concert with Chambers's memoir. (I know Hiss wrote a memoir, I may read it one day, but I have no desire to read the works of a consummate liar.) It is long 800-plus pages. Half the book is devoted to Chambers's biography, life in espionage, and his break with communism. A fair portion is devoted to the Hiss allegations, but Hiss's two trials for perjury are not detailed at length and only covered in a few pages. (Perhaps the book was already too long?) Still, I read it quickly and found it engaging, thought-provoking, and pure of heart; I would recommend it.

[I read this in a 1952 Book of the Month Club version released by Random House in its original dustjacket, which has been creased and crumpled.] ( )
  tuckerresearch | Mar 25, 2022 |
Sobering account of a man taking on a well-liked public servant. Whittaker Chambers, a respected journalist and former communist, knew that Alger Hiss was a spy. Hiss was convicted of treason, but it ruined Chambers. ( )
  RLHorton | Jan 11, 2018 |
If you are looking for a book on the Hiss Case, this is not a good choice. This is a book, a very long book, about Whittaker Chambers. The title My Struggle was already taken, so he settled for Witness, in the sense of its Greek form: Martyr. From his childhood, described in a hundred pages straight from the analyst's couch, through his Communist career, his break with the Party, his successful career as farmer/Time magazine editor nobly sacrificed to the struggle against Communist infiltration of the US government, to the final ordeal in the courts, it's all about Chambers. Apart from God, his wife (a saint, full stop) and occasional unlikely angels of mercy such as Henry R. Luce and Richard Nixon ("the kindest of men") he slogged on alone, the tragic hero battling cosmic forces of evil. The chapters on his Communist career are relatively boring; names are endlessly named but nothing much happens. But otherwise it is a psychodrama of operatic proportions. When I learned that Chambers' father was a semi-closeted gay man, as was Chambers himself, some of the tone became more comprehensible. But I do not mean to be reductive; the book is a compelling read on many levels. The political just didn't strike me as by any means the most important.
PS 2016-11-01 The essays in Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul (Patrick A. Swan, ed), mostly contemporary with the case, have provided a number of new insights on Chambers' bio. I recommend the book highly.
1 vote booksaplenty1949 | Mar 17, 2016 |
if you want a great on the ground history of a common man's view of the communist movement in America in the 1920s and 1930s, start here...I couldn't make it through it, though. Beautiful writing, but just don't have the patience at this juncture. ( )
  publiusdb | Aug 22, 2013 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Whittaker Chambersprimary authorall editionscalculated
Hindus, MiltonIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Novak, RobertPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return.
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Wikipedia in English (84)

Alexander Gregory Barmine

Alexander Trachtenberg

Alexander Ulanovsky

Anti-communism

Arthur Adams (spy)

Arvid Jacobson

Harvey O'Connor

Hede Massing

Henry Collins (official)

Henry W. Goddard

Herbert Solow (journalist)

Hideo Noda

Louis Kronenberger

Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel

Ludwig Lore

Manfred Stern

Martin Gumpert

Max Bedacht

First published in 1952, Witness was at once a literary effort, a philosophical treatise, and a bestseller. Whittaker Chambers had just participated in America's trial of the century in which Chambers claimed that Alger Hiss, a full-standing member of the political establishment, was a spy for the Soviet Union. This poetic autobiography recounts the famous case, but also reveals much more. Chambers' worldview--e.g. "man without mysticism is a monster"--went on to help make political conservatism a national force.

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