My husband and I were discussing the latest political positions taken by Alan Dershowitz, a liberal law professor whose critiques of our current president have sometimes been positive and sometimes negative. The conversation got me thinking back to Whittaker Chambers’ autobiography Witness which I’d read about thirty years ago. Chambers was a spy working on behalf of the communist movement in the United States back in the 1930s; and the one thing I remember from Witness is his intellectual progression from communist thought to a firm belief in capitalism and democracy. It’s a journey of personal growth and expanding insight into the nature of humankind.
A best seller in its day (1952), Witness received mostly positive reviews and became a treasure of conservative politics.
One critic said that despite its “unexpurgated emotionalism … it is also fully fascinating as an anatomy of personal as well as political direction and misdirection….” Another describes the book as “…one gloriously messy tale of personal degradation and desperation, followed by political and religious redemption and salvation. And to top it all off, not only does the story have all of the elements of a thriller and a courtroom drama, the author just happens to write brilliantly.”
Whittaker Chambers (really Jay Vivian Chambers, 1901-1961) grew up in a dysfunctional family on Long Island. His parents were burdened with caring for a grandparent with mental illness and eventually they separated. Furthermore, the suicide of his brother hit Whittaker especially hard.
His education was a little scattershot until he settled in at Columbia University where he became a communist. People there considered him a talented writer; he edited and wrote for the college’s literary magazine, but left Columbia after a play that he wrote was deemed blasphemous, stirring up much controversy.
However, his career as a writer was just starting. He was a writer and editor for communist publications in the United States, and eventually became a spy for the communist party. The details of his work as a spy keeps the reader of Witness glued to his story. After defecting from communism around 1938, he became a writer for Time magazine. Later, his experience with the party and spy apparatus made him a central witness in the Alger Hiss trial for perjury in 1948.
If you Google “Whittaker Chambers quotes,” you will find lots of bits of his wisdom. In my own collection of quotes, I have two from Witness.
“True wisdom comes from the overcoming of suffering and sin. All true wisdom is therefore touched with sadness.”
“I did not know that what seemed the special handicaps of my boyhood — extreme sensitivity, imaginativeness, gentleness, a need for quiet and seclusion — was the real difference between me and my fellows, a difference in the whole pitch and purpose of our lives, that is to say, a difference in the soul’s angle of vision.”