Thursday, August 23, 2012

Review: Witness


Whittaker Chambers was an American communist and Soviet spy who broke with the Communist Party in 1938 and later denounced the other members of his underground cell to the House Un-American Activities Committee and a New York grand jury. His testimony eventually lead to the 1950 perjury conviction of Alger Hiss and launched a decades-long battle between the Left and Right over which man was the real villain. The controversy seems to have petered out, at least in the mainstream, since both the US Russia released formerly-classified Cold War records identifying Hiss as a Soviet agent.

In 1952, Chambers published Witness, his autobiography and apologia. Starting with his childhood, Chambers explains his attraction to communism, his involvement in the communist movement in America – first in the open party as an organizer and writer for the Daily Worker, later in the underground – how his growing Christian faith lead to his break from the party, and how his Quaker principles lead to his testimony against his former fellow-travelers.

Chambers spent ten years as a writer and editor for Time Magazine, so he knew how to wield a pen. His story is organized, his arguments persuasive, and his writing is moving, sometimes even beautiful. The drawback is that Chambers took his serious subject seriously – there is not a glimmer of humor in the whole 800 pages. Still, it is an amazing story and much of it reads like a spy thriller, well, an egg-heady spy thriller. 

Witness isn't a quick or easy read, but as a first-hand account of a fascinating episode in American history, it is worth the effort. Christopher Caldwell summed it up well when describing the book:

Confession, history, potboiler -- by a man who writes like the literary giant we would know him as, had not Communism got him first.


Cindy Simpson for American Thinker (2010)
Brothers Judd (2001)

If you would like your review of this book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.


Witness is on the National Review list of Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century.  It counts for several of my 2012 challenges: Chunkster, Tea & Books, Mt. TBR, Off the Shelf, TBR Pile, and Memorable Memoirs.


Barbara said...

This is a book I've always meant to read but never seemed to get to it. I should find a copy at a book sale; then maybe I would remember it at the right time. Thanks for the review and the reminder.

Anna said...

Not sure this is something I'd actually read, but you've made it sound really good.

Rose City Reader said...

Barbara: I saw that there is an audio book version, if that is more your cup of tea. You might have to do an inter-library request to track it down. I think it would make a good audio book because his writing is lyrical and dramatic.

Anna: It's one for political junkies and history buffs!

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