In 1952, Random House published Whittaker Chambers's Witness
. Not only did it immediately become a bestseller; it was recognized by many as one of the great spiritual autobiographies of the twentieth century. In Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul
, editor Patrick Swan marks the fiftieth anniversary of Witness
's publication by anthologizing 23 of the best essays ever written on Chambers, Hiss, or both. Essays by literary luminaries such as Leslie Fiedler, Arthur Koestler, Lionel Trilling, Rebecca West, Murray Kempton, and William F. Buckley, Jr. tell the story of these two fascinating (and ultimately mysterious) men and of what they and their conflict represented. Sampling the entire spectrum of respectable thought on Hiss and Chambers, these pieces do not, as a rule, trouble themselves much with the facts of the case; Hiss's guilt was not so much in doubt then, and is certainly well documented by now. But the essayists' divergent opinions on the nature of communism and anticommunism, liberalism, the proper relationship between religion and politics, and many other issues remain provocativeperhaps even more so now than when they were written.
The truth is, as Wilfred McClay points out in his introduction, Chambers's predictions on where the slippery slope of Western skepticism was likely to lead us are less easily dismissed today than they were fifty years ago. The new biotechnologies "place in human hands the power to make over the human condition," writes McClay. And so Chambers, "perhaps without having known or intended it, [was] addressing himself to something like the very prospect we now face, not because of some foreign threat, but because of the flourishing of certain aspects of our own victorious civilization." The question Chambers posed so starkly in WitnessGod or man?remains, then, worth considering, and nowhere is it more arrestingly considered than in the essays included here.
What They're Saying...
"Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul samples a half-century's commentary on the controversy that refuses to die. It's no surprise that some evaluations are polar opposites...but common ground also emerges, particularly in the descriptions of the two antagonists."
— Wilson Quarterly
"The guilt of Alger Hiss becomes clearer with each passing year, as does the heroism of Whittaker Chambers. Patrick A. Swan has edited a generous and enlightening anthology of some of the best writings to try to make sense of that historic case...."
— National Review
"This collection of essays...indicates the continued salience of one of the most far-reaching real-life dramas of 20th-century American history."
— Philadelphia Inquirer