A character out of Dostoevsky

Whittaker Chambers testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948

One of the interesting historical curiosities of Lionel Trilling’s Middle of the Journey is the fact that the novel depends heavily on the figure of Gifford Maxim–a barely fictionalized representation of Trilling’s sometime associate Whittaker Chambers. Chambers was little known in 1947, when Trilling’s book was published. But in the following year he would become a figure of national controversy when he publicly accused State Department official Alger Hiss, among others, of having spied for the Soviet Union. That accusation resulted in a political firestorm and became a central episode of postwar American political history.

Chambers’s accusation of Hiss and the resulting legal battles (hearings before HUAC, a suit for libel brought by Hiss against Chambers, and the subsequent trial and conviction of Hiss for perjury) were headline news during the late 1940s, and they had significant longterm consequences. The Hiss hearings and trials played an important role in the rise to national prominence of an ambitious young Congressman from California named Richard Nixon. They also made Nixon a figure of enduring disgust for liberals and leftists. They public controversy surrounding Chambers and Hiss great impetus to the developing anti-Communist fervor that would blossom in the McCarthyism of the 1950s. The Hiss trials injured the public credibility of the Truman administration and of New Deal liberalism generally. (Hiss, and others accused of participating in a Soviet spy ring by Chambers, were mid-rank officials in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and mainly avid New Dealers–that is political reformers who energetically advanced the use of public administration and regulation to make the lives of Americans more secure, decent, and democratic. And Hiss had many defenders among Democratic Party elites.) And they helped prepare the ground for the development of a new conservative ideology that would coalesce in the 1950s and ’60s and ultimately rise to national power with the Reagan revolution of the 1980s.

To this day, the Chambers-Hiss conflict remains controversial. The currently prevailing view is that Chambers was telling the truth and that Hiss and other members of the FDR administration that Chambers named were spying for the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the USSR, Soviet archives and decrypted cables have revealed that some New Deal officials–e.g., Harry Dexter White and Lauchlin Currie–were certainly Soviet operatives–and some historians claim to have evidence that Hiss was among them. But this evidence is not indisputable. Likewise, the evidence that Chambers presented made for a powerful circumstantial case. But Chambers’s flamboyance, as well as his inconsistency and admitted examples of dishonesty often made his claims seem doubtful, and Hiss continues to have a smalll number of defenders who claim that he was unfairly pilloried. Well through the 1970s, these remained matters of intense, which-side-are-you-on-type dispute.

Alger Hiss, testifying in 1948 before HUAC (NY Times)

When Trilling published his novel in 1947 virtually none of these developments could have been foreseeen. Chambers was barely known outside New York in 1947, and even among New York’s intellectual and artistic circles, he was not a particularly important person in the 1940s.

A classmate of Trilling’s at Columbia University in the 1920s, Chambers had led a life quite similar to the one Trilling depicts in his rendition of Gifford Maxim. Chambers had discovered Leninism with the zeal of a religious convert in 1924 and joined the Communist Party in 1925. (Around the same time, he was forced out of Columbia for publishing a play that offended the morals of the faculty.) During the 1930s, he took part in clandestine activity (the details of which are still not clearly known) in the service of the Party. In the latter part of the decade, when the Stalinist Soviet Union was engaging in the brutal purges that made many on the left begin to doubt the virtues of Communism, Chambers broke with the Party, making ominous comments about potential threats to his life. (Such fears were not groundless. Chambers had seen a friend and fellow spy disappear, and another defector from the Party died of a suicide that many suspected was a concealed murder. Others among Chambers now anti-Stalinist associates had their homes burgled.)

Chambers began his post-CP career writing book reviews for Time, moving on to become an editor of the magazine–in which role he was responsible for admiring articles about Trilling and Niebuhr, among others. But it was the vicious battle between Hiss and himself that made Chambers a figure of public notoriety–a man largely despised by liberals and the left and lionized by the right. Following the Hiss trials, Chambers went on to publish the brilliant, overwrought, bestselling memoir Witness –which cast the Cold War as a battle between Good and Evil that confronted all decent people with an agonizing spritual choice. Around the same time, he became an associate of William F. Buckley and an editor at Buckley’s National Review where he played an important part in the difficult and ultimately hugely successful effort to forge a new conservative ideology out of the fractious views of various, disputatious forces on the American right. Ronald Reagan claimed that reading Witness was the experience that changed him from a New Deal liberal to a conservative.

Trilling couldn’t have known that any of this would occur. But Chambers intruded on Trilling’s imagination and entered Trilling’s fiction because of the qualities that had been central to his life as a clandestine agent of the Communist Party and that would prove equally important to Chambers’s coming post-Communist notoriety. What provoked Trilling was what made Chambers a galvanizing figure for many American intellectuals — his taste for intrigue and grand conflict and his personification of psychological torment and moral absolutism. His biographer Sam Tanenhaus refers to Chambers as a character out of Dostoevsky.

Trilling was fascinated, as well as repelled, by these qualities in Chambers, and they clearly played a role in the development of his own anti-Stalinism and his ideas about the way “liberalism” (meaning, at its best, open-mindedness and pluralism) might resist the threat of totalitarianism. In other words, without at all being the kind of person Trilling wanted to imitate, Chambers provided an example of a type of personality (charismatic, tragic, morally and psychologically extreme) that Trilling needed to frame his own self-conception. To draw on the famous line from Trilling’s Liberal Imagination about the place “where literature and politics meet,” Chambers was a one-man “dark and bloody crossroads.”

Interestingly, Trilling became famous and influential at the same time his former Columbia classmate did. When Middle of the Journey was published, Trilling was a prominent figure in New York intellectual figures, but not yet widely known beyond them. When his collection of essays The Liberal Imagination was published in 1950, it would become, for a work of literary criticism, a surprising popular hit–selling 70,000 clothbound copies and another 100,000 copies in the relatively new medium of the paperback and making Trilling an eminent public figure. He was sought after by the State Department, his work as a writer and educator was supported by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations–and, covertly (through secret funding to the Congress for Cultural Freedom) by the CIA. During the Kennedy administration, he was invited to the White House–an event that inspired him to break into dance with his wife Diana on a subway platform. During the same years that Chambers became an incendiary leader of the emerging “New Right,” Trilling developed into a cultural eminence of Cold-War liberalism.

In this context, it’s important to recognize that Trilling’s anti-Stalinism was not identitical to Chambers’s intense anti-Communism–perhaps much as John Laskell is not entirely of one mind with Gifford Maxim. Chambers was a self-style “reactionary”; Trilling remained all his life an avowed liberal and Democratic Party voter. But, it’s also important to keep in mind how much Chambers’s example and the qualities of ideological fervor and moral intensity he represented were important provocations for Trilling’s own self-definition.

For some more quick summaries of Chambers and his history, you might read this review essay by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.–another important player in this history or this brief Damon Linker review of a recent book on Chambers and Trilling. For a more extensive discussion, see this more scholarly review.

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