You know that saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction”? Well, maybe “strange” isn’t the right word. But this was by far one of the most intriguing, compelling autobiographies I’ve ever read. I’m sure I’ll go back and reread it one day. It was that good.
Whittaker Chambers isn’t someone most people my age have heard of, but he made major headlines back in the wake of WWII. Chambers was the key witness – hence the title – in the famous Alger Hiss espionage trial. Alger Hiss was probably the most famous Communist spy in American history. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him. Modern education isn’t big on admitting that there actually were Communist spies.
“Witness” is more than just a recap of a trial. “Witness” covers Chambers’ entire life up until the time it was published. And it’s really even more than an autobiography. I would propose that “Witness” is one of the key works of early-mid 20th Century American history. I know that if we do homeschool, my middle-schoolers will be reading this.
Part history, part autobiography, part literature, it has it all – romance, espionage, suspense, spirituality. “Witness” begins with describing Chambers’ depressing childhood. We follow him through adolescence, young adulthood, political awakening, spiritual awakening, and ultimately the crisis of conscience that led him to testify before a Congressional hearing against the man he considered to be one of his greatest friends.
Parts of “Witness” are difficult to read. Chambers is blunt in his recollection of his time as a Communist operative. He doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that he was actively involved in working to dismantle the American government. For the period he records, his gives full vent to his convictions at the time. He isn’t afraid to admit he was 100% convinced of the rightness of what he was doing. I appreciate the honesty, but it does make for difficult reading at times. Especially when he describes the hundreds of others he was working with toward that end. However, it only lends credibility to the overall story, a credibility Chambers fought for against the media and public opinion during his life.
Other parts of “Witness” read like poetry, betraying Chambers’ love for classic literature. Case in point, my favorite excerpt:
There is always one spring that is our own. Its memory, once we have it, is among the few things that cannot be taken from a man. He has only to let its special light fill his mind, and he feels again the pang with which it is given every man, the dullest and least worthy, to glimpse once in his life, if only for a moment, beyond a beloved head the boughs heave and the petals break and spin along the earth. I was about to find that love whose force, once felt, makes all a man’s other gross or merely tender gropings seem irrelevant and meaningless, as if they had happened in another lifetime or to someone else. I was about to experience that love which, not to have known, seems to the man and woman who have shared it, never to have lived, and entitles them to the small, smiling condescension toward death itself of those to whom, in this sense, life has given them all that life has to give. I was about to meet again the girl who was to become my wife.
Now come on, doesn’t that just melt your heart to mush? Chambers is equally eloquent when he describes the various factors that pushed him toward Communism – his brother’s suicide, seeing the poverty of the Deep South still suffering from Reconstruction, his aversion to all forms of violence – as well as the factors that pushed him away from Communism – seeing people ostracized for the smallest wrong word, the lack of compassion for the poor at the expense of the powerful, his own spiritual journey.
I try not to drag out book reviews, and I’m not going to belabor this. I loved this book. It took me a few months to get through it, because there’s seriously a brain teaser on every page. There were only a couple of things I really disliked, and they didn’t have to do with the quality of the book. Chambers does display an inordinate amount of respect for then-Senator Richard Nixon. Of course this was well before Nixon’s presidency, which Chambers didn’t live to see. But Nixon was one of the first people to give Chambers the time of day, so Chambers was forever in his corner.
The other thing that I didn’t like was Chambers’ justification for his attempted suicide. I know this will make me look really judgmental, but I can’t think of a single reason a man is allowed to abandon his wife and small children that way. However, the attempt was failed, so it’s a moot point.
Anyway, all that to say, if you want a read that will make you really think and feed your mind and your soul, I highly recommend “Witness.”