EDITOR’S NOTE: This appeared in the August 6, 2001, issue of National Review.
Editor’s Note: The White House convened a full house (140 guests) at the Executive Office Building on July 9, 2001, to recall Whittaker Chambers. Chambers’s son was present and brought in to display the Medal of Freedom awarded posthumously to Chambers by President Reagan in 1984. Also displayed, borrowed from the Library of Congress, was a copy of a “pumpkin paper” on which the case against Alger Hiss turned. A bizarre feature of the memorial event was that the White House excluded the press, so that the event had an aspect of a memorial ceremony in the catacombs. The speakers were introduced by presidential assistant Tim Goeglein. They were William F. Buckley Jr., Sam Tanenhaus (author of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography), Robert Novak, and Ralph de Toledano (co-author of Seeds of Treason: The True Story of the Hiss-Chambers Tragedy, author of Notes from the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers–Ralph de Toledano Letters). Herewith WFB’s speech, recalling a friendship with Mr. Chambers.
We were to meet at the National Gallery here in Washington, and I had been waiting for him at the specified corner. I spotted him far down the corridor. It could only have been he, or Alfred Hitchcock. The Sunday before, he had asked me to come down that day, the 8th of June. We had lunch. He had asked me to keep the evening free. “You’ve guessed what’s up, haven’t you?” he asked, his face wreathed in smiles.
”I haven’t the least idea.”
“John!” he said proudly. His son would be married that afternoon, and I was to go to the wedding and the reception.
As he stepped into the elevator that evening, after the ceremony, I saw him framed by the door, his hand and Esther’s clutched together, posing while his son-in-law popped a camera in his face-a grim reminder of all those flashbulbs ten years before. I never saw him again. He died a month later, on July 9, 1961, forty years ago, exactly. Free at last.
I first met Chambers in 1954. An almost total silence had closed in on him. Two years earlier he had published Witness. When the preface of Witness appeared as a feature in The Saturday Evening Post, that issue of the magazine sold a startling half million extra copies on the newsstand. The book came out with a great flurry. The bitterness of the Hiss trial had not subsided. For some of the reviewers, Hiss’s innocence had once been a fixed rational conviction, then blind faith; and now, after the publication of that overwhelming book, rank superstition.
But the nature of the author was not grasped by the reviewers. I am a heavy man, Chambers once wrote me, apologizing for staying two days at my home. There is a sense in which that was true. But he never appreciated, as others could do, the true gaiety of his nature, the appeal of his mysterious humor, the instant communicability of an overwhelming personal tenderness; his friends–I think especially of Ralph de Toledano–took endless and articulate pleasure from his company.
Witness was off to a great start. But, surprisingly, it did not continue to sell in keeping with its spectacular send-off. The length of the book was forbidding; and the trial, in any case, was three years old, and the cold sweat had dried. Alger Hiss was in prison, and now the political furor centered about Senator McCarthy. Those who did not know the book, and who were not emotionally committed either to Chambers’s guilt or to his innocence, seemed to shrink even from a vicarious involvement in the controversy, to a considerable extent because of the dark emanations that came from Chambers; depressing when reproduced, as was widely done, in bits and snatches torn from the narrative. “Until reading Witness it had been my impression,” Hugh Kenner, the author and critic, had written me, “that his mind moved, or wallowed, in a setting of continuous apocalypse from which he derived gloomy satisfactions, of an immobilizing sort. The large scale of Witness makes things much clearer. It is surprisingly free from rhetoric, and it makes clear the genuine magnitude of the action which was his life; a Sophoclean tragedy in slow motion, years not hours.”
I n 1954 I asked if I might visit him. He had written to a long- standing friend, Henry Regnery, the publisher of my book on Senator McCarthy, to praise the book while making clear his critical differences with its subject. Chambers had been struck down by a heart attack and it was vaguely known that he spent his days in and out of a sickbed, from which the likelihood was that he would never again emerge physically whole. I had every reason to believe that I would be visiting Jeremiah lying alongside a beckoning tomb.
I was taken to his bedroom. The doctor had forbidden him even to raise his head. And yet he seemed the liveliest man I had ever met. I could not imagine such good humor from a very sick man, let alone anyone possessed by the conviction that night was closing in all over the world, privately tortured by his continuing fear that the forces aligned against him would contrive to reorder history, impose upon the world the ghastly lie that he had testified falsely against Alger Hiss, and so erase his witness, his expiation for more than ten years’ complicity with Communism.
We did not, of course, speak of Hiss, nor did we for several months; though later he spoke of him, and of the case, with candor. But we talked about everything else, and I left Westminster later than I should have, hustled anxiously to the door by a wife who knew she was helpless absolutely to enforce the doctor’s rules.
As he began to recover he was, for a period, greatly renewed by a physical and spiritual energy that were dialectically at odds with his organic ill health and his intellectual commitment to the futility of all meliorative action in the Cold War. I talked with him about the magazine I proposed to publish and asked whether he would join the staff. To my astonishment the answer was yes–he would consider doing just that. We corresponded through the summer. He was to make up his mind definitely during the fall, after we visited again. I made the mistake in one of my letters of expressing exorbitant hopes for the role National Review might play in political affairs. He dashed them down in a paragraph unmatched in the literature of supine gloom, sentences that President Reagan, who was in awe of their eloquence, and defiant of their fatalism, publicly recalled more than once. It is idle, he rebuked me, to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.
The tokens of hope and truth were not to be preserved, he seemed to be saying, in a journal of opinion, not to be preserved by writers or thinkers. Only by activists, and I was to know that he considered a publication–the right kind of publication–not a word, but a deed. In the final analysis it was action, not belletrism, that moved him most deeply.
And so in time I came to understand why in 1932 he resigned as editor of the Communist New Masses, where he had earned an international reputation as a writer, to go scurrying about the streets of Washington, Baltimore, and New York, carrying pocketfuls of negatives and secret phone numbers and invisible ink. One of the great failures of Witness, he wrote me, is that there was no time or place to describe the influences, other than immediate historical influences, that brought me to Communism. I came to Communism . . . above all under the influence of the Narodniki. They have been deliberately forgotten, but, in those days, Lenin urged us to revere the Narodniki-”those who went with bomb or revolver against this or that individual monster.” Unlike most Western Communists, who became Communists under the influence of the Social Democrats, I remained under the spiritual influence of the Narodniki long after I became a Marxist. In fact, I never threw it off. I never have. And, of course, it was that revolutionary quality [in me] that bemused Alger-mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
Activism. From the Narodniki to the Republican Party, in one defection.
But now he would stay on at his farm, and worry from his sickbed.
H e had a great deal to worry about. His broken health and near penury enhanced an insubordinate restlessness. I do not even have the capital to farm halfheartedly, he wrote me, and I cannot, as in the past, make good the capital by my own labor power. This inability to work is perhaps the greatest burr in my mind. It torments me since, among other disabilities, I have no talent for being a country gentleman.
He reached the low point of his spirits as he sweated in philosophical bedrock, gathering his thoughts: I have been splashing about in my private pool of ice water. In another letter, I have ceased to understand why I must go on living. In still another, The year was, for me, a long walk through the valley. No one but me will ever know how close I came to staying in it.
Did he isolate the trouble? Yes. It had to do with my inability to fix the meaning of the current period of existence in some communicable way. I knew the fault lay in me. So that, all the while I was trying to write, I was simply trying to grow.
But the weeks went by. Eisenhower ran and was reelected. Nixon was safely vice president. Six months later Chambers wrote to say he was ready to sign up with National Review. Having made the decision, he was elated. After five years of isolation and introspection, he was like a painter who had recovered his eyesight. He felt the need to practice his art. How many things he wanted to write about, and immediately! Mushrooms, for one thing. Albert Camus. What a lot of things needed to be said instantly about The Myth of Sisyphus! Milovan Djilas’s New Class was just out, and most of the critics, he said, had missed the whole point.
But what he wrote about first was the farmers. He anticipated a gradual end to their independence. Perhaps [in the future, the socialized farmer] will not be able . . . to find or frame an answer [to why he lost his freedom]. Perhaps he will not need to. For perhaps the memory of those men and women [who fought socialism] will surprise him, as with an unfamiliar but arresting sound-the sound of spring-heads, long dried up and silent in a fierce drought, suddenly burst out and rushing freely to the sea. It may remind him of a continuity that outlives all lives, fears, perplexities, contriving, hopes, defeats; so that he is moved to reach down and touch again for strength, as if he were its first discoverer, the changeless thing-the undeluding, undenying earth.
Chambers decided in the summer of 1958 to come up to New York every fortnight and spend two days in the office with his colleagues, writing editorials and features for the magazine. He would arrive on the train from Baltimore at noon and come directly to the editorial lunch, always out of breath, perspiring in his city clothes. He liked his little cubicle at National Review which, five minutes after he entered it, smelled like a pipe-tobacco factory. He puffed away devotedly, grinding out memorable editorials and paragraphs.
Yet anyone meeting Chambers casually, without preconception, would judge him an amusing and easily amused man. The bottomless gravity seldom suggested itself. He was not merely a man of wit, but also a man of humor, and even of fun. Often, in his letters, even through his orotund gloom, the pixie would surface. (Would that we could live in the world of the fauves, he wrote me at Christmas, where the planes are disjointed only on canvas, instead of a world where the wild beasts are real and the disjointures threaten to bury us.)
On Tuesday nights we worked late, and four or five of us would go to dinner. By then he was physically exhausted. But he wanted to come with us, and we would eat at whatever restaurant, and he would talk hungrily (and eat hungrily), talk about everything that interested him, which was literally everything in this world, and not in this world. He talked often around a subject, swooping in to make a quick point, withdrawing, relaxing, laughing, listening–he listened superbly, though even as a listener he was a potent force.
The next morning, press day, he was at his desk at eight, and, for lunch, a sandwich. At five he was on the train back to Baltimore, where his wife would meet him. On reaching his farm he would drop on his bed from fatigue. Three months after coming to New York, he collapsed from another heart attack. But in the summer of 1959 he felt well enough to indulge a dream, more particularly his gentle wife’s dream, to visit Europe. We drove them to the airport after a happy day. I noticed worriedly how heavily he perspired and how nervously his heavy thumbs shuffled through the bureaucratic paraphernalia of modern travel, as he dug up, in turn, passports, baggage tags, vaccination certificates, and airplane tickets. His plans were vague, but at the heart of them was a visit to his old friend, Arthur Koestler.
They were at Koestler’s eyrie in Austria for a week.
Alpach, where AK lives, is some four hundred meters higher into the hills than Innsbruck, he wrote me. So there we sat, and talked, not merely about the daily experiences of our lives. Each of the two men with us had tried to kill himself and failed; Greta Buber-Neumann was certainly the most hardy and astonishing of the three. Then we realized that, of our particular breed, the old activists, we are almost the only survivors. . . .
They went on to Rome (In Rome, I had to ask Esther for the nitroglycerine. Since then, I’ve been living on the stuff . . .). And then Venice (I came back to Venice chiefly to rest. If it were not for my children, I should try to spend the rest of my life here). Berlin (I feel as though I had some kind of moral compulsion to go at this time . . .). Paris (“You will look up Malraux?” I wrote him-I remembered the gratitude Chambers felt on receiving a handwritten note from Malraux with his judgment of Witness: “You have not come back from hell with empty hands.”)
But he took sick again and, abruptly, they flew back; again he was in bed. He wanted now to resign from National Review. It was partly that his poor health and his unconquerable perfectionism kept him from producing a flow of copy large enough to satisfy his conscience. Partly it was his Weltanschauung, which was constantly in motion. He resisted National Review’s schematic conservatism, even its schematic anti- Communism. You . . . stand within, or at any rate are elaborating, a political orthodoxy, his letter explained. I stand within no political orthodoxy. . . . I am at heart a counter-revolutionist. You mean to be conservative, and I know no one who seems to me to have a better right to the term. I am not a conservative. I am a man of the Right. I shall vote the straight Republican ticket for as long as I live.
And, always looking within the Marxist world for amplification, he found it. You see, I am an Orgbureau man. But if the Republican Party cannot get some grip of the actual world we live in and from it generalize and actively promote a program that means something to the masses of people-why somebody else will. Then there will be nothing to argue. The voters will simply vote Republicans into singularity. The Republican Party will become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find at the back an old man, fingering for his own pleasure some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel. . . .
He had made up his mind to do something else. He enrolled at Western Maryland College as an undergraduate.
He had quit National Review, he had failed to complete the book that Random House had been expecting for six years. He did not want to sit at home, half crippled and denied the life he would, I think, have liked most to lead, the life of a dawn-to-dusk farmer. Whittaker Chambers was all Puritan about work. Idleness was incomprehensible to him. But there was another reason for going back to school. In Europe, Koestler had said to him sharply: “You cannot understand what is going on in the world unless you understand science deeply.” Very well, then, he would learn science.
He threw himself into his work. Science courses galore. For relaxation, Greek, Latin, and advanced French composition. Every morning he drove to school and sat among the farmers’ sons of western Maryland, taking notes, dissecting frogs, reciting Greek paradigms, working tangled problems in physics. Home, and immediately to the basement to do his homework. Everything else was put aside.
He signed up for the summer session but in the interstice between terms he drove north to see his daughter, Ellen. En route he spent a day with us on a hot afternoon. How do you get on, my wife asked, with your fellow undergraduates? “Fine,” he said, puffing on his pipe. In fact, we learned, he had an admirer. A young lady-aged about nineteen, he guessed-shared with him the allocated carcasses of small animals, which the two of them, in tandem, proceeded to disembowel. He had written to me about her. For months while we worked together she addressed me not a word, and I was afraid my great age had frightened her. But last week she broke silence. She said breathlessly: “Mr. Chambers?” “Yes,” I answered her anxiously. “Tell me, what do you think of ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-dot Bikini’?” He recalled the question now with laughter. He hadn’t, at the critical moment, any idea that the young lady was talking about a popular song, but he had improvised successfully until he could deduce what she was talking about, and then confided to his co-vivisectionist that it just happened that this was one of his very favorite songs. Her excitement was indescribable. From that moment on they chirped together as soulmates, pooling their knowledge of spleens and livers, kidneys and upper intestines.
I imagine that he was a very quiet student, giving his teachers no cause whatever for the uneasiness they might have expected to feel in the presence of so august a mind. During examination weeks he was in a constant state of high boil. He slaved for his grades and achieved them, even in the alien field of science; all A’s, or A minuses; once, as I remember, a humiliating B plus. After the spring term his fatigue was total, overwhelming. Weariness, Bill, he wrote in the last letter I had from him, a few days before John’s wedding, you cannot yet know literally what it means. I wish no time would come when you do know, but the balance of experience is against it. One day, long hence, you will know true weariness and will say: “That was it.” My own life of late has been full of such realizations.
He learned science, and killed himself. Those were the two things, toward the end, for which he strived.
’Why on earth doesn’t your father answer the phone?” I asked his daughter Ellen in Connecticut on Saturday afternoon, the 8th of July. “Because,” she said with a laugh, shyly, “Poppa and the phone company are having a little tiff, and the phone is disconnected. They wanted him to trim one of his favorite trees to take the strain off the telephone line, and he put them off. So . . . they turned off the phone.” I wired him: when you come to terms with the phone company give me a ring. But he didn’t call. The following Tuesday when I walked into my office the phone was ringing. I took the call standing in front of my desk. It was John Chambers. He gave me the news. A heart attack. The final heart attack. Cremation in total privacy. His mother was in the hospital. The news would go to the press later that afternoon. I mumbled the usual things, hung up the telephone, sat down, and wept.
He had written me once, American men, who weep in droves in movie houses, over the woes of lovestruck shop girls, hold that weeping in men is unmanly. I have found most men in whom there was depth of experience, or capacity for compassion, singularly apt to tears. How can it be otherwise? One looks and sees: and it would be a kind of impotence to be incapable of, or to grudge, the comment of tears, even while you struggle against it. I am immune to soap opera. But I cannot listen for any length of time to the speaking voice of Kirsten Flagstad, for example, without being done in by that magnificence of tone that seems to speak from the center of sorrow, even from the center of the earth.
For me, and others who knew him, his voice had been like Kirsten Flagstad’s, magnificent in tone, speaking to our time from the center of sorrow, from the center of the earth.