Witness – TIME 2

TIME

Monday, June 09, 1952

Books: On the Witness Stand

Like the Hiss case itself, Witness, by Whittaker Chambers (TIME, May 26), had a troubling effect on Americans. Few books in a dozen years have provoked such a burst of prompt, wide and heart-searching reviews. Verdicts have come not only from the professional book reviewers but from philosophers, historians and freelance intellectuals. They compared Whittaker Chambers (favorably or unfavorably) to St. Augustine, Rousseau, Casanova, Lincoln Steffens, Ulysses S. Grant, Lanny Budd. Adjectives chased one another across the pages: “terrible,” “penetrating,” “poignant,” “unbelievable,” “great,” “boring,” “thrilling,” “overwritten,” “embarrassing,” “fascinating.” Whatever their outlook, almost all reviewers agreed that the book was an event in contemporary history, and ought to be read.

The one part of the Chambers testimony that most disturbed the liberal intellectuals was his assertion that the great conflict of the age is between the believers in Man and the believers in God, and that the Communist faith can be defeated only by religious faith. Only a small minority of reviewers seemed able to accept this assertion. The majority rejected it, at best as misguided and intolerant, at worst as a damned outrage.

Excerpts:

  • Lewis Gannett, New York Herald Tribune: “Witness… is the self-dramatization of a soul, haunted by morbid guilt and touched with religious passion, a ‘confession’ and one of the extraordinary documents of our time.”
  • Clad Thompson, Kansas City Star: “It is the full and candid view of the most important question in the world today.”
  • John Dos Passes (one of five reviewers in the Saturday Review): “Among the testimonials of the suffering spirit of man I think the book will stand high, somewhere between Dostoevsky‘s The Possessed and the narratives of the adventures of the light within like Pilgrim’s Progress…”
  • Charles Alan Wright, University of Minnesota law professor, Saturday Review: “I think Hiss is innocent… Mr. Chambers is the author of one of the longest works of fiction of the year…”
  • Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Saturday Review: “Whittaker Chambers has written one of the really significant American autobiographies. [The book] is written with intensity—with an unAmerican, I was about to say, or at least un-Anglo-Saxon intensity… Chambers is a figure out of Dostoevsky, not out of William Dean Howells… When Mr. Chambers demands belief in God as the first credential, he is surely skating near the edge of an arrogance of his own…”
  • Brendan Gill, The New Yorker: “The tone of Witness jars… [Chambers] believes now, as he did the first time, that there is only one way to save mankind… He believes now, as he did then, that opposites are the only alternatives. Everything is either/or.”
  • Irving Howe, the Nation: “If Chambers is right in believing the major bulwark against Stalin to be faith in God, then it is time for men of conviction and courage to take to the hills.”
  • Merle Miller, the New Republic: “Surely a great many of Mr. Chambers’ readers will reject his terrifying, his demeaning thesis.”
  • John Cogley, the Commonweal: “Moral relativism, pragmatism, raw secularism—all the timid forebears of the giant Marxism—stood before the bar with Hiss. It was not only a generation that was on trial, as Mr. Alistair Cooke put it; it was also the vision of good without God.”
  • Rebecca West, the Atlantic: “[The Hiss trial] was yet another dervish trial… In they rush, and the examination of witnesses can hardly be carried on because of the commotion caused by the invaders, twirling and turning all over the courtroom, and the lawyers’ speeches are not to be heard because of their holy bowlings… The mystic may be discomposed by the howling and gyrating of the dervishes [but] he leans on his understanding with God… To reach the state of intense perception which makes a mystic, a man must be unselfish but egotistical. He must be supremely interested in finding out the truth concerning the universe, and not at all interested in securing his own well-being in it. But he must cultivate inattention to what others tell him and concentrate on his own experience… Whittaker Chambers obviously feels deep love for his wife and his mother… But few could read of these women without wanting to hurry to them with hot milk and aspirins… Obviously, he has given them great happiness, but they must be very, very tired…
    “A mystic distrusts all institutions… He fears lest the thickness of their walls shall prevent man from hearing when God speaks to him… We see why the institution has so often throughout history cried out, in accusation against the mystic: This man is telling the truth concerning eternity, but he is in error concerning time, and it is in time that we have to do our present duty.’… But the mystic has often been able to answer: ‘Because I have sought the truth in eternity, I alone have had the strength to tell the truth in time.'”
  • Sidney Hook, New York Times: “No one can doubt the sincerity of his hard-won faith, that he has found in it, after much agony, a healing peace and humility. As a quest for personal salvation, it will command the respect of those who cannot share his cosmic hope and whose natural piety takes other forms… The view that man must worship either God or Stalin faces many formidable theoretical difficulties and has the most mischievous practical consequences… Deeply religious men speak with the same divided counsels as nonreligious men about the specific problems of war, peace, poverty and foreign policy, which must find empirical solutions if Communism’s false answers are to be rejected…
    “The first and lasting impression is of a man who has suffered much, whose humility is born of a genuine surprise at his own tenacity and survival. These seem to him to be the result of a divine grace, unearned yet partly paid for by a willingness to be a witness to things secular and divine, irrespective of personal consequences… Above all, one is moved by the magnificent courage of this stubborn and sensitive man, who refused to die to please Stalin, who built a new life, threw it away to atone for his past, and found it again. May it inspire others who until now have feared the wolf-pack of the anti anti-Communists to come forward to testify to the truth…”
 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

PageLines