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Hiss, Chambers, and charisma. (Findings).

The new book Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul (ISI Books) samples a half-century's commentary on the controversy that refuses to die. It's no surprise that some evaluations are polar opposites--Granville Hicks compares Chambers's memoir Witness (1952) to St. Augustine's Confessions, while Kingsley Martin likens it to Mein Kampf--but common ground also emerges, particularly in the descriptions of the two antagonists.

Alger Hiss had star quality, nearly everyone agrees; Whittaker Chambers did not. "One instinctively liked Hiss for the boyish charm we think of as peculiarly American," writes Leslie Fiedler. By contrast, Chambers came across as "the butterball who could not even learn to play marbles," "the uncomfortable spirit that either blasphemes or is too religious for respectability," a man who "seems ill at ease in our daylight world."

Arthur Koestler remarks that "Chambers should have got the part of Hiss and Hiss the part of Chambers," a sentiment that Chambers himself shared. "We're cast wrong" he once remarked, according to Hilton Kramer's essay in the book. "I look like a slob, so I should be the villain. Hiss, the handsome man who knows all the society people, is the born hero. It's bad casting."

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Publication:The Wilson Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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