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Whittaker Chambers: A Biography

4.19  ·  Rating Details ·  344 Ratings  ·  32 Reviews
Whittaker Chambers is the first biography of this complex and enigmatic figure. Drawing on dozens of interviews and on materials from forty archives in the United States and abroad--including still-classified KGB dossiers--Tanenhaus traces the remarkable journey that led Chambers from a sleepy Long Island village to center stage in America's greatest political trial and th ...more
Paperback, 656 pages
Published April 28th 1998 by Modern Library (first published 1997)
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Lee Ann
Jun 24, 2009 Lee Ann rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Wow. This is a book to re-read. It is thorough, slow and in-depth. ST covers not just the facts but the implications of WC's life. I have read Witness and was blown away. It has been called the greatest autobiography of the 20th century and deservedly so. ST highlighted several aspects of Witness that I had overlooked, such as how heavily WC's thought was influenced by the great Russian novelists. ST also develops WC's political philosophy, showing how WC always maintained a European rather than ...more
Charles Lindsey
Aug 06, 2010 Charles Lindsey rated it really liked it
Almost five stars; call it 4.75 stars. A deeply pleasurable read, thanks to Sam Tanenhaus' lean, propulsive prose. Rarely do I read a biography so full of facts that still refuses to get bogged down in them (even though this is of the genre that has the subject being born on the first page. Gimme context first!). A great grounding in a founding figure in postwar American anti-communism, one in which personality shines, if anything, even brighter than history. And Chambers' bizarre personality, a ...more
Dec 27, 2010 Nathan rated it it was amazing
An amazing and intimate account of a man's journey into and out of Communism, as a spy, as a political philosophy, as a life. He not only leaves Communism but then finds the courage to expose and fight it.
Mar 05, 2010 FiveBooks rated it it was amazing
Professor Harvey Klehr has chosen to discuss  Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers   , on FiveBooks as one of the top five on his subject - Communism in America, saying that:

"Whittaker Chambers was a key figure in the first major post-World War II spy cases. He was a disillusioned communist who is a fascinating man, and one of the attractions of this book is that it really gives Chambers his due."

The full interview is available here:
Charles Kerns
Apr 06, 2015 Charles Kerns rated it liked it
Tanenhaus shows Chambers to be a mess, but he does so sympathetically in the beginning and then, as the book proceeds to the trial and beyond, heroically. Nixon comes off as only he could and Hiss as someone who could have avoided it all if only he had followed John Foster Dulles advice.

If you are upset about the rants going on in the 2010s, then this book puts the US fight between raving righters and liberals into perspective. It hints at the lure of commies in the '20s, it shows the infightin
Nov 14, 2009 Neal rated it it was amazing
By tracing the arc of Whittaker Chambers's seduction and disillusionment with Communism, and then conversion into one of the leading voices of the conservative movement in the United States, Sam Tanenhaus illuminates the attraction of Communism to young intellectuals in the interwar years. Tanenhaus's writing is clear, even-headed and exciting. This last adjective is no exaggeration. As a young reader who has grown up after the end of the Cold War, I found the biography explained why talented in ...more
David Simonetti
Nov 23, 2007 David Simonetti rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is well written and compelling. Whittaker Chambers is an American Hero who hasd the courage to expose an avowed communist who betrayed his country, yet the left continues to this very day to live in a world of denial about Alger Hiss. Soviet archives clearly established that he was a spy, but the NY Times, Eleanor Roosevelt and other hypcrites defened this scum. This is a great American story and well worth reading for anyone who is interested in learning about the McCarthy era and what was ...more
Aug 31, 2009 Kbrew rated it it was amazing
Political conservitive is radicalized at Columbia- Joins the Party, eventually is spymater for East Coast, is disinchanted by Stalin's coniving with Hitler, drops out of the party.Rtas his cohorts out in the 40's.Riviting history of the Communist movement and activities during the 1920's 30's period. Peoples motivation for joining, quiting or sticking it out. The effect it had on US politics in the 40's and 50's.
Paul Leddy
Jan 04, 2010 Paul Leddy rated it really liked it
Another wonderful biography that gives a glimpse into the world that Whittaker Chambers lived in. The court proceedings surrounding the libel case against Alger Hiss (whom Chambers had stated was a communist spy) are particularly riveting.
Jan 09, 2009 Jeff rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography-memoir
The word that comes up more than any other in reviews of this book is "magisterial," and since that about sums it up I'll leave it at that.
Aaron Finestone
Apr 14, 2013 Aaron Finestone rated it it was amazing
Excellent book. Given the political correctness surrounding Alger Hiss, this book took courage to write.
Monica Perez
Jan 02, 2009 Monica Perez rated it really liked it
Excellent, fair, thorough biography of Whittaker Chambers, a fascinating character. I would still read Chambers' Witness first--it's essentially the same story but first hand.
Jul 11, 2016 Gene rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sam Tanenhaus's biography of Whittaker Chambers was a fair and informative account of the life of the man who provided evidence that Alger Hiss and he had both been Soviet agents providing government documents to the enemy. Chambers did so hesitantly, after having left Communism, and after having tried to get Hiss and other spies to abandon the cause that now had become Stalin's ruthless regime. He became more actively in pursuit of flushing out these agents after WWII.

This was not a work of hag
Dec 26, 2010 James rated it really liked it
"To many Chambers remained a puzzle. He had offered himself to the nation as both sinner and savior. . . His moral attitude at times recalled the stoic resignation of the ancient tragedians, at times the anti-heroism of Sartre or Beckett, at times the torment of the twice-born soul." (p 514)

For three months in the summer of 1952 Witness sat atop the New York Times list of bestselling books. It would end the year in the top ten of all nonfiction books published that year. it was the culmination o
Mar 12, 2015 Lynda rated it really liked it
I found the life & times of Whittaker Chambers fascinating on so many, many levels. The book encompasses more that just the persona of Chambers as within is woven the flow of far left - far right politics in America from the late 20's to post WW II. Telling the story of Chambers brings a fairly forgettable man into very public status once allied with disclosing of Communists in the late 40's -- events leading to the infamous Alger Hiss Spy Trials.

As a themed story, this is one of committed p
Jan 20, 2011 Bap rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
I wonder how many people outside my generation remember that Whitaker Chalmers accused Alger Hiss of being a communist which morphed into hearings before the HUAC committee and later two perjury trials which resulted in a 5 year conviction for Alger Hiss,a Harvard law school graduate and later Supreme Court clerk to Felix Frankfuter, who accompanied Roosevelt to Yalta, was instrumental in planning the initial conference leading to the formation of the United Nations and right before the accusati ...more
Don Kaiser
Mar 20, 2014 Don Kaiser rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Started out really slow, all this stuff about his Vaudevillian mother and life on Long Island, and offending his professors at Columbia. I almost tossed it aside because it did not get to the Alger Hiss matter quickly enough, but I plodded through and made it to the trials, and was rewarded. Then, at the end, it ended with a thud: Whittaker Chambers dead of on the bedroom floor, a heart attack in the night. But I wanted more postmortem. And I really wanted more on Alger Hiss, as he aged and move ...more
Thing Two
Whittaker Chambers made a name for himself in 1948 by accusing State Department official, Alger Hiss, of being a Communist spy. He testified before a committee of young senators - including Richard Nixon - and lent credibility to the McCarthy era Commie-hunts to follow. Hiss spent time in prison, Chambers lost his job at Time, but Nixon and McCarthy prospered.

Alger Hiss proclaimed his innocence until he died in 1996. Whittaker Chambers wrote a memoir in 1948 called "Witness" where he lays out f
Chris Bartholomew
Interesting. Whittaker Chambers was a news maker at the time. Famous for being the individual to bring Alger Hiss to trial. Whittaker joined the communist party during his college years (where he came to know Alger Hiss), but left the party during the Stalin purges and became an avid anti-communist working for many years at Time magazine before being outted as a former communist and using his knowledge of the communist party to avoid prosecution. For me a historical vignette of the communist hun ...more
Richard F.
Mar 08, 2014 Richard F. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It was remarkable that Chambers stumbled through the process of renouncing his earlier conversion to Communism and then back to fanatical anti-Communism at the expense of his friend Alger Hiss. He wanted Hiss to leave the dark side with him, but ultimately was forced to turn against his long time fellow traveler. It is an aspect of Chambers sad story that Sam Tanenhaus brings to the narrative that I was unfamiliar with up to now. My view of Communism was sharpened while serving with the US Air F ...more
A well-written biography of a controversial character in post-war American history. Was Alger Hiss a Russian spy? Hiss denied it up to the day he died. Some viewed Chambers as a hero for exposing Hiss, others felt he was a traitor.
He clearly was a complex, conflicted man and this work sheds light on the character assaults he sustained during this tumultuous and scary time in American history.
Sep 19, 2013 David rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone interested in the topic
Recommended to David by: WSJ "Five Best"
Really good biography -- very even-handed, even detached, although still perhaps sympathetic to Chambers, but not an apologist. Detected no bias here, although some lefties might call it "pro-Chambers."

Read following Chambers's book "Witness." Much, much more ground covered here than in "Witness," and myriad sources make for a thorough examination of the Hiss cases and the tenor of the times. Extremely fast-moving and clear writing. Would highly recommend.
Nina Munk
Feb 15, 2013 Nina Munk rated it it was amazing
As a non-fiction writer, I'm in awe of this book. I can only hope to one day match the depth of Tanenhaus's reporting, the extent of his archival research, and the elegantly understated tone that he maintains throughout this book.
Nov 27, 2009 Andrea rated it really liked it
It was a slow start and I thought I might put it down, but once the trials began there was no putting it down. I am really glad to have read this book and learned about the important chapter in American History.
Jul 12, 2008 Ross added it
Whittaker Chambers is the real life Forest Gump of 20th Century American history. I read this book some ten years ago when it was new and it constantly surfaces to my mind as the standard for placing events into historical context...a great what, when, how: read.
Joanna Bromfield
Jul 14, 2011 Joanna Bromfield rated it it was amazing
This biography proves the old saying, "Truth is stranger than fiction." It is also vastly more interesting. High on old-fashioned human espionage and intrigue, this gripping bio gives real insight into the Cold War.
Wayne Tripton
Aug 02, 2013 Wayne Tripton rated it it was amazing
Brian Lamb the book monitor of CSPAN interviewed Tanenhaus and I watched when it originally aired. I was so intrigued that I immediately bought a copy. First edition. I read about Chambers and his early twentieth century experiences in New York and how over time he became an American spectacle.
Paul Higbee
Feb 16, 2013 Paul Higbee rated it really liked it
Remarkable story on many levels. I thought I knew the history. This deepened my understanding substantially.
Jul 22, 2013 Misteeyed rated it it was amazing
This was a well written and compelling story.
Craig Bolton
Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (Modern Library Paperbacks) by Sam Tanenhaus (1998)
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Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of both The New York Times Book Review and the Week in Review section of the Times. From 1999 to 2004 he was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, where he wrote often on politics.

His work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications. Tanenhaus’s previous book, Whittaker Chambers: A Biogra
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“It is hardly a coincidence that the cadences of Chambers's HUAC testimony should anticipate the prose of Witness. The House Committee on Un-American Activities had given him his true voice...” 0 likes
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