Between Innocence and Guilt: Alger Hiss Exposed-as a Man

The View From Alger’s Window: A Son’s Memoir , by Tony Hiss. Alfred A. Knopf, 241 pages, $24.

If the Alger Hiss case is any indicator, we’ll still be arguing about O.J. Simpson well past 2058. The Hiss case, the “Trial of the Century” in 1948, was a referendum on the “hot-button” issues of the day: the New Deal, Yalta, the United Nations, the Cold War. More important than the question of Hiss’ guilt or innocence, the case became a kind of psycho-political litmus test; where you stood said something about who you were and what you believed.

Since his conviction on two counts of perjury, the reputation of Alger Hiss has swung back and forth like a pendulum. Witness , Whittaker Chambers’ best-selling 1952 memoir, thoroughly demonized Hiss, whose lawyerly rebuttal, In the Court of Public Opinion (1957), lacked sufficient passion to challenge it. When Watergate ruined Richard Nixon’s reputation, Hiss bounced back–until Allen Weinstein’s exhaustive study, Perjury (1978), concluded that he was probably guilty after all. Hiss then wrote a slight memoir, Recollections of a Life (1988), which drew on previously unreleased material to demonstrate that his trial had indeed been unfair, and in the early 90’s, a Russian army general, Dmitri Volkogonov, searched through the newly opened archives and found nothing to indicate that Hiss had been a spy. This “vindication” was short-lived, however: The general conceded he had examined only a fraction of the vast archives and that relevant documents might have been destroyed. The 1996 release of the Venona files–cables between Moscow and its American agents from 1939 to 1957–included a message about an agent code-named “Ales,” who was identified by an anonymous footnote as “probably Alger Hiss.” Most recently, Sam Tanenhaus’ sympathetic biography of Whittaker Chambers transformed the shadowy accuser into a more credible, three-dimensional character, thereby casting further doubts on Hiss. In addition to dozens of polemics, memoirs and historical studies, the case has inspired two novels, a play and a punk band named “Alger Hiss.”

When Hiss died on Nov. 15, 1996, at the age of 92, most obituaries hedged their bets. The New York Times headline identified him as a “divisive icon of the cold war,” and concluded that “followers of the case remained bitterly split over whether he was guilty, innocent or something in between.”

I have to confess that I’ve never cared much whether Alger Hiss “did it” or not; by now the case has assumed such cosmic symbolic proportions that factual questions seem almost beside the point. Neither a martyr nor a radical, the courtly old Alger Hiss I met at lefty parties in the late 80’s was fascinating precisely because he seemed so ill -suited for the enormous role history had assigned him. In that respect, I’m probably the kind of person his son Tony Hiss has in mind when he writes, “There are still many people who, when they think of him, see a law case and not a life.”

Tony Hiss’ beautifully written memoir, The View From Alger’s Window , has a dual mandate: to capture the complex inner life his famously reticent father was incapable of revealing, and to revisit a painful period from the author’s own childhood. At the outset of the case, Alger and Priscilla Hiss decided to keep their sensitive 7-year-old out of it, which left him in a state of muted emotional turmoil. “I was wrestling with the idea that if I thought I was feeling angry, I wasn’t really feeling angry, because, as had been explained, nothing was happening that we needed to feel angry about,” he writes. “I was lost, totally out of my depth, struck dumb, frozen solid, a real boy transformed into a block of wood.” After living “awkwardly and uneasily in the corner of a once-huge event called the ‘Hiss case,'” he now wants to stake out a view of his own.

This is actually Mr. Hiss’ second book about his father. The first, Laughing Last (1977), is a curious synthesis of family history, political diatribe and sexual confession (“So I decided to get a boyfriend. I found one who hated me, which seemed to me only right”). Written in an offhand, jaunty style, Laughing Last hid more than it disclosed, ringing false from page 1 (“At the age of 72, my dad, Alger Hiss, has never been happier in his life” is the opening line). The author did his best to convince us that everything was rosy in Hiss-land despite the trauma of having a father branded America’s No. 1 traitor and locked up for three-and-a-half years in distant Lewisburg Penitentiary in Pennsylvania.

Composed a year after his father’s death, The View From Alger’s Window is a much more artful, insightful book that explores the inner tumult Alger and Priscilla Hiss concealed beneath their WASP reserve. Blurring the line between a memoir and a more traditional account, Mr. Hiss eschews historical objectivity in favor of what he calls his “50’s/90’s vision of events.” Rather than argue the facts of the case, he tries to exonerate his father by painting a rich and subtle portrait–a portrait thoroughly at odds with the one Whittaker Chambers produced.

The Hisses were inveterate scribblers, as evidenced by the 2,500 letters and postcards Tony Hiss draws on here. He dwells in particular on the 445 letters his father wrote in prison, which constitute, he argues, “the book he never wrote, or, more accurately, the book that in later years he had already written and couldn’t afterwards duplicate.” The letters home make wrenching reading: We watch a father desperately trying to raise his troubled son from an impossible distance. “Today, Tony started back to school. I get up at quarter of seven, make my bed, get dressed and finish breakfast before eight–just the way Tony does. So we’ll all be doing the same things at the same time each school morning,” he writes. “Today is a beautiful sunny day and after two gray days I was able to confirm that my window faces due East–toward New York, toward you.” Tony’s letters are equally poignant: The adoring young boy tries to reassure his father in the midst of family catastrophe. “Dear Daddy, I have not much to say, but what I have to say is that I think nothing could possibly go wrong at home, and also at the prison, if the walls are painted black in your cell you will turn them white forever.”

The book opens with Tony Hiss’ 1997 pilgrimage to Lewisburg prison; it was while Alger was incarcerated there, oddly enough, that he and Tony “got to be firm friends.” Permitted only a single two-hour visit per month, father and son forged a friendship through letters. The notion that a stint in jail–”a good corrective to three years at Harvard,” Alger often joked–should enable him to express his feelings seems less odd when we consider the distinctive synthesis of insight and urgency that characterizes many great prison letters. But why, once released, was Hiss unable to show the world his more human side? “Now that his journey is complete, I think I know,” his son writes. “A fast-flowing stream making its way from the mountains to the sea found the middle of its passage unexpectedly blocked by a temporary dam. For 44 months, as it was held in one place for the first time, its banks rose to form a pool, and its purest waters welled up from below. At one edge of the new pool, with their current slowed, they lapped quietly against a beach where I was learning to swim.”

In his final year at Lewisburg, Hiss wrote, “Letters are, for me, the most effective biographies.” Tony Hiss has put his father’s letters to good use. While no memoir could possibly succeed in clearing his name, The View From Alger’s Window provides such a vivid portrait that perhaps one day Alger Hiss will be remembered as a person as well as a court case.