A Regular Bull

Christopher Hitchens

  • Whittaker Chambers: A Biography by Sam Tanenhaus
    Random House, 640 pp, $35.00, February 1997, ISBN 0 394 58559 3

I once had the luck to meet the great Saul Bellow, who in the course of the evening told me the following story. In 1945 he had been engaged as a book reviewer for Henry Luce’ Time magazine. Or he thought he had been so engaged. When he turned up for work, he was informed that Whittaker Chambers, chief Pooh-Bah of the ‘back of the book’, wished to see him. He entered the sanctum and found the stout, surly presence waiting behind a desk. ‘Sit down Mr Bellow. Tell me, what did you study at university?’ Bellow replied that his study had been English literature. He was asked to give his opinion of William Wordsworth as a poet. He responded that he had always thought of William Wordsworth as one of the Romantics. ‘There is no place for you,’ said Chambers on hearing this, ‘in this organisation.’ The future Nobel Laureate was fired before he had been hired. Reflecting on this in 1989, he said he still had two questions about it. The first and unanswerable one was: what if he’d kept the job? He might be a book critic for Time to this very day. The second question was: what answer could possibly have saved him? I thought then, and I think now, that the books editor wanted the junior scribe to look him in the eye and say that William Wordsworth, a one-time revolutionary poet, had seen the error of his ways and – braving the scorn and contumely of his one-time comrades – become a reconciled conservative.

Bellow’s novel, The Victim, published in 1947, has a strong scene in which the protagonist Asa Leventhal is given the mother of all horrendous job interviews by the fat, bullying editor Rudiger. Leventhal strives not to be cowed:

Too many people looking for work were ready to allow anything. The habit of agreement was strong, terribly strong. Say anything you like to them, call them fools and they smiled, turn their beliefs inside out and they smiled, despise them and they might grow red, but they went on smiling because they could not let themselves disagree. And that was what Rudiger was used to.

Having defied Rudiger and been shown the door, he finds while relating the incident to a friend that his euphoria is abruptly dissipated:

   ‘You said that to Rudiger? Oh golly, that must have been something. Really something, Asa my boy. He’s a bull, that man. I’ve heard stories about him. A regular bull!’

   ‘Yes. Well, you’ve got to remember one thing, Dan,’ Leventhal’s spirits dropped suddenly. ‘Someone like that can make trouble for me. He can have me blacklisted. You’ve got to realise ... Eh, can he?’

Incidental as it is to the main plot, this episode demonstrates again Bellow’s uncanny facility for encapsulating an atmosphere. Here was the America of the immediate postwar: the most powerful and proud and strong nation in the history of the world. It had just demonstrated thermonuclear supremacy and – at what was literally a knock-down price – acquired an empire. It had no serious adversary, foreign or domestic. Yet at this precise moment (‘There were blacklists; that was well-known. After all, Rudiger was influential, powerful. And who knew how these things were done, through what channels?’) the whole suffocating business of loyalty oaths and heresy hunts began to disfigure an entire culture. The obvious and immediate answer to this conundrum – that there was nothing imaginary about the ghastliness of Stalinism – is insufficient. The Cold War was fought just as hard in France or Germany or England, but without the same grotesque paranoia or the chilling readiness to surrender liberty and believe the absurd. The enduring interest of this period is the light it throws, or fails to throw, on the matter of American insecurity.

Whittaker Chambers is the essential symptomatic miniature here. And, when we consider how he unwittingly saved Saul Bellow for American letters, we are guided in the right direction. Much of the Chambers story has to do with unintended consequences. And it can be viewed as a quasi-literary narrative. Chambers himself appears as a fiercely dedicated and principled character – a penitent ex-Soviet agent named Gifford Maxim – in Lionel Trilling’s novel, The Middle of the Journey (also published in 1947). He is the precipitating agent, in another sense of that term, in Alistair Cooke’s great account of the time, Generation on Trial. He was the man who made Richard Nixon’s self-serving book, Six Crises (a ‘campaign book’ for an entire career), possible in the first place. Witness, his own work, had a marked influence on Arthur Koestler and on Czeslaw Milosz and is, indeed, the nativist American equivalent of Darkness at Noon or The Captive Mind. With its ostentatious religiosity and its relentless emphasis on redemption and conversion – and its subplot concerning the triumph of the plain man over the devious intellectuals and sinister pointy-heads – it was one of the building blocks for McCarthyism, for the Goldwater campaign and for what eventually became the ‘Reagan revolution’.

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