Susan Jacoby taken to task by Whittaker Chambers's grandson for not consulting Harvey Klehr's book on Hiss

Historians in the News

Susan Jacoby is a gifted writer. She is deft and light. As a grandchild of Whittaker Chambers (who was another gifted writer, if rarely so light), I looked forward to "Alger Hiss and the Battle for History." How would she weigh in on the Hiss case?

Her latest book begins with a clever foil. She has her own mother ask of this book about the Hiss case, "Who cares about that anymore?" We should, Ms. Jacoby holds. People today need to avoid the "swift eclipses of historical memory" too common in American culture. They need to care about the Hiss case. Much of today's fissured politics formed back then.

Ms. Jacoby writes in a conversational, even chatty tone that makes reading this slim volume a pleasure. She probably had in mind a book along the lines of the late Richard Rorty's "Achieving Our Country" (1998). However, at critical moments, she appears not to have thought through or stuck to her mission. The results are disastrous.

The main goal Ms. Jacoby sets for herself is noble. "The contradictory historical scripts about the Hiss case reveal much more about conflicting visions of what America ought to be." These scripts are less about "what American communism actually was - or about who Alger Hiss was." However, she rambles rather than guides or glides readers through the six decades since the Hiss case. ...

Perhaps strangest is this book's omission of new findings by another recent Yale publication. "Spies" (May 2009) opens with the bold chapter title, "Alger Hiss: Case Closed." It claims to seal the coffin (if not bury the grave plot) on Mr. Hiss' guilt. Nothing from "Spies" appears in Ms. Jacoby's book. According to "Spies" co-author Harvey Klehr, Yale's editor Jonathan Brent offered her access to the book's new findings. Apparently, Ms. Jacoby took a pass....
Read entire article at David Chambers in the Washington Times

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A Daqn - 6/1/2009

Can one scrape for argument with a finer toothed, nitpicking comb than David Lowenthal? Did he actually just assert it is "incorrect" to say that a first chapter rather than introduction opens a book? (See previous comment) No wonder the Hiss Case never dies; old dogs won't leave off old bones!

HNN - 5/30/2009

In chiding Susan Jacoby for not using “new findings” in Harvey Klehr’s and John Earl Haynes’s just published “Spies”, David Chambers asserts that “Spies opens with the bold chapter title, ‘Alger Hiss: Case Closed.’” (HNN, May 24, 2009). That is incorrect; a significant essay with quote another message comes first. “Spies” opens with a lengthy introduction by its chief begetter, ex-KGB agent Alexander Vassiliev, tellingly titled “How I Came to Write My Notebooks, Discover Alger Hiss, and Lose to His Lawyer.” Vassiliev lost to Hiss’s lawyer when he sued his publisher for libel. The Brbitish High Court jury in 2003 ruled Hiss’s lawyer, my brother John Lowenthal, justifiably critical of shoddy scholarship in “The Haunted Wood” (1999), which Vassiliev co-authored with Allen Weinstein. Touted “new findings” in “Spies” based on speculative interpretations of selected unverifiable KGB files are similarly unworthy of trust.

David Lowenthal (Emeritus professor, University College London).

A Daqn - 5/26/2009