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Fathers and Sons

Annette T. Rubinstein is an editor of Science and Society and the author of American Literature: Root and Flower (dist. by Monthly Review Press).

Tony Hiss, The View from Alger’s Window: A Son’s Memoir (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 241 pp., $24, hardcover.

The View from Alger’s Window is a fascinating book. Even if the father and son who share the stage in this memoir were completely anonymous, it would still be an absorbing story. Probably for most readers, however, and surely for almost all Monthly Review subscribers, the father’s name will reverberate with what Jack Gelber’s Nation review describes as a Nixon-manipulated “story of well-timed leaks, stage-managed press conferences, masterful misleading language.” But as the author himself says, a major objective of his work is to “transform Alger Hiss from a case to a person.” This he has certainly done.

A second objective (which was also, for me at least, completely realized) is the son’s hope that the evidence of some 2500 personal letters exchanged between Alger and his wife in over a quarter of a century, including 425 written to wife and son from prison, would force any reasonable doubter to share his conviction that his father could never have committed the perjury of which he was convicted, let alone the treason with which he was never actually legally charged.

But Alger is not the only protagonist in this story. He had foolishly volunteered to appear before the Un-American Activities Committee and was forced to go to Washington on the day of Tony’s seventh birthday party. That childish disappointment had apparently long been forgotten when, the night before his own son’s seventh birthday, forty-year-old Tony woke with a blinding headache and a nightmare fear that he would not be able to attend Jacob’s party the next day. Of course he did and the fear was happily exorcised, but in a sense this entire book is a prolonged exorcism. It centers on the six years of his father’s trials and imprisonment, with a substantial prelude describing Alger’s long, close relationship with and lifelong adoration of his surrogate father, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, as well as a brief summary of Alger’s forty-three postprison years.

We see four of those years in some detail through memories of monthly prison visits and the precious two one-page letters weekly permitted prisoners. Tony shares with us his adult understanding of the way in which his undemonstrative, reserved father deliberately reformed himself to reveal emotions, to express quirky private observations, to create an intimacy with the son for whom he had earlier been, and would probably otherwise always have remained, a “world-travelling, dazzling, handsome, hardworking, so-often-away-from-home” impersonal father.

While the heart of the book and a great part of our actual reading pleasure lies in the generous pages of quotation from those letters, we also become deeply involved in the desperate struggles of the lonely youngster to keep his head above water. He gives us a vivid account of his blind attempts to deal with real hardships and far-worse nightmare apprehensions, to internalize his parents’ Quaker convictions that one must not hate and that understanding always leads to forgiveness and pity. There is still suppressed resentment evident in a memory of one of the few preachy letters which Alger wrote when Tony reported an attack by three bigger boys on his way home from school.

Apparently, the overwhelming majority of the letters are far better advised. Clearly hours of thought were spent on each of these brief compositions to create a common world for writer and reader. Whether Alger describes a rare bird glimpsed through his prison window; tells the progress of a BG (beginning reader) whom he is tutoring and, later, rejoices in BG’s promotion to MR (middle reader); asks Tony to visit and report on an art exhibit advertised in the Times; or offers another episode of the eagerly awaited saga of the SLB (Sugar Lump Boy), an extremely maladroit, fictional youngster whom Tony, himself not very athletic, could teach to swim—whatever the subject, every word of these spirited, seemingly spontaneous notes is designed to cement the foundation of what happily proved to be a lifelong father-son friendship.

In addition to this central, highly personal emphasis, the book gives us a poignant sketch of a long, loving marriage and an unhappy, blameless separation. There are also some surprising factual nuggets gleaned from the autobiography and correspondence of James Bennet, then-Director of Federal Prisons.

An extremely interesting short account of Tony’s stepbrother, to whom the book is in part dedicated, breaks new ground. Tim had been an eighteen-year-old Navy cadet in 1945 and was given an “undesirable” discharge after privately asking the Navy doctor’s advice about coming to terms with his bisexual inclinations. Since he had been an observant eight-year-old at the time when Chambers claimed to have been an intimate friend and frequent visitor of the Hisses, Alger’s lawyer wished to call him in support of their denial. As Tim much later told Tony, “I wanted to testify but Alger wouldn’t have it. He told his lawyers, ‘I’d rather go to jail than see Tim cross-examined about his private life.’” However ill-advised Alger’s decision was for himself, his fears about what the consequences might have been for the young medical student were well-founded. Tim reports, “I don’t know how many man-hours the FBI spent interviewing everyone I had ever lived with or slept with.”

As is no doubt already apparent, the view from Alger’s window is not a single or even a double but a triple one; it is a space defined by the father and seen twice by the son—first as a child, then as a man. There are, however, through all the variations, at least two strikingly consistent elements. The first is an extraordinary sensitivity to place and scene, whether a wood or a city street. The way in which individual sunsets, for example, are noted and described by both father and son, and later presented to grandson, seem a happy fulfillment of Wordsworth’s wish that all our days and nights “might be/bound to each other by natural piety.” The second consistency is more ambiguous.

There seems to be a curious naiveté in the way in which both father and son interpret history. Tony reports with no apparent disagreement, or at least not as an absurdity, Tim’s belief that if Alger had been acquitted and continued as head of the Carnegie Peace Endowment “speaking out on behalf of the United Nations and other New Deal ideas, maybe that could have exerted a moderating influence on the Cold War and helped keep McCarthy from gaining a foothold….Maybe we might even have been spared the Korean War or the Vietnam War!”

More tellingly, in his own attempt to analyze Chambers’ seemingly unmotivated malignancy and the enormous media or political support the liar received, Tony perceptively describes the envious hatred for his father as a symbol—“He has a daily beauty in his life that makes mine ugly”—but seems completely unaware of the powerful interests the anticommunist hysteria served. His own explanation of the period is the rare and fortuitous appearance of two phenomena—an A and a B syndrome—not too dangerous singly but devastating in conjunction. A is the existence of “serial liars” and B is a general state of anger and fear caused by a number of “hot button” issues.

Alger’s own analysis in a letter to his wife and son dated March 10, 1953, reads in part:

These are not normal times in our country. Many people are confused or frightened so that they are not naturally—happily—helping each other. And—a strange thing—it is so natural and necessary for all to love and help that one who stops gets twisted…When President Roosevelt was alive, he encouraged most people to bring out their natural kindness;…and Adlai Stevenson had some of this quality as thee and many others realized….

The only other bit of explicit political comment in the book is quoted from a letter written by a favorite uncle, Prossy’s youngest brother, Tom Fansler. He alone seemed immediately to recognize the real danger of the situation, if not its cause, and wrote Alger on November 16, 1952:

There is a war on and the fight is to the death. The war is not a war between haves and have nots but between the grabbers and the givers…between the haters and those who love. Unfortunately, the commies have made political capital out of lining themselves up with many of the ‘causes’ for which those who love strive. Hence all that side is now coming to be labeled with the tag of communism. Everyone who isn’t 100% for aggressive, dog-eat-dog cynical grabbing is now in grave danger of being tagged…I fully expect as bitter a period of rabid witch-hunting and persecution as this country has ever seen.

Even those who do believe, simply or simplistically, that the underlying struggle is basically between the haves and the have nots must join in applauding Tom’s prophetic estimate of the situation. We can more happily join Tony in applauding what he describes as Alger’s second successful career—the forty fruitful years of unembittered loving and giving before his death at ninety-one.

2000, Volume 52, Issue 04 (September)
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