Whittaker Chambers, LIFE Magazine, and the Enlightenment

The final version of Dialectic of Enlightenment, a book that (as I’ve argued in an earlier post) may have less to do with “the Enlightenment” than its critics sometimes assume, was published at the end of 1947 and more or less ignored for the next two decades.1 A few months earlier a discussion of the Enlightenment that is now completely forgotten turned up in a rather unlikely place: the September 15, 1947 issue of LIFE magazine. No less unlikely was its uncredited author, a man who, a year later, would become famous for things other than his writing: Whittaker Chambers.

Whittaker_ChambersChambers had joined Henry Luce’s influential and profitable publishing empire eight years earlier with an article for Time on Finnegans Wake. Prior to that, he had written for various Communist publications and worked as a spy for the Soviets. By 1937 he had broken with the party and was seeking ways to extricate himself from his work for the GPU. One of the things that initially attracted him about the possibility of employment at Time was that, in addition to providing him with a living, having his name before the public might make it harder for his former employers to liquidate him.2 The most secure path out of the underground, however, would be to turn informant and, in return for his revelations, gain protection. On September 1, 1939 he met with Adolf Berle, Franklin Roosevelt’s advisor on economic and diplomatic matters (efforts to meet with FDR himself were unsuccessful), and informed him that a spy ring operating in the State Department had been passing secret documents to the Soviet Union.

Chambers’ meeting with Berle in the gardens of Woodley, the Federal period mansion Berle was renting from Henry Stimson (Roosevelt’s Secretary of War) turned out rather differently than he had hoped. Berle was already aware of the questionable loyalties of the individuals whose names Chambers revealed and, from previous experiences with former Communists, was inclined to think that they tended to exaggerate the Party’s influence. Berle, in any case, had more pressing things on his mind: eight days earlier the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had been announced and German troops were poised to invade Poland.3

Nine years later, with Republicans in control of the House and the Cold War ramping up, 00430001Chambers was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he testified that Alger Hiss, a figure of some importance in the Roosevelt State Department, had also been a Soviet spy. Denials (from Hiss), law-suits (involving Hiss and Chambers), and fame (initially for Chambers, but more significantly for the first-term California representative Richard Milhous Nixon) followed.

I would have been unaware of Chambers’ account of the Enlightenment (which, understandably, occupies a rather minor place in the literature on Chambers) were it not for Michael Kimmage’s mention of it in his book on the complicated relationship between Chambers and Lionel Trilling (who would use Chambers as the basis for one of the major characters in The Middle of the Journey, a novel that was also appeared in the eventful year 1947).4 I leave it to others to follow up on Kimmage’s suggestion that Chambers’ later comments on the Enlightenment in Witness and Cold Friday might “bear comparison” to Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima Moralia.5 But Chambers’ account of the Enlightenment in LIFE merits attention in its own right, if only for what it suggests about how one of the culture industry’s more successful venues went about presenting the Enlightenment to an audience that would be far larger than any of the better known and more respectable studies of the period.

History in Images

“The Age of Enlightenment” was the fifth in a series of ten feature articles that appeared in LIFE between 1947 and 1948 under the general title “The History of Western Culture.” The articles and the dates on which they appeared are as follows:

  1. The Renaissance (March 3, 1947)
  2. The Middle Ages (April 7,1947)
  3. Medieval Life (May 26, 1947)
  4. The Glory of Venice (August 4, 1947)
  5. The Age of Enlightenment (September 15, 1947)
  6. The Edwardians (November 17, 1947)
  7. The Age of Exploration (March 22, 1948)
  8. The Protestant Reformation (June 14, 1948)
  9. Eighteenth Century England (September 13, 1948)
  10. 1848 (November 22, 1948)

None of the articles appeared with bylines. As Dwight Macdonald, who had spent time at Luce’s Fortune before moving on to better things, observed,

As nuns sacrifice their hair, so Luce’s writers are shorn of their names. It is a symbolic renunciation of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Once they have taken the veil, any gallivanting outside the walls is discouraged. Writers who have contributed to secular journals have been “spoken to,” delicately but unmistakably.6

There were occasional exceptions to the rule. Chambers’ article on the Devil in the February 2, 1948 issue carried a byline, which prompted a letter from a reader who found it “superbly unique” and inquired “Who is Whittaker Chambers and what else or where is he writing?”7 The response on the letters page explained,

A senior editor of Time, Whittaker Chambers has edited every department in that magazine except business. He began contributing to LIFE last year by writing the long articles in LIFE’s series on the history of Western Culture. His next article, “The Age of Exploration,” will appear in the March 22 issue. Chambers, who is a Quaker, was born in Philadelphia.8

Drawing on Chambers’ subsequent discussions of his time working for Luce, Terry Teachout (the editor of his selected journalism) concluded that his involvement in the project began with the second article and ceased with the eighth.9 It is, however, unclear whether it makes sense to speak of authorship when dealing with productions of this sort.

First of all, everything that appeared in Luce’s publications was edited to bring it into conformity with the house style. As Macdonald (admittedly, an unfriendly witness) observed,

The specifications for an editorship at Time, Inc., are those for a good radio set: maximum receptivity and minimum static (read: independent thought). After years of selective breeding, Luce has developed a set of human instruments delicately adapted to their great task, the transmission of the dynamic radiations of the Lucian personality out of the ether onto the printed page (584).

Teachout suggests that during his career at Time Chambers found ways of reconciling the house style with his own and gained a measure of freedom after his transfer from the Foreign News section at Time to a “Special Projects” unit where, with James Agee, he prepared cover stories on cultural, historical, and religious themes that were too challenging for Luce’s other writers. But any assessment of Chambers’ role in the LIFE series on the “History of Western Culture” must, at some point or another, recognize that the words he supplied were but one component (and not, perhaps, the most important one) in the final product. In contrast to Time and Fortune, at LIFE the image was the dominant element.

The cover of the inaugural issue displayed the massive (and unidentified) Fort Peck dam towering over two small figures in the left foreground. The only words on the page — the soon-to-be familiar logo, the publication date, and price — provided nothing in way of orientation for viewers attempting to negotiate what, at first glance, might pass for a real life (or, as the house style would have it, “real LIFE”) version of a de Chirico landscape.10


Screenshot 2015-08-12 14.47.30

Turning to the first page, the viewer (it seems out of place to speak of “the reader”) is confronted with a full page image of a new-born child dangling upside down from the a doctor’s hands. At the bottom of a page that carries the painfully obvious pun “LIFE BEGINS” are six lines of text that make it clear where authority lies: “The camera records the most vital moment in any life.”

Screenshot 2015-08-12 14.47.47

In LIFE the camera (and the photojournalist that it pulled behind it) played the role that, at the birth of modern journalism, had been played by Addison’s Mr. Spectator: it wanders through the world, recording everything it sees. But while Mr. Spectator recounted what he had seen in prose, LIFE served up images that purported to bring its consumers face-to-page with the thing itself. The early issues of LIFE — either out of a giddy enthusiasm for what could now be done with its large format pages or, more likely, in order to differentiate this latest (and, it turned out, massively successful) product from Luce’s other publications — was a bit heavy-handed in emphasizing the novelty of what it was doing. The writers, as before, typically went uncredited, but the names of the intrepid photographers were celebrated. As might be expected, the inaugural issue was a bit over the top: photographs of FDR appeared under the rubric of “The President’s Album,” as if the viewer had been granted access to the great man’s private files, and — in a sort of imagistic celebration of images — there was a spread on paintings by John Steuart Curry (“the greatest painter Kansas has produced”), followed by a spread of photographs of Helen Hayes (”the greatest living actress”) as a child.

LIFE was the perfect vehicle for capturing a world where, as Adorno wrote, “Life has changed into a timeless succession of shocks, interspaced with empty, paralyzed intervals.”11LIFE reproduced what life had become, allowing its subscribers to occupy a position not unlike that of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History as they turned its pages and stared awestruck at the every growing rubble pile of catastrophes: Coventry, Stalingrad, Buchenwald, Hiroshima. Years later, old copies of LIFE would become part of a peculiar rite of passage for some members of my generation when, having stumbled upon them stacked away in attics or hidden away in closets, we would open their frequently innocuous covers and catch a glimpse of what history had been preparing for us.

The Historical Image Gallery

A prefatory note in the inaugural article of LIFE’s “History of Western Culture” explained the general approach behind the project this way:

the spirit of this series will be the spirit which has moved American universities more and more to teach history not in narrow courses but in comprehensive surveys of civilization.

It went on to observe that, though there had been much recent “discussion of saving our civilization” it had not been matched by an adequate “understanding of what civilization is.” While granting that there had been “many civilizations in the world’s history,” the one that mattered to LIFE was “modern Western civilization, which owes much to classical Greece and Rome, had its roots in the Middle Ages and grew most directly out of the Renaissance,” the age that produced “the ideal kind of man ….”

Living in the fresh morning of a new era in history, he was, above all, a rounded man who took all the world for his opportunity and all knowledge for his province. He was vigorous, creative and enormously confident.

In contrast, modern Western man “is not so confident.”

Standing uncertain of his place in history, he does not know where he and his world are going. But if he does not know where he is going, Western man can at least look back and see where he came from.

There was one particular group of “Western men” that needed help in understanding from whence it had come.

Americans need perspective on their past so that they can determine their future. To an extent they have never had before, they have now the opportunity to preserve and develop the culture which they have inherited and which has in it so much greatness and beauty.

In March 1947 the Cold War was still in its early stages, but implications of the prefatory note were clear enough: with the responsibility for the defense of Western Civilization now transferred from Europe to the United States, the new trustees needed some instruction regarding what, exactly, it what it was they were preserving and developing. Hegel’s characterization of the Phenomenology as a “gallery of images [Galerie von Bildern]” might not be a bad description of what LIFE was serving up: the heirs of Western culture surveyed what history had left them by surveying the catalogue of holdings.

Since LIFE was primarily a magazine of images, any history it presented was shaped by what would look good on a page. For all of the first article’s discussion of the significance of the Renaissance image of man, it is difficult to shake the feeling that the chronologically haphazard organization of the opening articles (which started with the Renaissance and then devoted two issues to the Middle Ages, before moving on the Venice) was determined by the Art Department’s keen sense of where the best images were. The text that Chambers produced had to fight for space on pages that were awash with pictures. Typically, it was only after two or three page jumps, which pushed the text back into the nether regions of the magazine (where the images became smaller and eventually became surrounded by the cheaper black and white advertisements that were consigned to the back) that the text began to occupy the center of the presentation. How many readers were willing to chase the text that far back (especially when there were other stories along the way to catch their eye) is an open question.

Toward the Grand Coffee-Table Abyss

Three years after the series had concluded, the November 5, 1951 issue offered what it described as “a conclusion to — a culmination of” the earlier series: an article on “Western Man and American Idea.” Reiterating the earlier description, it explained that the goal of that series had been “to give America, as the West’s ‘heir and hope,’ an understanding of the wealth and glory it had inherited.” Since that point, apparently, had not been sufficiently clear at the end of the initial series, which closed with a survey of the 1848 revolutions that had been content to juxtapose the “great and simple” understanding of freedom that inspired those revolutions — “the individual’s protection against tyranny” — with the “gigantic revolution against individualism” that Marxism had set in motion.

The 1951 article was written by John Knox Jessup, one of Luce’s closest associates, who had recently ended a stint on the Board of Editors at Fortune to become chief editorial writer at LIFE. Jessup’s conclusion left no ambiguity about the stakes.

The challenge of Soviet communism is unlike any challenge America has ever in its past met and surmounted. It is like Melville’s confrontation with the fact of evil in Paradise, except that the dimensions of this evil are more colossal than Americans had ever imagined.…

In the face of this challenge. Americans are more nearly united and more nearly alone, than ever before in their history. Even our artists and intellectuals are rediscovering America and rallying to the side of freedom. And meantime the capacity of other nations for sharing the honors of leadership of the struggle has been weakened — even Britain’s — by war and the dead-end experiment socialism.

On this lonely pinnacle the American can survey more history than he is seen before. During the past generation he rediscovered his personal links with Western Man and his membership in Western civilization. Somewhere in these turbulent years America’s acceptance of responsibility for the fate of its parents’ land, for the mother and father of its own present, quietly placed itself beyond question.

Beyond the services it might be rendering to the new owners of Western culture, this new installment also contributed to the balance sheets of Time, Inc.: it was written to serve as the concluding chapter of the History of Western Man, “a LIFE-size book of 306 pages, 113 of them in full color, reproducing not only the works of art which appeared originallyOffer 1 in LIFE but many others which display the greatness of Western Man’s cultural achievements.” The “text material” from the original series was supplemented by new chapters and “hundreds of black and white illustrations.” An advertisement in September 3, 1951 issue offered readers the chance to pick up the 350 page “BUCKRAM BOUND … STAMPED IN 14 KT. GOLD … LIFE-SIZE” book for $7.95 if they acted by September 29.12

The book opened with a page that contained a list of names assembled under the corporate heading “TIME INCORPORATED” that descended from “Editor-in-chief Henry R. Luce” to the “Business Manager Louis P. Gratz” and included editors, arts directors, researchers, writers, an art department, and assistants. Chambers was listed among the writers, but there was nothing to indicate the extent of his contribution. Then again, it is not clear (which is to say, I haven’t bothered to try to figure out) how much of what he wrote wound up being revised yet again.

“Western Man, American Style”

The new book included one more attempt at explaining its general approach, an attempt that began with a quote from Carl Becker’s “delightful essay” “Everyman His Own Historian”: “every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in light of its own restricted experience ….” But, since everything LIFE did had to be “LIFE-sized” or larger, the new explanation quickly assured its readers that there was nothing about recent American experience that could be considered “restricted.”

Our generation is confronted as none before it by the size and scope of time and space. It is confronted also by the massiveness of Evil, whether its symbol be the destructiveness of the Bomb or the hideousness of the concentration camp. In the face of these confrontations, and of the perhaps even more perilous abyss of the irrational “subconscious” of the human psyche, the supreme question of our time is whether anything can have any meaning. (9-10)

After a few paragraphs devoted to rehashing how much effort had been put into the volume (and who had done it) the opening discussion concluded by announcing that it was left to Americans to answer these “supreme questions.”

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the history of Western Man comes to a great forking. After the American Revolution a new and distinct branch appears in the United States where, under fresh and different circumstances, Western Man, American-style, proceeds to meet his own problems and solve his own destiny. It is the thesis of our final chapter that this American branch holds greater importance for the future of the human race than the European parent culture. For this reason this book bypasses almost entirely the nineteenth century in Europe develops the American story through a century of national growth to maturity. Only then in the twentieth century does Western Man, American-style, reverse the stark trend and returned to Europe as a mighty new force dedicated to the defense of Western civilization (10).

There were, however, a few other important things absent from LIFE’s account of the ascent of “Western Man, American-style” besides nineteenth-century Europe.

Shortly after the first installment appeared, one of the more astute readers of the series had noted that there was something crucial missing. A letter to the editor that appeared in the March 24, 1947 began by praising the general aim of the series, noting that

Such essays, thoughtful and effectively done, will go far towards broadening the horizon of 20th-century Americans. We are in such great need of perspective, as well as of maturity and judgment, that any step in that direction of providing the means by which these important requisites for successful living can be achieved is commendable.

But the reader was concerned that the approach LIFE had taken ran the risk of glossing over certain unpleasant facts:

I believe that one of the weaknesses which we always had in our study of history in US is that we have seldom taken cognizance of the unsavory aspects of our own history and culture. I hope, therefore, that your series will take into consideration the fact that there has existed, since the Middle Ages, a strong tradition of bigotry and oppression that has continuously threatened the tradition of freedom of which we are so justly proud. We certainly have had it in our own country from the time of the Puritan settlements down to the present. Our people should be aware of the great struggle that is going on between these two traditions and some effort should be made to point out that one force has stimulated progress and the other has tended to proscribe it.

The author of the letter, a young scholar who would go on to become one of the leading historians of his generation, was already quite familiar with the “unsavory aspects” of American history and would devote much of his subsequent career to exposing and rectifying them. He was teaching history at the North Carolina College for Negroes and his name was John Hope Franklin.


To be continued …

  1. A hectograph copy had been sent to a select group of friends and associates of the Institute for Social Research in 1944. ↩︎
  2. If this was his motivation, he picked the wrong place to ply his trade: the Luce publications were quite stingy with bylines. ↩︎
  3. For a discussion of the meeting, see Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997) 161-163. ↩︎
  4. Michael Kimmage, The Conservative Turn : Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009) 156-157. ↩︎
  5. Kimmage 388, footnote 18. ↩︎
  6. Dwight Macdonald, “Time, Fortune, LIFE,” The Nation, May 22, 1937 584. ↩︎
  7. On the genesis of the article, see Terry Teachout’s introduction to Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959 (Washington, D.C. : Regnery Gateway, 1989) xxiv. ↩︎
  8. “Letters to the Editors,” LIFE, February 23, 1948. The mention of his religion in the response suggests that it may have been written by Chambers himself who, though raised as an Episcopalian, was attracted to the Quaker faith in the early 1940s (see Tanenhaus 171). ↩︎
  9. Teachout notes that he was not granted access to Chambers’ manuscripts (which have not been archived and remain in the possession of his family) and based his selection of articles for Chambers’ work at Time and LIFE on Chambers’ own references in his later books. ↩︎
  10. The complete run of the magazine is available from Google Books.↩︎
  11. Minima Moralia #33 “Out of the Firing-Line”. ↩︎
  12. As early as December 1947 LIFE had run announcements in the magazine offering “LIFE-using Teachers” the opportunity to pick up offprints of the original series at 10 cents each for the first 25 copies and 5 cents each thereafter. ↩︎

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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6 Responses to Whittaker Chambers, LIFE Magazine, and the Enlightenment

  1. tsrub88j says:

    Reblogged this on roads to modernity and commented:
    I am thoroughly enjoying this blog and would like to share it and “spread the word.”

  2. Pingback: The Woman with the Corpse in Her Carriage: Whittaker Chambers, Life Magazine, and the Enlightenment (Part 2) | Persistent Enlightenment

  3. Interesting piece re: Whittaker Chambers. Why no more recent posts?

    • My day job (i.e., corrupting the youth at Boston University) has gotten in the way this semester. In place of my usual course on the European Enlightenment, I decided to teach a course on the “Making of the Modern Public.” While leading me into some material that I hope to develop in future posts (including, perhaps, something on coffeehouse pamphlets, which I discussed in the course), it has prevented me from having the time I need to post here. Complicating matters further: before I move on to other matters, I really should finish up the discussion of Chambers’ LIFE piece with a discussion of his article on the Enlightenment, but I’m having trouble working my way back into it. On the bright side: I have only two weeks of classes left.

  4. Dr. Schmidt: A most interesting piece; thank you. By the way, the original article (“The Age of Enlightenment” by Whittaker Chambers) appeared some years ago in _Ghosts on the Roof_, which reprints many of his stories and articles from the New Masses, TIME, Life, and National Review. With permission from Jack Fowler of National Review, all those articles also appear on WhittakerChambers.org. Regards – David

    • Dear Mr. Chambers:

      Thank you for the kind words about the post. I will have more to say about your grandfather’s discussion of the Enlightenment itself in the sequel, which should appear shortly.

      As you note (and as I mentioned in passing), Terry Teachout’s Ghosts on the Roof is a useful collection of your grandfather’s journalistic writings and is well worth having, since the material from TIME magazine still remains behind their paywall. In the case of the LIFE series on The History of Western Culture, I think the question of what exactly constitutes the “original article” is a bit more complicated.

      1. First, as Teachout observes in his Editor’s Note, “Since no surviving manuscripts were made available to me by the Chambers family, it was impossible for me to determine the precise extent to which Chambers’s writings were altered by the editors prior to publication” (x). For that reason, he characterizes his collection as “a purely preliminary undertaking” and expresses the hope that “a more complete edition of Chambers’s writings prepared with the full cooperation of the Chambers family will someday be made available to the public.” That hope, I suspect, is shared by those of my colleagues who work in the area of US intellectual history.

      2. Second, as I noted in the post, the “original article” in the case of the LIFE pieces was a combination of (a) the main text of the article (which Teachout reprinted), (b) certain subsidiary texts (e.g., brief discussions of various eighteenth-century thinkers and institutions that appeared separately from the main article), and (c) the images, most of which came with brief, explanatory captions.

      The second point is probably more important for me than the first though, obviously, they are related (e.g., it would be interesting to know who wrote the accompanying texts that were not incorporated into Teachout’s collection). I suspect it was your grandfather, but it would good to know for sure.

      What interests me about the LIFE article has to do with the role it played in the reception history of the concept of “enlightenment”: this was a widely-read (and quite interesting) discussion of the Enlightenment that may have had an influence on how Americans understood the period. For that reason, I think it is important to begin with the version that appeared in LIFE (along with the images, the sidebar discussions, the captions, etc.). This, after all, is how it appeared to those who read the piece in 1947.

      Finally, thank you for the work you’ve done on your own site, which brings together quite a bit of material that will be useful for those working on the better-known parts of your grandfather’s life.

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