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

Back in August, prior to what turned out to be an unexpectedly long hiatus (let’s just say that my day job — which included teaching a new course on the history of the notion of “publicity” — wound up consuming more time than I bargained on), I posted a discussion of Whittaker Chambers’ role in the production of Life magazine’s series on the “History of Western Culture.” In what follows, I’d like to tie up some lose ends by saying a few things about the article Chambers wrote for the series on “The Age of Enlightenment.”

This was article that drew me to Life’s peculiar venture in the first place. The unlikeliness of a mass-market magazine devoting this much attention (and the hours of work that it took to produce the article) to a topic that, at first glance, might seem somewhat arcane appealed to my taste for the bizarre. But, then again, the presence of an article on the Enlightenment in the most successful of Henry Luce’s ventures was not quite as strange as it might initially seem. For the Enlightenment has long been a topic of interest outside the academy: it has been condemned and celebrated, but it has not been ignored. Those of us who work on the period periodically wonder whether this is a blessing or a curse.

Chambers was among those inclined to see the Enlightenment as responsible for much that was wrong with the modern world. As he explained in a much-quoted letter dating from 1954,

it is the duty of the intellectuals of the West to preach reaction, and to keep pointing out why the Enlightenment and its faults were a wrong turning in man’s history.

Yet the same letter went on to concede that, whatever the failings of this particular turning point, “it was a turning, and within its terms, we must maneuver at the point where to maneuver is to live.”1

In his book on the relationship between Whittaker Chambers and Lionel Trilling, Michael Kimmage suggests that something similar can be found in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.2 But this, I think, overstates the extent to which Horkheimer and Adorno saw themselves as attempting to come to terms with the historical period that we (like Chambers) have come to know as “the Enlightenment.” At the risk of repeating a point that I’ve made several times before: German does not always go easily into English and there is no reason to view every invocation of die Aufklärung in Dialektik der Aufklärung as a discussion of what we call “the Enlightenment.” While Horkheimer and Adorno argued that the dialectic of enlightenment stretches back into human prehistory, Chambers’ account was unambiguously a discussion of a particular historical period.  And the account that Chambers offered of this historical period turns out to be more peculiar than we might expect.

Authors and Collaborators

For me, the most perplexing aspect of Chambers’ article involves a question that does not appear to have much concerned Kimmage: the extent to which Chambers’ article can be seen as reflecting his’ broader views on the trajectory of modern history. Kimmage tends to see the work that Chambers produced while employed by Henry Luce as anticipating positions that he would late elaborate in the wake of the Hiss hearings. But reading these texts in this way runs the risk of assuming that Chambers had more control over what appeared in the pages of Life than might be warranted.  It is obvious that Chambers was the author of Witness.  It is less clear how we go about assigning authorship to the texts that appeared in Life.

Discussing the conclusion of the discussion of the Protestant Reformation that appeared in the June 14, 1948 issue of Life, Kimmage argues,

The final paragraph of the series completes the general argument, the story of religion formalized in the Middle Ages, of religion challenged in the Enlightenment and successively diminished in the nineteenth century, ending with the story of religious awakening in the sixteenth century, revived in Europe with Luther and Calvin, and then again in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The rise of the middle class and of capitalism, which was also Chambers’s story, was thus modified to deny that secular modernity, the product of science and technology, is the endpoint of history. Civilizations thrive only when people believe in them — religious faith might wax and wane, dark ages might put a temporary end to civilization, but faith could also be regained and civilization restored. A Protestant revolution could supplant a Russian revolution. If so, America might continue to stand at the center of modern history.3

This narrative does seem to echo positions that Chambers would go on to elaborate in Witness.  But there are a few problems with Kimmage’s approach to the text.

First, though the article on the Protestant Revolution appears to have been Chambers’ final contribution, two further articles appeared before the series finally concluded: a discussion of “Eighteenth Century England” on September 13 and a final article on the 1848 revolutions on November 22, 1948.  Hence, while Chambers wrapped up his involvement in the series with an account of how the “the new spirit” unleashed by the Reformation had “leaped the Atlantic Ocean”, cleared the forests of North America and — after purging the continent of “the remnants of stone-age man” — created “an appropriate space where the new dignity of the individual, safeguarded by his new freedom of faith could, under God, build a citadel, an arsenal and an altar,” two additional articles were either already planned or waiting in the queue.4

The series itself ended with a discussion of the 1848 revolutions that featured a closing paragraph that would seem to offer a much better summary of the general message of the series:

In 1848 freedom was still a great and simple matter. It was the trumpet which proclaimed to the world and to the heavens the rights and worth of man. It meant the individual’s protection against tyranny. But Marxism has set in motion a gigantic revolution against individualism, that view of man as a free being on which Western civilization rests. Of all the lessons of 1848 the most important is one concerning freedom. It is that freedom cannot be won, once and for all, on the barricades. Like man’s other possessions, it must be defended. 5

Those with a finer sense of Chambers’ style are in a better position than I am to judge whether this conclusion offers a markedly different account of the basic lessons of the Life series than the (premature) climax Chambers wrote for the article on the “Protestant Reformation” (much turns, I suppose, on Chambers’ sense of the alleged virtues of “individualism”).  But it does serve as a reminder that Luce’s publications were defined by a certain was a house style. Lionel Trilling’s later characterization of Chambers as having achieved a measure of “economic security and even a professional reputation of sorts with the apocalyptic pieties of his news-stories for Time and the sodden profundities of his cultural essays for Life” — while snide — was on the mark in at least one respect: Chambers’ success at Time and Life had at least something to do with his managing to find ways of producing work that conformed to the general dictates of the house style.

The series on the history of Western culture provided regular opportunities to produce new examples of the style. After all, the mission of the series was to take stock of the civilization that Americans had inherited. Reminding Americans of their past successes in exterminating those “stone-age” natives that got in the way of their deforestation project, stocking up the arsenal with the latest weapons of mass destruction, and settling down to a protracted defense of a “freedom” that could never be fully secured — all this was consistent with the early Cold War rhetoric at Time and Life. That the house style was a good fit with Chambers’ own helps to account for his success: when the need arose, he could turn out “apocalyptic pieties” and “sodden profundities.” But he had other resources and, as we shall see, wound up striking a rather different tone at the close of the Enlightenment article.

I am inclined to wonder whether it makes much sense to try to apply the notion of individual authorship to productions of this sort. Life’s “History of Western Culture” was, above all else, a collaborative project in which Chambers was responsible for producing a text that would accompany the parade of images that were Life’s stock in trade. The seemingly haphazard ordering of the various installments may be a further testimony to the collaborative nature of the undertaking.  Even if the texts that Chambers produced were able to escape the subsequent editing that seems to have been the norm at Life, they were still only one part of the Gesamtkitschwerk that this particular branch of the culture industry churned out.  With an efficiency that rivaled that of the Hollywood studio system in its glory days, various departments labored to produce a product that, issue after issue, was defined by a unified style.  When the requisite parts of a product were ready to be assembled, a new installment appeared: hence the indifference to chronology that marked a series that started with the Renaissance, moved back to the Middle Ages, returned for a look at Renaissance Venice, stopped off at the Enlightenment, jumped forward to the Edwardians, turned back to consider the “Age of Explorations,” paid a visit to the Reformation, took a look at Eighteenth Century England, and finally ended with an account of the revolutions of 1848. It may not have mattered that the initial presentation of the series appears to us as a chronological train-wreck: everything would be straightened out when the pieces were polished up and reassembled in the deluxe coffee-table book that would follow.

Terrifying Women

The word “enlightenment” (as readers of this blog are well aware) can refer either to something that individuals do (namely, enlighten one another) or the particular historical Header for Enlightenment Articleperiod that we see as exemplifying this activity: the so-called “Age of Enlightenment.” The article in Life was supposed to be concerned with the latter and Chambers began his article by repeating the already old (and mistaken) notion that Kant was responsible for the “name given the era.” But, though Chambers may have been interested in writing an article that traced the evolution of “the human spirit” during this brief “interlude between the stake and fagots and the guillotine, Life‘s art department was (of necessity) less interested in ideas than in images.  Hence, the cover of the September 15, 1947 featured, not a philosophe, but instead a royal mistress: the Madame du Barry. That choice was in keeping with the divided focus of the subheading that followed the words “The Age of Enlightenment” at the start of the article: “In the reign of France’s Louis XV, the passion for reason became a religion and the rule of women reached up to the king’s throne.”6

Screenshot 2016-02-13 18.41.56While the idea that cult of “reason” was not as different from the religious beliefs that it sought to banish had, thanks to Carl Becker, become a standard trope in mid-twentieth century American critiques of the Enlightenment (and would shortly become the bête noire of a young Columbia university professor named Peter Gay), the idea that women were turning men into eunuchs must have seemed considerably more promising for a magazine devoted to images (especially images of women). The center of the opening page was dominated by an image of a “grand lady of France’s Age of Enlightenment” — wearing “a wig 3 feet high, adorned with feathers, ribbons, jewels.” The art department’s choice echoed the paragraph Chambers crafted to launch his account:

Mademoiselle de Coigny kept a corpse in her coach. The Age of Reason was dawning in France — it was the 18th Century — and there were otherwise just not enough minutes in those days of wonderful Enlightenment for mademoiselle to pursue, like other dedicated bluestockings, the fascinating study of anatomy. But with the corpse handy and her scalpel as keen as M. de Voltaire’s wickedly witty mind, she could. While rattling over the Paris cobbles, slice and eviscerate in daily officiation at the new faith whose deity was reason, whose ritual was science and whose high priests were the philosophes, the new order of literary skeptics.

Pace Trilling, passages like this might serve as a reminder that Chambers knew how to hook a reader.

Of course readers (as opposed to subscribers) were not the primary interest at Life. The relative importance of words and images was driven home by the note that occupies the lower right hand corner of the opening page:


At this point Chambers’ text drops out of sight and the art department takes over.  We see reproductions of  prints of the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon at Versailles, a Masonic initiation ceremony, and a tennis match.  They are followed by luscious color images of Screenshot 2016-02-14 11.10.34works by Fragonard, Watteau, and Boucher and photographs of the royal palace at Versailles.  What any of this might have to do “the Enlightenment” (as opposed to “the eighteenth century”) is not entirely clear, but  over the course of those fourteen pages the would-be reader encounters quite a few women. The captions inform us that opera singers were the “chorus girls of the day” and that they “paraded on the streets in morning dress” (77). There is a full page devoted to salons and the “grand ladies” who “presided over the centers of wit and learning” (78). A full page is devoted to Fragonard’s The Swing, a painting that, we are told, illustrates the “pseudo-pastoral pleasures of the French nobles.” There are two pages juxtaposing Louis XV and the Madame de Pompadour (“the virtual ruler of France”).7

When the flood of images ends and Chambers’ narrative resumes we are finally presented with a brief sketch of the Enlightenment and its implications.

Before the Enlightenment culture have been essentially religious. Carrying further the work of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment made culture essentially secular. Before the Enlightenment the proper study of mankind had been the will of God. The proper study of mankind, said the Enlightenment with the voice of Alexander Pope, is man. Revelation had been held to be the highest form of truth. Looking back to Descartes … and to Newton … the Enlightenment sought system and reason in all things. There is no truth, said the Enlightenment, which cannot stand the test of reason. Slowly and surely the Enlightenment began the process whereby philosophy, the search for truth, was supplanted by science, the search for facts. Theology, the effort to know God’s will, was replaced by history, the record of man’s follies. (90)

A reader familiar with Chambers’ writings from the 1950s might see this passage as foreshadowing Chambers’ own later characterization of the Enlightenment. But it bears remembering that it also echoes accounts of the “Age of Enlightenment” that had become a commonplaces in the orthodox Marxist accounts of the period with which Chambers would have been familiar from his days as a Communist. And, with the possible exception of the replacement of the “search for truth” by the “search for facts,” the passage offers little indication that there is anything lamentable about this transformation.  Indeed, on the opening page of the article (immediately before fourteen pages of images), Chambers had emphasized the significance of the Enlightenment for the one thing that would likely have been of greatest importance for  Life‘s subscribers in 1947:  America.

The great divide of cultures is the moment when men feel within themselves a force equal to the vicissitudes of new vision. The vision of the Enlightenment was freedom — freedom from superstition, freedom from intolerance, freedom to know (for knowledge was held to be the ultimate power), freedom from the arbitrary authority of church or state, freedom in trade or work without vestigial feudal restrictions. This vision was embodied in the American Bill of Rights (for 18th Century America was also a part of the Enlightenment) and in the French Revolution’s Rights of Man (75).

We find a similar assessment of the Enlightenment fourteen pages later:

Enlightenment is one great source of modern culture. In a brief 100 years, it provides the fundamental ideas of man’s destiny and purpose which civilization had developed over more than 1,000 years. The Enlightenment was the intellectual chemistry whose gradual precipitate was the modern mind – secular, practical and utilitarian.

Once again, there is little here that is inherently critical. Everything depends on the reader’s stance towards “the modern mind.”

It is not until the final paragraph of the sketch of the Enlightenment that Chambers offers once the art department has finished with its task that something approximating a critique begins to surface;

The function of the Middle Ages had been to reconstruct human civilization from the debris of the fallen Roman. The function of the Renaissance had been to liberate the creative energies of the individual man and to reunite the culture of the ancient world with the culture that man had developed since. These movements had been spontaneous and organic. Their ideas were evolved, not superimposed. The Enlightenment in France began with ideas, and its immediate purpose was to reform or revolutionize French life.

But Chambers immediately closes off the contrast between “organic” and “superimposed” ideas by noting that the attempt to reform France “was a rather discouraging prospect” since the French tended to assume that their civilization had already “reached a perfection unmatched in human history.” And with that, he ends his reflections on the overall meaning of the period and begins a discussion of Mozart, a discussion that rather rapidly turns into a series of reflections on the “terrifying hold on power” that women exercised over the course of the eighteenth century.  It is as if, somewhat improbably, Whittaker Chambers had begun to channel Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The article eventually tracks back to a brief discussion of the Enlightenment’s more significant thinkers.  There is a brief mention Montesquieu (who, we are told was “least influential in France” and important today chiefly because of his influence on the framers of the American Constitution) and Diderot (who gets two paragraphs devoted, chiefly, to the Encyclopédie) and a somewhat more protracted between Voltaire and a passing mention of Rousseau (there had been a longer discussion of Rousseau and Voltaire several pages earlier in two text blocks separate from the main essay).  The “ involuntarily witty and organically skeptical” Voltaire (it would appear that “organic” is a positive attribute in Chambers’ lexicon) comes off surprisingly well in this’ account, perhaps because Chambers employs him as the Enlightenment’s most effective critic.

His famous work, one of the few books of the Enlightenment is Candide, which savagely satirized the complacent belief, falsely derived from Orthodox philosophers, that this is the best of all possible worlds. Unlike other philosophers, Voltaire had cut deep into a more enduring subject than doctrinaire controversy or the battle of ideas – the eternal subject of human folly.

Rousseau is left to play in the role of the “great prophet of the democratic revolution.” It is because of his writings that  “the Enlightenment leads directly to the Revolution.”

We arrive at the Revolution in the middle of the closing paragraph, at which point Chambers executes a rather surprising pivot that manages to tie everything together. He notes that Rousseau was dead when the revolution he had inspired would come to pass and goes on to observe,

So was Voltaire. This was a pity, for a very minor confrontation of values during The Terror might have tickled the old philosopher’s ironic sense. Mme. de Gramont possibly never had an idea in her unenlightened head when she was called before the Revolutionary Tribunal to stand trial for her life. “Had she ever aided the aristocrats who had escaped abroad?” The court asked her.  Mme. de Gramont knew that if she answered yes she would be guillotined at once. For some seconds she looked at her judges in silence, then, “I was going to answer no,” she said, “but life is not worth the lie.”

Chambers ends this article with neither “apocalyptic pieties” nor “sodden profundities” but instead with the unexpected return of the scalpel-wielding noblewoman from the opening paragraph.  If Chambers would seem to view her efforts at enlightenment with disdain, his last sentence at least leaves her with a certain nobility.  There is perhaps a message that can be extracted here about the possible disjuncture between the acquisition of knowledge and the possession of a good will.  But Chambers was not setting the stage for a discussion of Kant’s Groundwork.  He was trying to come up way of explaining the Enlightenment to readers who —  as he must have known —  would have likely moved on to other parts of the magazine by the time his article had reached its conclusion.

It is hard to know what readers who stuck with Chambers until the bitter end might have thought about how Mme. de Gramont dealt with the question that had been posed to her.  It is even harder to know what Chambers himself, aware that he was about to appear before a Congressional committee and face other questions, might have thought about her fate.  What is clear is that when his readers finished his article and turned the page they would be greeted by the picture of a leggy “show girl”, perched on the railing of a wooden fence, lariat in hand, and an article that begins

Women’s clothes reached a non-utilitarian high in Hollywood recently with the development of riding habits which look just wonderful but unfortunately do not protect the rider from the horse. For a movie musical called Two Guys from Texas masterminds at the Warner Bros. studio posed showgirls in corrals and on cactuses in what looked like buckskin bathing suits. Even if their bare thighs got a trifle chafed, what was that where art is concerned?

And, having spent more time than I should have on this peculiar account of the Enlightenment, the only thing that I am reasonably confident in saying is that any attempt to  compare the account of the Enlightenment that Chambers offered in Life and the account that Horkheimer and Adorno provided in Dialectic of Enlightenment might begin by recognizing that Horkheimer and Adorno had it easier than Whittaker Chambers.  They didn’t have a deadline to meet, they weren’t working for Henry Luce, and Querido Verlag didn’t have an art department eager to provide them with illustrations for a deluxe illustrated edition of Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Screenshot 2016-02-12 17.06.49


  1. Whittaker Chambers, Cold Friday, ed. Duncan Norton-Taylor (New York: Random House, 1964). 227. ↩︎
  2. Michael Kimmage, The Conservative Turn : Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009) 388, footnote 18. ↩︎
  3. Kimmage, The Conservative Turn, 156. ↩︎
  4. “The Protestant Revolution,” LIFE June 14, 1948, 94.  Since neither Kimmage nor I (nor, it would appear, any other historian) has been able to examine the Chambers’ manuscripts, we are both relying on the selection of texts assembled by Terry Teachout in Whittaker Chambers, Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959, (Washington, D.C. : Lanham, MD: Regnery Gateway, 1989).  As I noted in my previous post on this topic, a definitive judgment on what Chambers might have contributed to the series (e.g.,  was he also responsible for the supplemental material that appeared outside the main text)  and how his drafts might have been edited.↩︎
  5. “1848”, LIFE 111.  ↩︎
  6. Several studies of the role of women during the eighteenth century appear in the bibliography appended to version of the series later published in book form, including E. L. and J. A. de Goncourt’s, The Women of the Eighteenth Century (1927), Halina Sokolnikoza’s Nine Women (1932), and H. N. Williams’ studies of the Madame de Pompadour (1902) and Madame du Barry (1934).  Roger Picard’s Les Ssalons Littéraires et la Société Française (1943) is also cited.  Surprisingly, there is no mention of Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers.  Less surprisingly, neither Cassirer nor Hazard appear.  It should be stressed that it is not clear what role, if any, Chambers would have had in suggesting items for the bibliography.   ↩︎
  7. It might be noted that whoever wrote the captions seems to have reversed the Mme. D’Epinay and the Mme.du Chatelet. ↩︎

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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2 Responses to The Woman with the Corpse in Her Carriage: Whittaker Chambers, Life Magazine, and the Enlightenment (Part 2)

  1. Thanks very much for this!

    Preserved Smith (great name, eh?) was one of the earlier English language studies of the Enlightenment and it makes sense that Chambers might have drawn on it. But it wasn’t included in the bibliography that was added to the deluxe coffee-table version that Life subsequently produced. It does, however, include the English translation of E. L. and J. A. Goncourt’s The Woman of the Eighteenth Century (Minton, Balch and Co., 1927). There are actually quite a few books about women and the eighteenth century included in the bibliography. Conspicuous in its absence is Carl Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, which tended to crop in “New Conservative” discussions of the Enlightenment.

  2. Ken Haynes says:

    Chambers’ source for the story of the corpse in Coigny’s carriage was possibly Preserved Smith. He too, in the Enlightenment volume of his History of Modern Culture (1934) mistakenly calls her “Mlle de Coigny” (admittedly, more ambitious googling might show that the confusion antedates him, and there’s always the possibility that they made the same mistake independently). It was her mother, the comtesse de Coigny, who loved anatomy, not the daughter, Aimée de Coigny, “la jeune captive” made famous by Chénier while imprisoned during the Terror. Her mother the anatomist, before she was countess, was the Mlle de Roissy; the title “Coigny” was gained by marriage. The story about her cadaver is in the Goncourt brothers, La Femme au XVIIIe siècle, who note that at the time a taste for anatomy was much in vogue among women, which is certainly the case; the wax models of Mlle Bihéron, admired by Diderot, were long famous. (The feminine interest in anatomy did not, in any case, have to wait for the 18th century; Boileau’s satire against learned women depicts them at the fashionable public dissections by Duverney). Anyway, even this “horrible” study did nothing to impair the Goncourts’ nostalgia for the 18th century. Coigny’s anatomical passion was carried to an indecorous point, but it was in no way a reductio ad absurdum for the evil of enlightenment (corpses in carriages as condoms in classrooms?). The Goncourts got the anecdote from the memoirs of Mme de Genlis, who knew Mlle de Roissy, as she then was, at the Précieux Sang convent and renewed their friendship later. She shared the interest in anatomy but preferred Bihéron’s models. She adds a note about Coigny in her memoirs, “It has also been asserted that she never travelled without having a dead body in the boot of the carriage.” I wonder if there is any other contemporary account?

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