Whittaker Chambers, author of the finest American autobiography, was a gloom-minded man divided against himself, serious if not exactly humorless but certainly unburdened with joie de vivre. After the Hiss trial and the publication in 1952 of Witness, Chambers and his family retired to his farm in rural Maryland, where he raised cows and sheep, and continued to write. Chambers died of a heart attack in 1961, and three years later Random House published Cold Friday, a collection of his articles, letters and diary entries. The title is borrowed from the name of a field on Chambers’ land. Of it he writes: “Most fields invite the world; Cold Friday confronts it.” The former communist might be describing himself.
Chambers was an urban man, a journalist at home in big cities. In the pieces devoted to life on the farm, he reveals a need for rootedness and a love of nature and agriculture, though a subdued pastoral theme is detectable in Witness. Chambers is no Thoreau, though Rebecca West, in her review of Witness (Atlantic Monthly, June 1952), described its author as “a Christian mystic of the pantheist school, a spiritual descendent of Eckhart and Boehme and Angelus Selesius.” In his diary on June 12, 1952, Chambers writes:
“Toward dawn, fighting off sleep. To rouse myself, I climbed the ridge. The woods and the opposite ridge pearled with light, the hollows between filled with shadow. Behind, the grey band of concrete state road (no cars or even a truck at that hour). I thought: Quiet the land with sleeping. This is the oldest continuity, known to man—the peace of pre-morning in the fields, within which even I, for an hour, am one of the oldest of human figures—a man watching his flocks by night.”
Chambers echoes Psalm 35:20 in the King James Bible: “For they speake not peace: but they deuise deceitfull matters against them that are quiet in the land.” He almost tries on the role of King David as a shepherd boy. In “Exercises,” a sketch written in both prose and verse, Chambers stands on a hill on his land with “a young man, cut wholly to the modern fit,” who finds the skull and bones of a groundhog. (See Richard Eberhart’s poem.) The bones elicit a characteristic Chambers meditation, as he sees in “any seeming-peaceful field a scene of incessant death struggle and murder as horrifying as a battlefield.” He continues:
“I thought, too, of the multitudinous necessity of death—the multitudes, in numbers defying the mind, who have lived, died, been killed, without leaving any memory, without trace or so much as a pathetic small skull and crumbling bones. Millions upon millions, vanished absolutely, as if they had never been at all—no smallest memento or memory; no apparent meaning. The thought of those meaningless numbers thunders like surf in the mind, and drowns our probities in the surge of energy without purpose. The point is not that God notes every sparrow that falls, but that he lets it fall—without trace. I love the light. The groundhog loved the light. The sparrow loved the light. Night falls.”
I hear Sophocles, Matthew 10:29-31 and Matthew Arnold. Chambers must be thinking of the anonymous millions already claimed by communism, with millions more to follow in subsequent decades. And remember the lines in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
“Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
“Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.”
Gray died on this date, July 30, in 1771, at the age of fifty-four.