When Bellow Met Chambers
Religion & Liberty Online

When Bellow Met Chambers

You may have heard that Ayn Rand really disliked C.S. Lewis. But do you know what happened when Saul Bellow met Whittaker Chambers?

Bellow’s biographer James Atlas provides the anecdote. The context is that Bellow has very nearly gotten a reporting job at Time magazine via Dana Tasker, an editor there. It a gig that would mean a real windfall for the struggling author:

There was just one hurdle–a formality, Tasker assured him. He would have to see Whittaker Chambers, who edited the back-of-the-books pages on books and the arts. The house highbrow at Time, Chambers prided himself on his grasp of Western culture and was rumored to keep a score of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in his drawer. He was also a fanatical anticommunist. “In his own person he had experienced history,” Bellow wrote of Chambers in one of his many unpublished manuscripts about these years, describing him as “a GPU agent turned Quaker” and a chain-smoking paranoid with rotten teeth. “Passing through hell, the suffering servant of God, he brooded from his high window in Rockefeller Center over downtown New York, stuffed with thoughts about the future of Christianity, the fate of the West, the spiritual struggle with satanic totalitarianism.” Chambers had done more damage as an editor, Bellow joked, than as a spy.

At their interview–as Bellow often told the story, frequently altering the details–Chambers faced away from him, enthroned on a wing chair. Was Mr. Bellow familiar with Wordsworth? he asked. (Sometimes it was Blake.) Bellow protested that Wordsworth had nothing to do with writing journalism for Time, but Chambers adamantly pursued his English-lit line of questioning. Wordsworth was a Romantic poet, Bellow replied. And what was his greatest poem? Chambers persisted. “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” Bellow ventured.

He was sorry, Chambers announced curtly, there was no place for Bellow at Time. The only poem of Wordsworth’s that counted was “The Excursion.” Bellow had flunked. As he was leaving, a disgruntled employee shook his hand and assured him it was his “lucky day.” (Years later, John Berryman told Bellow that he had suffered an identical humiliation at Chambers’s hands.)

Saul Bellow in 1992.
This happened in the early 1940s, about the time that Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb were beginning to break with the Left, as Jonathan Bronitsky argues in this essay on “The Brooklyn Burkeans.” Bellow came to know Kristol and Himmelfarb during these years as well. Bellow’s own journey is in many ways quite different than that of Himmelfarb and Kristol, despite the early affinity for Trotsky Bellow shared with Kristol. Atlas relates that Bellow was actually present in Mexico City when Trotsky was assassinated and in fact had an appointment scheduled with him on the day of the attack.

Lee Trepanier, an editor of A Political Companion to Saul Bellow, writes that in Bellow “we discover is a trajectory from the youthful idealism of Trotskyitism, gender equality, and disaffiliation with his ancestral Judaism to a growing cynicism, misogyny, racial anxiety, and a return to his religious roots. However, Bellow did not become a ‘neoconservative,’ as he is sometimes portrayed, but rather was predominantly concerned about the viability of civilization and high culture in America. It was only in these areas of high culture and the arts that Bellow joined the Political Right.”

Whittaker Chambers in 1948.
Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King had a profound effect on me in my college years, and I think there is much of interest to learn from his life and work. It is a book that embodies, in my view, Bellow’s “return to his religious roots,” as Trepanier puts it.

And as for Whittaker Chambers, he famously detested Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which he said “can be called a novel only by devaluing the term” and characterized as “a massive tract for the times.”

“Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal,” said Chambers. And here’s a clip where William F. Buckley Jr. discusses Rand and Chambers’ review, which appeared in the pages of the National Review.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.