Adam Kirsch reviews Michael Kimmage's The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, in Nextbook:
There is no shortage of books about the New York intellectuals—the mostly Jewish circle of writers clustered around Partisan Review—and their ideological schisms. But Kimmage offers a new perspective on this familiar story by focusing on an unlikely pair of protagonists. Lionel Trilling and Whittaker Chambers could not have been more different in terms of personality and background. Trilling, the child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, was a quintessential New Yorker, who spent his whole career at Columbia University; Chambers, a WASP from Long Island, came to see New York as a symbol of America’s decadence, preferring to live on a remote farm in Maryland. Trilling wrote magisterial literary essays for Partisan Review; Chambers wrote blunt polemical articles for Time Magazine. Most important, Trilling was a reserved, professorial figure, while Chambers was a man of action, a Communist spy turned anti-Communist prophet who figured in one of the most scandalous trials of the century.
Yet The Conservative Turn shows that, from the time they met as classmates at Columbia in the 1920s, Trilling and Chambers followed similar intellectual courses. In the early 1930s, with America sunk in the Depression and fascism on the march in Europe, they were among the many American leftists who turned to the Soviet Union for inspiration. The appeal of Communism was especially strong to American Jews, who saw in Russia’s “great experiment” the promise of a world without poverty, injustice, or prejudice, including anti-Semitism. Hadn’t Lincoln Steffens, the crusading liberal journalist, visited the Soviet Union and proclaimed, “I have the seen the future and it works”?
For Trilling, becoming a fellow traveler was primarily an intellectual commitment, not a practical one. He did nothing more to advance the revolution than joining a Communist front organization, the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, and writing some pro-Soviet book reviews. Chambers was much more deeply involved in the Communist cause. After joining the Party, he became a secret agent for the Kremlin, helping to organize a spy ring among mid-level New Deal bureaucrats in Washington D.C. He even tried to recruit Lionel and Diana Trilling, asking if they would help him by acting as a “drop” for secret messages. They declined, not wanting to follow Chambers so far into the realm of espionage.
But in the mid-1930s, both Trilling and Chambers underwent a crisis of conscience about Communism.