The View from Alger's Window: A Son's Memoir

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9780375401275: The View from Alger's Window: A Son's Memoir

This powerful and moving memoir opens a new perspective on one of the most controversial and still talked-about figures of the century.

Using his father's letters from prison--three a week, two pages long, were allowed--and other family letters never before made public, as well as the recollections of friends and relatives, Tony Hiss moves back and forth in time to tell the story of Alger Hiss's life, and of his own experience as a young boy swept up in the turmoil of the trial that signaled the opening of the Cold War.

For the first time we go behind the public persona of Alger Hiss--the Oliver Wendell Holmes law clerk, the idealistic New Dealer, the founding Secretary-General of the United Nations, the defender of his innocence against Whittaker Chambers's charges of spying for the Soviet Union. For the first time we meet the man his family and friends knew as warm and witty, honest to a fault, intellectually searching, and enormously giving to those he loved. For the first time, too, we hear from Alger's stepson, Timothy Hobson, a boy of ten in the thirties when the disputed events occurred, who tells his side of the story.

Tony Hiss was just turning seven in 1948 when the charges against his father surfaced, and we see how he and his mother tried, with varying success, to cope with what was happening to them as fair-weather friends, and income, and jobs, dropped away. We also see how the friends who did remain created a protective bubble around them, enabling them to survive. And finally we learn how, almost miraculously, Alger's letters and the prison visits brought Tony and his father closer than they had ever been, and how perhaps the whole experience gave Alger Hiss a kind and common touch he had previously lacked.

The View from Alger's Window is a revelatory opening into one of the defining episodes of post-World War II America, poignantly evoking an entire era. It is also the record of a father's sensitive, against-all-odds efforts to make the unbearable possible for his young son, and the son's loving--but always clear-eyed-- tribute to his father.

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Review:

Although Tony Hiss firmly disbelieves the charge that his father was a Soviet agent who passed along State Department documents, the guilt or innocence of Alger Hiss is not entirely the point of this memoir. Instead, drawing on the letters Alger sent his wife and son during the nearly four years he spent in federal prison during the early 1950s, Tony Hiss reveals "the essence that Alger had kept private for so long," an "effervescent and playful" self far more appealing than the rather wooden, lawyerly public persona he adopted when defending himself during the trial. The warm human being who made friends easily, even in jail, was seldom available to his young son during the busy years that preceded Alger's incarceration. Their relationship deepened during his imprisonment, enabling Tony to endure those difficult years of deprivation and separation. Without minimizing the stresses on his family--Tony was plagued by bad dreams and inexplicable accidents; his parents separated a few years after Alger's release--the author emphasizes the courage and nobility of his father, who strove to find occasions for joy even behind bars. This is a moving, very human portrait of a man who in other accounts is usually either demonized or sanctified. --Wendy Smith

From the Publisher:

"It can be now said with certainty that the excellent writer Tony Hiss, when very young, managed to be as strikingly civilized as his father and mother in barbarous times. It seems probable to me that his father's particular hero and former boss, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., would have liked this book."
--Kurt Vonnegut

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