Pugnacious political pundit. Unequivocal New Atheist. Churlish critic of Pope John Paul II’s beatification of Mother Theresa. Champion of freedom of expression. Christopher Hitchens was lionized and reviled for his multiform legacy as an essayist, literary critic, editor, and public intellectual. He wrote with record celerity, at once tippling and typing masterful pieces under the aegis of The New Statesman, The Nation, The Atlantic,Slate, and Vanity Fair. A sterling prose stylist, he was assertive and unapologetic to the point of braggadocio, yet convoluted and contrived in his thinking. He was urbane and erudite, yet at times so steeped in intellectual history that its mantle obscured his own ideas.
Arguably, the last compendium of his essays to be published in his lifetime (Mortality, a memoir culled from his Vanity Fair pieces chronicling his battle with esophageal cancer, will appear next spring), draws on this checkered history immeasurably well. Its sheer 816-page heft attests to its author’s productivity, while its six parts avow his scholarly breadth.
“All-American” is a survey of the founding fathers and iconic American novelists like Twain, Bellow, and Updike, and an affirmation of Hitchens’s self-styled patriotism upon adopting American citizenship. “Eclectic Affinities” is primarily chosen from literary pieces on Flaubert, Dickens, Pound, Waugh, and Wodehouse, many of which first saw print in The Atlantic. “Amusements, Annoyances, and Disappointments,” features, among others, his maddeningly misogynistic Vanity Fair piece on women’s lack of humor (“that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep throated mirth” apparently eludes women, who are “slower to get it, more pleased when they do, and swift to locate the unfunny”). “Offshore Accounts” comprises polemical accounts focused mainly on the Middle East, while “Legacies of Totalitarianism” centers on Chile, Germany, and Iran. “Words’ Worth” is self-explanatory.
“Eclectic Affinities” sparkles, so skilled is the research, so sage and prescient the tone. The coruscating attack on Dickensian biographers from John Forster, Dickens’s best friend and literary executor, to Dickensian editor Michael Slater is an apposite sounding of a hagiographic trend that George Orwell, Hitchens’s literary forebear, first articulated in Inside the Whale and Other Essays. Even if it’s dated due to the release of Claire Tomalin’s magisterial, measured new biography, which finally takes Dickens to task on his inveterate mistreatment of his wife, it’s still an eloquent, cautionary philippic.
“Rebecca West: Things Worth Fighting For,” first published as an introduction to West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, is a trenchant look at a “superbly intelligent woman whose feminism was above all concerned with the respect for, and the preservation of, true masculinity.” Barely known to my generation, West was formidably and memorably avant-garde to her own, distinguishing herself through coverage of interwar politics and the Balkans, and amusing herself with a romantic liaison with Lord Beaverbrook, the model for Lord Copper in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. She considered coverage of Yugoslavia “her destiny”, she cleverly linked the assassinations of King Alexander of Serbia and his wife, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the regime of Benito Mussolini, and the spread of Italian fascism and Nazism to Croatia. Hitchens writes admiringly, “her ability to appraise historical and global figures as if she had recently been personally oppressed or insulted by them was a great assistance in driving her narrative forward.”
Then there’s a witty anatomization of Evelyn Waugh’s greatness, predicated on his “toying with his innocents”, characters like Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, and on his “camp social conservatism: his commitment to stuffy clubs, ‘home’ rather than ‘abroad’, old clothes, traditional manners, ear trumpets, rural hierarchy, ancient liturgy, and the rest of it.” Hitchens is decidedly well placed to appraise this, having studied at Balliol College, Oxford, where he led a sybaritic lifestyle not unlike Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte’s. There are byzantine literary musings elsewhere in Arguably (one on Nabokov’s Lolita that is nearly unreadable in its confused straits), but the stellar pieces in “Eclectic Affinities” outweigh them.
Hitchens’s political assertions were at times unabashedly infuriating, causing altercations with former friends. Most often, though, these statements drew on his fervent belief in the freedoms of speech and expression, as Arguably shows. “Afghanistan’s Dangerous Bet” features hauntingly beautiful meditations on the burgeoning freedom of Afghani women in their dress and in suffrage, even amid Hitchens’s characteristically bawdy jokes. “Iran’s Waiting Game” focalizes a conversation with Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson, who, to his interlocutor’s surprise, “stand[s] for the complete separation of religion and the state.” The essay adopts a humorous tone when Hitchens expresses awe at a call for democracy being uttered “from the lips of a turbaned Khomeini.” On meeting the deposed Shah Pahlavi’s son later on, he hears the same, “so, even if they remain at arm’s length, it can be said at last that a Khomeini and a Pahlavi agree.” Humor aside, he recognizes “a state of dual power and split personality,” where “people live as if they were free,” actually in patent anomie.
There are appalling comments, too, such as these on Iraq’s Kurds: “Saddam [Hussein] actually was the real father of Kurdish nationhood. By subjecting the Kurds to genocide he gave them a solidarity they had not known before, and compelled them to create a fierce and stubborn resistance, with its own discipline and army. By laying waste to their ancient villages and farms… they became more integrated, close-knit, and socialized… If the country implodes, they can withdraw to their oil-rich enclave and muster under their own flag.” Good grief.
For all his ire, Hitchens intrigued his readers and critics to the last. He invited the artful analyses of contemporaries like Terry Eagleton, whose animated Harper’s review of Arguably earlier this month celebrated the author’s “scabrous wit”, “the verve and panache of [his] prose, its tonal range and opulent texture”, and his able interweaving of “the unstanchable eloquence of a stylist with the barfly loquaciousness of a hack.” He won the ardor of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, whose tribute to “the beau ideal of the public intellectual” graces the magazine’s web archive of the “exquisitely crafted” columns for which Hitchens would “subject himself to any manner of humiliation and discomfort.”
For those less intimately acquainted with his work, Arguably is a fine opportunity to take lessons (or umbrage, as it were) from the greatest polemicist since Dwight Macdonald, and one whose crackling wit, intellectual brio, and bracing candor will be missed.