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Christopher Hitchens and Fights Worth Having

You can smell the cigarette ash and Johnnie Walker Black Label on the pages of A Hitch in Time, a gleefully pugilistic posthumous Christopher Hitchens anthology.

A Hitch in Time: Reflections Ready for Reconsideration
Christopher Hitchens
January 2024

A culture’s vitality can be measured by its major figures’ willingness to start fights and spread gossip. Minor or major, substantive or petty, it doesn’t matter. Writers, editors, and artists can best show they care about the life of the mind by getting into a scrape about it; the bitchier, the better.

One sign of the healthy state of American letters in the 1960s and ‘70s was the fights. There were classics, whether it was hand-wringing over the success of Philip Roth’s priapic clowning in his 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint. (Irving Howe said the “cruelest thing” anybody could do with the book was “read it twice”), Truman Capote spilled the tea about the ladies who lunched at La Côte Basque, and James Baldwin took down Richard Wright not once but thrice. (The final time not long after Wright, who had initially supported Baldwin, had died).

Later decades also saw juicy fights. You had the rotten produce hurled at James Frey after A Million Little Things was charged with being even more flagrantly fictionalized than most memoirs, agitation over Dale Peck’s scorched-Earth reviews (“Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation”), not to mention Leon Wieseltier’s fulminating feud with Andrew Sullivan among others.

However, in the 2020s’ vacant digitized cultural commons, such tusslings among ink-stained wretches seem to be from an earlier age. The mood is very positive and uplifting these days; so many Instagram-bright covers and “exciting” new authors to celebrate. That relentless optimism has a forced-march feel. A more confident culture might show greater willingness to throw down. Now that Michiko Kakutani’s poison pen has been capped, literary fights are rarely noticed beyond the grotty sub-regions of Goodreads, whose population appears divided between bottom-line simplicities whether earnest fandom and hive-minded mob attacks. All the more reason to cheer the US release of Christopher HitchensA Hitch in Time: Reflections Ready for Reconsideration.

That is not to say this posthumous collection of alternately waggish and outraged pieces from the London Review of Books is just a pack of stilettos, each inscribed with a hated target’s name. The late Christopher Hitchens (he died from cancer in 2011 at 62) was too droll a stylist to waste his energies solely on cutting colleagues down to size. His curiosities did not allow limiting himself to literary matters. A columnist of the old breed, Hitchens didn’t narrow his remit. He darted across culture, politics, and history. He expounded on P.G. Wodehouse with the same authority he used to break down the fascist underpinnings of America’s militia movement, socialist factions in the pre-and postwar years, or the internecine power plays of Kurdistan. There were no dry, serious essays or lighthearted, fun ones. Each piece was just as compelling, pellucid, and witty.

Like some British writers who came to America for a steady paycheck and to escape their pernicious class system, Christopher Hitchens wrote like a champion debater with a classical education who would also be a fabulous party guest. His modest beginnings (Portsmouth-born, Royal Navy father) and activist youth (Vietnam War protestor, Trotskyite anti-Stalinist) belied the plummy accent and knack for reciting reams of poetry by memory. Some of his rhetorical tricks are highly effective; nothing will get an audience cooing more approvingly than a raconteur who can reel off literary tidbits like everyone’s favorite professor bellied up to the bar. But as an ace essayist, generally better over the short stretch, Hitchens always deployed those tricks in service of aiming towards his target.

“Mary, Mary”, his 1993 London Review of Books column on Anthony Summers’ muckraking J. Edgar Hoover biography, starts by asking, “Who can forget the moment in Chapter Six of Greenmantle” when a character decides the Prussian intelligence chief’s taste for “frippery” suggests a latent gayness? Hitchens knew most readers would not remember John Buchan’s 1916 novel, much less have Greenmantle committed to memory. Nevertheless, it is a neat way to both flatter his readers and introduce the image of a brutal authoritarian with a hypocritical private life. (Hitchens’ sophistication was also weaponized; during a spat over Stalinism, he sneered that his once-and-later friend Martin Amis didn’t know his Bukharin from his Bakunin.)

After an aside from King Lear (“Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back”), Christopher Hitchens gets to the heart of his thesis: Hoover’s grotesque policies of harassment targeted the very people he feared himself to be. Besides Summers’ claim about the FBI director’s unacknowledged homosexuality, Hoover was also rumored in Washington, D.C. circles, to be part black. Hitchens somewhat questionably sources that last bit to his onetime compatriot the compulsive gossip, Gore Vidal. But the point is strongly argued nevertheless, especially as Hitchens builds to a larger theory about how, for so long in America, “‘family values’ meant accoutring a docile society to combat socialism and miscegenation.”

The political often merges with the personal in A Hitch in Time. As with Hoover, Hitchens yokes his distaste for certain figures to the policies they espouse. “A Hard Dog to Keep on the Porch” pairs a portrait of Bill Clinton as one of the more “conciliatory” vaguely leftist Yanks Hitchens crossed paths with at Oxford in the late ’60s to the mealy-mouthed having-it-both-ways Democratic consensus of the ‘90s. Rather than just mocking Clinton’s Jello-like nature as many critics did, Hitchens shows the casualties of such desperate-to-please ideological slipperiness: Clinton, as Arkansas governor, okaying the execution of Ricky Ray Rector for murder, even though Rector had been “lobotomized by a gunshot wound” just to show that the future president “was not soft on crime”. In the angrier “Kennedy and Nixon”, Hitchens makes an at-times overheated but still hard-to-refute argument for the connection between John F. Kennedy’s “frantically sordid private life and the events that punctuated and terminated his sorry term in office.”

That condemnatory streak is vividly present throughout A Hitch in Time. The figures who Christopher Hitchens focuses his ire upon are almost always well-chosen. In a piece on the fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie and his abandonment by many in the West, Hitchens lashes the moral cowardice of both the supposedly iron-spined Margaret Thatcher (“the old girl was utterly silent on the open suborning of murder for gain by a foreign prelate who sought to spill blood in England itself”) and the squishy lefties “who concern themselves with ‘sensitivity’ and the multicultural.”

The dark is frequently leavened with the light in this fierce yet often wonderfully waggish collection. Though largely contemptuous of Tom Wolfe’s gimmicky style and surprisingly unnoticed conservatism, Hitchens is dismissive more than angry: “[Wolfe] is simply, as was once said of the old German ruling establishment, blind in the right eye.” Hitchens’s distaste for “Baroness Thatcher” was as incandescent as that of most British lefties who came up in the ’70s. But he still brought a jouncy tone to a column on class-based Tory fetishes that included this book party encounter with Maggie in 1977, not long before she became Prime Minister and not long after he’d written a teasing article about her:

[I] made a slight bow of acknowledgment. She pierced me with a glance. ‘Bow lower,’ she commanded. With what I thought was an insouciant look, I bowed a little lower. ‘No, no—much lower!’ … Having arranged matters to her entire satisfaction, she produced from behind her back a rolled-up parliamentary order paper and struck—no, she thwacked—me on the behind. I reattained the perpendicular with some difficulty. ‘Naughty boy,’ she sang out over her shoulder as she flounced away. Nothing that happened to the country in the next dozen years surprised me in the least.

Later, in a letter responding to a writer accusing him of homophobia, Christopher Hitchens ripostes with a quote from then-friend Alexander Cockburn: “Many’s the time male friends have had to push Christopher’s mouth, fragrant with martinis, away, as, amid the welcomes and goodbyes, he seeks their cheek or lips.” Hitchens calls this description “an example of a badge of supposed shame that one may wear with pride.”

That spirit of louche sauciness extends through this collection. The closest thing most of us will get to having been in Hitchens’ orbit, A Hitch in Time positively reeks of cigarette smoke, loud schismatic arguments, emptied liters of Johnnie Walker Black, unprintable humor, and dauntingly fierce erudition.

A Hitch in Time ends in 2002. This was just around the time Hitchens switched his byline from places like The Nation to the Weekly Standard and argued on Fox News for the rightness of the Iraq War. It seems unusual that the same man who wrote brightly of the “lovely light” he saw cast off by a “bonfire of overturned vehicles” at a 1970 GM factory strike and despised the American right-wingers who backed fascists like Pinochet would later pal around with George W. Bush. In his introduction, James Wolcott described the drama of that ideological turn in appropriately operatic terms: “The evening sky crimsoned from all the bridges he burned.”

RATING 8 / 10