As I read the second essay in the new Christopher Hitchens collection And Yet… I was struck by how familiar it sounded. Yes, the writing is unmistakably Hitchens: clear and precise, economical and sharp. But it was more than the style. The essay I’m referring to is ‘Orwell’s List’, originally published in the The New York Review of Books in 2002, and begins with this:
It is easy enough for me to say that George Orwell was essentially right about the three great twentieth-century issues of fascism, Stalinism, and empire, and that he was enabled to be right by a certain insistence on intellectual integrity and independence.
It’s a thesis Hitchens often presents in speeches and debates. More still, these are the exact words opening a chapter called ‘The List’ in Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters. ‘Orwell’s List’ is not a complete reprint of the chapter. The New York Review of Books version is a bit shorter, has small word changes, and additional paragraph breaks.
With the exception of two essays published in the ’90s, ‘Orwell’s List’ is the earliest essay. The latest is a Vanity Fair piece published posthumously in 2012 called ‘On the Importance of Being Orwell’. A footnote specifies this essay is the introduction to George Orwell Diaries. Perhaps the paperback of And Yet… will provide a similar note for ‘Orwell’s List’.
These reprints are odd. The front flap claims 250,000 words by Hitchens have yet to appear in any book. Why reprint what’s already available if such a bounty of miscellanea is uncollected? Answers to such a question are not provided. And Yet… has no credited editor, no introduction, preface, afterword, or epilogue. Any clue to the collections raison d’être is, again, found on the front flap where it claims the selections will be a useful addition to the Hitchens oeuvre.
The two Orwell essays frame what is the first post-9/11 decade and the last years of Hitchens life. This invites the reader to interpret And Yet… as a presentation of the post-9/11 Hitchens. We already have a collection with this purpose, however, called Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left (NYU Press, 2008). A comparison of the two books draws out a strength and a weakness in And Yet….
The broadness of Hitchens’ interests and his ability to weave politics into book reviews and personal essays is on full display in this new collection. While we are given the refined, erudite Hitchens, we don’t see much of the tough, confrontational writing easily found in Terror, Iraq, and the Left. And Yet… never treats us to a column swhere Hitchens repeatedly uses scare quotes to insult another writer, as he does to Sam Husseini in ‘Of Sin, the Left and Islamic Fascism’ (The Nation, r September 2001). Nor do we get the mocking, supercilious Hitchens presented in ‘Ha Ha Ha to the Pacifists’ (The Guardian, 14 November 2001).
Among the political essays and literary reviews in And Yet… there is also a theme of personal and intellectual growth. Early on we come to this passage:
Semiconsciously, I had been thinking the same way. You’re lucky enough as it is, and anyway who will ever mistake you for anything but a Brit? Yet osmosis was at work somehow, or so I must now suppose, and when it came to a critical point, it did so in the form I would most have wanted to resist: namely, that of a cliché. For me, September 11, 2001, really did change everything.
This is from ‘On Becoming American’ and prefaces some of the developments in what remained of Hitchens life. He does become an American and explores his Americanness in ‘My Red State Odyssey’ and ‘The Turkey Had Landed’. In ‘No Regrets’, Hitchens writes about voting for Barack Obama and muses on what the world might be like if a Democrat were in the White House on September 11th.
Hitchens often demurred flattering comparisons between himself and Orwell. Using the Orwell essays as a framing device is another invitation to make the same flattering comparison. In the conclusion to ‘On The Importance of Being Orwell’ Hitchens writes,
By declining to lie, even as far as possible to himself, and by his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth, he showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage.
The arrangement of work in And Yet… would suggest the political and intellectual life of post-9/11 Christopher Hitchens is evidence of a similar honesty and courage.
Debate as to the soundness of Hitchens political judgments regarding American intervention in the Middle East will persist so long as his writing endures. If his writing does endure, it will be because he never held an easy position, never provided the majority answer to a question, and always argued well for doing so.