Will Christopher Hitchens Be Remembered as a Great Writer or a Great Orator?
Will Christopher Hitchens be remembered as an orator or a writer, asks Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman.
In his final interview, conducted with Richard Dawkins and published in the Christmas issue of New Statesman, Christopher Hitchens, who has died from cancer at the age of 62, spoke of how the one consistency for him in his long, four-decade career as a writer was in being against the totalitarian, on the left and on the right. “The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy—the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes.” And the ultimate totalitarian was God, against whom (or the notion of whom) he was raging until the end.
Hitchens himself was many things: a polemicist, reporter, author, rhetorician, militant atheist, drinker, name-dropper, and raconteur. He was also an absolutist. He liked a clear, defined target against which to take aim and fire; he knew what he wanted to write against and he did so with all the force and power of his formidable erudition and articulacy. Hitchens was an accomplished and prolific writer, but an even better speaker: his perfect sentences cascaded and tumbled, unstoppably. He was one of our greatest contemporary debaters, taking on all-comers on all subjects, except sport, in which he professed to have no interest at all.
Born in 1949, he was a recognisable late-1960s archetype, radicalised and formed by the countercultural spirit of the turbulent era of the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution. (He reminded me of Philip Roth’s David Kepesh: celebrity journalist, upmarket talk-show star, libertine, hyperconfident scourge of bourgeois respectability and conventional behaviour.) The son of a Tory naval officer and a Jewish mother who committed suicide in a bizarre love pact, Hitchens was educated at the Leys School in Cambridge, and at Oxford, where he joined the far-left, anti-Stalinist sect, the International Socialists (forerunner of the Socialist Workers party), and agitated at demonstrations by day and romped and cavorted with the daughters, and sometimes sons, of the landed classes by night. He remained a member until the late 1970s and, long after that, continued to defend the Old Man, as he and comrades called Trotsky. If there was a parliamentary road to socialism, he didn’t seem much interested in it in those early days, though towards the end of his life he claimed that the British Labour Party was “my party”.
After university, Hitchens worked on the New Statesman, under the editorships of Richard Crossman and Anthony Howard, before he moved to Washington in his early 30s. He was operating then very much in the shadows cast by his luminously gifted friends and fellow New Statesman staffers: Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, and James Fenton. Other friends, including Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, were also beginning to establish themselves as unusually ambitious writers of fiction. But there was a feeling among that group of clever young men—with their smart book chat, and bolshy political opinions—that the Hitch, as they called him, was a powerful intellect and journalist but a mediocre stylist.
"To evolve an exalted voice appropriate to the twentieth century has been the self-imposed challenge of his work,” Amis once wrote of Saul Bellow, in what served as a self-description and statement of intent. Amis had his own exalted style from the beginning; Hitchens, certain in his opinions but less so as stylist, took much longer to find his.
Amis, in Koba the Dread, his book about Stalin and the British left’s historic reluctance to condemn the crimes of the Soviet Union and its satellites, suggests that his old friend (their relationship was a kind of unconsummated marriage, Amis said, though Hitch would have happily consummated it at one stage) began to improve and grow as a writer, his prose gaining in “burnish and authority”, only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as if before then he had been ideologically and stylistically constrained by a self-imposed demand to hold a fixed ideological line, even at the expense of truth-telling.
I once had a drink with Hitchens in the mid-1990s after we were introduced by the former Conservative M.P. George Walden. We were in the basement premises of Auberon Waugh’s old Academy Club in Soho, London, and the air was rancid with cigarette smoke. He sat opposite me at a table, chain-smoking and drinking whisky, and he spoke in long, rolling sentences as he recited, from memory, large chunks of W. H. Auden’s poetry. I felt battered by his erudition—can you keep up!
Hitchens exuded what I thought then was a superb worldliness. His voice was deep and absurdly suave—and, in manner and attitude, he closely resembled his old friend Amis, both more than half in love with their own cleverness and verbal fluency. He was engaging, yet I found his confidence disturbing: he knew what he knew and no one could persuade him otherwise.
An absence of doubt defines his work. His weaknesses are overstatement, especially when writing about what he despises (Islamism, God, pious moralizing of all kinds), self-righteous indignation (“shameful” and “shame”, employed accusatorily, are favoured words in his lexicon), narcissism, and failure to acknowledge or accept when he is wrong. His redeeming virtues are his sardonic wit, polymathic range, good literary style, and his fearlessness.
Until the beginning of this century, Hitchens played the role of Keith Richards to Amis’s Mick Jagger. He was the more dissolute, the heavier drinker, and lesser writer, very much the junior partner in an ostentatious double act. Amis was a multimillionaire literary superstar, “the most influential writer of his generation” as he put it. He wrote in the High Style, after Bellow, and declared war on cliché. Hitchens, by contrast, wrote journalism and quick-fire columns and was not averse to using cliché or ready-made formulation. Even in his final interview, with Dawkins, he described himself as a "jobbing hack." "If I was strident, it doesn’t matter … I bang my drum.”
After the September 11 attacks, Hitchens remade himself as a belligerent supporter, in his writings and through public debates and his many appearances on American television, of the so-called war on terror. In the arguments over dodgy dossiers and unilateral declarations of war, he sided with George W. Bush, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Tony Blair rather than with his old friends at The Nation. He had, at last, found his grand anti-totalitarian cause. A robust Manichean, he denounced “Islamofascism,” a catch-all term that was so loose, generalized, and opaque in its application as to be meaningless. The Taliban, Iranian Shia theocrats, Sunni al Qaeda operatives, British Muslim jihadists, Hamas, Hizbullah—in spite of their different origins and distinct sociopolitical circumstances, they were all “Islamofascists.”
Hitchens believed his mission was comparable to that of Orwell and those who presciently warned of, and wrote against, the dangers of appeasing both communist and fascist totalitarianism in the 1930s. He became a hero to neoconservatives and the pro-war left, the leader of the pack: “The Hitch,” the journalist as brand name.
How will he be remembered? In many ways the comparisons made between him and Orwell, to whom he returns again and again, as evangelical Christians return to Jesus (“What would George do?”), are false. Unlike Orwell, he has no one definitive book, no Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four, or Homage to Catalonia. He is not a philosopher and has made no original contribution to intellectual thought. As an atheist, his antireligious tract, God Is Not Great, is elegant but derivative. His polemical denunciations and pamphlets on powerful individuals, such as Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Henry Kissinger, feel already dated, stranded in place and time, good journalism but not literature.
Ultimately, I suspect, he will be remembered more for his prodigious output and for his swaggering, rhetorical style—as well as for his lifestyle: the louche cosmopolitan and gadfly, the itinerant and sardonic man of letters and indefatigable raconteur.
The culture no longer throws up people like the Hitch. Today, he is very much a man apart. He has no equal in contemporary Anglo-American letters; there are followers and disciples but no heir apparent.
A. J. Liebling used to say that: “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.” He could have been describing Christopher Hitchens, who may have been silenced but whose essays and books will continue to be read and who, through the Internet, watched and listened to as he went about his business, provoking, challenging, amusing and stridently engaging with ways of the world, always taking a position, never giving ground. The Hitch, the only one.