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Essays show Christopher Hitchens delving into a cornucopia of subjects with wit, bravado and flair

Published September 6, 2011 4:36 pm

Essays show Christopher Hitchens delving into a cornucopia of subjects with wit, bravado and flair.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Christopher Hitchens occupies a unique position in American letters. A transplanted Englishman living in Washington, D.C., his solid Oxbridge education and binational perspective contribute to the easy authority he commands in print. He seems willing to write on any subject — cultural, political, personal, religious (or antireligious, since he is a devout atheist) — and place his words in any periodical in the land. Book reviews for the Atlantic, reportage for Vanity Fair and opinion pieces for Slate are among his regular, though by no means exclusive, outlets.

The reason for his popularity with editors is not hard to fathom: A prolific and professional writer, he turns in copy that is unfailingly witty, intelligent, cultivated, eloquent, provocative, unstuffy, well argued and entertaining. Regardless of whether you disagree with some of his positions, you have to admire his skill at structuring with unobtrusive elegance just about any job of prose. The man is very good at what he does.

Following on the heels of his affecting memoir, Hitch-22 , comes this grand (we hope not final) wrap-up of nearly 800 pages of recent writings, his first essay collection since 2004. All of the author's virtues, quirks, idees fixes and paradoxes are on ample display. But what comes across most strongly is his reasonableness. He upholds the values of civic society, democracy, women's rights, tolerance; he opposes ideological fanaticism on the right or the left; and he manifests a worldly acceptance of human flaws.

This insistent allowance of impurity especially buttresses his literary criticism. His grasp of modern British literature is sound: He will typically begin by characterizing the artistry of some writer (Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin, P.G. Wodehouse, Saki, Graham Greene), candidly discuss his "suspect politics," such as fascist, anti-Semitic or racist leanings, and end with a balanced assessment. He is at his best when threading his way, appreciatively but honestly, through a complex text he truly admires, such as Rebecca West's masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

His admiration for his adopted country, the United States, and its political traditions is more outspoken and unapologetic than many native-born intellectuals would dare allow themselves. He writes with cordial warmth about Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln and other children of the Enlightenment, and loves, as you would expect, Mark Twain. But his refusal to jump on an anti-American bandwagon does not prevent him from powerfully excoriating the enduring effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese. Nor does it deter him from a rather caustic debunking of JFK worship.

Hitchens can be quite fun when on the attack, as in his two poison-pen reviews of John Updike, whom he calls "Mr. Geniality." Reviewing the novel "Terrorist," he writes: "Indeed, Updike continues to offer, as we have come to expect of him, his grueling homework." There's some truth to that, but he's also being unfair in undervaluing Updike's temperate gifts, perhaps because Hitchens himself grows so intemperate around the subject of the Middle East.

He never tires of warning us that "Osama bin Laden, as we must always remember, began his jihad as an explicit attempt to restore the vanished caliphate that once ran the world of Islam from the shores of the Bosphorus." He speaks with fresh rage of the Sept. 11 attacks, "One must never again feel such defenseless shame," and can barely contain his bile at the Pakistani authorities' seeming protection of bin Laden: "But our blatant manipulation by Pakistan is the most diseased and rotten thing in which the United States has ever involved itself."

Such strong feelings no doubt entered into his support of our military misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, for which Hitchens has taken a good deal of criticism from his friends on the left. He now admits that "the cause became a consuming thing in my life. To describe the resulting shambles as a disappointment or a failure or even a defeat would be the weakest statement I could possibly make: it feels more like a sick, choking nightmare of betrayal from which there can be no awakening."

Nevertheless, Hitchens is still at obsessive pains to tilt with pacifism, and takes every opportunity to argue his "just war" position: A review of a biography of John Brown or a history of the Barbary wars will suddenly be pressed into service to remind readers that America has a long tradition of shedding blood to defend its ideals. Even his brilliant analysis of West concludes with: "West was one of those people, necessary in every epoch, who understands that there are things worth fighting for, and dying for, and killing for."

Hitchens has got some of the Hemingway war-correspondent swagger. He reports from global hot spots, submits voluntarily to water-boarding, is beaten up by thugs in Beirut, visits displaced-persons camps in Uganda and is reduced to eating dog in North Korea. He is also not averse to name-dropping his celebrated, influential friends, or reminding us of his prescient predictions and policy recommendations. Modesty is not his strong suit: But then again, we go to Hitchens for his sharp opinions and on-the-ground experience. He has been around, does know lots of influential, exciting people. And he is one of them.

George Orwell remains Hitchens' idol, cited at every opportunity, a sort of beloved older brother. He calls Orwell "a journalist par excellence. Somewhere in my cortex was the idea to which Orwell himself gave explicit shape: the idea that 'mere' writing of this sort could aspire to become an art, and that the word 'journalist' — like the ironic modern English usage of the word 'hack' — could have lost its association with the trivial and the evanescent."

This poignant plea to have his articles taken seriously as literary art is something only time can decide. For now, we may only say that Christopher Hitchens is at the top of his journalistic profession, and this collection commands our respect both for its flair and its ability to give pleasure.