Christopher Hitchens, 1945-2011

By Benjamin Schwarz

16 December 2011 ATLANTIC 

article-1255852-0894A14F000005DC-573_468x356I met Christopher (never Chris) in 1997. Perry Anderson, a mutual friend, had invited us to debate the wisdom of American intervention in the Balkans. We were, unsurprisingly, on opposing sides–a position that all his friends have experienced, formally or informally.  Hitch’s friends were comrades always; but allies only occasionally–that was a role impossible to hold consistently. Hitch, an idealist committed to protecting human rights and to putting thugs in their place, embraced a muscular internationalism consistent with the stand he’d taken on the Falklands war (in 1982, Christopher, a then-uncompromising socialist, was at one with Mrs. Thatcher) and that he would take on the war against Saddam Hussein. I held to my usual parsimonious view of the national interest, and so our debate fell into a well-worn groove. Early on I made a smart-sounding point, using a recondite historical analogy, which the audience–largely anti-interventionist–liked. But ten minutes later, although the argument had moved on, it dawned on me that I’d scored a cheap shot, and I said so, explaining why my facile analogy didn’t hold water. Christopher held me in his gaze, touched his right hand to his chest (one of his characteristic gestures), and gave me an almost imperceptible bow. That was it for us. I had passed the only test that mattered to him, one in which he touchingly, anachronistically conflated intellectual honesty with a decidedly masculine, martial sense of honor.

Over martinis and dinner afterward, we talked about Hawthorne, mostly; I suggested he read Randall Stewart’s largely forgotten American Literature and Christian Doctrine (1958)–a book by a true southern conservative and a staunch Christian that only the most open-minded of atheists could appreciate. He read it within the month, and correctly pronounced it brilliant. In the following three years, we came together over Lewinsky, avoided Kosovo, and mostly talked about books and history. When I became literary editor of this magazine in 2000, I wanted to build the book section around amonthly column by Christopher. No writer in the English-speaking world could match the depth and range of his reading, experience, and acquaintances. He wrote slashing and lively, biting and funny–and with a nuanced sensibility and a refined ear that he kept in tune with his encyclopedic knowledge and near photographic memory of English poetry. Our friend Steve Wasserman–Hitch’s comrade of 30 years and his future agent, the man who introduced him to his wife, Carol, and who would support him fiercely during his illness–helped me to get Christopher to agree to add yet another regular commitment to his Stakhonovite workload (this was a deeply generous act on the part of Wasserman, who understood that his friend would benefit from the perch, but as the then-literary editor of theLos Angeles Times, he understood that he would be losing Hitch as a regular contributor). For me, the editing was in the assigning. I largely asked him to write about subjects and ideas that we talked about regularly–ChurchillLermontovLarkinWodehouse. Or I’d come across a title that I knew he’d love (the reissue Miami and the Siege of Chicago)–or hate (Bob Woodward’s Bush at War). By far the most difficult assignment was when I pushed him very hard to write about his once-close friend,Edward Said, who was dying. Hitch knew he had to challenge the flimsiness, and what he saw as the perniciousness, of Said’s ideas, even as he knew that he would be deeply wounding a man who remained dear to him. Hitchens regretted that piece.

More than once, after a very late night of drinking and talk with me, Hitch would return to his desk to write the column. The piece would arrive; I’d ask him to add a point or two about, say, Bukharin, or Thomas Babbington Macaulay, or David Irving (a historian Hitch knew to be at once wicked, dishonest, and occasionally brilliant) and to consider recasting a sentence. Yvonne Rolzhausen, the head of The Atlantic‘s fact-checking department, did all the real editing. I can only claim credit for making the match: Hitch was profoundly charming, and he liked to charm–and I knew he’d love to charm her. Hitch was painstaking when building his case, and Yvonne worked very closely with him to sharpen his more contentious arguments, to figure out what could be said with certitude, what had to qualified, and what had to be jettisoned. Hitch believed that he wrote his finest literary pieces for this magazine–a fact attested to by the number of his Atlantic pieces that he included in his anthologies. The range, quality, and finesse of that body of work are owing to the effort he gave us, and that we gave him. Writing sustained Hitchens. Even at the end, whenever his strength rallied, he wanted to get back to his writing.

Like his hero, Orwell, Christopher prized bravery above all other qualitiesand in particular the bravery required for unflinching honesty. And as was true of the work of Orwell, the former colonial policeman, this devotion paradoxically lent a certain military coloring to Christopher’s intellectual, literary, and political pursuits. This most intellectual of men valued intelligence, but valued courage far more–or rather, he believed that true intellect was inseparable from courage. It’s commonly said that Christopher couldn’t stand stupidity. That isn’t true: He couldn’t tolerate stupidity married to pretentiousness or dishonesty. It’s also said that Hitchens was intolerant of his adversaries. True, he saw many of his adversaries–the shabby and dishonest–as beneath contempt. Rightly so. But he could be far more than tolerant of those honest men and women who were devoted to causes he found abhorrent: He paid honor to his enemies. We shared a great admiration for his friend Gene Genovese–a fervent Catholic, a man who at different times in his life was dedicated to a vision of the left and of the right that Christopher equally opposed. And we shared a fondness for one of Genovese’s rather astringent passages:

In irreconcilable confrontations, as comrade Stalin…clearly understood, it is precisely the most admirable, manly, principled, and, by their own lights, moral opponents who have to be killed; the others can be frightened or bought.

Just as Orwell, when an adult, was drawn to his old Etonian classmate, the high Tory Anthony Powell, not because of Powell’s literary promise, but because of his military bearing and position, so Hitchens most cherished what he called (quoting his father) “sand”–grit. Christopher was haunted by his father–whom he called “the commander,” and in a piece I asked him to write on Churchill, he wrote a throwaway line, but one that’s hugely illuminating:

My father, a Royal Navy commander, was on board H.M.S. Jamaica when it helped to deal the coup de grâce to the Nazi warship Scharnhorst on December 26, 1943–a more solid day’s work than any I have ever done.

Of course, in the end, even by these exacting standards, Christopher did perform that solid day’s work with the sand–and the grace–that his terrible death demanded.

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Benjamin Schwarz’s reading at Christopher Hitchens’s memorial (at 15:35):

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THE STORY BEHIND CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS’S MARCH 2012 ESSAY

By Benjamin Schwarz

March 2012 ATLANTIC

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CHRISTOPHER WROTE AND REVISED this issue’s essay on G. K. Chesterton in the final weeks of his life, as Ian McEwan has movingly recounted in his article in The Guardian and The New York Times about his last visit with him. Although circumstances necessitated more than the usual editorial to-ing and fro-ing, the genesis of the piece was typical.

When I became literary editor of the magazine in 2000, I planned to build the Books section around a monthly essay by Christopher, who had been my close friend for several years. That friendship had developed from and was largely based on books, which saturated his life, so I had a finely tuned sense of his literary taste and responses. Chesterton had long been on the list of subjects that I wanted Hitch to write about—I recall his reciting “The Secret People” from memory over a very late dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel; Chesterton was also the sort of Little Englander for whom Christopher, with his Tory-anarchist strain, had some sympathy, even as so many other aspects of Chesterton appalled him.

And of course there was Chesterton’s profound and complicated influence on Christopher’s hero, Orwell. Orwell’s writing served as a shuttlecock in the conversation and correspondence between Christopher and me; we each strove for the Orwellian reference that would trip the other up. (In my last gift to him—the Everyman edition of Orwell’s essays, to take with him to the hospital—I inscribed my favorite line, one that I knew needed no attribution: “One is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”)

Chesterton was, in the words of Orwell’s friend from his Eton days Christopher Hollis, “a hero from Orwell’s youth,” a fact of which Orwell “afterwards grew a little ashamed. He was forever coming back to him, if only to disagree with him. He could not let him alone.” Orwell brilliantly, elliptically deployed Chesterton in what is probably the most stirring tribute he ever paid to a writer, the final paragraph of his essay on Charles Dickens. So the simultaneous publication of a Chesterton anthology and biography created the opportunity for this overdetermined match.

The resulting essay taxed Christopher. Since his death, many have remarked on the ease with which Hitch tossed off piece after piece. I have met no one who could write as quickly—but nor have I met anyone as earnest as Hitch was about his responsibilities as a writer. For this piece he read some 1,700 pages in his Houston hospital room, and because of his illness his writing sessions were painful, hard-won, and abbreviated. The conclusion gave us trouble for weeks, until Christopher hit upon this resolution:

 Dear Ben,

As I was retiring last night I suddenly realized how I wanted to sum up GKC. Here’s the formula: he was deeply unserious and frivolous (names for the Distributists etc) EXCEPT when he was deeply serious (Nazism a form of Protestant heresy; Jews a species of foreigner in England) when he was also extremely sinister.

I shall try and get this into a form of words or phrases at the end but wondered if you approved meanwhile, or could even propose a crisp summation.

This essay epitomizes Christopher’s approach as a writer and critic. He was generous and took in many facets of his subject. But he knew that the received wisdom was usually wrong, and he was unafraid to make final and devastating judgments.

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