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Notes on the polemicist’s unsettled legacy
As memory of Hitchens the man inevitably recede, the question of his literary reputation inevitably comes to the fore. Writing in the Toronto Star, my friend the philosopher Andy Lamey argues that Hitchens is enjoying a deserved revival:
Recent books by or about Hitchens recall this period of his career, before he became an apologist for the Iraq War, one who bore a disturbing resemblance to the warmongers he once opposed. Appearing ten years after Hitchens’s death, these titles suggest that Hitchens is on his way to joining the pantheon of journalists, such as H.L. Mencken and Joan Didion, who churned out copy on deadline that remains of interest decades later.
It’s undeniable that we’re seeing a plethora of Hitchens reprints as well as collections of previously fugitive pieces—such as the newly published (and regrettably titled) A Hitch in Time. Further evidence of Hitchens’s renewed relevance comes from the fact that an unauthorized biography is in the works, in addition to appraisals like Ben Burgis’s recently published Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters (which Doug Bell and I discussed on this podcast).
So Andy’s clearly on to something when he suggests that Hitchens is a renewed subject of discussion. Andy’s own eloquent account of Hitchens as an admirable contrarian speaks to that, and he’s also right on target in pointing out the superiority of Hitchens’s work before 9/11.
But, having spent some time revisiting Hitchens work, I want to register some quibbles. There’s a limit to how much of his work can be revived even, if we leave aside essays that are clearly wrong-headed (not just the pro-war essays but the notorious Vanity Fair piece contending women aren’t funny as men). In his writing, there’s an issue that goes beyond the inevitably dated nature of his journalism.
The comparisons with Mencken and Didion highlight the problem. In the case of Mencken, we see how bad politics can cast a pall. Hitchens himself wrote well about this in 1994 when apprising a Mencken biography and noting a fatal blindness about fascism:
Reviewing Mein Kampf for the American Mercury, [Mencken] was so even-handed as to draw a pained howl from [publisher Alfred A. Knopf] himself. About the rise of fascism in general, Mencken was sanguine: more sanguine, let us say, than he was about FDR. That might be condemnation enough. Yet it is not. Think of the incredible literary failure that is involved in Mencken’s refusal to write a serious polemic against Hitler. Here aside from the grotesque embodiment of all hatred and superstition, was the quack, charlatan, and crank to end all quacks, charlatans, and cranks. Such a target! And from the pen that had flayed and punctured the ‘booboisie’, there came little or nothing.
Hitchens ended with a devastating judgement: “With Mencken, the face grew to fit the mask, and the playful Prejudices became the drone of authentic prejudice. Those who flirt with race theory should learn to beware their own dominant gene.” (Hitchens’ review can be found in his book Unacknowledged Legislation).
As with Mencken, the harshest thing you can do with Hitchens is note how he failed his own talent: isn’t it amazing that the deadly polemicist who so skillfully skewered Mother Theresa, Bill Clinton, and Henry Kissinger failed to use his rapier wit against equally worthy targets like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. In fact, Hitchens spent the better part of his last decade spinning sophistry on behalf of a reckless imperial adventure.
The names Mencken and Didion bring up the issue of style. Both writers were highly original prose stylists: Mencken’s rococo mixture of mudslinging slang and lecture room mock-orotundity still managing after many decades to surprise and delight. Didion’s highly personal voice, her spooky diffidence and bracing skepticism, was an even greater achievement. Like Mencken, Didion is much imitated but no one ever comes close.
Hitchens was a less original figure. He was a superior example of a type, an Oxbridge wit. You can hear echoes in his charming drawing room irony of many other writers in this mode: Oscar Wilde, Evelyn Waugh, and Anthony Powell. It’s an enviable style, but not an particularly original one. Hitchens’s best work was as a literary critic, but that Oxbridge inheritance also marked him in this realm—his best writing is about 20th century British writers who emerged from and belong to his milieu. He could be marvellous writing about P.G. Wodehouse or Anthony Powell, but the further he got away from home base, the less sure his criticism became.
Hitchens had a very specific gestalt: debate club boorishness, soixante-huitard romanticism, the masculine comedy of the clubby English social novel. Even when Hitchens was alive this gestalt evoked an earlier world, one that is becoming ever more remote. I’m having a hard time imagining circumstances where they become salient again. Like Waugh and Powell, Hitchens offers the niche pleasure of nostalgic fantasy. There will always be readers attracted to it, but more as a way to escape the world rather than to understand it.
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