Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

By Benjamin Schwarz

I 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 a monthly 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 the Los 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--Churchill, Lermontov, Larkin, Wodehouse. 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 qualities--and 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.

Image: Reuters

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/christopher-hitchens-1949-2011/250095/