His greatest weakness as a writer is his need to put himself at the center of attention, to win every argument, to walk away from every encounter in prose, as in life, having gotten the better of someone else. And yet the same impulse is essential to his ambition and power as an essayist. Hitchens is working, consciously, I think, in the tradition of the English essay, descended from Johnson, Lamb, Hazlitt, and Orwell, in which ideas are the flower of direct experience and everything depends on the strong presence of the “I.”
Hitchens’s limitation in this form is his inability, maybe unwillingness, to make literature out of the most interesting kind of argument which happens with oneself. When his book on Orwell came out, I wrote that this is the deepest difference between Hitchens and his hero (who’s also mine).
For example, last year he wrote a much-praised column in Vanity Fair about a soldier who joined the military in part because Hitchens’s writings inspired him to, and who was subsequently killed in Iraq. When the awful news reached Hitchens, he experienced an understandable and even terrifying shock that led him to contact the soldier’s family and, eventually, join them at a memorial ceremony. This piece had all the makingsthe situation, the language, the implicationsof a great essay. And it’s a good onebut Hitchens kept turning away from the darker trail of thought and feeling the original shock might have led him down. Instead, he sidetracked himself by invoking Yeats, invoking Shakespeare, invoking, of course, Orwell, as if the story was too painful not to be distanced through literary allusion.