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Hitchens Remembered

On the occasion of this year’s Hitchens Prize, a look back at tributes to Christopher Hitchens by Atlantic writers at the time of his death

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

In 2015, the Dennis & Victoria Ross Foundation inaugurated the Hitchens Prize, awarded annually to an author or a journalist whose work, in the spirit of the late Christopher Hitchens, “reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence.”

Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair and a contributing editor at The Atlantic, died in 2011. A number of his Atlantic colleagues published tributes at the time, seeking to capture the man and his work. They remembered him as a singular thinker, an intellectual giant whose conversation, writing, and internal drive inspired awe, even if his views didn’t always evoke agreement.

“No writer in the English-speaking world could match the depth and range of his reading, experience, and acquaintances,” his good friend and longtime editor, Benjamin Schwarz, wrote. “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.”

“Hitchens’s work ethic was legendary, his ability unmatched,” an associate editor at the magazine, Nicholas Jackson, remembered. “He’s the only writer that I’ve ever written a fan letter to.”

Though he had never met him in person, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that he remained “grateful for having studied at Hitchens’s virtual foot.”

James Fallows’s remembrance was more complicated because, as he confessed, “I admired him but we were not friends, mainly because of disagreements arising from the 2000 election … and then of course the Iraq War.” Fallows praised Hitchens’s “erudition and allusions,” and reflected on his sometimes obdurate dedication to his opinions.

“He was more certain than most people of the black-and-white moral goodness of the case for war—and therefore of the moral weakness and spinelessness of those who doubted the case,” Fallows wrote, “and more reluctant than most to revise or reflect upon that view in light of changing facts.”

“His was a complex genius,” Fallows concluded, “all parts of which are worth remembering honestly.”

Such honesty was important to Hitchens, Schwarz remembered. “Christopher prized bravery above all other qualities,” he wrote, “and in particular the bravery required for unflinching honesty.”

In all his complexity and brash irreverence, then–senior editor Jennie Rothenberg Gritz remembered, Hitchens was also “profoundly human,” with “a tremendous capacity for awe” and a particular reverence for friendship.

The policy analyst Karim Sadjadpour recalled how, early in his career, he had met and formed a lasting acquaintance with Hitchens. “I was always surprised by how unfailingly gracious he was with his time,” he wrote.

The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, then a staff writer, added one poignant line to the remembrances: “I don’t think he would mind my saying that I thank God for the privilege of having known him.”

The 2019 winner of the Hitchens Prize is George Packer, currently a staff writer at The Atlantic and previously, for 15 years, a staff writer at The New Yorker. The past winners of the award are the documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (2015); the Washington Post editor Marty Baron (2016); the former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter (2017); and the writer and activist Masha Gessen (2018).