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:
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.