The death of Christopher Hitchens last night, from complications from esophageal cancer at age 62, ended one of the great intellectual careers of the last 40 years. A prolific author and debater, Hitchens left behind a massive volume of critical writing, with more than a dozen books and hundreds of essays targeting everyone from the British Monarchy to Bill Clinton to George Orwell to God, usually with wit and more often than not, a vicious and cutting remark. Even those who hated his politics (and they were legion) could not help but admire his skill as a writer and ability to craft a sharp turn of phrase, and many called him a friend.
Born in Portsmouth in the U.K. and educated at Oxford, he began his career as a Trotskyite at The New Statesman, working alongside noted authors, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, who would become lifelong pals. In the early 1980s, he moved to the United States (he became a citizen in 2007) and began writing for liberal magazine The Nation, penning some of his earliest attacks on the conservative government and American foreign policy.
Perhaps his most famous work, and one that took him from an obscure political writer to (almost) household contrarian was The Missionary Position, a scathing attack on Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity church, an organization that he called a cult. He described Mother Teresa as a "fraud" and accused her of glorifying poverty to enrich herself and the Catholic church, rather than truly helping the poor. The book infuriated Roman Catholics around the world, as well as politicians and celebrities who he claimed used the charity and her reputation to mask their own ill deeds. However, the book helped to make him a frequent guest on talk shows — where he would often be seen drinking and smoking openly — and introduced him to a much wider audience of fans and enemies.
A later book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, accused the former Secretary of State of "war crimes," and argued that he should be prosecuted for "crimes against humanity ... including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture" for his (and America's) involvement in atrocities in Southeast Asia and Central America..
One of the fiercest advocates for the left throughout most of his early career — "a roaring, if not raving, Balliol Bolshevik," according to Christopher Buckley — many of his friends and supporters felt betrayed by Hitchens' virulent defense of George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Despite his emphatic support for the removal of Saddam Hussein, he remained a critic of the administration's use of torture, filming himself being waterboarded to demonstrate the cruelty of the practice. ("The official lie about this treatment ... is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning.")
Hitchens befriended many of the greatest writers of his generation, like Amis and Salman Rushdie, Christopher Buckley, Julian Barnes, and Richard Dawkins, but was not afraid to take them on when he disagreed with them. He left his position at The Nation after the Iraq War began and also turned on Gore Vidal, the great American writer who once considered Hitchens to be his "dauphin," but who Hitchens labeled a "crackpot" for indulging conspiracies theories about the September 11 attacks. In his trademarked style, he said of Vidal, "I have no wish to commit literary patricide, or to assassinate Vidal’s character—a character which appears, in any case, to have committed suicide."
A great admirer of Oscar Wilde and George Orwell he often wrote about his literary heroes and quoted them at great length in his many essays. He was an aggressive and talented debater, taking on all challengers, and often overwhelming his opponents with his prodigious vocabulary and even more impressive memory — not to mention being quick on his feet with an insult. He angered half the planet with his 2007 essay, "Why Women Aren't Funny," a bit of modern-day trolling that seemed to prove its own thesis through many of the overly-serious responses from angry comediennes.
Toward the end of his life, Hitchens turned his attention to religion and God, suggesting that the idea of worshiping a supreme being was like living under a "jealous, capricious, and ill-tempered" tyrant. An evangelical atheist, Hitchens railed against all organized religion. In perhaps his final debate victory, #GodIsNotGreat, the title of his 2007 book (subtitled "How Religion Poisons Everything") became a trending topic on Twitter after his death was announced, prompting anger and even death threats from confused believers upset by the idea and not knowing why it had gone viral.
After being diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2010, he wrote eloquently about his declining health and painful treatments, while never lamenting the lifetime of smoking and other vices that surely contributed to his death.
Hitchens left behind a wife, Carol Blue, and three children (two from an earlier marriage), as well as a mountain of fabulous writing, much of which can be found in the archvies of The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and Slate, which assembled a collection of some of his best long-form essays.
Second photo: John Dempsie/Associated Newspapers/Rex/Rex USA., via Vanity Fair.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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