The Complexities of Christopher Hitchens

A range of tributes to a gifted and difficult man

The Atlantic has had a number of tributes to our contributor Christopher Hitchens, including notably this heartfelt one by his good friend and longtime editor here, Benjamin Schwarz. As Schwarz says, among Hitchens’s many gifts was his phenomenally broad range as a reader and literary critic. His book essays in The Atlantic every month were consistently marvelous, and I would eagerly read them first when I got the magazine. I admired and envied his erudition and allusions and was grateful that he put them to use for us (among his many other outlets). Most of those reviews and literary essays stand up well years after they were written, which is a tough standard for any material in a periodical. I wish I had read a tenth as many books as he had, or could recite one–one hundredth as many passages from memory.

In addition to Ben Schwarz’s warm and loving remembrance, I also suggest reading Katha Pollitt’s much harsher assessment today in The Nation, which extends some of the political points that Ta-Nehisi Coates has made. My relationship with Christopher Hitchens was closer to what Katha Pollitt describes than to that of his friends like Ben Schwarz or Jeff Goldberg. I admired him but we were not friends, mainly because of disagreements arising from the 2000 election (in which his contempt for Bill Clinton extended to waving away any differences between Al Gore and George Bush) and then of course the Iraq War. 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—and more reluctant than most to revise or reflect upon that view in light of changing facts. I wouldn’t have expected Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld to ask themselves hard questions, in public, about their cocksureness in making what proved to be erroneous and very consequential claims. I would expect leading intellectuals to do so.

Katha Pollitt also makes an important point understandably glossed over in the immediate sadness at his death:

His drinking was not something to admire, and it was not a charming foible. Maybe sometimes it made him warm and expansive, but I never saw that side of it. What I saw was that drinking made him angry and combative and bullying …  Drinking didn’t make him a better writer either—that’s another myth. Christopher was such a practiced hand, with a style that was so patented, so integrally an expression of his personality, he was so sure he was right about whatever the subject, he could meet his deadlines even when he was totally sozzled. But those passages of pointless linguistic pirouetting? The arguments that don’t track if you look beneath the bravura phrasing? Forgive the cliche: That was the booze talking … It makes me sad to see young writers cherishing their drinking bouts with him, and even his alcohol-fuelled displays of contempt for them … as if drink is what makes a great writer, and what makes a great writer a real man.

I am very sorry for Christopher Hitchens’s family and his friends, and for his suffering, which he so unsparingly chronicled in his last pieces for Vanity Fair. I am sorry not to be able to read and learn from him for years to come. His was a complex genius, all parts of which are worth remembering honestly.