Why Hitch Still Matters: On Christopher Hitchens’s “A Hitch in Time”

By Marius SosnowskiFebruary 24, 2024

Why Hitch Still Matters: On Christopher Hitchens’s “A Hitch in Time”

A Hitch in Time: Reflections Ready for Reconsideration by Christopher Hitchens

IT HAS BEEN 12 years since Christopher Hitchens left us. After his spirited showing in the 20th century, the first dozen years of the 21st were something of a reinvention. While Hitchens 2.0 may have left a trail of rubble in his wake, his books remained no less resolute than what had gone before: the vital study Why Orwell Matters (2002); the world-famous polemic God Is Not Great (2007); the best-selling and magisterial memoir Hitch-22 (2010); the compendious and ever-entertaining essay collection Arguably (2011); and his last feint from the edge of death, Mortality (2012). Still, it’s the belligerent terms of his late-in-life split from the Left that has threatened to eclipse a career dedicated to combating tribalist thinking, and fighting to illuminate the difference between what is and what is purported to be. One can’t help but feel a void, a conspicuous silence emanating from the direction of the Wyoming Apartments in Washington, DC, from which his rapier-like perceptions could have added something useful, even necessary, to the understanding of all that has followed.

Now, Twelve Books has published A Hitch in Time: Reflections Ready for Reconsideration, a welcome gathering of 23 mostly uncollected pieces he wrote for the London Review of Books (the volume was released in the United Kingdom in 2021 with an LRB-highlighting subtitle). With the exception of the opening essay, “The Wrong Stuff: On Tom Wolfe,” from 1983, and the closing one, “11 September 1973: Pinochet and Britain,” from 2002, everything herein dates from the 1990s, that thoroughly wacky and jaunty time everyone sorely misses. Hitchens is in memorable form here; his essays range from tackling P. G. Wodehouse, the First Gulf War, and the prevalence (nay, importance) of spanking to Britain’s social order, to the trouble with Bill Clinton, an almost sympathetic (or as close as Hitch could get to sympathy for a royal) portrait of the misunderstood Princess Margaret, and an evisceration of the United States’ charismatic hero JFK (and the comically jowly goons that followed in his presidential wake)—all while displaying the author’s characteristic impatience with courtiers, apologists, and tiresome bellends.

Throughout his oratorical and writing career, Hitchens showed a supreme—if unnervingly casual—erudition. If challenged, he corrected the record, footnoted claims, or else undid them altogether with the manners of a roguish gentleman, although he wasn’t above the occasional “fuck you” as a retort. No wonder Ian Parker, in his 2006 profile for The New Yorker, described Hitchens as “looking like someone who, with as much dignity as possible, has smoothed his hair and straightened his collar after knocking the helmet off a policeman.” While such a personality occasionally still crops up today, Hitchens’s knack for the unwavering “well, no, actually, I don’t think so—here’s why” seems a little too composed for the present climate. Writing about the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Hitchens scrutinized the folksy, willful ignorance of the American Right:

There is a feeble insurgent pulse that beats at the heart of the bucolic fascist movement […] It’s a constant whine […] The country is going to the dawgs/to hell on a sled/to hell in a handcart. The pointy-heads and the desk-job white-collar drones are responsible. At different pitches and with different timbres, this refrain has been part of the Joe McCarthy movement, the George Wallace campaign and every Republican surge from Nixon to Gingrich. […] [T]his kind of American populism has always been tainted by its kinship with racism and superstition, and by its servility to the very power it ostensibly rails against.

We can only imagine what he might have made of the Sturm und Drang, vermin-and-blood bombast of Trump’s current campaign.

In his playful review of Barry Phelps’s 1992 biography on P. G. Wodehouse (a writer in the Hitchens pantheon), Hitchens explores different shades of the humorist alongside repeated takedowns of Phelps’s “bland, Loamshire wi[t].” While appreciating the “scrupulous if slightly solemn” tone of Jan Dalley’s 1999 biography of Diana Mosley, he tears into Britain’s tendency for giving vulgar bigotry a veneer of sophistication, particularly in the case of the unapologetic fascist socialite, “a vile mind and a gorgeous carapace, and with a maddening class confidence allied to a tiny, repetitive tic of fanaticism.” A defining feature of all of Hitchens’s work, his famous zingers (euphemistically known as “Hitch slaps” among his diehard fans), serve to “slap” the reader out of their complacency and into what often amounts to a trembling mental audit of their own literacy. From his 1998 essay “Brief Shining Moments: Kennedy and Nixon” (subtitled “Donkey Business in the White House” upon its original publication):

Borrowing explicitly from the Joe McCarthy style, JFK in 1960 ran against Eisenhower and Nixon from the right—accusing them of selling out to Russia by allowing the development of a “missile gap,” and impugning them for being soft on Castro. He knew that he was engaged in lies and defamations, and that in both instances the truth was the reverse of what he claimed.

Whatever your stance on Kennedy, these details matter. The key to Hitchens isn’t pugnaciousness, however; it’s the eloquent rejoinder—a spirited battle of wits is what he’s after.

While some considered him an agent of self-serving fire and brimstone, his indelible talent—greater even than his unflinching contrarianism—was his affable if mischievous schoolboy style, a vitality that encouraged you to think for yourself, chum. In interviews, and particularly in Hitch-22, he stressed how much a public school education mattered to both his lower-middle-class mother and his own intellectual development, and the idiosyncrasies of his relationship to privilege never ceased to be a smoldering source of complexity. The formative influence of his education was evident not only in his bearing, his style of critical gamesmanship (perhaps displaying his alma mater Balliol College’s unofficial motto: “effortless superiority”), but also in his particular blend of ardent humanism.

Hitchens used to have a stutter and determined that the best way to cure it was to throw himself into public speaking. Debate, he quickly found, came naturally to him and his “bruising rhetorical talents,” as Ian Parker put it. While at times overwhelming, Hitchens was rarely overbearing; that would be offensive to his sense of fair play. His habit of opening his speaking engagements with the greeting “Brothers and sisters, comrades and friends—if I can go that far” was one of his pleasant quirks. The inclusion of letters to the LRB editors in response to three of his pieces reveals peak Hitchens when challenged—or downright disparaged (a deftness he notably let slip during his Iraq War days). In debate, the distinction between personal investment and involving oneself personally is invaluable. “I abase myself for confusing Pierre Schlesinger and Arthur Salinger, Jr,” he writes cheekily in his final retort to Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s fury over the Kennedy piece, “just as I’m sorry to have mixed up Theodore Manchester with William White. But the Kennedy hydra sometimes has that hypnotic effect, even as its many stumps are serially cauterized by the slow emergence of true record.”

Hitchens moved to the United States in 1981, trading his gig at The New Statesman for a column at The Nation. In 1989, he traded his first wife for an American too, the writer Carol Blue, whom he married in 1991. Another child followed, after the two from his first marriage, on his way to accepting American citizenship in 2007. Yet for all his fireworks, his indefatigable recall, his fascination with American history and politics, one wonders if—in the final tally—he ever truly got America. Maybe in pursuit of the bright lights of the soundstage and the DC intrigue, he got a certain part of it. Perhaps the United States’ most stubborn and resilient trait is its incomprehensibility to the outside world, like an impregnable cartoon bubble over a coast-to-coast map that causes childishly drawn missiles of anti-Americanism and Americophilia to bounce right off; perhaps this clumsy bulk brought out the best in Hitchens’s fury, even when misguided. Either way, his insights or eviscerations are no less worthy of consideration.

Take Hitchens’s unflattering assessment of Bill Clinton, which is more or less on the mark. But the source of his aversion—Clinton’s blend of affability and narcissistic ambition—is partly what made him endearing to so many. The “Great Man” tradition may be as old as time, but nowhere is it as intrinsic to public life as in the United States. For Brits, Britishness is a distinctly collective experience; for Americans, the Great Man is America, the individual who, in pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, growls “Don’t tread on me!” The rest is incidental. Sometimes, particularly in the hallowed halls of our nation’s capital, great acts of individuation are acts of moral compromise and cowardice, and this lack of integrity and seemingly limitless capacity for self-serving readjustment may explain some of Hitchens’s endless ire. In his own words, “Clinton’s ambition became the same thing as his politics, and his approval rating from the powers that be became the same thing as his electability.” While such a line was likely written with Hitchens’s teeth bared in righteousness, it would hardly have made for a mild talking point on nightly news.

So, why does Hitch still matter? What can we learn from him today? Eloquent conviction, for one. But, more importantly, his skill for close textual readings of a “subtle and suspicious-minded kind” (as Parker dubbed it), brandished with equal potency in all directions. Few idols were sacred for Hitchens (though he revered George Orwell and Thomas Paine, largely for their clarity of vision), and his nimbleness of mind allowed him to see threats brewing that dawned too late for many. Already in the Clinton ’90s, Hitchens noted that we had entered the postmodern politics of the “lesser evil”: “Politics as a spectator sport, staged by fixers in a parallel universe […] Extreme public squalor and tribalism, coexisting with a triumph of special interests not seen since the Gilded Age. Everything more separate, more unequal and more rancorous.” And where would this neoliberal experiment leave us today? Amid a “declining landscape of possibility.”

These gathered reviews, retorts, and reflections show us a method of engaging the challenges, hypocrisies, and flat-out deceptions that bombard us at every moment, as an ailing world order grapples to maintain its increasingly ignominious grip. Hitchens had his drawbacks—more than a few men’s fair share—but as James Wolcott writes in the book’s introduction, “Few things sink a reputation in posterity as irretrievably as a well-formed consensus that functions like embalming fluid […] Even in death he remains uncontainable.” Less an apologia for the hawk in Hitchens 2.0 than a ballast, the essays here encourage us to resist the lure of emotional flytraps, to become more careful and deliberate in our thinking. For, as Orwell knew, “to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”

LARB Contributor

Marius Sosnowski is the managing editor of Dispatches Magazine. He lives in Los Angeles.


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