Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Arguably (Updated 12/16/11)*
There is no doubt that the world of arts and letters will be a poorer place without Christopher Hitchens. His latest book, Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve, 2011) is another brick in the wall of his substantial oeuvre. Coming in at well over 700 pages, filled with 107 essays, and spanning what appears to be every subject known to humankind, the book works well as a doorstop or tool for blunt force trauma as well as for literary enlightenment. But these are superficial matters. The deeper truth is that Hitchens is a formidable literary critic, an historian, a raconteur, and a social critic bar none.
Hitchens’ work can be found in publications such as Slate, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times Book Review, and of course, Vanity Fair. In that last magazine, Hitchens is nearly the voice most recognized, and in fact, his writing has served to establish that Vanity Fair style, a kind of intimate storytelling voice that is “in the know.” He seems to have read every book, every journal, indeed every word published in the literary journalism universe. He can write with depth and insight, and often wit, about politics, the military, history, science, philosophy, and literature. He is the very definition of the life of the party.
Arguably is stunning in the sheer breadth of what he has covered over the last decade. Hitchens is most comfortable when writing about the world and not himself. His recently published memoir, Hitch-22 (Twelve, 2010), is an excellent book, but never completely escapes a kind of self-consciousness, and reveals Hitchens’ penchant for name-dropping. In Arguably, Hitchens is at his best, stabbing into the heart of the matters at hand, ripping apart facades and fabrications, and cutting to the bone of literary icons and posers.
His section on history, “All American,” assesses the legacies of literally every significant American from the Revolution forward: Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, John F. Kennedy, Upton Sinclair, Saul Bellow, John Updike, and his frequent sparring partner, Gore Vidal. Considering that most of the essays are brief, Hitchens dives in and brings us to the sharpest of points with energy and verve. His word pictures are often not pretty. “As president, Jefferson began to suffer intermittently from diarrhea (which he at first cured by what seems the counterintuitive method of hard horseback riding), and though he was unusually hale until his eightieth year, it was diarrhea and a miserable infection of the urinary tract that eventually carried him off.” Historical details that our teachers left out back in school. He speaks of Lincoln’s life long struggle with spelling and pronunciation, and details how the great president’s clothes were often shabby and ill-fitting.
Several figures make recurring appearances throughout the book. Hitchens has long been a fan of George Orwell, and the British writer is a touchstone for him. There is a deep and abiding connection between Orwell the essayist and Hitchens, and in this collection in particular that communion is acute. His interest in communism is also apparent as a through-line in many of the essays, as is his strong feeling that Saddam Hussein had to be removed and that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were justified.
Hitchens makes no excuses for his beliefs, nor does he allow himself to be pigeonholed. Many people have been confounded by his latest forays into neocon territory, but Hitchens does not play favorites. He follows his heart and mind wherever they lead, and he appears to not care a whit whom he offends. Here is a guy who supports the war on terror, but also allowed himself to be water-boarded in an effort to determine if the procedure should be considered torture. It is quite clear from the title of the essay which way he comes down: “Believe Me, It’s Torture.”
In a collection of this magnitude, it is expected that there will be a few missed notes, but for the most part here, Hitchens is true to his contrarian nature, and a joy to read. He challenges us to be better readers, deeper thinkers, more worldly students, and he never panders or condescends. I take that back; he is not kind to idiots and liars, but they deserve what they get. Along the way, jihadists and terrorists also do not fare well. What I found most startling here is Hitchens’ love for his adopted country, America. However, any thoughts that he has mellowed or become sentimental should be left at the door.
Over the entire book hangs the pall of Hitchens’ battle with cancer. “I was informed by a doctor that I might have as little as another year to live,” he writes in the introduction. “In consequence, some of these articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my very last.” Rest assured that Christopher Hitchens will go to his grave as one of the best social critics of the age, unbent, unapologetic, and razor sharp. Arguably, he is an enlightening voice in a darker age.
*Update 12/16/11: Christopher Hitchens died yesterday. He was 62. Please read this reflection on his life and writing by his good friend and Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter.