Christopher Hitchens: Some Memories
Ernest Hemingway in 1954 read a score of obituary notices about himself. He had survived the crash of a small plane while on a hunting trip to Africa (to Mount Kilimanjaro, which towered above the characters in one of his most celebrated short stories), but it took some time for he and his wife to let the world know that they were still alive. Some of his contemporaries and erstwhile friends, meanwhile, displayed considerable frankness in what they wrote. They did not count on Hemingway reading their animadversions on his character and talents while sitting in a café in Venice.
I do not know where Christopher Hitchens is now sitting. He did not believe in an afterlife, but was silent about the claim of some physicists that there are parallel universes. Perhaps, if so, he is in one of them and furious that he cannot directly contradict what he no doubt regards as the many errors, of fact and judgment, of acquaintances and friends who were in his lifetime avaricious in these regards. I could not and would not claim to speak for him, and we have not spoken directly for a couple of years. Still, there may be things worth saying.
We met in the early eighties, when he was visiting The Nation from The New Statesman. Christopher had begun his studies at Oxford in 1967, three years after I left a teaching post there. We knew any number of persons in common in the UK. Indeed, his tutor at Balliol College, Steven Lukes, had been a student of mine. I always thought of Christopher with grandfatherly indulgence, even when obliged to tell him that his behavior (as toward Sidney Blumenthal) was miserable. By the time we came to the Iraq war, I saw that I was not going to alter what clearly had become his obsession with “Islamofascism.” We talked of other things, but our friendship gradually attenuated. It was good of him, despite that, to mention in his memoir that I had been his mentor in Washington when he came here in 1982. It is a pity that he did not acknowledge the generosity of Victor Navasky, The Nation’s editor at the time, who gave him the assignment. In the Reagan and early Clinton years, Christopher and I were quite close, a tie reinforced by our shared experience of England, and mutual friends elsewhere in Europe.
Christopher was moved, in his choice of objects of animosity, by an unstable mixture of calculation and conviction. Taking on Lady Di (and the British royal family in all of its absurdity), he certainly knew that he would get more attention than by writing acute essays on the cult of celebrity. That was also true of his campaign against Mother Teresa. Christopher had a pictorial and sensory imagination. Long narratives, refined analyses of the many dimensions of events and processes in which past and present were inextricably joined, were not his preferred medium. He preferred to hit first, reflect (if at all) later.
He was deeply rooted, to begin with, in a traditional English culture. Part of his heritage came from his father. Christopher and he may not have been especially close, but consider the not entirely unspoken undertones. His account of his father’s sadness at having to leave the Royal Navy at war’s end is entirely sympathetic, and his story of his father’s war (on a ship that participated in the sinking of a German battleship) exudes vicarious pleasure, indeed, pride. Christopher actually knew a good deal about the history of the Royal Navy, of its intricate connection with the larger body politic and social. Christopher was (the inference from the memoir is unequivocal) much closer to his mother, yet it is entirely unclear what of English culture she transmitted—provincial anxiety to get to the metropolis apart. Having grown up in New York, my father a high school teacher and my grandfather a house painter who read Vorwaerts and spoke Yiddish, I have a certain sense for the anxiety of assimilation. Recall the not unfriendly critic who jested with Alfred Kazin when he wrote about “our forests.” “Our forests, Alfred?” In fact, they were his (and ours) by right of strenuous appropriation. Christopher did not have to strive to belong to the English history he learned at school and university. He took it for granted that all national treasures, above all the treasures of memory, were his. I was struck by his sense of distance when he told me that his mother had told him that she (and therefore he) were Jewish. He was already formed as someone with entirely English beginnings, and (he came to know the editors and writers of Commentary and Partisan Review) he gave no sign that he wished to make a change.
Seen from the outside, English culture is a tightly knit skein. Living within it, one learns differently. Christopher chose to join a large stream of opposition to its more stolid ideas of continuity and solidarity, a permanent revolt which at times exercised much cultural and political power. Margaret Thatcher’s attack on the welfare state extended to punitive expeditions against cultural modernism and secular moral experimentation. When Christopher left her England for a freer United States (or, at least, a United States with any number of enclaves of freedom), he did so impelled by some very English ideas. His identification with Orwell was canonical, and behind Orwell there was a long line of dissenters and iconoclasts, including Tom Paine and his religious ancestors in the radical segment of the Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Christopher’s ostensible freedom from orthodox constraint was actually learned in the England that remained his moral home.