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“Ishall never be able to forget,” writes Christopher Hitchens of the poems of the slain Wilfred Owen, “the way in which these verses utterly turned over all the furniture of my mind; inverting every conception of order and patriotism and tradition on which I had been brought up.” With Owen’s war poems in mind, Hitchens observes that the dead soldier “has conclusively outlived all the jingo versifiers, blood-bolted Liberal politicians, garlanded generals and other supposed legislators of the period. He is the most powerful single rebuttal of Auden’s mild and sane claim that ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.'” Thus does our “Minority Report” columnist introduce the subject of his collected meditations on writers in the public sphere, Unacknowledged Legislation. Rather than setting out to treat overtly political scribes, Hitchens focuses on writers as they encounter public life. He disputes the Stendhalian view of politics in the novel “as a pistol shot in the middle of a concert” or “a stone tied to the neck of literature.” While conceding that the directly politicized writer is someone we have come to distrust and the surreptitiously politicized one “is no great improvement” (he offers as example Tom Wolfe), Hitchens contends that when the parties of state agree on a matter, it is the individual pen that creates “the moral space for a true argument”–whether Paine, Douglass and Howells, or Mailer, Lowell and Vidal. This is the extended argument of his own that Hitchens advances over a span of thirty-five essays and reviews, culled from the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, Dissent, Vanity Fair, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, The Nation and elsewhere. We are treated to both insight and anecdote as Hitchens attempts to tease out the Platonic forms, as it were, of Wilde and Orwell and Raymond Williams and Vidal and Rushdie and Bellow and Kipling and Eliot, Isaiah Berlin, Allan Bloom, Martha Nussbaum and Norman Podhoretz, O’Brian (Patrick), O’Brien (Conor Cruise) and others. Along the way he parses the line that “divides pseudo-objectivity from propaganda,” tells us how Whittaker Chambers fired the young Bellow as the future Nobelist began working for Time, bemoans the lack of a “Blake or Camus or Koestler to synthesize justice and reason with outrage” and holds up Wilde in firebrand fashion to “encourage us to think that the bores and the bullies and the literal minds need not always win. May he induce us to rise from our semi-recumbent postures.”

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