Christopher Hitchens, master of the contrarian essay, dies at 62

Posted Dec. 21, 2011, at 5:45 p.m.
Essayist Christopher Hitchens speaks during a debate on Iraq and the foreign policies of the United States and Britain, in this Sept. 14, 2005 file photo taken in New York.
Chad Rachman | AP
Essayist Christopher Hitchens speaks during a debate on Iraq and the foreign policies of the United States and Britain, in this Sept. 14, 2005 file photo taken in New York.

Christopher Hitchens, a sharp-witted provocateur who used his formidable learning, biting wit and muscular prose style to skewer what he considered high-placed hypocrites, craven lackeys of the right and left, “Islamic fascists” and religious faith of any kind, died Dec. 15 at a hospital in Houston. He was 62.

He had pneumonia and complications from esophageal cancer, according to a statement from Vanity Fair, the magazine for which Hitchens worked.

Hitchens, an English-born writer who had lived in Washington since 1982, was a tireless master of the persuasive essay, which he wrote with an indefatigable energy and venomous glee. He often wrote about the masters of English literature, but he was better known for his lifelong engagement with politics, with subtly nuanced views that did not fit comfortably with the conventional right or left.

In his tartly worded essays, books and television appearances, Hitchens was a self-styled contrarian who often challenged political and moral orthodoxy. He called Henry Kissinger a war criminal, savaged Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, ridiculed both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, then became an outspoken opponent of terrorism against the West from the Muslim world.

In 2007, Hitchens aimed his vitriol even higher, writing a best-selling book that disputed the existence of God, then enthusiastically took on anyone — including his own brother — who wanted to argue the matter.

His supporters praised Hitchens as a truth-telling literary master who, in the words of the Village Voice, was “America’s foremost rhetorical pugilist.” Writer Christopher Buckley has called him “the greatest living essayist in the English language.”

Enemies vilified Hitchens as a godless malcontent. His onetime colleague at the Nation, Alexander Cockburn, called him “lying, self-serving, fat-assed, chain-smoking, drunken, opportunistic [and] cynical.”

Friends and enemies alike marveled at how the hedonistic Hitchens, after a full evening of drinking and talking, could then sit down and casually produce sparkling essays for Vanity Fair, the Nation, the Atlantic, Slate.com and many other publications without missing a deadline.

“Writing is recreational for me,” he said in 2002. “I’m unhappy when I’m not doing it.”

The writer he was most identified with was George Orwell, the British essayist and author of “1984.” His bracing moral courage and brisk prose were among Hitchens’ ideal models.

In his 2002 book “Why Orwell Matters,” Hitchens sought to rescue Orwell from “sickly veneration and sentimental overpraise” and noted that the most important thing to be learned from Orwell was that “it matters not what you think, but how you think.”

Hitchens was often quite funny in print, but his humor was usually at the service of his rhetoric and larger ideas. He seemed to delight most in the things he disliked.

Unlike many armchair polemicists, however, Hitchens had the courage to take his convictions to the streets. He was shot at in Sarajevo, jailed in Czechoslovakia and, as recently as 2008, beaten bloody in Beirut.

He was among the first to criticize Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, for issuing a 1988 fatwa, calling for the death of Hitchens’ friend, Salman Rushdie.

At age 59, Hitchens voluntarily underwent a session of waterboarding, the practice of simulated drowning that had been approved by the administration of George W. Bush for the questioning of prisoners. Although Hitchens supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his view of waterboarding was without equivocation.

“If waterboarding does not constitute torture,” he wrote in Vanity Fair, “then there is no such thing as torture.”

To Hitchens, literally nothing was sacred. He assailed the reputations of many religious figures, including Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. He had little but contempt for President Bill Clinton, whom he knew at England’s University of Oxford in the 1960s, and titled his 1999 book about Clinton “No One Left to Lie To.”

Christopher Eric Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England, on April 13, 1949. His father was a career navy officer who became an accountant at a prep school.

His mother had social aspirations for her two sons and once said, “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it.”

The family scrimped to send him to a private boarding school, and he became the first member of his family to attend a university, graduating from Oxford’s Balliol College in 1970. He wasn’t a stellar student, but he had a gift for friendship and a hearty appetite for argumentation and debate.

He quickly became as well known for his speaking appearances as for his writing. Pudgy and disheveled, he approached the lectern as if unhappily awoken from a hangover.

When he opened his mouth, however, Hitchens unfailingly proved to be an eloquent and persuasive orator. Fully formed, tightly argued sentences poured from his lips in a precise, well-modulated baritone. He could summon forth literary references, historical analogies and vivid descriptions without a moment’s pause.

For years, Hitchens maintained a crowded schedule of traveling, writing, lecturing and teaching at various colleges. In 1980, he was married to Eleni Meleagrou and moved to the United States, settling in Washington two years later. He became a U.S. citizen in 2007.

After a divorce, Hitchens married Carol Blue in 1989. She survives, along with their daughter, Antonia Hitchens of Washington; two children from his first marriage, Alexander Hitchens and Sophia Hitchens; and his brother, Peter Hitchens, a conservative British columnist, who in 2010 published a book subtitled “How Atheism Led Me to Faith.”

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