The writer Christopher Hitchens, noted atheist and devotee of Jefferson, Paine and Johnnie Walker Red, died of esophageal cancer a year and a couple of days ago. I always admired Hitchens’ ability to string together his assertions and facts in such a way that a listener could hardly help but travel with him to his intended destination. Hitchens could argue without being (overly) argumentative. He anchored his points to principles much like laws are derived from constitutions. A self-described anti-totalitarian, Hitchens might appreciate that comparison, if he were looking down from heaven and reading my blog. Which he most definitely is not — not the looking down and so neither the reading.
I recently finished his 2010 memoir Hitch-22. I don’t intend to review the book but I will share a few reflections on him here.
1. I remember Hitchens (from television appearances) as a somewhat jowly, large man with a receding hairline and a boyish face. In his memoir, I noted that Hitchens liked to think of himself as handsome, at least in his younger days, and he appreciated that quality in other men. While Hitchens was married (twice) and had children, it appeared to me that his sexuality is best described as pleasure-oriented, rather than straight, bisexual or gay. He was accustomed to being a man with looks and swagger; as he aged he mourned the loss of the former while holding onto a good parcel of the latter.
2. Hitchens was married to his second wife Carol for the twenty years preceding his death. I know this only because I looked it up. He does not talk about his marriages in his memoir and mentions the name “Carol” perhaps three times in the book. His acknowledgements include his daughter and his father-in-law but not his wife. The absence is glaring but I don’t know what to make of it.
3. Hitchens traveled in an eminent literary circle that included the novelist Martin Amis, the poet James Fenton and the author Salman Rushdie. Much of the memoir recounts Hitchens’ exploits with them.* Unfortunately (in my view) the book delivers a heavy dose of name-dropping of these and other once- and now-renowned literati — I suppose I might know and care about those names if I were “well-read.” (One that I do intend to read well is W. H. Auden.) Not that I envy Hitchens his friends: mine may not be so famous but I wouldn’t trade the experiences with my friends for those of his.
4. Along those lines, I was surprised at the extent Hitchens indulged in retelling various “you had to be there” moments within his circle. He devoted paragraphs to a juvenile word-game they played, where the object was to substitute a vulgar word for an ordinary word in book and song titles — for example, if one replaced love with hysterical sex, the result would be “Hysterical Sex is a Many-Splendored Thing” and “Hysterical Sex Story.” I would not have figured Hitchens would find this amusing, even after a glass of Scotch.
5. Hitchens so admired Thomas Jefferson that when Hitchens gained U.S. citizenship in 2007, he asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to personally swear him in at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., on his (and Jefferson’s) birthday. In his biography of Jefferson, Hitchens did discuss Jefferson’s “contradictions” but it is hard for me to reconcile Hitchens’ anti-totalitarianism with his reverence for the slave-owning Jefferson. Hitchens, like Jefferson, was not without his contradictions, as he admitted.
I liked how Hitchens spoke and how he wrote. But simply put, it was hard for me to relate to him — our worlds were so different. Reading his memoir put more distance between the two of us than I had imagined had been there before.