Notes on Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

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[I dashed this off a couple weeks ago, right after he died. It is incomplete because there’s more to be said about the guy than time permits, so until I find myself randomly revising this during idle moments in the weeks ahead, this must stand as my meager contribution to the heaping helpings of hagiography served up by the Hackosphere since Hitch took leave–or, to borrow a phrase of Gore Vidal’s, “dropped the feather”. Resquesciat in pace]

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From a personal standpoint, it’s very difficult to explain in detail the importance of Christopher Hitchens on my own career as a journalist and part-time polemicist, nor to capture concisely in words my feelings after watching (from a fan’s distance) his 18-month progression toward the grave, which ended just last week. I recall some writer, whose name escapes me, joking once to the effect that cancer had perhaps overestimated its latest opponent.

See that? When writing about “Hitch”, one immediately and unconsciously lapses into that most-unique narrative voice of his. Most political writers’ work betrays the improvisational aspects of the job: You can almost see their thoughts forming, in real-time, as they make their way down the page. It was different with Hitchens, whose work always read as if his thoughts were fully-formed, elucidated ever so briefly and breezily in those narrow gaps between his vibrant social life. It’s a testament to his skills that he was able to get any work done at all, with his drinking, traveling and constant whirl of activity. He wrote faster, better, and in greater volume than pretty much any writer of his generation, and the majority of his peers have been honest enough to admit as much.

Did Hitchens make mistakes? Did he put forth views on major issues that were perhaps wrong, silly, dangerously misinformed? Of course. The numbers game works against all writers in that regard; show me a political writer whose career was not marked by controversy at some point or another, and I’ll show you a quivering mediocrity of the sort that predominates in DC. The Beltway crowd was never quite comfortable with an expat enfant terrible who could barely bother to pretend the rest were in his league. It takes a lot of moxie to rise to the top of such a ruthless, insular business. These guys guard their spots like functionaries in a dictatorship, and view all outsiders not just as threats, but existential threats.

Key to the elite media attacks on Hitchens’ Iraq stance was the notion that his word, alone, was sufficient to sway the masses in his direction. It presumes that Hitchens’ readers took the opinions of a professional skeptic as gospel-truth, and made no effort to develop their own through the sort of independent research Hitchens would tend to advocate. Rooted in this critique is the thinly-veiled contempt elite media has for its audience, not to mention a sort of jealousy at the general ease and skill with which Hitch performed—on stage, on the page and on TV.

In the parlance of hip-hop, Hitchens went out hard. The cancer was diagnosed early in the promotional tour for his memoir, the sublime Hitch-22 (my favorite book of 2010); he kept up a full writing schedule until about a month before he died. His last Salon piece was published on November 28; his (unacknowledged) farewell to Vanity Fair was done around this time, went online with his death, and will appear in January’s print edition. Arguably was published just a couple of months ago—a thick collection of essays from the last decade of his career, was the last book published in his lifetime. It remains unclear, at this point, how much posthumous writing he left behind, if any. There were rumors that he was working on a book about his battle with the disease that claimed his life, but I’ve heard nothing to indicate that he ever actually got around to starting it, let alone finishing it.

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About Shelton Hull

I'm a writer/journalist with over 20 years experience covering all types of subject-matter, with a specialization in politics, music, food and dance. My work has been published in nearly 40 different magazines, newspapers, websites and zines, in addition to occasional forays into radio, TV and spoken-word. Former candidate for City Council District 14 in Jacksonville, FL (2011), and a proud member of Gator Nation.

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