Despite his US citizenship, Christopher Hitchens should be considered the finest English critic of his generation—of the literary, not just political, typeby David Herman / May 21, 2005 / Leave a comment
Love, Poverty and War by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books, £14.99)
With the publication of his fifth collection of essays, it is time to acknowledge that Christopher Hitchens, as well as an exceptional political polemicist, is also one of the best literary and cultural critics of the past 20 years. Put his introduction to the late Saul Bellow’s Augie March next to Martin Amis’s and there is no doubt which cuts closer to the centre of Bellow’s achievement. Compare Hitchens’s essay on Michael Ignatieff’s Isaiah Berlin biography with any other review, and Hitchens’s hatchet job is easily the best. As the politically correct brigade denounced Larkin and Kingsley Amis, Wodehouse and Waugh, Hitchens fought a lonely battle on behalf of a very English, mid-20th-century canon. It is time to take Christopher Hitchens seriously.
There have been three turning points in Hitchens’s career. First, in the early 1980s he moved to America. The US was where the action was. Occasional pieces on Michael Foot and the SDP showed what everyone knew—late 20th-century Britain was small beer. It was also a smart move for someone who wanted to evolve from political journalism to cultural and literary essays. He found a niche in the serious magazine culture of the east coast, and since 1989 he has produced hundreds of essays and reviews, ranging from Contragate and Clinton to Waugh; from Wodehouse to Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. The new collection contains some of Hitchens’s best work: on Kipling and Proust, on David Irving and the sickness of JFK. Hitchens is at his best where culture meets politics, in reviews of Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, Don DeLillo’s Libra and Gore Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest.
The second turning point came in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many people assume that Hitchens’s break with the left came over 9/11. That was a bitter falling out, part of a larger split within the Anglo-American left intelligentsia. But signs of the break are apparent earlier: over Salman Rushdie and the fatwa in 1989, then Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Hitchens’s cause was always the same: secular, humanitarian, democratic. With Edward Said he co-edited a book on Palestinian rights, on Start the Week he called for the return to Greece of the Elgin Marbles, in the Nation he stood up for the victims of US policy in central America and of Panzerkommunismus in central Europe. When it came to Rushdie, then Bosnia and Kosovo, Hitchens saw them as the same issue. In Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001) he called the defence of Bosnia-Herzegovina “a civilisation question.” At the end of the book he writes, “The next phase or epoch is already discernible; it is the fight to extend the concept of universal human rights, and to match the ‘globalisation’ of production by the globalisation of a common standard for justice and ethics.” The pieces on the fatwa against Rushdie had the same tone: it was “the chance to defend civilisation’s essential principle.” The context, however, was new: “Muslim societies are undergoing a general crisis of adaptation to modernity and to the ‘West.'” For Hitchens, long-time critic of Duarte, Noriega and Abu Nidal, Bin Laden and Saddam were just two more who preferred torture and murder to democracy and life.
The third turning point brings us to what will endure in Love, Poverty and War. At some point in the 1990s, Hitchens found his literary voice. The political polemics began to give way to substantial literary essays. Perhaps it was to do with the move to Vanity Fair and the literary pieces he began to write for the New York Review of Books and, more recently, the Atlantic Monthly. Perhaps it was part of a revulsion against the politics of the 1990s and part of the fallout with the left.
There were early signs of this new voice in the essays he wrote when he first came to America in the early 1980s, on Brideshead Revisited, Orwell and Paul Scott (collected in Prepared for the Worst, 1989). First, there is the question of Englishness. Hitchens is quick to criticise those who write about Orwell too much in terms of his Englishness, but there is no doubt that his own canon wears an old school tie. From the essays on Kipling and Wilde to Orwell, Wodehouse and Waugh, and then Powell, Fleming, Scott and Greene, the English writers Hitchens values most are posh, often funny, and very English. English—with a twist of abroad. Orwell and Greene travelled widely, Kipling and Scott were the great chroniclers of empire in India, Wodehouse and Wilde died abroad.
All of this speaks to Hitchens and it is no coincidence that he too went to public school (Leys, Cambridge), Oxford (Balliol) and has lived abroad for 20 years. Like his father and grandfather, he has travelled the world. “I came,” he writes in Letters to a Young Contrarian, “of a naval and military family with a long tradition of service to the empire… My grandfather had served in India in the first world war, my father had been posted on British overseas ‘possessions’ as far distant as the coastal enclaves of China, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Falkland Islands.”
It is not hard to see an interesting doubleness here. The radical whose father and grandfather were servants of empire. In Love, Poverty and War, an essay on Trotsky comes between essays on Kipling and Huxley. That duality, the leftist immersed in mid-20th century Englishness, brings us closer to the centre of Hitchens’s work. In Brideshead, where others see only snobbery and an elegiacal hymn to lost privilege, Hitchens sees mourning for the dead of the first world war. In every essay on Kipling, including the new one here, he tries to unravel the poet of empire and jingoism, “the beery sentimentality,” from the dark sense of personal and national loss. In all these writers, Hitchens sees complexity, contradiction and “the idea of a double life.” Orwell/Blair, of course, is a classic case of this English doubleness, but the richest account is found in his essay of the early 1990s on Larkin. When Tom Paulin, Terry Eagleton and others rushed to bury Larkin under accusations of racism, sexism and worse, Hitchens dug deeper and found, both in the life and the poetry, more complexity and interest.
The essay that confirms Hitchens as a major critic is his introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Augie March. It is a brave choice. After all, Bellow was Martin Amis’s literary father, as surely as Amis is Hitchens’s literary brother (the same knowing Oxford drawl, the laugh-out-loud humour). Amis’s fiction has been haunted for years by the idea of sibling rivalry. It is there at the heart of Success and The Information. It is worth wondering whether Amis’s real rival is not McEwan, Rushdie or Barnes, but Hitchens—the best non-fiction writer of the lot.
The piece on Bellow is a tour de force. He understands the importance of Henry James’s nasty account of the lower east side (“the torture rooms of the living idiom”) for two generations of Jewish-American writers. “One triumph of Augie March,” he writes, “is that it takes Yiddishkeit out of ‘the torture rooms,’ and out of the ghetto, and helps make it an indissoluble and inseparable element in the great American tongue.” Hitchens sees how Augie March is a personal breakthrough for Bellow after Dangling Man and The Victim, “the age of his own uncertainty.” It is the novel where Bellow finds his own voice as a writer. As with Proust and Wodehouse, “the essential matter… is the language and the style,” an idea which stands at the centre of Hitchens’s criticism.
There are many references in Love, Poverty and War to solidarities, to roots and belonging: his father and grandfather, his English literary canon, a 200-year tradition of fellow contrarians, and friends and comrades today from Sarajevo to Central America. Yet there is something solitary in Hitchens, with his quirky English heroes—too white, too male and too posh for these times. When academics praise modernism, postmodernism and postcolonialism, Hitchens praises Kipling, Bellow and Lucky Jim.
He’s always been suspicious of false solidarities. He has no time for political parties, Democrats or Republicans, Labour or Conservative. He ridiculed Reagan but disliked Kennedy and Clinton more. He had no time for Thatcher, but no one on the left has heaped such scorn on Kinnock, Hattersley, Callaghan and Foot. “Weimar without the sex,” was his verdict on the Callaghan years.
For Hitchens, the heroes stopped a while ago. Orwell died just after Hitchens was born; Victor Serge just before. His essay on Havana begins in a drink shop on Calle Empedrado, “where Ernest Hemingway used to absorb his mojito thirst quencher… before moving on to the nearby Florida restaurant.” There he comes across an inscription in the visitors’ book, “Viva Cuba Libre!” by Salvador Allende, written on 28th June 1961. Hitchens was staying in the Hotel Nacional where Graham Greene’s Wormold survived a poisoning plot in Our Man in Havana. There is a strong sense of coming after—after Hemingway, Allende and Greene; after modernism (Borges, Proust and Joyce); after the iconic figures of the 20th century (Churchill, Castro, JFK).
In Love, Poverty and War there are no major writers after Borges, no great statesmen after Castro. As he travels along Route 66, he remembers what Woody Guthrie sang, what Steinbeck wrote. Today little is left. Even his beloved English writers, starting with Kipling and Wilde, finish with Greene, Powell and Scott. Perhaps the last was Kingsley Amis. Though he writes with passion about Rushdie, and refers fondly to Amis fils, McEwan and Barnes, it is not the same. Here, and elsewhere, Hitchens is a son writing about the age of fathers.
Perhaps it has something to do with growing up in Britain immediately after the war, after the loss of empire. This elegiac sense sets Love, Poverty and War apart from the earlier collections. But it is different in another way, too. Here there is less Anglo-American politics, more big literary pieces. Hitchens, you feel, is on the move, drawing away from the littleness of today’s politicians and celebrity culture, towards the great writers of the early and mid-20th century. If that is where he finally pitches his tent, he might end up as the best literary and cultural critic of his generation.