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
Published in May 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
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’…