Because he wrote so brilliantly until the very end, Christopher Hitchens, who died yesterday in a Houston hospital from a complication of esophageal cancer, probably had many of us hoping his lapidary prose could continue to pour forth for much longer.
Hitchens, 62, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2010, so news of his death should not have been such a nasty surprise this morning when I picked up the Washington Post. Though I hadn’t seen Christopher out and about in the ‘hood for quite some time, I did think about him and wonder how he was faring every time I passed The Wyoming on Columbia Road, where he lived with his wife, Carol Blue.
A product of Oxford University’s Balliol College, Christopher used English in such a dazzling way that he reminded us that it was, after all, the English who invented English. “Goodbye, my beloved friend. A great voice falls silent,” the novelist Salman Rushdie tweets.
While many readers of this blog are probably more in tune with Christopher’s conservative brother, the British journalist Peter Hitchens, I know that many of us are united in admiration and amazement at Christopher’s incomparable writing, his originality, and his courage.
Hitchens was not afraid to wear the wrong ideas or take a stand that didn’t endear him to the liberal establishment. He was a strong supporter of the Iraq war, outspoken against those he called “Islamic fascists,” but also against waterboarding (after being waterboarded himself as an aid to forming the proper opinion), and, yes, an outspoken atheist.
Unlike many who travel in Hitchens’ circles, he not only claimed to be unafraid to offend but actually was. Here is the Washington Post’s description of his celebrated rupture with Clinton apologist Sidney Blumenthal:
At times, Mr. Hitchens sacrificed friendship on the altar of principle. During the Clinton impeachment spectacle of 1998, he submitted an affidavit to congressional Republicans saying Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal — a longtime friend — had called Monica Lewinsky “a stalker” who was harassing the president. Many considered Mr. Hitchens’s statement an unpardonable breach of trust.
I met Christopher in the 1980s, when I was profiling his then-friend Alexander Cockburn, another graduate of the leftwing New Statesman, for Policy Review. The two Brits who had attained fame in the colonies were disheveled and yet incredibly glamourous. Like many, upon meeting Christopher, I became absorbed in trying to solve one of the great literary conundrums of our time: How could anyone who wrote as well and as prolifically as Hitchens drink so damned much alcohol?
When I was working at “Page Six,” the New York gossip column, we always referred in print to Christopher as “hellbound Hitchens,” a reference to his atheism. Christopher once debated Peter Hitchens, his lifelong sparring partner (see “I told my brother he was adopted”), a devout member of the Church of England, on the existence of God. Many Christians—unlike many famous atheists, Hitchens had lots of friends who were Christians—hoped to win him over in the end.
“I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire,” he wrote in Vanity Fair slightly more than a year ago, “who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.”
Christopher Hitchens, RIP