Hitch-22: A Memoir | By Christopher Hitchens | Twelve | 435 pages, $26.99
In early 1966, shortly after he moved to the United States, the witty and urbane English journalist Henry Fairlie wrote an extended essay about the American newspaper scene for Encounter, the London-based, CIA-sponsored periodical. Fairlie extolled the range, depth, and professionalism of American newspaper reporting. Halfway through his treatise, however, he delivered a tart observation: “That most American journalists have yet to learn to write is an accepted fact of American journalism, of every kind and at every level.” What mystified Fairlie, a veteran of London’s newspaper skirmishes, was the Americans’ “lack of style.”
Fifteen years later, another witty and urbane English journalist arrived in the U.S. with a single suitcase. His name was Christopher Hitchens, and he immediately began to offer—in the pages of Grand Street, In These Times, and The Nation, where he was soon given a column—master classes on the very subject that had vexed Henry Fairlie: literary style. Before long, his elegant and acrobatic prose drew the attention of leading New York publishers, and in 1988, when he was thirty-nine, his first collection appeared. Prepared for the Worst ranged far and wide: dispatches from the battlegrounds of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Lebanon, and Argentina; political pieces, etched in acid, on subjects from the Iran-contra affair to the rise of neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz; and essays on Thomas Paine, George Orwell, Noam Chomsky, and Conor Cruise O’Brien. (It also showcased the author’s gift for the pithy concluding note, such as this parting shot at Tom Wolfe in a review of The Bonfire of the Vanities: “[W]hen Wolfe decides to mingle with the luckless and the downtrodden, he does so in the person of Mistah Kurtz rather than Mr. Pickwick.”)
Also impressive were the blurbs on the back cover from four notables: Oliver Stone (“a breath of Tom Paine for our time”), Salman Rushdie (he “deserves, in spite of his inexplicable wrongheadedness on pages 225–27, to be celebrated with much gusto”), Martin Amis (“When I see Mr. Hitchens’s name among a magazine’s contributors, I want to save him until last but always end up reading him first”), and Leon Edel (“Hitchens has wisdom colored by wit”). On a cursory glance, Edel’s endorsement seemed out of place. Surely the eighty-one-year-old scholar—who wrote a towering five-volume biography of Henry James and edited the journals of Edmund Wilson—represented the old guard. But Edel’s blurb was a telegram aimed at the American literary establishment, and its meaning was clear: here is an extremely precocious young writer fully at home in the quarterlies, the weeklies, the op-ed pages, and in the realm of literature. Look out.
The British theater critic Kenneth Tynan kept the following words above his writing desk: “Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds.” In the 1980s and early 1990s, it seemed that Tynan’s credo had been tailored to fit the young Hitchens, whose persona in print somehow combined the wit of Oscar Wilde, the steely intelligence of Susan Sontag, the hard-bitten anti-imperialism of Gore Vidal, the bitchy humor of Truman Capote, and the swagger of Norman Mailer.
His rise was inexorable. In 1992 Hitchens became a columnist for Vanity Fair, and no writer in the country deserved the job more. He went on to write for every major periodical except The New Yorker, and produced a shelf of books. To be sure, his aura was partly the result of his exertions outside journalism: Hitchens loaned his linguistic firepower to a frail and demoralized American Left, and was an electrifying (if rumpled and grandiloquent) speaker at countless rallies and public events from Berkeley to Madison to Manhattan. In front of a microphone, his only real competition was the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“Journalists cannot expect their work to last,” James Salter wrote in his introduction to A. J. Liebling’s memoir of Paris, Between Meals. “Even Dreiser’s or Hemingway’s articles are of little interest to us. . . . Autobiography, though, is another matter, as is memoir. . . . ” With his sixtieth birthday behind him, Hitchens has now written an account of his life. And the first chapter of Hitch-22, which concerns his mother, contains some of the most stirring prose of his career.