August catch-up: The Hitch on Americans, literature, liberal intervention and language

Our political columnist on his book of the summer


This collection of Christopher Hitchens’s journalism was my holiday reading this year. Not on a Kindle. It was published in 2011, when he knew he was dying. He died at the end of that year, although it seems more recent than that. It is a huge book, yet such a joy to read that it was all gone in a week and I was left wishing it had been longer.

It starts with essays on Americans from the Founding Fathers to Gore Vidal, taking in Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy. Kennedy is the first of the modern objects of the Hitch’s vitriol. The “boy wonder”, he says, “had a Pulitzer Prize procured for him, for a superficial book he had hardly read, let alone written”. That JFK was a bad president and a dreadful person is old hat now, but such observations are always good for prompting discussions about whether he was the second or third worst US president of the 20th century.

The section concludes with a short observation about the thinness of literature about Washington, which is still more like Canberra or Brasilia than London or Berlin, in the course of which Hitch observes that senators in fiction are customarily outfitted with a “mane”. As so often, as soon as he says it, you realise he is right.

In the essays on literature, Hitch always picks out lovely details: “Guy felt no resentment; he was a good loser – at any rate an experienced one” (Evelyn Waugh, Sword of Honour). Yet he writes as if effortlessly from them to grand themes, even reviewing JK Rowling’s seventh and final Harry Potter book, when he is surprisingly gentle about her “attempting a kind of secular dramatisation of the battle between good and evil”. He merely asks mild questions: “How can Voldemort and his wicked forces have such power and yet be unable to destroy a mild-mannered and rather disorganised schoolboy? … Is there really no Death Eater or dementor who is able to grasp the simple advantage of surprise?”

He has a similar problem with the fiction of Stieg Larsson. “The villains are evil, all right, but very stupid and and self-thwartingly prone to spend more time (this always irritates me) telling their victims what they will do to them than actually doing it.”

The book also contains the Hitch’s attention-seeking writings on blow jobs and “Why Women Aren’t Funny”, and a wonderful complaint about service in restaurants. It is either too attentive, when waiters “interrupt the feast of reason and flow of soul that was our chat” to “pick up the bottle that was in the middle of the table, and pour it into everyone’s glass”. Hitch demands to know: “How did such a barbaric custom get itself established, and why on earth do we put up with it?” Or it is not attentive enough. “‘Why are they called waiters?’ inquired my son when he was about five. ‘It’s we who are doing all the waiting.’”

He is entertainingly rude about Prince Charles, devoting an article to a textual analysis of a 2010 speech made by the heir to the throne. This bit in particular: “Nature has become completely objectified – She has become an it – and we are persuaded to concentrate on the material aspect of reality that fits within Galileo’s scheme.” (Galileo being at fault, apparently, for “mechanistic thinking”, which holds that “there is nothing in nature but quantity and motion”.)

Of which Hitch commented: “Nature is no more or less ‘objectified’ whether we give it a gender name or a neuter one. Merely calling it Mummy will not, alas, alter this salient fact.” But what can you expect, he asks, from someone who for six decades has been “performing the only job allowed him by the hereditary principle: that of waiting for his mother to expire”?

There are good and serious essays on foreign affairs, many of them in the form of book reviews, in which the late-flowering liberal interventionist makes and remakes the arguments that earned him such fierce admiration from those who think that military force, even that of the US, is sometimes justified in saving people from mass murder.

From the New Statesman in 2008 there is Hitch’s fine blast against pacifism, including this quotation from Mahatma Gandhi’s open letter to the British people of 3 July 1940, which ought to be better known: “I want you to fight Nazism without arms. Let them take possession of your beautiful island … If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”

As Hitchens remarks: “I must say that everything in me declines to be addressed in that tone of voice,” but that it is a “reminder of how fatuous the pacifist position can sound, or indeed can be”.

The last section collects some of his musings on language, including a late (Vanity Fair, May 2011) essay on the King James Bible. This includes the lovely juxtaposition of a passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians with the American Bible Society’s Contemporary English Version. First, King James: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Then the Contemporary English: “Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.”

Hitch quotes TS Eliot, who said of the New English Bible that it is a “combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic”.

One of the last essays in the book, although he wrote it at the time when Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was carrying all before it in March 2008, is on the vacuity of political slogans. “Take ‘Yes We Can,’ for example. It’s the sort of thing parents might chant encouragingly to a child slow on the potty-training uptake.”

Christopher Hitchens, eh? It is a shame he’s gone.

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