Christopher Hitchens Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Christopher Hitchens 1949-

(Full name Christopher Eric Hitchens) English journalist, essayist, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Hitchens's career through 2001.

A contentious journalist, editorial columnist, and media figure, Hitchens has attracted both respect and contempt for his scathing assaults on an array of contemporary political subjects and personalities. Unabashedly aligned with the ideology of the far Left, Hitchens is noted for the sharp wit and wicked humor of his polemical writings, as well as his idiosyncratic perspective, which is largely unburdened by any single political or professional loyalty. He has written incisively about the politics of Central America and the Middle East, as well what he characterizes as the “special relationship” between England and the United States. Hitchens disdains the ignorance of political leaders and the media in his writings, and has made a reputation by exposing what he sees as the hypocrisy and moral shortcomings of prominent figures, notably U.S. President Bill Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Mother Teresa. A popular guest on television programs and at public debates, Hitchens is well known for his “Minority Report” column in The Nation and his several collections of essays, book reviews, and editorials.

Biographical Information

Born in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens is the eldest of two sons born to Eric Ernest Hitchens, a career naval officer, and Yvonne Hickman. Hitchens's younger brother, Peter, is a noted right-wing critic and author, who has entered into several public debates with his older brother. The Hitchens family moved frequently due to their father's military duties. Though an avowed atheist, Hitchens was raised as a Christian and attended a Methodist private school in Cambridge. He was surprised to learn in the late 1980s of his maternal Jewish ancestry, which his mother had concealed from the family. In 1970 Hitchens graduated from Balliol College at Oxford University with honors in philosophy, politics, and economics. While at Oxford, he joined the International Socialist Party and was an active participant in the anti-war movement against American involvement in Vietnam. After graduating, he worked as the social science correspondent for the Times Higher Education Supplement in London. From 1973 to 1981, and since 1987, Hitchens has served as a staff writer for the New Statesman. His first book, Callaghan (1976), a study of British Labour leader James Callaghan, was a collaborative effort with Peter Kellner, and his second book, Inequalities in Zimbabwe (1981), was co-authored with David Stephens. In 1980 Hitchens relocated to the United States, and in 1981 he began writing the “Minority Report” column for The Nation. He has since interspersed book writing with work as a journalist for various periodicals in both England and the United States. In 1982, he began to contribute regular columns to the Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement, and later Vanity Fair. Hitchens has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Pittsburgh, and the New School for Social Research (now New School University) in New York City. He received the American Friends of Cyprus annual award in 1985 for Cyprus (1984), and the Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction in 1991. During the 1998 scandal involving U.S. President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Hitchens emerged as a unexpected witness, providing testimony to the House impeachment managers that proved damaging to the Clinton defense. Hitchens has married twice, first to Eleni Meleagrou, a press officer, and then to writer Carol Blue. He has three children and resides in Washington, D.C.

Major Works

Hitchens's shrewd analysis of controversial political subjects is evident in Cyprus, in which he chronicles twenty years of British, U.S., Greek, and Turkish intervention in Cyprus' internal affairs. Hitchens contends that the division of Cyprus in 1974 was orchestrated by Britain and the U.S. in order to prevent communist sympathizers from coming to power. In The Elgin Marbles (1987), Hitchens weighed in on the emotionally-charged debate surrounding the appropriation of ancient Greek sculptures by Lord Elgin, the British envoy to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803. During this time, Lord Elgin used his position to gain permission from the Ottoman government to remove more than half of the remaining marble statues and friezes from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. The marble statues were shipped to England and eventually sold by Lord Elgin to the British Museum, where they remain one of the most prized and popular attractions at that institution. In his book, Hitchens records the arguments for and against repatriation of the works of art and argues in favor of returning the marbles to Greece. In Blaming the Victims (1988), co-edited with Edward Said, Hitchens reiterates his long-standing advocacy for the Palestinian cause and addresses what he sees as the falsehoods perpetuated by the Western media on behalf of Israeli interests. Hitchens's discovery of his Jewish ancestry has not swayed his passionate support for the Palestinians. Instead, he believes that his Jewishness merely added new credence to his anti-Zionist position. Prepared for the Worst (1988) is comprised of essays that originally appeared in periodicals ranging from Mother Jones to the Nation. Among these pieces are compelling articles that focus on the harmful consequences of U.S. support for various right-wing regimes in Central America and the machinations behind the Iran-Contra scandal during U.S. President Ronald Reagan's administration, a favorite recurring target of Hitchens's scorn. A second collection of journalistic pieces, For the Sake of Argument (1990), consists of essays on various political and literary topics, including a lengthy defense of controversial author Salman Rushdie, as well as denunciations of numerous public figures such as U.S. President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, author P. J. O'Rourke, and other neo-conservatives. In Blood, Class, and Nostalgia (1990), Hitchens argues that the so-called “special relationship” between England and the United States represents nothing less than a transfer of empire from the older nation to the newer one. He examines the roots of the American affinity for English culture and the insinuation of British interests in American foreign policy, illuminated by the writings of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, author Rudyard Kipling, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, among others. In The Missionary Position (1995), which was subsequently adapted into the television special Hell's Angels, Hitchens decries what he believes to be hypocrisy and dubious motivations of Mother Teresa, the revered Catholic nun whose charitable work on behalf of the destitute in Calcutta, India, has received millions of dollars of support, money that Hitchens argues is largely unaccounted for. Hitchens contends that Mother Teresa's Hospital for the Dying, despite its generous funding, offers no real medical treatment for its patients—and that prayers and aspirin are prescribed even for the most severe cases and no physicians are in attendance. Furthermore, Hitchens suggests that Mother Teresa's neglectful treatment of desperately ill Indians conflicts with her personal use of well-known Western medical facilities. Hitchens also notes Mother Teresa's willingness to accept donations from questionable contributors such as the Duvaliers of Haiti and Charles Keating, who was implicated in the collapse of several U.S. savings and loans in the mid-1980s. In No One Left to Lie To (1999), Hitchens condemns Bill Clinton for political opportunism and abuse of presidential power. In particular, Hitchens charges that Clinton willingly executed a mentally-retarded Arkansas inmate to support his presidential aspirations and that Clinton used military actions to divert public attention from his sexual transgressions. Hitchens argues that Clinton used a “triangulation” strategy of espousing liberal causes while paving the way toward the enactment of conservative legislation, all the while gauging public opinion as the only measure of his actions. Hitchens believes that this sounded a death knell for progressive politics in the United States for years to come. Moreover, Hitchens argues that Clinton's prevarication assured that for the remainder of his term as president, he would be essentially powerless, a dangerous situation for the nation and the world. As much as Hitchens disapproves of Clinton, he reserves special ire for Henry Kissinger, whom he asserts should be convicted as a war criminal. In The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001), Hitchens maintains that Kissinger's manipulative politics and complicity prolonged the Vietnam War, that Kissinger oversaw the assassination of Salvador Allende in Chile, and that Kissinger supported the overthrow of Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus. Unacknowledged Legislation (2001) is a collection of critical essays written in the last decade of the twentieth century, all concerned with authors who were either overtly political or who encountered politics in some way. Hitchens examines the works of several twentieth-century writers such as Dorothy Parker, Tom Wolfe, George Orwell, George Eliot, and Philip Larkin. In Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001), a manifesto written to an imaginary person, Hitchens portrays himself as a mentor figure who provides advice on how to live apart from the consensus and how to avoid the enemies of free will.

Critical Reception

As a staunch independent thinker and provocateur, Hitchens has made numerous enemies on both sides of the political spectrum. His trademark label pin, which reads “All the Right Enemies,” has attested to his combative self-sufficiency. Many critics have admired—and feared—his distinctive talent for using eloquent invective and ironic insinuation in his debates; even those who have opposed his leftist politics have admitted to deriving a certain enjoyment from his clever denunciations and ad hominem attacks. Nevertheless, Hitchens has been criticized for his tendency to provoke rather than to offer sustained analysis of any single problem. Several critics have noted that his rather brief volumes lack well-developed or coherent themes and are undermined by the omission of documentary evidence to support his claims. Some commentators have also accused Hitchens of obscuring or simply ignoring inconvenient facts that weaken his argument, while others have cited Hitchens's lack of historical perspective and analytical rigor as a significant flaw in his interpretation of past events. Though often praised for his confident posture, Hitchens has also gained notoriety for being ruthless in the eyes of some critics who feel that he has attacked innocent targets in his works, such as Mother Teresa. As an accomplished journalist, however, Hitchens has been respected for his determination to subvert media stereotypes and to expose the ironies and inconsistencies of Western government and foreign policy.