Too many excellent writers are writing about Christopher Hitchens in the wake of his premature death from cancer for me to add much of value. I disagreed with Hitchens frequently, but then, so did everyone. What I appreciated was his integrity, which was unshakable. What I admired, and will always try to emulate, was his refusal to be seduced by convention, ideology, political agendas and partisan bias. Hitchens looked at the world with clear and piercing eyes, and dissected what he observed with a mind that was curious, rigorous, and forever open. Thus he was never a comfortable ally for liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, because he would never hesitate to arrive at conclusions that shocked his friends and cheered his friend’s enemies. He was fearless and principled.
Most of all, however, Christopher Hitchens wrote like an angel, a simile the committed atheist would have hated. It is a measure of the depths to which popular taste and intellect have fallen that the Mark Train Prize was awarded in recent years to the pedestrian likes of Will Farrell and Tina Fey when Hitchens routinely churned out prose wittier than their best efforts on the most inspired days of their creative lives. He was truly the spiritual and literary descendant of Mark Twain, as well as Swift, Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken, George Bernard Shaw, W.S. Gilbert, Dorothy Parker, Gore Vidal and the rest of the select crew of social critics blessed with the ability to infuriate, illuminate and amuse simultaneously. When he focused all of his passion, intellect and rhetorical skills on a topic he cared about, Hitchens was as close to an irresistible force as a writer can be. Yet his mission was always noble. His constant goals were truth, justice, fairness, and wisdom. Of him it could be fairly stated, as of few others, that while Christopher Hitchens was around, bullshit was never safe.
I’ll close with four links about Hitchens: the New York Times obituary, the Washington Post obituary, a collection of comments and other links about Hitchens, a collection of his essays, an appreciation from a friend, and a collection of some of his best quotes.
If you can only read one, choose the last. The list is heavily tilted toward Hitchens’ attacks on religion, and he wrote about so many other things, but it is representative of his skill and style. One quote on the list in particular I remember well, and it makes me laugh every time I read it:
“If you gave [Jerry] Falwell an enema he could be buried in a matchbox.”
Ah, we’ll miss you, Hitch!