“And Yet ...” a posthumously published essay collection by Christopher Hitchens, showcases the literary and analytical talents of a famously independent spirit.
‘And Yet ….. Essays’
by Christopher Hitchens
Simon & Schuster, 339 pp., $30
The British-born journalist, essayist, commentator and agent provocateur Christopher Hitchens turned righteous indignation into an elite art form.
And when he died from cancer in 2011, after publishing nonfiction titles like “God is Not Great,” the autobiographical “Hitch-22,” and the weighty collection of selected writings “Arguably,” he left a void in the culture of criticism, particularly cultural criticism, that really hasn’t been filled.
“And Yet …” gives us one more taste of this devilishly smart and cantankerous writer, with a set of essays on politics, literature and society that have never appeared in book form.
With his British accent, impeccable vocabulary and burning insight, along with the generally rumpled appearance of a man who spends a lot of time scratching his head over the madness of the world, Hitchens became a fixture both in the pages of magazines like The Nation, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and Slate, and on news-analysis shows.
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Hitchens, who lived in the United States and became an citizen in 2007, attempts again and again in these essays to mine the character of the so-called “Western World,” in search of a deeper understanding of who we are: “Patriotic and tribal feelings belong to the squalling childhood of the human race,” Hitchens writes in a half-page 1991 essay in The Nation about how diversity can be a great source of national pride.
Hitchens made it no secret that he drove his body into the ground with cigarettes and drink. But his mind never wavered. He possessed a fearless willingness to chip away at platitudes, dogmas, lies, hypocrisy and bigotry.
Longtime friend Christopher Buckley, who once described Hitchens as “greatest living essayist in the English language,” recounts once having a 1 p.m. lunch date with Hitchens in Washington, D.C., that lingered until 11:30 that night.
“Christopher probably went home that night and wrote a biography of Orwell,” Buckley writes. “His stamina was as epic as his erudition and wit.”
His stamina, erudition and wit are on full display in the three “On the Limits of Self-improvement” essays he wrote for Vanity Fair in 2007 and 2008. In them we are treated to Hitchens gamely trying to quit smoking, engaging in de-stressing exercises and detoxifying spa treatments and enduring a torturous Brazilian body wax, among other hilarious makeover adventures.
A few essays, such as “My Red-State Odyssey,” about the author’s travels through the South, “where all politics is yokel,” either don’t add up to much or seem a bit off-the-mark.
One wonders, as well, what this vocal supporter of the Iraq war would write about the once-again turbulent situation there today.
Still, the overwhelming feeling this collection leaves is of a voice extinguished just when it was needed most — that of a matchless, uncompromising observer.
His odes are as serious as his takedowns are searing. Nothing in the path of his scathing gaze stands a chance, be it Henry Kissinger or Hillary Clinton or Christmas. But even when Hitchens expresses admiration for figures such as the intrepid, late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, or the former Dutch parliamentarian and Muslim-women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Hitchens doesn’t fawn.
These essays remind us that he was no one’s sycophant or mouthpiece.
Hitchens famously mused, “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”
“And yet …” helps us crack the Hitchens code, so that we can understand more fully the inner workings of one of our greatest contrarians.