Hitchens the writer

Another repost, this time of a repost – metametapost. I wrote it in 2002 or early 2003 when B&W was new, and reposted it last year, on

July 1, 2010

I wrote this about eight years ago for “In the Library.” It hints at why I hope Christopher Hitchens stays around.

Christopher Hitchens is a standing reproach to people who write the odd essay now and then. He is like some sort of crazed writing machine, he seems to average three or four longish essays a day, along with reading everything ever written and remembering all of it, knowing everyone worth knowing on most continents, visiting war zones and trouble spots around the globe, going on television and overbearing even noisy Chris Matthews’ efforts to interrupt him, and irritating people. And what’s even more painful is that this torrent of prose is nothing like the torrents of people like Joyce Carol Oates or Iris Murdoch, badly written in proportion to the torrentiality – no, this is a torrent of learned, witty, informed and informative, searching, impassioned history on the hoof. If Hitchens is a journalist then so were Gibbon and Thucydides.

Unacknowledged Legislation is a collection of essays on writers in the public sphere, as the subtitle has it. The essays are many things, but one of the most noticeable is that they are unexpected. The essay on Philip Larkin for example entirely declines the opportunity to express easy outrage, and instead digs much, much deeper. The one on Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice wonders why she didn’t mention Mill’s autobiography and then at the fact that she seems unaware of the element of caricature in Dickens’ Hard Times. ‘When the utilitarian teacher M’Choakumchild – perhaps a clue there? – tells Sissy Jupe etc.’ Hitchens misses nothing.

Christopher Hitchens, Unacknowledged Legislation, Verso: 2000.


  1. says

    I began calling Hitchens the finest essayist in the English language long ago, before Christopher Buckley famously called him that (and, for some odd reason, was criticized in some circles for it). His skill with the written word was very much like HL Mencken. Reading him, even when I disagreed with him vehemently, left me in awe of the pure craftsmanship of his prose. I’m a pretty good writer, but could never achieve at my best the level that he could reach in his sleep. Regardless of whether one agreed with what he was saying or not, his genius in that regard must be clear to all.

  2. says

    Exactly. Funnily enough I was just reading Christopher Buckley’s farewell in the New Yorker, in which he mentions the best essayist claim and the criticism of it. My response is just of course he bloody is. Anybody who protests the claim can’t have read him with any attention.

  3. says

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