influential writer and cultural critic Christopher Hitchens died on Dec 15
at the age of 62 from complications of cancer of the esophagus. Hitchens
confronted his disease in part by writing, bringing the same unsparing
insight to his mortality that he had directed at so many other subjects.
Over the years, Hitchens' caustic attention was directed
at a broad range of subjects, including Henry Kissinger, Prince Charles, Bob
Hope, Michael Moore, the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa.
"If you're at Vanity Fair and you're talking about some of the things that
Christopher has taken on, at the top of the list is going to be Mother
Teresa," said Graydon Carter, editor at Vanity Fair and a longtime friend.
In 1994, Hitchens co-wrote and narrated a documentary on her called Hell's
"This profane marriage between tawdry media hype and medieval superstition
gave birth to an icon which few have since had the poor taste to question,"
he said in it.
Hitchens wrote about her for the magazine, too. Carter
said it didn't go over so well.
"That's a tough topic to go after," he said. "It was quite negative, and we
had hundreds of subscription cancellations, including some from our own
Christopher Eric Hitchens was born in 1949 — the son of a
British naval commander and a navy nurse — and by his own account was
trained to join the British elite. He studied at a prestigious private
school and then at Oxford, picking up along the way a love of smoking,
drinking, politics, philosophy and argument. In 2010, Hitchens reviewed his
life's path on NPR's Talk of the Nation as he talked about his latest
"I mean I thought of, at one point, entitling the book Both Sides Now, to
describe the various ambivalences and contradictions that I've been faced
with, or that I contained: English and American, Anglo-Celtic and Jewish,
Marxist and — what shall we say — I've been accused of being this, accused
of being a neoconservative and not always thought of it as an insult;
internationalist but in a way patriotic," he said.
In his student days, he was a leftist, opposed to the
Vietnam War; he later wrote for the New Statesman before coming to the U.S.
in the early 1980s to write for The Nation magazine. His anti-American
writings, informed by his socialism, yielded over time to a muscular defense
of Western and particularly American values. During another of his frequent
NPR appearances, Hitchens said he sought to counteract people he considered
apologists for Islamo-fascism.
"Because I think it's the principal threat and because I
think that it tests our readiness to say that we think our civilization is
worth fighting for and is better than those who attack it," he said. "And I
look — not just with politicians but full time with commentators,
intellectuals, friends, for any note of apology, any sort of weakness or
indecision on that point which I've come to consider to be morally and
has been taking it on the chin lately.
Prominent atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and
Sam Harris, have seen a lot of success--in terms of book sales--with
aggressive, no-holds-barred punches denouncing religion and arguing
against the existence of God.
There was a certain performative element to the certainty he projected in
his work for Vanity Fair, Slate and the Atlantic Monthly, among other
publications. Sometimes it came across as a stunt, as in his claim in Vanity
Fair that women could not truly be funny.
"For most men, if they can't make women laugh, they are out of the
evolutionary contest," he said. "With women there's no need to be rendering
yourself attractive to men in that way. We already find you attractive,
The New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley called
Hitchens "polymorphously polemic" for that one, but his stunts sometimes
spanned to more serious issues as well, such as, in 2008, subjecting himself
to waterboarding. He lasted for all of 16 seconds.
"It's annoying to me now to read every time it's discussed in the press — or
in Congress — that it simulates the feeling of drowning," he said at the
time. "It doesn't simulate the feeling of drowning. You are being drowned,
Hitchens had all too vivid a glimpse into his own mortality — cutting short
a lecture tour by explaining that he had been diagnosed with throat cancer.
He borrowed a line from a character in a novel written by his friend Martin
Amis: "I lit another cigarette. Unless I specifically inform you to the
contrary, I am always lighting another cigarette."
friend Graydon Carter said in fall 2010 that, if anything, Hitchens' ordeal
— which he has chronicled vividly — made the always entertaining dining
companion a better listener.
"It slowed it down so he's not as pyrotechnic as it was before," he said.
"You get all the great stuff but without all this blinding sort of wizardry
with his intelligence in the language."
For years, Hitchens had toured the country debating religious figures about
his utter disbelief in the existence of a God. He didn't waver in the face
of his inability to treat his disease. To the very end, whatever the
argument joined, Hitchens' voice was an original. He is survived by his
wife, the writer Carol Blue, and three children.