Christopher Hitchens, skeptic and acerbic master of the contrarian essay, dies at 62

Correction: The Dec. 17 obituary of writer Christopher Hitchens attributed disparaging remarks about Mr. Hitchens to his former colleague at the Nation, Alexander Cockburn. The comments first appeared in 2002 on a Web site co-edited by Cockburn. According to Cockburn, the comments were taken from an essay and headline by other writers. This version has been updated.

December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, a sharp-witted provocateur who used his formidable learning, biting wit and muscular prose style to skewer what he considered high-placed hypocrites, craven lackeys of the right and left, “Islamic fascists” and religious faith of any kind, died Dec. 15 at a hospital in Houston. He was 62.

He had pneumonia and complications from esophageal cancer, according to a statement from Vanity Fair, a magazine for which he worked.

Mr. Hitchens, an English-born writer who had lived in Washington since 1982, was a tireless master of the persuasive essay, which he wrote with an indefatigable energy and venomous glee. He often wrote about the masters of English literature, but he was better known for his lifelong engagement with politics, with subtly nuanced views that did not fit comfortably with the conventional right or left.

In his tartly worded essays, books and television appearances, Mr. Hitchens was a self-styled contrarian who often challenged political and moral orthodoxy. He called Henry Kissinger a war criminal, savaged Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, ridiculed Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and then became an outspoken opponent of terrorism against the West from the Muslim world.

In 2007, Mr. Hitchens aimed his vitriol even higher. He wrote a best-seller that disputed the existence of God and then enthusiastically took on anyone — including his own brother — who wanted to argue the matter.

His supporters praised Mr. Hitchens as a truth-telling literary master who, in the words of the Village Voice, was “America’s foremost rhetorical pugilist.” Writer Christopher Buckley has called him “the greatest living essayist in the English language.”

Enemies vilified Mr. Hitchens as a godless malcontent. An website co-edited by Mr. Hitchens’s onetime colleague at the Nation, Alexander Cockburn, called him a “lying, self-serving, fat-assed, chain-smoking, drunken, opportunistic, cynical contrarian.”

Mr. Hitchens was a raffish character who constantly smoked and drank, yet managed to meet every obligation of a frenetic professional and social schedule. A writer for the Observer newspaper in Britain described him as “at once resolute and dissolute.”

Friends and enemies alike marveled at how the hedonistic Mr. Hitchens, after a full evening of drinking and talking, could then sit down and casually produce sparkling essays for Vanity Fair, the Nation, the Atlantic, Slate.com and many other publications without missing a deadline.

“Writing is recreational for me,” he said in 2002. “I’m unhappy when I’m not doing it.”

He seldom produced an uninteresting sentence while writing with authority on a dizzying array of subjects, including books on Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and the Elgin Marbles. Besides his political essays — usually about international affairs, seldom about domestic U.S. policy — Mr. Hitchens also wrote about strictly literary subjects, including the authors Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, P.G. Wodehouse and Philip Roth.

The writer he was most identified with, though, was George Orwell, the British essayist and author of “1984.” Orwell’s bracing moral courage and brisk prose were among Mr. Hitchens’s ideal models.

In his 2002 book “Why Orwell Matters,” Mr. Hitchens sought to rescue Orwell from “sickly veneration and sentimental overpraise” and noted that the most important thing to be learned from Orwell was that “it matters not what you think, but how you think.”

Mr. Hitchens was often quite funny in print, but his humor was usually at the service of his rhetoric and larger ideas. He seemed to delight most in the things he disliked.

But unlike many armchair polemicists, Mr. Hitchens had the courage to take his convictions to the streets. He was shot at in Sarajevo, jailed in Czechoslovakia and, as recently as 2008, beaten bloody in Beirut.

He was among the first to criticize Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for issuing a 1988 fatwa, calling for the death of Hitchens’s friend “The Satanic Verses” author Salman Rushdie.

At 59, Mr. Hitchens voluntarily underwent a session of waterboarding, the practice of simulated drowning that had been approved by the George W. Bush administration for the questioning of prisoners. Although Mr. Hitchens supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his view of waterboarding was without equivocation.

“If waterboarding does not constitute torture,” he wrote in Vanity Fair, “then there is no such thing as torture.”

To Mr. Hitchens, literally nothing was sacred. He assailed the reputations of many religious figures, including Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. He had little but contempt for Clinton, whom he knew at the University of Oxford in the 1960s, and titled his 1999 book about Clinton “No One Left to Lie To.”

In a series of articles in Harper’s magazine and in a 2001 book, Mr. Hitchens attacked Kissinger, saying the former secretary of state should be charged with war crimes for supporting Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile and for encouraging what Mr. Hitchens viewed as genocidal policies around the globe.

At times, Mr. Hitchens sacrificed friendship on the altar of principle. During the Clinton impeachment spectacle of 1998, he submitted an affidavit to congressional Republicans saying that Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal — a longtime friend — had called Monica Lewinsky “a stalker” who was harassing the president. Many considered Mr. Hitchens’s statement an unpardonable breach of trust.

Mr. Hitchens seemed more comfortable on the international political stage and had long ties to Iraq, which he first visited in 1976.

“I should have registered the way that people almost automatically flinched at the mention of the name Saddam Hussein,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir, “Hitch-22.”

Nevertheless, he opposed Desert Storm, the early 1990s war with Iraq during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Over time, Mr. Hitchens’s anger toward Hussein’s regime festered, and he came to believe that the West had a moral duty to stand up against what he saw as assaults on freethinking, tolerance and an open society.

His wholehearted endorsement of the 2003 U.S.-led intervention in Iraq marked an irrevocable point of no return for many of his old friends on the left. He was seen as deserting his long-held beliefs and crossing over, once and for all, to take up arms with the neoconservatives then in power. In 2011, after many conservatives had come to think of Mr. Hitchens as one of their own, he coined a scathing phrase to describe the tea party movement: All politics is yokel.

Mr. Hitchens rejected the neoconservative label — and all others — and maintained that his views went beyond political partisanship. Rising totalitarianism in Muslim states and his antipathy toward religion of any kind led him to cry out against what he called “fascism with an Islamic face.”

“It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved,” he wrote in “Hitch-22.” “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression.”

Christopher Eric Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England, on April 13, 1949. His father was a career navy officer who became an accountant at a prep school.

His mother had social aspirations for her two sons and once said, “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it.”

The family scrimped to send him to a private boarding school, and he became the first member of his family to attend a university, graduating from Oxford’s Balliol College in 1970. He wasn’t a stellar student, but he had a gift for friendship and a hearty appetite for argumentation and debate.

He formed close friendships with the novelist Martin Amis and other members of the London literary elite and, in the 1970s, was a mainstay at London’s New Statesman magazine. He quickly became almost as well known for his speaking appearances as for his writing. Pudgy and disheveled, he approached the lectern as if unhappily awoken from a hangover.

When he opened his mouth, however, Mr. Hitchens unfailingly proved to be an eloquent and persuasive orator. Fully formed, tightly argued sentences poured from his lips in a precise, well-modulated baritone. He could summon forth literary references, historical analogies and vivid descriptions without a moment’s pause.

“It all seems instantly, neurologically available: everything he’s ever read, everyone he’s ever met, every story he’s ever heard,” novelist Ian McEwan, a longtime friend, told the New Yorker.

In 1973, Mr. Hitchens’s mother and her new paramour, “a defrocked former vicar,” died in a suicide pact in an Athens hotel room. While attending to arrangements for his mother, the 24-year-old Mr. Hitchens dutifully filed dispatches about the political situation in Greece.

Fifteen years later, he learned from his grandmother that his mother had deliberately concealed a central fact of life: her Jewish parentage.

“On hearing the tidings, I was pleased that I was pleased,” Mr. Hitchens wrote in an essay, but he did not otherwise embrace Judaism or any other faith.

He wrote relatively little about his atheism and disdain for religion until his 2007 bestseller “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”

He attributed many of the world’s most serious problems to religion, from ethnic cleansing to the subjugation of women to the denial of scientific progress. He criticized religious faith as nothing more than a fatuous belief in magic, fables and nonsense, calling it “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”

The book became a rallying cry for religious skeptics, and Mr. Hitchens was in steady demand to debate representatives of many faiths.

For years, he maintained a crowded schedule of traveling, writing, lecturing and teaching at various colleges. In 1980, he was married to Eleni Meleagrou and moved to the United States, settling in Washington two years later. He became a U.S. citizen in 2007.

After a divorce, Mr. Hitchens married Carol Blue in 1989. She survives, along with their daughter, Antonia Hitchens of Washington; two children from his first marriage, Alexander Hitchens and Sophia Hitchens; and his brother, Peter Hitchens, a conservative British columnist, who in 2010 published a book subtitled “How Atheism Led Me to Faith.”

On Oct. 12, 2010, after the effects of Mr. Hitchens’s cancer were obvious, he faced his brother in a 90-minute debate in Washington on the existence of God.

“Despite his clearly frail physical condition,” The Washington Post reported, “Christopher’s acerbic tongue and quick wit seemed undiminished.”

Mr. Hitchens was fully aware that some people believed his cancer was the result of divine retribution for his seeming apostasy. Others gathered to pray for his recovery and, in many cases, for his eventual conversion to the faith of their choice.

He was grateful for their kind wishes, but he reserved special disgust for those who thought he might recant his atheistic beliefs in the face of cancer.

“I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire,” Mr. Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair in October 2010, “who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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