July 19, 2019

Remembering Christopher Hitchens

“The denouement came in an article in Vanity Fair in April 2010. “I have no wish to assassinate Vidal’s character,” Christopher Hitchens, who died seven years ago this month, wrote, “a character which appears, in any case, to have committed suicide.” Removing his pen from its scabbard, Hitchens contended that the once-great man of American letters had devolved into a tired old crank: a conspiracy-addled, mean-spirited author of half-baked and half-argued screeds.

That same year, when his memoir Hitch-22 hit bookshelves, Hitchens definitively repudiated the title Vidal denied having given him: that of “his living successor, dauphin, or, as the Italians put it, delfino.” It was a literary relationship that ended as a literary feud but their broken bond was also symbolic of a post-Sept. 11 split that had driven Hitchens away from the radical American left where he built his reputation and made Vidal, as Hitchens put it, “more the way he already was.”

The two writers had become acquainted while Hitchens was still writing for New Statesman in London, before his move to the United States in 1981. Though Hitchens remained quite clearly Anglo-American and Vidal was a long-in-the-tooth expatriate, they shared a critique of American imperialism and what the latter termed the national security state in-keeping with the traditions of the radical American left. In 1991, they were among the few voices opposed to America’s lead in liberating Kuwait from Iraq’s military annexation—a war Vidal likened to a light show in the Gulf for Ted Turner’s benefit.

Cracks in their relationship surfaced during the Clinton administration. In No One Left to Lie To, Hitchens attacked the Clintons’ mendacity and triangulation from the left, and, in the spirit, chided Vidal for his role as “defender of the president and a friend of the First Lady.” Vidal was also a sympathizer of Timothy McVeigh, more-or-less blaming the federal government for the Oklahoma City bombing in a Vanity Fair essay published, portentously, in September 2001.”

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