Christopher Eric Hitchens
Cause of death
Pneumonia (brought on by esophageal cancer)
British (1949–2011)American (2007–2011)
The Leys SchoolBalliol College, Oxford
Eleni Meleagrou(m. 1981–89; divorced)Carol Blue(m. 1991–2011; his death)
Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction (1991)National Magazine Award for Columns (2007, 2011)Richard Dawkins Award (2011)LennonOno Grant For Peace (2012)The Orwell Prize – Special Prize (2012)PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Awardfor the Art of the Essay (2012)
God Is Not Great, Mortality, Arguably, Hitch‑22, The Missionary Position
Author Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens | Talks at Google
Christopher Eric Hitchens (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011) was an Anglo-American author, columnist, essayist, orator, religious and literary critic, social critic, and journalist. Hitchens was the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of over 30 books, including five collections of essays, on politics, literature and religion. A staple of public discourse, his confrontational style of debate made him both a lauded intellectual and a controversial public figure. He contributed to New Statesman, The Nation, The Weekly Standard, The Atlantic, London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Slate, Free Inquiry and Vanity Fair.
- Author Christopher Hitchens
- Christopher Hitchens Talks at Google
- Early life and education
- Journalistic career in the UK 19701981
- American writings 19812011
- Literature reviews
- Political views
- Critiques of specific individuals
- Criticism of religion
- Personal life
- Illness and death
- Reactions to death
Hitchens described himself as a social democrat. He broke from the Trotskyist far left after what he called the "tepid reaction" of the Western left to the Satanic Verses controversy, followed by the left's embrace of Bill Clinton and the antiwar movement's opposition to NATO intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. His support of the Iraq War separated him further. His writings include critiques of public figures such as Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa and Diana, Princess of Wales. He was the elder brother of the conservative journalist and author Peter Hitchens. He advocated the separation of church and state.
As an antitheist he regarded the concept of a god or supreme being as a totalitarian belief that impedes individual freedom. He argued that free expression and scientific discovery should replace religion as a means of informing ethics and defining codes of conduct for human civilization. The dictum "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence" has become known as Hitchens's razor.
Early life and education
Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, the elder of two boys. His parents, Eric Ernest Hitchens (1909–1987) and Yvonne Jean Hitchens (née Hickman; 1921–1973), met in Scotland when both were serving in the Royal Navy during World War II. Later in life, Hitchens identified as ethnically Jewish—since Judaism is matrilineal and his mother was Jewish. His mother was a "Wren" (a member of the Women's Royal Naval Service), and his father an officer aboard the cruiser HMS Jamaica, which helped sink Nazi Germany's battleship Scharnhorst in the Battle of the North Cape. His father's naval career required the family to move a number of times from base to base throughout Britain and its dependencies, including in Malta, where Christopher's brother Peter was born in Sliema in 1951.
Hitchens attended Mount House School (now known as Mount Kelly) in Tavistock in Devon from the age of eight, followed by the independent Leys School in Cambridge. Hitchens then went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he was tutored by Steven Lukes and Anthony Kenny and read Philosophy, Politics and Economics, graduating in 1970 with a third-class degree. Hitchens was "bowled over" in his adolescence by Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley, Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, R. H. Tawney's critique on Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, and the works of George Orwell. In 1968, he took part in the TV quiz show University Challenge.
In the 1960s, Hitchens joined the political left, drawn by disagreement over the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, racism, and oligarchy, including that of "the unaccountable corporation." He expressed affinity with the politically charged countercultural and protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. He avoided the recreational drug use of the time, saying "in my cohort we were slightly anti-hedonistic...it made it very much easier for police provocation to occur, because the planting of drugs was something that happened to almost everyone one knew." Hitchens was inspired to become a journalist after reading a piece by James Cameron.
Hitchens joined the Labour Party in 1965, but along with the majority of the Labour students' organisation was expelled in 1967, because of what Hitchens called "Prime Minister Harold Wilson's contemptible support for the war in Vietnam". Under the influence of Peter Sedgwick, who translated the writings of Russian revolutionary and Soviet dissident Victor Serge, Hitchens forged an ideological interest in Trotskyism and anti-Stalinist socialism. Shortly after he joined "a small but growing post-Trotskyist Luxemburgist sect".
Journalistic career in the UK (1970–1981)
Hitchens began working as a correspondent for the magazine International Socialism, published by the International Socialists, the forerunners of today's British Socialist Workers Party. This group was broadly Trotskyist, but differed from more orthodox Trotskyist groups in its refusal to defend communist states as "workers' states". Their slogan was "Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism".
Hitchens left Oxford with a third-class degree. In 1971 he went to work at the Times Higher Education Supplement where he served as a social science correspondent. Hitchens admitted that he hated the position, and was fired after six months in the job. Next he was a researcher for ITV's Weekend World. In 1973 he went to work for the New Statesman, where his colleagues included the authors Martin Amis, whom he had briefly met at Oxford, Julian Barnes and James Fenton, with whom he had shared a house in Oxford. Around the time that the Friday lunches began, which were attended by writers including Clive James, Ian McEwan, Kingsley Amis, Terence Kilmartin, Robert Conquest, Al Alvarez, Peter Porter, Russell Davies and Mark Boxer. At the New Statesman Hitchens acquired a reputation as a left-winger, reporting internationally from areas of conflict such as Northern Ireland, Libya, and Iraq.
In November 1973, Hitchens's mother committed suicide in Athens in a pact with her lover, a defrocked clergyman named Timothy Bryan. The pair overdosed on sleeping pills in adjoining hotel rooms, and Bryan slashed his wrists in the bathtub. Hitchens flew alone to Athens to recover his mother's body, initially under the impression that his mother had been murdered. Both her children were then independent adults. While in Greece, Hitchens reported on the constitutional crisis of the military junta. It became his first leading article for the New Statesman. In December 1977, Hitchens interviewed Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, a conversation he later described as "horrifying". In 1977, unhappy at the New Statesman, Hitchens defected to the Daily Express where he became a foreign correspondent. He returned to the New Statesman in 1979 where he became foreign editor.
American writings (1981–2011)
Hitchens went to the United States in 1981, as part of an editor exchange programme between the New Statesman and The Nation. After joining The Nation, he penned vociferous critiques of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and American foreign policy in South and Central America. He became a contributing editor of Vanity Fair in 1992, writing ten columns a year. He left The Nation in 2002 after profoundly disagreeing with other contributors over the Iraq War. There is speculation that Hitchens was the inspiration for Tom Wolfe's character Peter Fallow in the 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, but others — including Hitchens —believe it to be Spy Magazine's "Ironman Nightlife Decathlete" Anthony Haden-Guest. In 1987, his father died from cancer of the oesophagus; the same disease that would later claim his own life. In April 2007, Hitchens became a US citizen. He became a media fellow at the Hoover Institution in September 2008. At Slate, he usually wrote under the news-and-politics column named Fighting Words.
Hitchens spent part of his early career in journalism as a foreign correspondent in Cyprus. Through his work there he met his first wife Eleni Meleagrou, a Greek Cypriot, with whom he had two children, Alexander and Sophia. His son, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, born in 1984, has worked as a policy researcher in London. Hitchens continued writing essay-style correspondence pieces from a variety of locales, including Chad, Uganda and the Darfur region of Sudan. In 1991, he received a Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction.
Hitchens met Carol Blue in Los Angeles in 1989 and they married in 1991. Hitchens called it love at first sight. In 1999, as harsh critics of Clinton, Hitchens and Carol Blue submitted an affidavit to the trial managers of the Republican Party in the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Therein they swore that their then-friend, Sidney Blumenthal, had described Monica Lewinsky as a stalker. This allegation contradicted Blumenthal's own sworn deposition in the trial, and it resulted in a hostile exchange of opinion in the public sphere between Hitchens and Blumenthal. Following the publication of Blumenthal's The Clinton Wars, Hitchens wrote several pieces in which he accused Blumenthal of manipulating the facts. The incident ended their friendship and sparked a personal crisis for Hitchens who was stridently criticised by friends for what they saw as a cynical and ultimately politically futile act.
Before Hitchens's political shift, the American author and polemicist Gore Vidal was apt to speak of Hitchens as his "dauphin" or "heir". In 2010, Hitchens attacked Vidal in a Vanity Fair piece headlined "Vidal Loco", calling him a "crackpot" for his adoption of 9/11 conspiracy theories. On the back of Hitchens's memoir Hitch-22, among the praise from notable figures, Vidal's endorsement of Hitchens as his successor is crossed out in red and annotated "NO, C.H." His strong advocacy of the war in Iraq had gained Hitchens a wider readership, and in September 2005 he was named as fifth on the list of the "Top 100 Public Intellectuals" by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines. An online poll ranked the 100 intellectuals, but the magazines noted that the rankings of Hitchens (5), Noam Chomsky (1), and Abdolkarim Soroush (15) were partly due to supporters publicising the vote. He later responded to his ranking with a few articles about his status as such.
Hitchens became a US citizen in 2007. Hitchens did not leave his position writing for The Nation until after the September 11 attacks, stating that he felt the magazine had arrived at a position "that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden." The September 11 attacks "exhilarated" him, bringing into focus "a battle between everything I love and everything I hate" and strengthening his embrace of an interventionist foreign policy that challenged "fascism with an Islamic face." His numerous editorials in support of the Iraq War caused some to label him a neoconservative, although Hitchens insisted he was not "a conservative of any kind," and his friend Ian McEwan described him as representing the anti-totalitarian left. Hitchens recalls in his memoir having been "invited by Bernard-Henri Levy to write an essay on political reconsiderations for his magazine La Regle du Jeu. I gave it the partly ironic title: 'Can One Be a Neoconservative?' Impatient with this, some copy editor put it on the cover as 'How I Became a Neoconservative.' Perhaps this was an instance of the Cartesian principle as opposed to the English empiricist one: It was decided that I evidently was what I apparently only thought." Indeed, in a 2010 BBC interview, he stated that he "still [thought] like a Marxist" and considered himself "a leftist."
In 2007, Hitchens's work for Vanity Fair won the National Magazine Award in the category "Columns and Commentary". He was a finalist in the same category in 2008 for some of his columns in Slate but lost out to Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone. He won the National Magazine Award for Columns about Cancer in 2011. Hitchens also served on the Advisory Board of Secular Coalition for America and offered advice to the Coalition on the acceptance and inclusion of nontheism in American life. In December 2011, prior to his death, Asteroid 57901 Hitchens was named after him.
Hitchens wrote a monthly essay in The Atlantic and occasionally contributed to other literary journals. One of his books, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, collected these works. In Why Orwell Matters, he defends Orwell's writings against modern critics as relevant today and progressive for his time. In the 2008 book Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left, many literary critiques are included of essays and other books of writers, such as David Horowitz and Edward Said.
During a three-hour In Depth interview on Book TV, he named authors who influenced his views, including Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, P. G. Wodehouse and Conor Cruise O'Brien.
In 2009 Hitchens was listed by Forbes magazine as one of the "25 most influential liberals in the U.S. media". The same article noted, however, that he would "likely be aghast to find himself on this list", as it reduces his self-styled radicalism to mere liberalism. Hitchens's political perspectives also appear in his wide-ranging writings, which include many dialogues. He said of libertarianism, “I have always found it quaint, and rather touching, that there is a movement in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.”
While Hitchens supported Israel's right to exist, he was critical of the Israeli government's handling of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Having long described himself as a socialist and a Marxist, Hitchens began his break from the established political left after what he called the "tepid reaction" of the Western left to the controversy over The Satanic Verses, followed by the left's embrace of Bill Clinton, and the antiwar movement's opposition to NATO intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. He later became a liberal hawk and supported the War on Terror, but he had some reservation, such as his characterization of waterboarding as "torture". In January 2006, he joined with four other individuals and four organizations, including the ACLU and Greenpeace, as plaintiffs in a lawsuit, ACLU v. NSA, challenging Bush's NSA warrantless surveillance; the lawsuit was filed by the ACLU.
Critiques of specific individuals
Hitchens wrote book-length biographical essays about Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson: Author of America), Thomas Paine (Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man": A Biography) and George Orwell (Why Orwell Matters).
He became known for his critiques of public contemporary figures including Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger— the subjects of three separate full length texts, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton, and The Trial of Henry Kissinger.
Other of Hitchens's critiques took the form of opinion pieces or lengthy lectures, including his critiques of Jerry Falwell, George Galloway, Slobodan Milošević, Mel Gibson, the 14th Dalai Lama, Michael Moore, Daniel Pipes, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, and Cindy Sheehan.
Criticism of religion
Hitchens was an antitheist, and said that a person "could be an atheist and wish that belief in God were correct," but that "an antitheist, a term I'm trying to get into circulation, is someone who is relieved that there's no evidence for such an assertion." He often spoke against the Abrahamic religions. When asked by readers of The Independent (London) what he considered to be the "axis of evil", Hitchens replied "Christianity, Judaism, Islam—the three leading monotheisms." Hitchens was raised nominally Christian, and went to Christian boarding schools, but from an early age declined to participate in communal prayers. Later in life, Hitchens discovered that he was of Jewish descent on his mother's side. Hitchens's Jewish-born ancestors were immigrants from Eastern Europe (including Poland). In a 2010 interview at New York Public Library, Hitchens stated that he was against infant circumcision.
His bestseller God Is Not Great affirmed Hitchens's position in the "New Atheism" movement, and he was made an Honorary Associates of the Rationalist International and the National Secular Society. Hitchens said he would accept an invitation from any religious leader who wished to debate with him. He also served on the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America, a group of atheists and humanists. On 30 September 2007, Richard Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett met at Hitchens's residence for a private, unmoderated discussion that lasted two hours. The event was videotaped and titled "The Four Horsemen". In it, Hitchens stated at one point that he considered the Maccabean Revolt the most unfortunate event in human history due to the reversion from Hellenistic thought and philosophy to messianism and fundamentalism that its success constituted. That year, Hitchens began a series of written debates on the question "Is Christianity Good for the World?" with Christian theologian and pastor Douglas Wilson, published in Christianity Today magazine. This exchange eventually became a book by the same title in 2008. During their promotional tour of the book, they were accompanied by the producer Darren Doane's film crew. Doane produced the film Collision: Is Christianity GOOD for the World?, which was released on 27 October 2009. On 4 April 2009 Hitchens debated William Lane Craig on the existence of God at Biola University. In God Is Not Great, he expanded his criticism to include all religions, including those rarely criticised by Western secularists, such as Buddhism and neo-paganism. The book received mixed responses, from praise in The New York Times for his "logical flourishes and conundrums" to accusations of "intellectual and moral shabbiness" in the Financial Times. God Is Not Great was nominated for a National Book Award on 10 October 2007. Hitchens said that organised religion is "the main source of hatred in the world", "[v]iolent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: [it] ought to have a great deal on its conscience". Hitchens therefore says in God Is Not Great that humanity is in need of a renewed Enlightenment.
In February 2010, Christopher Hitchens was named to the Honorary Board of distinguished achievers of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. On 26 November 2010, Hitchens appeared in Toronto, Ontario at the Munk Debates, where he debated religion with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a convert to Roman Catholicism. Blair argued religion is a force for good, while Hitchens was against it.
Hitchens was married twice, first to Eleni Meleagrou, a Greek Cypriot in 1981; the couple had a son, Alexander, and a daughter, Sophia. In 1991, Hitchens married Carol Blue, an American screenwriter, in a ceremony held at the apartment of Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation. They had a daughter, Antonia.
Hitchens's father, Eric, was a commander in the Royal Navy; Christopher often referred to him as simply the 'Commander'. Eric was deployed on HMS Jamaica which took part in the sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst in the Battle of the North Cape on 26 December 1943. Christopher would pay tribute to his father's contribution to the war: "Sending a Nazi convoy raider to the bottom is a better day's work than any I have ever done." He also stated that "the remark that most summed him [his father] up was the flat statement that the war of 1939 to 1945 had been 'the only time when I really felt I knew what I was doing'."
His mother, Yvonne, died in Athens in 1973 in an apparent suicide pact with her boyfriend, Reverend Timothy Bryan. His younger brother Peter Hitchens, is a Christian and socially conservative journalist.
Illness and death
In June 2010, Hitchens was on tour in New York promoting his memoirs Hitch-22 when he was taken into emergency care suffering from a severe pericardial effusion and then announced he was postponing his tour to undergo treatment for esophageal cancer. He announced that he was undergoing treatment in a Vanity Fair piece titled "Topic of Cancer". Hitchens said that he recognised the long-term prognosis was far from positive, and that he would be a "very lucky person to live another five years". During his illness, Hitchens was under the care of Francis Collins and was the subject of Collins's new cancer treatment, which maps out the human genome and selectively targets damaged DNA.
Hitchens died on 15 December 2011 at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. According to Andrew Sullivan, his last words were "Capitalism. Downfall." In accordance with his wishes, his body was donated to medical research. Hitchens wrote a book-length work about his last illness, based on his Vanity Fair columns. Mortality was published in September 2012.
Reactions to death
Former British prime minister Tony Blair said, "Christopher Hitchens was a complete one-off, an amazing mixture of writer, journalist, polemicist, and unique character. He was fearless in the pursuit of truth and any cause in which he believed. And there was no belief he held that he did not advocate with passion, commitment, and brilliance. He was an extraordinary, compelling, and colourful human being whom it was a privilege to know."
Richard Dawkins, a friend of Hitchens, said, "I think he was one of the greatest orators of all time. He was a polymath, a wit, immensely knowledgeable, and a valiant fighter against all tyrants, including imaginary supernatural ones."
American theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, also a friend of Hitchens, said, "Christopher was a beacon of knowledge and light in a world that constantly threatens to extinguish both. He had the courage to accept the world for just what it is and not what he wanted it to be. That's the highest praise, I believe, one can give to any intellect. He understood that the universe doesn't care about our existence or welfare and he epitomized the realization that our lives have meaning only to the extent that we give them meaning." Bill Maher paid tribute to Hitchens on his show Real Time with Bill Maher, saying, "We lost a hero of mine, a friend, and one of the great talk show guests of all time." Salman Rushdie and English comedian Stephen Fry paid tribute at the Christopher Hitchens Vanity Fair Memorial 2012. Three weeks before Hitchens's death, George Eaton of the New Statesman wrote, "He is determined to ensure that he is not remembered simply as a 'lefty who turned right' or as a contrarian and provocateur. Throughout his career, he has retained a commitment to the Enlightenment values of reason, secularism and pluralism. His targets—Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, God—are chosen not at random, but rather because they have offended one or more of these principles. The tragedy of Hitchens's illness is that it came at a time when he enjoyed a larger audience than ever. The great polemicist is certain to be remembered, but, as he is increasingly aware, perhaps not as he would like." The Chronicle of Higher Education asked if Hitchens was the last public intellectual.
In 2015, an annual prize of $50,000 was established in his honour for "an author or journalist whose work reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence."