Why Hitchens Became an American
His friend James Fenton explains Hitchens’ great love of the United States.
Photograph by Christian Witkin.
I asked Christopher not long ago if he had felt, at the time that he made his decision to move to America, that in England there was always something holding him back. He had indeed felt something like this, although I cannot say I always felt it was for good reasons. Christopher, from the time that I knew him at Oxford, was always a brilliant speaker and debater, and in conversation incomparably interesting and engaging. I regularly turned to him before writing on any political subject, for that jumpstart he could administer so well. Anyway, we were meeting and talking all the time, when we were both in England.
But Christopher was at that stage something of a lazy writer, and not yet at all known as an essayist or indeed as a literary critic. In my recollection he was given many chances by different editors, and fell foul of them one way or another. He also made some enemies, for good reasons and bad.
Molti nemici, molto onore was the old Fascist slogan—many enemies, much honor. Christopher upset some people for bad reasons—others for good. I remember Michael Foot, the Labour Party leader and veteran representative of what would come to be dismissed as the Old Left, Old Labour, quivering with fury when Christopher’s name came up in an otherwise friendly, private conversation.
It is very likely that the occasion for this fury would have been Christopher’s disgust at Foot for his loyal support for Mrs. Gandhi during her “Emergency.” Christopher hated—he was a great hater—the sentimentality of the left. He hated it while he was a part of it, long before he cut himself adrift from it.
It surprised me that there was so little in his memoir, Hitch-22, about the New Statesman itself—what it was like to work at, what it meant politically. Christopher said he didn’t write more about that because he hadn’t been happy and didn’t enjoy recollecting it. That surprised me, but it was true that he ended on a sour note a relationship with the editor, Anthony Howard, who gave Christopher so many opportunities. They ended by disliking each other.
On the Statesman we always had interesting writers from America—William Shawcross, R.W.Apple, Ward Just, and, in a particular strain the most engaging, Alexander Cockburn. It was Cockburn who provided Christopher with a model of what he might be—the outrageous but unfailingly clever foreign observer of the American scene. Later, when Christopher was losing a large number of friends over his intervention in the Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair, Alexander wrote an attack on Hitch that was full of stored-up resentment. The piece said one thing to most of its readers. To me it said that Alexander had not relished the sense of Christopher’s trespassing on his turf.
In due course, the Alex Cockburn model was left far behind. Christopher entered what was to be the last phase of his life as a writer—and in the time that was left him to enjoy what, as he lay dying, was revealed to be an extraordinary fame, not to mention a widespread love and affection.
What surprised me about this phase was the deep significance becoming an American citizen held for him. In our Bohemian days, we were internationalist in politics and quite the opposite of patriotic. I hadn’t realized the need Christopher felt to belong to something. He was far too satirical to show it. But in the fullness of time he revealed that he really belonged in an America of his own choice. Last year, when he first fell ill, I read his little book about Tom Paine and thought how very much at home Christopher was in this subject, that century. I also felt that he hadn’t changed at all in spirit from when I first knew him. I shall miss that spirit dreadfully.
James Fenton is an English poet and critic.