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Katha Pollitt on Christopher Hitchens
Poet and critic Katha Pollitt remembers Poetry magazine contributor Christopher Hitchens in a recent post for the Nation, providing a balance to a lot of the misty-eyed eulogizing of the past few days. She allows that Hitchens’ had many admirable qualities (he was, she reports, “clever, hilarious, generous to his friends, combative, prodigiously energetic and fantastically productive”), but she refuses to overlook his darker side. “So many people have praised Christopher so effusively,” she writes, “I want to complicate the picture even at the risk of seeming churlish.”
She reflects on his drinking, which “made him angry and combative and bullying, often toward people who were way out of his league — elderly guests on the Nation cruise, interns (especially female interns).” And while she allows that his writing was so strong that he could indeed write while “sozzled,” it still hurt his logic: “those passages of pointless linguistic pirouetting? The arguments that don’t track if you look beneath the bravura phrasing? Forgive the cliché: that was the booze talking.”
Her most pointed words are reserved for Hitchens’ writing about women:
So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there’s a reason for that. He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspectives. I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting—the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan. It all came off the top of his head, or the depths of his id. Women aren’t funny. Women shouldn’t need to/want to/get to have a job. The Dixie Chicks were “fucking fat slags” (not “sluts,” as he misremembered later). And then of course there was his 1989 column in which he attacked legal abortion and his cartoon version of feminism as “possessive individualism.” I don’t suppose I ever really forgave Christopher for that.
The whole thing is pretty unsparing (you can read it in its entirety here), but she does pull back a bit at the end:
A lot of writers, especially political writers, are rather boring as people, and some of the best writers are the most boring of all—they’re saving themselves for the desk. Christopher was the opposite—an adventurer, a talker, a bon vivant, a tireless burner of both ends of the candle. He made a lot of enemies, but probably more friends. He made life more interesting for thousands and thousands of people and posed big questions for them—about justice, politics, religion, human folly. Of how many journalists can that be said?