In a short profile of Clive James, Christopher Hitchens called him a “polymath,” “one who is interested in everything, and in nothing else.” The words were about James’s enormous book of short biographies, “Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts,’’ but they exactly apply to Hitchens as well, who died in 2011 after publishing “Arguably,” a polymathic 800 pages about nothing less than everything. Already diagnosed with cancer, he may have thought it his fifth and final collection of essays, but he was wrong, as this hefty collection of pieces demonstrates posthumously. In fact, you could think of “And Yet . . . ’’ as almost a kind of holiday surprise (although to do that would’ve undoubtably set Hitchens’s teeth on edge). The volume has no introduction nor editor’s name, only writings for the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and other magazines that unaccountably weren’t collected. It shows no falling-off from his previous collections.
Hitchens was that rare critic who, like Irving Howe or Dwight MacDonald, wrote seriously and well about both politics and literature, combining strong intellectual beliefs with fine aesthetic taste and judgment. Among the literary figures treated searchingly here are Lermontov, Pushkin, George Orwell, V.S. Naipaul, and Edmund Wilson. The political pieces, equally searching, are about the Mideast and about particular figures such as Che Guevara; the interviewer, Oriana Fallaci; and the Muslim woman refugee from her native Somalia, Ayann Hirsi Ali. Everything Hitchens touches is treated in a style that's actively probing, often fiercely critical, but always infused with ironic wit.
The animus present in such wit distinguishes him from James, a gentler spirit whose genius for comedy is richer than Hitchens's, who tends more toward aggressive satire. In reviewing Arthur Schlesinger's journals, Hitchens notes a "disappointing absence of rancor," since Schlesinger seems to have a good word to say about almost anybody. No one would accuse Hitchens of such friendliness. After being interviewed by Pat Buchanan, who characterized Hitchens as a non-American atheist presuming to lecture Americans about their mistakenly Christian prejudices, he imagines what he might have said in response: "Don't you take that tone with me, you German-Irish fascist windbag. I don't have to justify my presence to riffraff like you. Tell it to Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh." This is sufficiently rancorous, surely.
Summing up Hillary Clinton in 2008, he calls her "[i]ndifferent to truth, willing to use police-state tactics and vulgar libels against inconvenient witnesses, hopeless on health care, and flippant and fast and loose with national security." OK Hitch, now tell us what you really think.
Even though he likes Thanksgiving, in contrast to the despised Christmas season, he lets us know he doesn't like turkey and that the worst meal he's ever eaten consisted in "what was quite possibly turkey, but which certainly involved processed cranberry and pumpkin" — this feast consumed in a US Army position in the desert on the Iraq frontier.
There is an account of traveling in the American South ("My Red-State Odyssey"), a region where "all politics is yokel," and where, if you consider yourself a Southerner, you're likely to "come from a large family . . . have a family connection to the military or to the military-industrial complex, more likely to have some relationship — however twisted —
Occasionally he turns his irony on himself in "On the Limits of Self-Improvement," a-three-part piece in which he dispatches himself to a spa in the effort to improve his less than perfect physical being. The verdict overall on the treatment? "[S]ome of this you can try at home and some of it you certainly should."
One of Hitchens's earlier books is titled "Letter to a Young Contrarian: The Art of Mentoring,'' and only death stopped him from being a much older one. The final essay in the book, in praise of his admired Orwell, about whom he had written a short book, calls him in Henry James's terms "one of those upon whom nothing was lost." Hitchens's words about Orwell may justly be applied to the man who wrote them: "By declining to lie, even as far as possible to himself, and by his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth, he showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage." And to all a good night.
By Christopher Hitchens.
Simon and Schuster, 339 pp., $30
William H. Pritchard teaches English at Amherst College.