Anyone who’s frequented my blog to any significant degree knows that I am (mostly) a fan of Christopher Hitchens. I find him an excellent journalist, as well as a man of scruples, a great lover/scholar of literature, an iconoclast of the highest order, and an all-around interesting writer. Most importantly, he neither requests nor offers any alliances except to the principles he holds dear: liberty, civil liberty, intellectual vigor, and the rooting out of corruption.
Of late, you might know Hitchens for his unapologetic support of the invasion of Iraq. He’s been a talking head on a variety of networks—FNC included—to proffer his justifications for the war1. But Hitchens has been around a long time: you might recall his screed against Mother Teresa, his contempt for Bill Clinton, or his struggle to oust and prosecute Henry Kissinger for war crimes (all three of this subjects have been tackled in books by Hitchens). He’s written in a variety of contexts—more than I ever realized—and this collection of essays seeks to offer a decent cross section of that canon.
The book, as the title might indicate, is divided into three sections.
- Love • This section consists mostly of Hitchens’ passions—that is, reviews of famous literature or books or history. It begins with a lengthy essay about Winston Churchill (through the lens of several biographies and books and history) written for Atlantic Monthly. It continues along that vein, jumping from introductions of Huxley’s Brave New World to contextual criticism of Rudyard Kipling, to reviews of other literary criticism. It spans a wide gamut, but it’s a side of Hitchens that is rarely seen except to owners of nth-anniversary reprints of select novels or subscribers to Atlantic Monthly or a ragtag collection of literary journals. It’s not the best lit-crit I’ve ever read, but it’s still damned interesting.
- Americana • As a postscript to the “Love” section is a series of articles dealing specifically with American culture. One long essay, I believe for Harper’s, recalls Hitchens’ journey across historic Route 66 in a Corvette, and reminds me more of Bill Bryon’s The Lost Continent than anything by Hitchens.
- Poverty • This section is a catch-all for any of Hitchens’ polemics that aren’t Iraq-related. A screed against Mother Teresa, for instance, as well as an extraordinarily poignant piece about an execution he witnessed in Missouri (and of course capital punishment in general). These are some of his most reflective pieces, even if they contain at points a fair amount of ire. Remember that Hitchens isn’t one to pull any punches.
- War • “War” is, as one might imagine, predicated entirely upon the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although it is further bifurcated into a “Before September” section, which consists largely of early-90s pieces about the first Gulf War—and a notable argument about Montenegro during the conflict in Yugoslavia—, and an “After September,” which chronicles some of Hitchens more immediate responses to the attack, more measured pieces months later advocating military responses, and finally a few articles dealing with the invasion of Iraq.
I’m sorry to say that the final essay, for all its merits, strikes me as a somewhat jingoistic, “Iraq: A Country on the Move!” sort of fluff piece. It’s a soft end, I think, and not one that holds up well several years later, when prospects aren’t as bright and sunny as Hitchens makes them out to be. Still and all, one has to respect Hitchens’ clarity of argument—I find that my own opinions have been tempered somewhat by his writing—and the nuance and skill with which he approaches his subject. Love, Poverty, and War is a mere sampling of Hitchens’ incredible archives, but it’s the sort of compilation I’ve been looking for, since I’m not a regular reader of anything but his Slate articles. If you’re a Hitchens fan, or just want to see what he has to say, give this one a chance.
- Importantly, Hitchens supports the invasion in principle, but has a low regard for the way Bush and his administration have handled it[↩]