Christopher Hitchens at His Best, on Anthony Powell

Because Christopher Hitchens’ oeuvre is both enormous in size and uneven in quality, it’s a challenge to sort his finest writing out from the bits that are merely barstool rants or contrarianism for its own sake (Like other people, I was always suspicious that when Hitchens was ripping into Mother Theresa or some other cultural icon it was as much a quest for publicity as a serious intellectual act.). I have developed my own rule for separating Hitchens’ wheat from his chaff: He is best read when he is praising someone or something rather than on the attack. I would cite as Exhibit A for my strategy this review of the work of the great Anthony Powell, whose fans include a number of RBC readers.

Hitchens quotes Powell judiciously and to great effect in his review, expertly diagnosing the author’s approach to writing and his connection to broader historical and literary trends. It’s a small classic of book reviewing, and gains from Hitchens’ warm tone throughout. Last but not least, I cannot wait to steal the line that a certain anecdote is “quite untrue but well worth repeating”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

12 thoughts on “Christopher Hitchens at His Best, on Anthony Powell”

    1. It is especially valid for Christopher Hitchens, whose writing was usually characterized by judgmental demagoguery and attention-seeking as opposed to any serious attempt to understand or sympathize with other living things. There is nothing wrong with going on the attack, but when your work shows very little interest in doing anything besides going on the attack, then that becomes a problem. At least he was not some horrible fascist full of fear, anger, hatred and rationalization.

  1. “It’s a challenge to sort his finest writing out from the bits that are merely barstool rants or contrarianism for its own sake.”

    Not so much so. Everything Hitchens ever wrote was a barstool rant. Or perhaps more of a barstool game of darts. He sometimes hit a target, but if he did so it was by accident and he was always ridiculous. Giving him credit for the times he hit a target is a sadly pathetic exercise in wish fulfillment.

    1. Awfully nasty thing to say R. Johnston, and it does not put you in a position to judge others for ranting.

    2. R. Johnston is conflating two wildly different things.
      Hitchens’ judgment was spotty at best, and perverse bad faith at worst. “Barstool darts” is not inappropriate in assessing this. But Hitchens’ mind was excellent, his learning deep, and his pen superb. When he did hit the target, it was with a panache that most of us can only dream of.

  2. I never took any of Hitchen’s political writings seriously, no matter what side of an argument he was coming from. But I think that as a literary critic he was one of the best of his generation, and I always enjoyed reading him immensely. Even when I disagreed with him about something I always found him entertaining and enlightening, and came away knowing more than I did before.

  3. I really hope his estate gets Chris Buckley or someone to publish a volume of his book reviews, and a separate volume of his best political writing.

    1. (Well, someone’s got to say it, someone’s bound to say it, so it may as well be me.)

      That 2nd volume will either be awfully short, if “best” has to be “any good”, or not worth bothering with.

  4. Hi marcel — I just looked at the comment list and I see both of your comments — was there another one? (This is my first log in today so I have not been tracking…)

  5. Keith:

    The 2 currently shown (with time stamps of 8:38 and 9:40) are the only ones I made, and both were in moderation after I posted them, until (a guess), about 2 hours ago.

    And it wasn’t your hand that got them out, apparently.

    Must have been an invisible hand. Awesome. 😉

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