Christopher Hitchens, the contrarian writer and public intellectual, died of pneumonia Thursday night in a Houston hospital. He had been suffering from cancer of the esophagus. Mr. Hitchens, who was 62, is survived by his wife Carol Blue and three children. Mr. Hitchens’s death was announced in a statement in Vanity Fair magazine.
Mr. Hitchens had premonitions of mortality as he was beginning work on his memoir, Hitch-22, back in 2008. A glossy brochure arrived in the mail, highlighting an upcoming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of literary photographs taken by his friend Angela Gorgas. In the text, Ms. Gorgas described her first meeting with writer Martin Amis, who became her lover, and “the late Christopher Hitchens.” The shock of reading about his own demise led Mr. Hitchens to contemplate some lines by the poet T.S. Eliot: “Between the idea/And the reality/...Falls the Shadow.”
The shadow grew darker in July, 2010, when Mr. Hitchens was diagnosed with stage-four esophageal cancer and he had to cancel the promotion tour for the very book he had been writing when he chanced upon the premature notice of his death. His has been a very public dying, first because he has kept up his speaking engagements and public appearances while undergoing a brutal treatment regimen and second because he has written about the progress of his illness in cogently and acutely observed essays in Vanity Fair, including a poignant essay about the temporary loss of his voice during radiation.
In response to Mr. Hitchens’s outspoken and steadfast atheism, the faithful clamoured to the heavens, organizing prayer groups and even going so far as to designate Sept. 20, 2010, as Pray for Hitchens Day.
Don’t bother, unless it makes you feel better, he told the devout, insisting that he wouldn’t recant his atheism so long as he was lucid and rational. And he issued a plea asking people to forgive him if he did make a deathbed conversion, arguing that if such a thing happened, it wouldn’t be him speaking but a “half-demented” entity racked by pain and riddled with drugs.
Though his body waned, Mr. Hitchens maintained his furious pace as a journalist, pundit and public intellectual in his final years. In November, 2010, he went mano-a-mano with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Munk Debates, in Toronto. The pair sparred over the proposition that “Religion is a Force for Good in the World, ” with Mr. Hitchens stridently arguing that it wasn’t. And in the summer of 2011, he published his second and final collection of essays, Arguably.
The reviews of Arguably often took an elegiac tone. David Free, writing in the Australian, opined that being forced to imagine the intellectual world without Mr. Hitchens was a “dire” prospect.
“His sheer blazing willingness to speak his mind, always and forcefully, has made him a lode-star of candour in a time of double-talk and euphemism. No matter how depressing political developments have got, one has always been able to look forward to what Hitchens will have to say about them.”
That neatly sums up Mr. Hitchens’s appeal to foes and fans alike. Politicians will not be held to account with quite the same fervour and the world of letters will be a drearier place without his acerbic and witty prose on trends, events and attitudes.
Christopher Eric Hitchens was born on April 13, 1949, the elder of two sons of Yvonne and Eric Hitchens. His working class father, who rose to the rank of Commander in the Royal Navy during World War II, often said the war was the only time when “he knew what he was doing,” a time when enemies were clearly defined, sacrifice was commonplace and life was precious because it was so precarious.
Commander Hitchens did convoy duty on the treacherous Murmansk Run and served on the cruiser HMS Jamaica, the ship which famously helped HMS Duke of York sink the German battleship Scharnhorst in the Battle of North Cape on Dec. 26, 1943. Every Boxing Day, the Hitchens family raised a ceremonial glass in celebration of that victory. “The Commander” as he was called, died of cancer of the esophagus in 1987 in his late 70s, the same malignancy that befell his son in his early 60s.