Home > Poetry > Legislating: Christopher Hitchens as Literary Critic
Published: Fri Jul 1 2005
Anne Neely, Summer Cycle (detail), oil on linen, photographed by Julia Featheringill
Legislating: Christopher Hitchens as Literary Critic

“Is there a more relevant (and readable) literary critic than Christopher Hitchens?” asked the Independent in 2003. The immediate occasion provoking this rhetorical question (to which the implicit answer was, of course, “no”) was the paperback publication of Hitchens’s Unacknowledged Legislation, but the notion that Hitchens has proven himself an astute critic of literature has become remarkably widespread. If anything, his reputation as, specifically, a literary critic has only grown in the years following the events of 9/11/01 and Hitchens’s own transformation into a “contrarian” of the neocon variety, as if those readers who had previously admired Hitchens for his political convictions have in response to his apparent apostasy nevertheless attempted to salvage something of their previous esteem by seizing on what seems to be his non-political writing about literature.

But very little of Hitchens’s criticism is actually non-political. In almost all cases—book reviews, polemical essays, critical introductions—his focus is rather relentlessly on “writers in the public sphere,” as the subtitle of Unacknowledged Legislation has it. This does not mean that he invariably turns to writers who in some way validate his own political allegiances; indeed, one of the more admirable characteristics of Hitchens’s approach to literature is his willingness to take seriously even writers whose political views must be (or must have been) anathema to him—Kipling, or Wodehouse, or Evelyn Waugh. To this extent Hitchens clearly enough knows that to privilege politics above all is to trivialize literature. However, whether because his background is not in literary criticism per se, or because he does consider the political consequences of a writer’s work (more often, the legacy of a writer’s political ideas and attitudes) to be what is finally most serious about that work, Hitchens very seldom examines a “literary” writer except to foreground politics or political history, and usually only takes up writers whose work lends itself quite obviously to such discussion in the first place.

If in fact Hitchens is able to discuss works of literature as worthy of attention only in their political-historical context, he is certainly not alone among contemporary critics. It is bad enough that academic literary criticism has become almost entirely a species of political rhetoric and barely concealed agitation, but much so-called “general interest” criticism as well seems to proceed on the assumption that books and writers are to be taken seriously only if they appear to raise “issues” of sociopolitical interest, or at least can be read as fitting with highly politicized assumptions about what works of literature are good for. Some magazines, on both the left (The Nation, The New York Review of Books) and the right (The National Review, Commentary) rarely even review fiction or poetry unless it has some manifest political relevance, while others (The New Republic, The Weekly Standard) just as infrequently review such literary works without judging them according to “standards” that are difficult to separate from the political preferences for which such publications are known. Indeed, it has become something of a common practice for all of these magazines, which are most likely to publish lengthier, more closely considered literary criticism beyond what is to be found in newspaper book reviews, to regard contemporary literature simply as material, sometimes ammunition, sometimes a target, to be employed in the ongoing culture war.

Which is not to deny that some writers do produce novels and poems that are themselves expressions of political sentiment, or that explore political ideas, or that use literary form as a rhetorical disguise for sociological analysis and political proclamation. (And there are also, of course, writers who have produced stirring political poems and otherwise aesthetically sound novels that happen to take on politically-charged subjects.) Nor is it to deny that political criticism has any useful function to perform in the larger project of modern literary criticism. Ultimately works of literature are valuable to us as readers precisely because they allow us access from so many different angles of approach, make themselves available for interpretation and appraisal rather than simply “communicate” ideas or information. Calling attention to the political implications of a particular literary work is not in itself objectionable, but the primary job of someone who wants to claim title to “literary critic” ought to be, if the word “literary” is to retain its ostensible meaning, to assess a work of literature as literature—its formal characteristics, its stylistic accomplishments, the whole range of its thematic concerns, all of the features to be found in a poem or story or novel that contribute to the distinctive experience reading works of literature can and should be.

Political criticism is thus subsequent to literary criticism. It is not identical with it. Political context may provide an ancillary (but not for that reason negligible) avenue of interpretation, but it is not in itself “literary” criticism if the literary qualities of the work at hand have not been established and to a certain extent given precedence. The political implications of a work of fiction or poetry are entirely legitimate subjects of discussion, but to focus on them to the effective exclusion of other possible sources of meaning only marks such discussion as political discourse rather than literary critique. (The position I am taking here is perhaps reminiscent of that taken by the “New Critics” in their response to the highly politicized criticism of the 1930s. However, while I admire the New Critics for their insights about the integrity of the literary work and about the way in which the act of reading literature must be an active and open process, I am not advocating a resuscitation of New Criticism in its doctrinaire form. I do believe that these insights were valid, and ought to guide even non-academic criticism that explicitly identifies its subject to be “literature.”)

Hitchens himself does claim that it is literature that intrigues him, that, as he puts it in the introduction to Love, Poverty, and War (2004), “there is a gold standard, and…literature establishes and maintains it.” Yet even this latest book, in which Hitchens elaborates further of his “love of literature” that he “had begun to resolve, after the end of the cold war and some other wars, to try to withdraw from politics as such, and spend more time with the sort of words that hold their value,” exhibits the habitual strategies Hitchens the critic brings to bear in his consideration of the work of poets and novelists: his almost exclusive focus on British and Irish writers, mostly from the first half of the twentieth century; his tendency not only to confine his interest to political subjects and to the most politically relevant writings by the authors in question, but to the political attitudes and opinions these authors can be seen to demonstrate; more often than not, his inclination to focus even more narrowly on biographical and historical information, partly in order to carry out the political analysis he favors, partly because the sorting of such information seems to be Hitchens’s fundamental assumption about what criticism exists to do.

To some extent, all of these assumptions are most effectively and convincingly embodied in Unacknowledged Legislation. Although, writes Hitchens in the Foreword to the book, he doesn’t “engage with political writers” per se, he does examine “writers encountering politics or public life.” This is straightforward enough, and he further specifies what he is trying to accomplish in the book by asserting that he has “attempted to show how some artists have almost involuntarily committed great political writing.” That Hitchens doesn’t really succeed in this ambition is not entirely the result of a flaw in the stated goal itself. A book compiled of separately published essays written for a variety of occasions is, at best, likely to advance a consistent thesis incompletely. Some essays will more directly illustrate the thesis—which is, almost literally, an afterthought, a good idea in retrospect—while others seem irredeemably tangential. The essays in Unacknowledged Legislation are united by Hitchens’s interest in writers and “public life,” but the unity seems tenuous, to say the least.

The biggest problem with the book’s announced focus, however, is precisely in the terms in which it is stated. Just how “involuntarily” have the writers discussed in the book “committed” political writing? Enough to cover over the conceptual chasm that separates “artists” from polemicists? Or, more specifically, that separates art from politics, if either or both are to be more than words of such permeable meaning that one can be merged into the other at the critic’s convenience? Perhaps Hitchens believes that in claiming these writers “involuntarily committed great political writing” he is preserving a safe space for “art” in the writing of fiction and poetry, but one could ask why he so plainly prefers the involuntary actions of these literary artists to their more relevant voluntary achievements.

Perhaps it is only understandable that in writing about, for example, Oscar Wilde, Hitchens would discuss Wilde’s avowed political views (“Oscar Wilde’s Socialism”), or his infamous morals trial and its cultural and social legacy (“The Wilde Side,” “Lord Trouble”), but in none of these essays—the first three in the book—can it be said that Hitchens shows how Wilde the artist “committed political writing,” involuntary or otherwise. He begins to examine the supposedly socialist subtext of The Importance of Being Earnest, but really about as far as he gets is to assert that through “satirical means” the play subjects “the bourgeoisie order to a merciless critique.” Quite obviously something like this could be said about any number of satirical plays or novels, and Hitchens does not at all attempt an analysis of what makes Earnest distinctive in its humor beyond the usual emphasis on Wildean one-liners, nor even, finally does he do much to establish that it is a particularly funny or effective play beyond the fact that it does critique the bourgeoisie order. It is rather difficult to regard The Importance of Being Earnest as great “political writing” without first of all being able to judge it as simply great theater, of a sort only a writer like Oscar Wilde could have created.

If Hitchens takes up Wilde the playwright only to focus instead on the playwright’s political convictions, in Unacknowledged Legislation’s two essays on Gore Vidal he really doesn’t bother to examine Vidal’s fiction much at all (except to summarize the plots of a few of them), instead proceeding quite forthrightly to discuss such things as Vidal’s failed political career, his defense of sexual freedom, his views on politics and political history more generally. He does nicely sum up the issues with which Vidal is most often concerned, but one does wonder how much Hitchens is now willing to indulge Vidal his anti-imperialist views, for example, now that Hitchens himself has apparently come to see some virtue in American imperialist actions in response to Arab and Islamist extremism. More significantly, Hitchens’s choice to extol Vidal the political “thinker” in this essay only highlights the absence of real critical scrutiny of Vidal’s fiction (or even the essays, for that matter), which, in my view, does very little service to Vidal’s ultimate reputation as a writer. If you believe, as I do, that the literary merit of Vidal’s work is seriously in question, reading Hitchens on Vidal is going to do very little to alter your judgment.

The same thing is true of Hitchens’s considerations of Kipling, of Wodehouse, and of Christopher Isherwood. One does not read Hitchens for insight into the hidden virtues of underestimated writers (a fact that becomes even clearer in his Orwell book.) One learns that Hitchens himself has a lingering affection for these writers, but not much that would convince the uninitiated to read them voluntarily. There are some essays in Unacknowledged Legislation that dwell more closely on the identifiably literary accomplishments of certain writers, but even they usually make their way back to the social and political context within which Hitchens apparently feels comfortable confining his interest in works of literature. His essay on Anthony Powell, for example, admirably describes various volumes of Dance to the Music of Time, but even when pointing out the virtues of this series of novels, Hitchens is led finally to conclude that “the chief attainment” of Powell’s maturation as a novelist was his “evolution from a moral, even prim, spectator to fully engaged social and political raconteur.” His reasonably insightful essay on Philip Larkin is ultimately interested in delineating “the British condition,” which can be identified as “that of Larkin without the poetry.” “The Road to West Egg,” on The Great Gatsby (one of the few selections in the book to venture into American literature), struggles to establish that the novel’s themes are “timeless,” but really this essay only rehearses the usual platitudes about the way in which Gatsby “captures the evaporating memory of the American Eden while connecting it to the advent of the New World of smartness and thuggery and corruption” and thus firmly attaches it to its particular time and place.

No one who reads the essays collected in Unacknowledged Legislation could deny Hitchens’s intelligence, his grasp of political history, his general familiarity with the writers about whom he writes, or his sincerity when claiming a love of literature. But as a literary critic he is clearly more inspired by the examples set by the writers he surveys, by their personal integrity or consistency of attitude than by the enduring literary qualities of what they’ve written. This biographical approach is perhaps most prominently on display in Why Orwell Matters. Hitchens’s most sustained work of ostensible literary criticism (or at least most extended examination of a single literary figure), this book also thus reveals what he appears to value most in the career of a writer like Orwell, who entered the “public sphere” in a very explicit way, committing political writing quite voluntarily indeed. Hitchens admires above all Orwell’s integrity, his moral courage, the consistency and prescience of his political views. In short, Hitchens presents Orwell as a kind of symbol of the writer/intellectual as truth-teller and public conscience, a role Christopher Hitchens himself has certainly seemed willing to assume in his own career as what we now call a public intellectual.

In Why Orwell Matters Hitchens doesn’t argue that Orwell matters because of the intrinsic merits of anything he wrote in particular, but instead seeks to show how Orwell avoided the excesses of both the left and the right, how he maintained a principled opposition to imperialism, why his blindness to feminism and to the future importance of the United States should not be held against him, why his anti-communism was far from reactionary. For Christopher Hitchens, George Orwell was a great man. Although I have my doubts that Orwell was quite the moral exemplar Hitchens makes him out to be, I am willing to concede he had plenty of admirable qualities. And by no means would I claim that Orwell wrote nothing that will survive purely on its literary excellence—many of the essays especially remain persuasive and provocative, and 1984 will probably also retain its power to disturb. But that Orwell was in some ways a superior human being does not establish that he was an equally superior writer whose work will stand the test of time as literary compositions separate from the political context that gave them their initial appeal.

In the one short chapter in Why Orwell Matters devoted specifically to Orwell’s fiction, about the best Hitchens can do in defense of the pre-Animal Farm novels is to claim them “as the forerunners to the . . . ‘Angry Young Man’ literary productions of the 1950s, and also to the existentialist and absurdist works of that period, as well as to the gritty ‘Northern’ school of social realism which found its way into early British cinema as well as onto the London stage.” (He doesn’t go so far as to suggest that this early fiction is itself as accomplished as the later “literary productions” identified.) But ultimately he concedes that “[t]hese four pre-war efforts constitute a sort of amateur throat-clearing.” While one can appreciate the honesty of this conclusion (even its soundness as a literary judgment), consigning Orwell’s fiction, the work for which he had the highest hopes, to such a brief discussion at the back of the book hardly advances the case for Orwell’s preeminence. Only a few additional paragraphs in the same chapter are devoted to analysis of Animal Farm and 1984, and even here Hitchens is most at pains to establish Orwell’s place in the battle against totalitarianism and to emphasize what Orwell had learned from “decades of polemical battles.”

In the book’s concluding chapter, Hitchens more or less confesses that his interest in Orwell is not really literary: “The disputes and debates and combats in which George Orwell took part are receding into history, but the manner in which he conducted himself as a writer and participant has a reasonable chance of remaining as a historical example of its own.” In the end Hitchens has probably measured Orwell’s legacy correctly. He is more likely to survive because of what he stood for rather than what he wrote, as a figure from intellectual history rather than literary history. But Hitchens’s esteem for Orwell’s example nevertheless illuminates the premises upon which he usually proceeds as a literary critic. The poets and novelists Hitchens writes about are important to him for what they represent, for the way in which they illustrate historical movements and political ideas, for their beliefs and their habits of mind. Presumably, from Hitchens’s perspective about the most praiseworthy thing that might be said about an author is that he “conducted himself” as a writer particularly well, not that he (or she—although Hitchens considers very few if any women writers in any of his reviews and essays) has produced a work of literature the experience of reading which might serve as the object of literary criticism.

One suspects that this orientation to both literature and criticism will survive Hitchens’s shift from the political left to the political right. Politically-minded critics on both sides tend to share a similar impatience with the “merely literary” qualities of literature, when so plainly there are more substantial issues to be settled, and despite Hitchens’s professions of loyalty to literature, it seems more likely than not that his appetite for fierce political debate (at which he is undeniably gifted) will only intensify as he is called on to defend his political transformation. Indeed, if his recent churlish reassessment of Graham Greene in the Atlantic Monthly is an indication, some critical backing and filling might be in store. Greene is now accused of “betrayal,” of making all the wrong political choices; he is re-presented as a kind of anti-Orwell. Will one of the legacies of 9/11/01 be that it prompted someone like Christopher Hitchens to begin fighting all the old political battles in reverse, to use “literary criticism” as an excuse to update what amounts to the same old stale polemical style?


Daniel Green’s essays and reviews have appeared in such publications as Context, The Antioch Review, Northwest Review, American Book Review, Butterflies and Wheels, and College English. He also maintains a literary weblog entitled The Reading Experience. (10/2005)

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