The most recent (though probably not last) of the posthumously published collections of Christopher Hitchen’s essays lends itself to a sort of narrative arc, as the pieces inch closer to his terminal diagnosis with esophageal cancer and the reader’s mind naturally tends to see relationships (prophecy?) between his death and the chronologically later essays.
As someone who spent the first five years of the new millennium as a professional political campaign professional, the political essays around the 2004 election and shenanigans in Ohio were a painful reminder of a time that, until my memory was sparked, felt very long ago. Pleasingly, those and other discussions of then current events from the middle of that decade did not feel as dated as they could have.
His book reviews – at their best, excuses for lengthy rambles that show off, but provide the best platform for Hitchens ‘holding court’ – are the highlights, especially the long ones on biographies of Che Guevera and V.S. Naipul (Hitchens shows off his Britishness by referring to him as Sir Vidia).
It’s no secret that Orwell was a touchstone for Hitchens. As an essayist, he is often compared to Orwell; and I have often heard Orwell described as the great English essayist of the twentieth century.
But what have you read by Orwell? I’ll wager, gentle reader, that it doesn’t extend beyond his best known novels, 1984 and Animal Farm. And if you have read an essay, it was probably that short one he penned on the proper way to make tea. While an admirable tidbit, hardly what reviewers are referring to when they praise Orwell the essayist.
My point is related to a question that came to me when Hitchens died: how long will be remembered?
Having not written a pair of timeless novels, who will read his essays, beyond a handful of academic scholars, in twenty years? His reach will be less than that Edmund Wilson wields today (which, let’s not kid ourselves, isn’t much). His book length works are too timely, methinks. Maybe Letters to a Young Contrarian will be read, but it feels to self congratulatory to me to be the source of long lasting, posthumous relevance.