by Christopher Hitchens

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"All first-rate criticism first defines what we are confronting," the late, great jazz critic Whitney Balliett once wrote. By that measure, the essays of Christopher Hitchens are in the first tier. For nearly four decades, Hitchens has been telling us, in pitch-perfect prose, what we confront when we grapple with first principles-the principles of reason and tolerance and skepticism that define and inform the foundations of our civilization-principles that, to endure, must be defended anew by every generation.

"A short list of the greatest living conversationalists in English," said The Economist, "would probably have to include Christopher Hitchens, Sir Patrick Leigh-Fermor, and Sir Tom Stoppard. Great brilliance, fantastic powers of recall, and quick wit are clearly valuable in sustaining conversation at these cosmic levels. Charm may be helpful, too." Hitchens-who staunchly declines all offers of knighthood-hereby invites you to take a seat at a democratic conversation, to be engaged, and to be reasoned with. His knowledge is formidable, an encyclopedic treasure, and yet one has the feeling, reading him, of hearing a person thinking out loud, following the inexorable logic of his thought, wherever it might lead, unafraid to expose fraudulence, denounce injustice, and excoriate hypocrisy. Legions of readers, admirers and detractors alike, have learned to read Hitchens with something approaching awe at his felicity of language, the oxygen in every sentence, the enviable wit and his readiness, even eagerness, to fight a foe or mount the ramparts.

Here, he supplies fresh perceptions of such figures as varied as Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, Rebecca West, George Orwell, J.G. Ballard, and Philip Larkin are matched in brilliance by his pungent discussions and intrepid observations, gathered from a lifetime of traveling and reporting from such destinations as Iran, China, and Pakistan.

Hitchens's directness, elegance, lightly carried erudition, critical and psychological insight, humor, and sympathy-applied as they are here to a dazzling variety of subjects-all set a standard for the essayist that has rarely been matched in our time. What emerges from this indispensable volume is an intellectual self-portrait of a writer with an exemplary steadiness of purpose and a love affair with the delights and seductions of the English language, a man anchored in a profound and humane vision of the human longing for reason and justice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781455506781
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 09/01/2011
Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 534,480
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Christopher Hitchens was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Slate, and the Atlantic, and the author of numerous books, including works on Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and George Orwell. He also wrote the international bestsellers god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitch-22: A Memoir, and Arguably. He died in December 2011.

Read an Excerpt

Gods of Our Fathers: The United
States of Enlightenment
Why should we care what the Founding Fathers believed, or did not believe, about religion? They went to such great trouble to insulate faith from politics, and took such care to keep their own convictions private, that it would scarcely matter if it could now be proved that, say, George Washington was a secret Baptist. The ancestor of the American Revolution was the English Revolution of the 1640s, whose leaders and spokesmen were certainly Protestant fundamentalists, but that did not bind the Framers and cannot be said to bind us, either. Indeed, the established Protestant church in Britain was one of the models which we can be quite sure the signatories of 1776 were determined to avoid emulating.
Moreover, the eighteenth-century scholars and gentlemen who gave us the U.S. Constitution were in a relative state of innocence respecting knowledge of the cosmos, the Earth, and the psyche, of the sort that has revolutionized the modern argument over faith. Charles Darwin was born in Thomas Jefferson’s lifetime (on the very same day as Abraham Lincoln, as it happens), but Jefferson’s guesses about the fossils found in Virginia were to Darwinism what alchemy is to chemistry. And the insights of Einstein and Freud lay over a still more distant horizon. The furthest that most skeptics could go was in the direction of an indeterminate deism, which accepted that the natural order seemed to require a designer but did not necessitate the belief that the said designer actually intervened in human affairs. Invocations such as “nature’s god” were partly intended to hedge this bet, while avoiding giving offense to the pious. Even Thomas Paine, the most explicitly anti-Christian of the lot, wrote The Age of Reason as a defense of god from those who traduced him in man-made screeds like the Bible.
Considering these limitations, it is quite astonishing how irreligious the Founders actually were. You might not easily guess, for example, who was the author of the following words:
Oh! Lord! Do you think that a Protestant Popedom is annihilated in America? Do you recollect, or have you ever attended to the ecclesiastical Strifes in Maryland Pensilvania [sic], New York, and every part of New England? What a mercy it is that these People cannot whip and crop, and pillory and roast, as yet in the U.S.! If they could they would. . . . There is a germ of religion in human nature so strong that whenever an order of men can persuade the people by flattery or terror that they have salvation at their disposal, there can be no end to fraud, violence, or usurpation.
That was John Adams, in relatively mild form. He was also to point out, though without too much optimism, the secret weapon that secularists had at their disposal—namely the profusion of different religious factions:
The multitude and diversity of them, You will say, is our Security against them all. God grant it. But if We consider that the Presbyterians and Methodists are far the most numerous and the most likely to unite; let a George Whitefield arise, with a military cast, like Mahomet, or Loyola, and what will become of all the other Sects who can never unite?
George Whitefield was the charismatic preacher who is so superbly mocked in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Of Franklin it seems almost certainly right to say that he was an atheist (Jerry Weinberger’s excellent recent study Benjamin Franklin Unmasked being the best reference here), but the master tacticians of church-state separation, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were somewhat more opaque about their beliefs. In passing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—the basis of the later First Amendment—they brilliantly exploited the fear that each Christian sect had of persecution by the others. It was easier to get the squabbling factions to agree on no tithes than it would have been to get them to agree on tithes that might also benefit their doctrinal rivals. In his famous “wall of separation” letter, assuring the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, of their freedom from persecution, Jefferson was responding to the expressed fear of this little community that they would be oppressed by—the Congregationalists of Connecticut.
This same divide-and-rule tactic may have won him the election of 1800 that made him president in the first place. In the face of a hysterical Federalist campaign to blacken Jefferson as an infidel, the Voltaire of Monticello appealed directly to those who feared the arrogance of the Presbyterians. Adams himself thought that this had done the trick.
“With the Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, and Moravians,” he wrote, “as well as the Dutch and German Lutherans and Calvinists, it had an immense effect, and turned them in such numbers as decided the election. They said, let us have an Atheist or Deist or any thing rather than an establishment of Presbyterianism.”
The essential point—that a religiously neutral state is the chief guarantee of religious pluralism—is the one that some of today’s would-be theocrats are determined to miss. Brooke Allen misses no chance to rub it in, sometimes rather heavily stressing contemporary “faith-based” analogies. She is especially interesting on the extent to which the Founders felt obliged to keep their doubts on religion to themselves. Madison, for example, did not find himself able, during the War of 1812, to refuse demands for a national day of prayer and fasting. But he confided his own reservations to his private papers, published as “Detached Memoranda” only in 1946. It was in those pages, too, that he expressed the view that to have chaplains opening Congress, or chaplains in the armed forces, was unconstitutional.

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

Introduction xv

All American

Gods of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment 3

The Private Jefferson 8

Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates 12

Benjamin Franklin: Free and Easy 21

John Brown: The Man Who Ended Slavery 28

Abraham Lincoln: Misery's Child 34

Mark Twain: American Radical 40

Upton Sinclair: A Capitalist Primer 47

JFK: In Sickness and by Stealth 54

Saul Bellow: The Great Assimilator 62

Vladimir Nabokov: Hurricane Lolita 70

John Updike, Part One: No Way 78

John Updike, Part Two: Mr. Geniality 85

Vidal Loco 89

America the Banana Republic 94

An Anglosphere Future 99

Political Animals 108

Old Enough to Die 117

In Defense of Foxhole Atheists 124

In Search of the Washington Novel 131

Eclectic Affinities

Isaac Newton: Flaws of Gravity 139

The Men Who Made England: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall 146

Edmund Burke: Reactionary Prophet 152

Samuel Johnson: Demons and Dictionaries 165

Gustave Flaubert: I'm with Stupide 171

The Dark Side of Dickens 175

Marx's Journalism: The Grub Street Years 180

Rebecca West: Things Worth Fighting For 191

Ezra Pound: A Revolutionary Simpleton 222

On Animal Farm 228

Jessica Mitford's Poison Pen 237

W. Somerset Maugham: Poor Old Willie 242

Evelyn Waugh: The Permanent Adolescent 250

P. G. Wodehouse: The Honorable Schoolboy 265

Anthony Powell: An Omnivorous Curiosity 276

John Buchan: Spy Thrillers Father 290

Graham Greene: I'll Be Damned 297

Death from a Salesman: Graham Greene's Bottled Ontology 308

Loving Philip Larkin 323

Stephen Spender: A Nice Bloody Fool 332

Edward Upward: The Captive Mind 340

C. L. R. James: Mid Off Not Right On 347

J. G. Ballard: The Catastrophist 353

Fraser's Flashman: Scoundrel Time 358

Fleet Street's Finest: From Waugh to Frayn 365

Saki: Where the Wild Things Are 375

Harry Potter: The Boy Who Lived 380

Amusements, Annoyances, and Disappointments

Why Women Aren't Funny 389

Stieg Larsson: The Author Who Played with Fire 397

As American as Apple Pie 403

So Many Men's Rooms, So Little Time 411

The New Commandments 414

In Your Face 423

Wine Drinkers of the World, Unite 426

Charles, Prince of Piffle 429

Offshore Accounts

Afghanistan's Dangerous Bet 435

First, Silence the Whistle-Blower 445

Believe Me, It's Torture 448

Iran's Waiting Game 455

Long Live Democratic Seismology 467

Benazir Bhutto: Daughter of Destiny 471

From Abbottabad to Worse 474

The Perils of Partition 480

Algeria: A French Quarrel 493

The Case of Orientalism 498

Edward Said: Where the Twain Should Have Met 504

The Swastika and the Cedar 513

Holiday in Iraq 519

Tunisia: At the Desert's Edge 526

What Happened to the Suicide Bombers or Jerusalem? 532

Childhood's End: An African Nightmare 535

The Vietnam Syndrome 541

Once Upon a Time in Germany 548

Worse Than Nineteen Eighty-four 553

North Korea: A Nation of Racist Dwarves 556

The Eighteenth Brumaire of the Castro Dynasty 559

Hugo Boss 563

Is the Euro Doomed? 566

Overstating Jewish Power 569

The Case for Humanitarian Intervention 573

Legacies of Totalitarianism

Victor Serge: Pictures from an Inquisition 585

Andre Malraux: One Man's Fate 595

Arthur Koestler: The Zealot 602

Isabel Allende: Chile Redux 607

The Persian Version 617

Martin Amis: Lightness at Midnight 625

Imagining Hitler 640

Victor Klemperer: Survivor 652

A War Worth Fighting 661

Just Give Peace a Chance? 669

W G. Sebald: Requiem for Germany 673

Words' Worth

When the King Saved God 687

Let Them Eat Pork Rinds 697

Stand Up for Denmark! 704

Eschew the Taboo 709

She's No Fundamentalist 712

Burned Out 716

Easter Charade 719

Don't Mince Words 722

History and Mystery 726

Words Matter 730

This Was Not Looting 733

This Other L-Word 736

The You Decade 739

Suck It Up 742

A Very, Very Dirty Word 745

Prisoner of Shelves 748

Acknowledgments 751

Index 753

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