Christopher Hitchens, esteemed essayist, author and journalist, died on Thursday of complications from esophageal cancer. He was 62.
The British-born Hitchens, who wrote for publications such as Vanity Fair, the Atlantic Monthly and Slate, rose to prominence for his sharp political opinions, his militant atheism, his scorching critiques of popular figures like Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger and, above all, his razor wit.
In his final column in Vanity Fair, published on the magazine's website and dated January 2012, he wrote:
One thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that 'Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
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Hitchens' intellectual rigor led him from radical leftist activism to libertarian views that often aligned with conservatives. He did not abandon his staunch denial of a higher order even in the face of cancer, and some of his most brilliant essays over the past two years dealt with this subject.
When in April 2011, he was forced to cancel a scheduled appearance at the American Atheist Convention, he sent a letter that stated, Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice), which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death.
Hitchens’ battle with cancer was well known from his own public statements and writings. Vanity Fair, where he was a columnist, released a statement on Thursday to say that he had died at the Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
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“There will never be another like Christopher,” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter said in the statement. “A man of ferocious intellect, who was as vibrant on the page as he was at the bar. Those who read him felt they knew him, and those who knew him were profoundly fortunate souls.”
The author of more than a dozen books, Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England, on April 13, 1949. He attended Oxford University and in his early life was a Trotskyist socialist, beginning his journalistic career at the radical magazine International Socialism before moving on to the left-leaning New Statesman.
In 1981, he emigrated to the United States, where he began to work for the liberal weekly The Nation. There, he took on political figures such as President Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush. But he began to shift his views as his concerns about radical Islam grew, and by the time he began writing for Vanity Fair, in 1992, he had become a vocal critic of Bill Clinton.
After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, his swing to the right side of the spectrum was complete. He became one of the staunchest supporters of the war in Iraq and an outspoken critic of Islamic extremism and, as a corollary, multiculturalist tolerance of it.
Still, he later admitted to voting for Obama and his views on religion – he penned a book in 2007 titled “God is Not Great” – that differentiated him from most American conservatives.
He is survived by his second wife Carol Blue.
In Vanity Fair's current edition, HItchens writes with stunning candor of his struggle with death, both intellectual and physical:
It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory. It’s also impossible to warn against. If my proton doctors had tried to tell me up front, they might perhaps have spoken of “grave discomfort” or perhaps of a burning sensation. I only know that nothing at all could have readied or steadied me for this thing that seemed to scorn painkillers and to attack me in my core. I now seem to have run out of radiation options in those spots (35 straight days being considered as much as anyone can take), and while this isn’t in any way good news, it spares me from having to wonder if I would willingly endure the same course of treatment again.
And he writes further about his fear of losing the ability to write:
I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my “will to live” would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.