Life, Liberty, and Christopher Hitchens: Literature’s Place in Policy

David Brooks’s recent love letter to Christopher Hitchens called (respectfully) only glancing attention to the celebrated author’s current battle with cancer; instead, Brooks focused on how important Hitchens is to us, and why: he brings a uniquely literary lens to everything that keep us up at night: war, whether God exists, etc. Of all the writers whose work bleeds into the public policy sphere Hitchens’s oeuvre stands out—and perhaps stands alone. Newly American, with a fantastic short biography of Thomas Jefferson under his belt, reflecting on him today makes sense.

Brooks was succinct:

[Hitchens’] literary perspective has made him a more fully rounded person than most of the people one finds in this business. Unlike many Americans, he seems to completely trust his desire for pleasure, and has been open about his delight in sex, drink, friendship and wordplay.

It would not be a safe world if every policy writer were as literary as Hitchens. Government is mostly about administration, trade-offs and compromises. But his perspective usefully highlights psychology, context, courage and virtue — important things that are hard to talk about in policy jargon or journalese. No one will agree with, or even comprehend, all of his aversions, but his affections are easy to admire, especially his strong and growing affection for America.

Most of all, his is a memoir that should be given to high school and college students of a literary bent. In the age of the Internet and the academy, it will open up different models for how to be a thoughtful person, how to engage in political life and what sort of things one should know in order to be truly educated.

And here is this, from (former Clinton speechwriter) Ted Widmer’s review of Hitchens’ Jefferson in 2005:

This is not a bad time for reappraisal. Jefferson stock has been bearish since 1998, when a DNA test concluded that he had probably fathered at least one of the children of his slave Sally Hemings. One might have expected a devastating portrait from Hitchens -- he wrote a churlish book about Jefferson's disciple William Jefferson Clinton, and he even hates Mother Teresa. But he resists the tendency to pile on, and wisely gives us a measured sketch that faults Jefferson for his weaknesses but affirms his greatness as a thinker and president.

Hitchens's Jefferson springs onto the scene, like Jesus, fully formed. There is little on his youth besides a few romantic disasters, and we move quickly to the safer ground of revolution. Some commentators make Jefferson too modern (he just barely missed photography), but Hitchens correctly situates him in his time -- snickering over ''Tristram Shandy'' and drinking deeply from egalitarian English sources ranging from Paine, Locke and Milton to the ancient Saxons. It is good to have these old friends back again, though anyone standing in the entrance hall of Monticello, with its rotting hides and antlers, instantly senses how far from Europe he truly was.

That Hitchens cared enough about Jefferson to write his biography says something about the former’s reverence for the idea that literature and history are relevant. Jefferson knew this, and stands emblematic of an idea (beyond Life, Liberty, etc.): one can be well read, and still start a revolution. May the good Lord Shine a Light on him.


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