Christopher Hitchens’s widow and agent ask friends and associates not to cooperate in a new biography of Christopher

February 6, 2021 • 1:15 pm

According to the NYT article below (click on screenshot), both Christopher Hitchens’s widow Carol Blue-Hitchens, as well as his literary agent Steve Wasserman, are urging their friends and family not to cooperate with Stephen Phillips in his new project: a biography of Christopher Hitchens.

The biography, not yet written but snapped up by W. W. Norton, is tentatively called Pamphleteer: The Life and Times of Christopher Hitchens. Now I object to the title “Pamphleteer”, as Hitchens was far more than that (it’s even a bit pejorative), as well as “The Life and Times” of Christopher Hitchens, for the “Times” are relevant only in terms of the “Life”. In other words, the subtitle is trite.

But I have no objections to people doing biographies of Hitchens. Carol Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman do, however—apparently because they read the book’s prospectus.

“We are aware that a self-appointed would-be biographer, one Stephen Phillips, is embarked on a book on Christopher,” they wrote in an email, which The New York Times reviewed. “We read his proposal and are dismayed by the coarse and reductive approach. We have no confidence in this attempt at the man in full. We are not cooperating and we urge you to refuse all entreaties by Mr. Phillips or his publisher, W.W. Norton.”

It is not uncommon for family members to feel protective of a loved one’s memory, particularly when approached by a biographer. But circulating a letter encouraging others to rebuff the writer has struck some in literary and publishing circles as unusual, especially given Hitchens’s confrontational stance on topics such as atheismthe Iraq war and whether women are funny.

Here’s the email they sent, reproduced in The Nation‘s piece mentioned below:

Now I have no way of knowing what was in the prospectus, but it must have struck the two as a some kind of hit job. To me, that notion is substantiated by the reaction of Christopher’s brother:

Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s brother, and a journalist and author himself, said that he has spoken with Phillips for the project. He said that he received an email from Wasserman about it but saw no harm in cooperating.

“My view has been for a long time that there ought to be a biography,” he said. “And as far as I can tell, this guy seems to be a straightforward person with a good record as a writer, intelligent, knowledgeable. Why not him?”

The two brothers didn’t like each other at all (the NYT might have noted that!), and the rush to approbation by Peter makes me suspicious.

Still, there should be a biography. The only existing one, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist, by Larry Alex Taunton, which I read, was simply a slimy attempt to claim that Hitchens was growing soft on religion and in fact thinking of converting to Christianity on his deathbed (see here, here, and here for some people’s takes). Perhaps Taunton’s pabulum made Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman wary of yet another attempt at a biography. But Phillips is not Taunton, who was a believer.

Nevertheless, there may be facts about Hitchens that his wife and agent aren’t keen to have come to light. Hitchens had a big-time libido, and had affairs with both men and women; perhaps they’re worried about that. I wouldn’t, but I met the man only once and was never part of his inner circle, much less his family.

Hitchens’s family and agent have every right to object to a proposed biography, and every right to proselytize Hitchens’s friends against cooperating with its author. And those friends can make their own decisions. Still, I like to think that Hitchens, contrarian and dirt-digger that he was (viz., Mother Teresa, Henry Kissinger), would bridle at the desire to have his biography vetted by his family. I’d like to think that he’d say, “Let a hundred biographies flower.” But it’s true that non-cooperation by the people who knew Hitchens best, like Martin Amis, would make for a much poorer biography. One thing is for sure: there won’t be many biographies, so we need assurance that this one will be a decent one, and won’t be written with an agenda.

Over at The Nation, David Nasow argues that there should be no prior restraint like that given in the email above (click on screenshot):

Nasaw admits that any biography will show but a few facets of someone’s life, particularly someone as multifaceted as Hitchens. But he argues that the email above is akin to censorship:

What we can infer from [Blue-Hitchens’s and Wasserman’s] refusal to cooperate with or respond to the “entreaties” of this “self-appointed” biographer and his publisher, W.W. Norton, is that they prefer a biographer who has been appointed, no doubt by them. In publicly discouraging the publication of a book that has not yet been written because they do not think much of the proposal, they are playing a zero-sum game. Either they will succeed in dissuading Phillips and Norton from moving forward or, more likely, the biography will be published and the publicity generated by their opposition will create the sort of buzz that marketers dream of.

The larger question is not whether they are acting judiciously, but whether their actions—and similar ones by other executors—do a disservice to those of us who wish the historical record to be as close to complete, as complex, as stirred-up and muddied as possible.

. . .Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman are well within their rights to refuse to cooperate with this particular biographer, but by reaching out, as they have done, to so wide a universe of individuals who might have something to say on the subject, they are engaging in a sort of preemptive censorship, intended to frighten away not just this one writer but any others who might not, for one reason or another, pass muster with them.

Now I don’t infer, as does Nasaw, that the family and agent want an “approved” biography.  Before I’d conclude that, I’d like to see the book’s prospectus. And I can’t find out much about what Phillips himself has written.  To me, the whole tempest rests on what was in the proposal that put off Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman. And we’ll never know about that.

20 thoughts on “Christopher Hitchens’s widow and agent ask friends and associates not to cooperate in a new biography of Christopher

  1. “Hitch-22” by Christopher Hitchens himself is a very good memoir. All that’s necessary. Get the audiobook, read by the Hitch himself.

  2. Christopher Hitchens was a prolific writer and frequent talk show guest. I’ve learned all I’ll ever want to know about him from those two sources. Reading a biography would feel like I was peeking through curtains that may not decorate his windows.

  3. It all depends on how good a biographer Stephen Phillips is – judging by my (admittedly perfunctory) Google search their doesn’t seem to be a track record to go by.

  4. The Hitch’s literary reputation will withstand anything this bloke Phillips can throw his way.

    Hitchens’s widow and literary agent are free to cooperate or not as they alone see fit, of course, but it seems bad form to discourage others from doing so — especially when it comes to the man who did epic (and decidedly unauthorized) takedowns of Henry Kissinger, Teresa of Calcutta, Bill & Hillary Clinton, and Diana Spencer.

    I’m surprised that there haven’t been a few biographies of such a worthy figure by now, and I rather agree with Peter Hitchens (something I rarely do) that it’s time to have one. (FWIW, I know that the Hitchens brothers disagreed on politics and religion vehemently, and were distant personally, but I am unaware of a deep-seated enmity; I’ve watched a couple joint appearances/debates involving the two on video and, disagree though they did, they gave no sense of an underlying loathing for each other.)

    As for the “Pamphleteer” in the biography’s proposed title, perhaps it’s meant to diminish Hitchens’s literary standing, but it is a noble professional label (as I think Hitch himself would readily acknowledge) and maybe it’s meant merely to capture his essence as a polemicist (which he undoubtedly was, particularly in his writing on politics and current events, if less so in his literary criticism, though even there he wasn’t reticent to express strong opinion).

    Either way, let the chips fall where they may (which is what I like to think would be Christopher Hitchens’s attitude).

    1. They may have be thinking — as I have many times over the last few years — that a biography of Hitchens is likely to be a hatchet job because of the current political climate. I’ve often thought to myself in recent years that the time will come when, seemingly out of the blue, Hitchens’ name will suddenly be popping up in articles across every mainstream media outlet about what a terrible person he was and how politically incorrect and amoral his views were. Such destruction of reputations is often a semi-coordinated effort in the press. Of course, I don’t think any of those claims about him or his views are true, but I believe that’s how he will be treated, and it will come sooner than we’d perhaps like to think.

      EDIT: I also think that once this happens, every academic and journalist will feel pressured to pile on, regardless of their personal views about the man. We live in lowly times, especially with regard to our journalists, speakers, politicians, and academics.

      1. Hitchens died before the Great Awokening and is mostly remembered as an atheist polemicist. He did not write about African Americans, transgenderism or Trump. He did not influence policy. He did not make powerful enemies. Thus I’m not worried about his reputation. I expect that he will fade into obscurity.

        1. I’m not sure how much Hitchens you’ve actually read. He wrote widely about political correctness as a threat to freedom of expression, particularly on campuses, in the Eighties, Nineties, and Oughties. He also wrote much more about policy and politics and international affairs than he ever did about atheism, beginning at The New Statesman after his days at Oxford, then for 20 years on this side of the Atlantic at The Nation. He also wrote about, and was a great admirer of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, as well as a proponent for gay rights.

          As for making powerful enemies, the man made many. Chrissake, he gave an affidavit against Bill Clinton at the latter’s impeachment trial and wrote a book about him called No One Left to Lie To. He also incurred the wrath of the Right with his polemics The Trial of Henry Kissinger and The Missionary Position, which took on the sainted Mother Teresa. And his support for the 2003 Iraq invasion cost him many friends on the Left.

          As for Donald Trump, Hitchens died just before Trump entered politics by pushing the bogus Birther movement. But the Hitch did once refer to him as “a ridiculous figure,” while complimenting on his ability “to cover 90% of his scalp with 30% of his hair.”

          I think you’ve got Hitchens completely backward; he will be read and appreciated for generations to come.

        2. OK, you apparently not only know very, very little about Hitchens’ writings or lectures, but also very little about how highly regarded he was as an orator, debater, journalist, author, intellectual, and atheist, for several decades. Your knowledge on this subject is woefully lacking. If you think Hitchens is “mostly remembered an an atheist polemicist,” you either run in very religious circles where they try to downplay what a towering figure he was in multiple disciplines and occupations, or you’re being deliberately dishonest because you don’t like him.

  5. “Hitchens had a big-time libido, and had affairs with both men and women; perhaps they’re worried about that.”

    Hitchens himself certainly wasn’t! He referred jovially many times to his libido, his liaisons with both men and women, and even his verily restless testes. He even did so during debates! He was always honest about and unashamed of expressing his opinions, and those are two characteristics unfortunately so lacking in today’s intelligentsia.

  6. His brother Peter is the utter opposite – he is Wrong in pretty much everything he says as far as I’ve observed. Chris was wrong with his Iraq war stance (and he admits he lost friends over it) but in everything else he was mostly spot on and you can’t deny he was an incredible person. But Peter…. hideous, odious, big mouthed a-hole. I can’t stand the man.
    I’m not sure it is up to his widow (and for some reason his agent?) to censor his life story from those who’d like to read it. And the writier can’t be worse than that cross worshipper Jesus clapper who tried to claim Hitch’s last minute turn around to “faith”. Typical.

    D.A.,NYC

  7. I cannot think that those close to Hitchens would not have heard about the Streisand effect.
    Could this not be a ploy to promote the biography?

  8. I’ve often thought that biographies follow a particular trajectory in time. Shortly after a famous person dies we get a number of peans to their fine qualities. A few years later we get the “yes they were wonderful, but…” books and articles, and sometimes these compete to be the most salacious. Eventually we get around to more balanced works which assess both good and bad points.

    It happens with historical events too, and even statues (which are a kind of biography in stone or bronze…)

  9. Here’s a 50 minutes short discussion where Hitch and his interlocutor demonstrate the brilliance of their wit with words, but speaking – live writing I’d say : the topic : Orwell : https://youtu.be/W32BEjvU7QM

    .. I can almost hear Hitch saying he probably wouldn’t give a shit about any bio – flatteringly ingratiating or miserable relish of his flaws, while important ideas out there demand confrontation, and a defense of reason.

    Hitch, we miss you!

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