December 16, 2011

Hail & Farewell: Christopher Hitchens


Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

I’ll never forget the time in 2003 when I was sitting alone in an empty airport waiting room in Washington DC, waiting for an author to arrive, when my cell phone rang and an unnervingly warm, plummy, and immediately recognizable voice said, “Hullo, is that Dennis Johnson? This is Christopher Hitchens.”

Somehow — I never learned how — Hitchens had heard I was in town with an author he wanted to meet, Bernard-Henri Levy, so he called Melville House and got my number from Valerie. Needless to say, I immediately accepted his invitation on Bernard’s behalf to come to his house for lunch.

Hitchens’ lovely wife, Carol Blue, welcomed us at the door to their enormous, sparsely furnished apartment, then Hitchens himself came around the corner, barefoot, in jeans, with a huge tumbler of amber something-or-other. He was charmingly wrecked. It was twelve noon.

Bernard and Hitchens, as it turned out, hit it off famously — they were both voices of the left who had shocked their constituency by supporting the war, the actual war, against what they both called “Islamofascism.”

But as it turned out, Hitchens would also retain an ongoing relationship with me and Melville House.

There are and will continue to be, for days, I’m sure, many voices bidding farewell to Hitchens, who died after a long battle with esophageal cancer yesterday — shockingly, on the day that war he and Bernard supported officially ended. It’s a terrible loss to our culture, and there will be endless number of pieces recounting the fascinating details of his life and telling lots of great anecdotes about him. (The Times does a nice job, and so does the Guardian.) But the one thing I want to contribute to that chorus of stories is something I think will be little commented upon otherwise: Hitchens’ ceaseless championship of free speech included as a key component the championing of little presses.

The most obvious aspect of that, of course, is that several of his books were published by little indies, such as the great British press Verso, whose legendary editor Colin Robinson published Hitchens’ book declaring Henry Kissinger a war criminal.

But behind the scenes, Hitchens gave support to other little presses in numerous ways. As for our experience, I continued to hear from him, over the years, when we published books he was interested in (curt emails, usually, that were often simultaneously hilarious), and that was a conversation that could often be priceless — particularly when he went public with it, as he did with our book about North Korea, The Cleanest Race, by Brian Myers. Hitchens’ review of the book for Slate (in which he called it “brilliant” and “electrifying”) prompted other, significant journals and journalists — always head-bangingly slow to consider the work of small presses — to sit up and, well, catch up to the conversation that Hitchens had declared launched by a book from a little publisher.

But even short of that, knowing I could try out ideas on him, get his take on things, simply be taken seriously as a publisher in the days when Melville House was an operation conducted by Valerie and I from the kitchen table of our Hoboken walk-up — to get that kind of attention from him, knowing the demands on his time, represents a level of generosity that was the thing that first came to mind, and rendered me tearful, when I opened the newspaper this morning and saw his death notice.

Of course, let me be clear: this is Christopher Hitchens we’re talking about, and he had the keenest bullshit detector I’ve ever encountered. One was always conscious of not wasting his time, too, for his famous rapier wit was a two-sided blade. There was the time, for example, he came to a Melville House launch party, for a translated novel, no less — his attendance a coup, of course, for us. And the bigger coup appeared in hand when I saw him approached by a member of the press as he was leaving the party — ah, I thought, tomorrow the newspaper will report that Christopher Hitchens came to a Melville House event, and the book will get that special extra level of attention!

But it was not to be. The next day in the paper, it was reported that Christopher Hitchens thought Melville House threw shitty parties because they only served beer and wine.

I’ll lift a toast with something a bit stronger to you later today, Hitch — but I hope you’ll understand if I wait till after noon.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives