Christopher Hitchens, author, intellectual, and atheist firebrand, passed away last night. While I’m sure the internet will be filled over the coming days with fitting remembrances from those who knew him well, I couldn’t help but take the time to reflect on my one meeting with the iconic author.
Several years ago, when I was just beginning university and Hitchens was still working on “God is Not Great” he was invited to speak at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore for their annual Mencken Day, when their extensive collection of H.L. Mencken writings is open to the public. My father, an avid Mencken scholar who posses one of the most complete collections of Mencken’s writings in private hands, was organizing the event. That year it was particularly significant as a large number of Mencken works had just been donated and this was their grand unveiling. And so, he thought, who better to deliver the keynote address in memorium of the original bombastic rabble-rouser, the man who made Dayton, Tennessee a laughingstock, the man who coined the, originally, unflattering term “bible belt”, the man who fought anti-pornography laws when short-stories revealing the underlying hypocrisy of the religious elite were considered pornographic. In short, who better to represent the legacy of H.L. Mencken than his modern counterpart.
Hitchens’ graciously accepted the invitation, and joined us at our home the day before the event. I remember a long morning discussion with Hitchens and my father on journalism, the Mencken legacy, religion, atheism, and whiskey. Actually, whiskey may have been the driving topic of discussion as well as the major fuel source. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the actual event as I had to drive back to North Carolina that day, but reports came back that the talk was hilarious, confrontational, and brilliant. After the talk, he fought with a panhandler. A fitting tribute to the legacy of H.L. Mencken.
Not everything Hitchens wrote was great. He reveled in being contrarian, even when that stance was absurd. His viewpoint was often at odds with reality. But he pushed limits and pushed buttons and occasionally forced us to confront uncomfortable truths. When he was right, he was right with astounding clarity and insight.
God is not great. We’ll miss you Hitch.