Dear family, friends, colleagues, note-takers, brothers and sisters, comrades:
We are aware that a self-proclaimed aspiring biographer, a Stephen Phillips, is tackling a book on Christopher. We read his suggestion and are dismayed by the crude and reductive approach. We have no faith in this attempt to fully attack the man. We do not cooperate and urge you to answer all requests from Mr. Phillips or his publisher W.W. to refuse. Norton.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Carol & Steve
Carol Blue-Hitchens, Executor of Christopher Hitchens’ estate
Steve Wasserman, Literary agent
W.What should we do with it?
Since, as far as I can remember, I have never met one of the clients involved – neither the deceased nor his widow, nor Steve Wasserman or the “self-proclaimed budding biographer” – my intervention here is purely as a biographer and historian.
There’s no doubt that Christopher Hitchens deserves a biography – and a good one. The historical record of the times in which he lived and which he commented on – bitter, persistent, vivacious, sometimes ruthless, written and personal, gracious or crude, but always with magical, musical, majestic knowledge of the English language – would be incomplete without one. But who can decide who should write their life?
Some subjects as diverse as Ronald Reagan and Philip Roth choose their biographers during their lifetime. (Reagan’s choice was not particularly good for either the subject or the biographer. We are still waiting for the Roth biography.) Others give their lively consent when asked, albeit with conditions. In 1981, George F. Kennan, then in his late 70s, agreed to work with John Lewis Gaddis on the condition that the biography be published after Kennan’s death, which both men assumed was on the horizon. Gaddis took on the assignment, began researching and writing in the early 1980s, and then moved on to other projects. “Poor John Gaddis,” Kennan noticed 2003 “has been postponing his company for years while waiting for me to make way.” Kennan died in 2005 at the age of 101; Gaddis’ biography wouldn’t appear until 2011, 30 years after he received Kennan’s approval.
Other historical and literary figures who fear that their lives might be portrayed or misrepresented have done everything possible to block access to future biographers by destroying anything that could be of use to them. Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and Sigmund Freud burned their correspondence and manuscripts. Freud was 28 when he lit his first campfire. “I’ve just made a decision,” he said wrote Martha Bernayswhom he would soon marry, “which a group of people who are still unborn and doomed will feel acutely. Since you can’t guess who I mean, I’ll tell you: you are my biographers. I have destroyed all of my diaries for the past fourteen years with letters, academic notes, and the manuscripts of my publications. Let the biographers scrub; We’re not going to make it easy for them. “Needless to say, none of these gentlemen have succeeded in foiling his future biographers, of whom there would be many.
For many biographers it is not their subjects, but their widows, children and literary executors – characterized by Michael Holroyd as a “perplexed and besieged tragic-comic figure”[s]”- Those who guard the reputation of the deceased represent the most immediate and immobile obstacles.
Virginia Woolf, trying to understand why so many nineteenth-century biographies turned out to be so terrible, artfully in awe of her subjects, blamed the widows. “Accept,” She wrote, “That the ingenious man was immoral and in a bad mood and threw his boots to the top of the maid. The widow said:” I still loved him – he was the father of my children; and the public who love his books are allowed to open Don’t be disillusioned. Cover up, leave out. “The biographer obeyed.”
We don’t know exactly why Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman reject “a Stephen Phillips” as Hitchens “self-appointed budding” biographer. Perhaps they were already sensitive and suspicious, and rightly so after the publication of an earlier book on Hitchens which, with no real evidence, claimed he was a bit of a hypocrite, less of a committed atheist than he supposedly was. and on his deathbed “weighed the cost of conversion.” Hitchens, of course, predicted this would be said of him after his death and insisted that no one should believe such nonsense. Even so, the book was written and respectfully received and reviewed – before it was published eviscerated by David Frum in The Atlantic.
In their widespread email to “Family, Friends, Colleagues, Co-Notes, Brothers and Sisters, Comrades”, Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman write that they were “dismayed by the crude and reductive approach” in Phillips’ proposal. However, proposals call for “reductive” approaches. And what is meant by “roughly”? They also question Phillips’ credentials and competence by calling him a “self-appointed” biographer, but aren’t most if not all of the authors of biography, fiction, history and poetry self-appointed?
W.What can we conclude from their refusal to respond to the “requests” of this “self-appointed” biographer and his publisher W.W. to work together or respond to them? Norton is that they prefer a biographer who undoubtedly was appointed by them. By publicly advising against the publication of a book that has not yet been written because they do not believe in the proposal, they are playing a zero-sum game. Either they will manage to keep Phillips and Norton from moving forward, or they will be more likely to get the bio published and the publicity generated by their opposition will generate the kind of buzz marketers dream of.
The bigger question is not whether they are acting sensibly, but whether their actions – and the like of other executors – are doing a disservice to those of us who want the historical record to be as complete, complex, troubled and troubled as possible .
Hitchens does not belong to his widow or Wasserman. His ongoing commentary on American cultural, political, and social life; his enthusiastic – if sometimes, at least in my opinion, unrestrained – support for the American war in Iraq; his firsthand accounts of waterboarding and getting a Brazilian bikini wax; his apologetic, almost solemn defense of his brobdingnagic drinking and smoking; its unshakable insistence that “God is not great”; his friendships and feuds (serial and simultaneous); his brand new and still compelling indictment against Henry Kissinger; his Bill Clinton shutdowns (the “white whale”), mother Teresa (“A thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf”), the “Queen Mother”, numerous dictators and potentates and Donald Trump, the, he concededalthough a “ridiculous figure”, had at least “figured out how to cover 90 percent of your skull with 30 percent of your hair”; and his final thoughts on being transferred to Tumourville by the esophageal cancer that killed him stand on their own, but our understanding of what he said, wrote and why would be immeasurably enriched by studying his life .
Since Hitchens wrote and said too much, too well, too many subjects, it will be impossible for a single biographer to accurately or appropriately fit his life into his time, and vice versa. As difficult as it may be for a biographer to admit, there is no such thing as a “definitive” biography. Every biographer captures a little of the truth, never the whole. The life we write is not the life that was lived, but constructions, approximations, hints. The biography is not a precisely reflecting mirror of a life once lived, but a distorting, funny mirror. And therefore the more biographies we have of an individual, the closer we can get to him or her. I’ve read a lot of bad biographies in my time, but as I thought about it, the worst one told myself something, not only about the time of the subject, but also about that of the writer and about the passions and controversies that passed through past lives, thoughts, words in Set on fire and actions.
Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman have the right to refuse to work with this particular biographer, but by reaching out to such a wide universe of people who may have something to say on the subject, as before, they are engaging in some sort of preventive way Censorship designed to scare off not just this one writer, but everyone else who for one reason or another might not get along with them.
We do not get any closer to understanding a life and its times – which are our time – by restricting access to those who wish to examine and interpret them.