WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, I wanted to be Christopher Hitchens. In a manner of speaking. I didn’t, in fact, learn who he was until I was in my thirties, but I can see in retrospect that Hitchens was the epitome of everything I hoped to be as a writer. My passions were political, philosophical, and literary, and it seemed to me that there could be no better life than as a prolific cultural critic who wrote bluntly and even prophetically about the follies of the age. I imagined writing long review essays of contemporary novels and biographies, laced with witty asides and skewering judgments—so many stilettos slipped in under the ribs of the literary establishment.
The irony is that if I had succeeded, I would have become a mirror image of the late Mr. Hitchens: a conservative, Christian decrier of secular, liberal pieties.
The trouble was that I had few models to emulate. Nearly all the greatest political critics of the twentieth century were on the left (Irving Howe, Lionel Trilling, et al). There was the godfather of conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr., of course, who had a way with words and was a consummate debater, but he rarely wielded a stiletto and wasn’t truly a literary critic. The other right-of-center pundits struck me, then as now, as buzzing gnats—small and annoying—unpleasant rather than incisive.
That’s why I felt a nearly electrical jolt when I first encountered the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-90), who came to speak at my undergraduate college. Here was a man raised in a Fabian socialist household who had gone to the Soviet Union in the hope that communism would prove to be utopia-in-the-making, only to discover that Stalin was a genocidal monster. Attempting to tell this story back home, Muggeridge was ridiculed by an intelligentsia that would hear no ill about “Uncle Joe.” On the domestic front, Muggeridge was fired by the BBC for the sin of writing in the early 1950s that the royal family had become a “soap opera.” When he became editor of the humor magazine Punch, he turned a staid staple of doctors’ waiting rooms into a vehicle for edgy satire. A late convert to Christianity (and even later convert to Catholicism), Muggeridge’s television broadcasts with an unknown Albanian nun catapulted the woman known as Mother Teresa to world fame.
On his visit to my college campus, I served as Muggeridge’s chauffeur and escort, spending many hours in his company. When I first met him I hadn’t known what to expect. Rather than behaving like a guru who only wanted to pontificate, Muggeridge wanted to know all about me, asking question after question about my upbringing and interests—in that, he seemed to me true to his roots as a journalist. We talked about Russian authors we loved, especially Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. A staunch critic of the Soviet Union, he nonetheless shocked me by predicting (in the late 1970s) the impending fall of the communist regime in Russia.
Later, I would spend time with Muggeridge and his wife Kitty at their cottage in Sussex, where they lived simply. They both knew the morning and evening services from the Book of Common Prayer by heart, and said them each day. While I knew that Muggeridge had been mocked for criticizing sexual liberation after a life of philandering (Saint Mugg, they called him), I could not detect any hypocrisy in this late version of himself, hard as I looked.
But I did see contradictions, some of them hilarious. After spending two decades as a fixture on television, he famously declared that broadcast news had been reduced to mindless entertainment and that he had “taken down his aerials” and junked his TV set. And yet he was addicted to listening to the news on the radio, which, because he was going deaf, he played at thunderous volume on an old stereo console the size of a refrigerator. He would offer running, coruscating commentary on these broadcasts that I often wish I had recorded.
Muggeridge was also a satirist remarkably free from personal bitterness or anger. He used to say, “It’s all going to hell, isn’t it?” and then fail to repress a chuckle. Over his hearth hung a framed photograph of the York cathedral, on fire after having been struck by lightning. I asked him why, and he replied that the fire had taken place a few days after a bishop who had denied the virgin birth of Christ was consecrated there. “Wrath of God, dear boy. Wrath of God.”
Four years after his death, I published a biography of Muggeridge, which received a smattering of largely positive reviews. A decade later, when it was reprinted in a paperback edition, I expected no reviews. So I was surprised when a friend e-mailed me: “Did you know that Christopher Hitchens has written a long review of your book in the Weekly Standard?”
By that point I had become familiar with Christopher Hitchens from his constant flow of writing in Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, Slate, and elsewhere, not to mention his frequent television appearances on news and political talk shows. You can imagine that I was preparing to find a stiletto under my own ribs (which were feeling a little rubbery at that point). After all, I had cited Hitchens in the biography as one of those who had frequently stuck it to Muggeridge, whom he once referred to as “that old mountebank.”
Sure enough, there were zingers directed at both Muggeridge and me. Hitchens writes that Muggeridge resembled a “vain old turtle” and that his voice was characterized by a “commingled bray and bleat.” He cites a pledge I make at the beginning of the book that I did not want to play Boswell to Muggeridge’s Johnson, uncritically recording his witty retorts and bon mots. Hitchens says that I keep to that promise throughout the book, “and I’d say that the world of the devastating riposte was not Wolfe’s natural territory in any case.” He also felt there was something embarrassingly gushing about my description of the Muggeridges’ simple repasts, to which he adds: “and one wants to say, yes, well, that’s quite enough about that.”
But as I rushed on with my hurried first reading, I slammed to a halt at this sentence near the end: “Still, the cumulative effect of Wolfe’s narrative in Malcolm Muggeridge is so serious and so genuine that the biography ultimately forces a reconsideration of its subject.” Gratified as I was, I’d like to believe that part of what arrested me was Hitchens’s willingness to revise his opinion about one of his favorite whipping boys. This was not the sort of concession I’d seen him make before.
What sent me back to the review was the news of Hitchens’s recent untimely death from cancer. The obituaries and memorials were predictably divided, some lionizing “Hitch” for his literary brilliance and bonhomie and others deriding him as a bully and a bounder—and justifying their vitriol by saying that he was only receiving what he so gleefully dished out. Nearly all the articles had something to say about Hitchens’s late-life obsession with attacking religion, which had culminated in his book God Is Not Great.
I went back to the review because it seemed a reasonable test case for my own estimate of his life and work, this nexus where Hitch, Mugg, and I briefly came together. To be sure, I was pleased with his conclusion, but I also knew the subject matter of his piece and could gauge the level of investment he had made in writing it.
There is no doubt that he read the book carefully: his references are detailed and accurate. The writing is as muscular as ever. But there was something else, some other quality of the review that I at first could not put into words. And then it struck me: looking at Muggeridge’s life and career, he saw himself in the mirror.
After all, the parallels are abundant, from early years immersed in politics and foreign policy (including complete reversals about what they deemed to be the major geopolitical and ideological threats to the West) to later periods in which religion took over their every public statement. Both felt that George Orwell was a crucial figure—Muggeridge with a little envy and ambivalence and Hitchens with adoration. Muggeridge championed Mother Teresa; Hitchens excoriated her in his atrociously titled book The Missionary Position. They both began in print journalism, only to become ubiquitous on the telly.
In the review Hitchens takes note of my exploration of Muggeridge’s ambivalence toward his upbringing—embarrassment at his lower-middle-class father’s homemade political philosophy, desire for a more cosmopolitan, fashionable life, and yet persistent engagement with the larger social and moral issues of the day. “One of the several merits of [Wolfe’s] biography…is that its author…understands this duality of motive…. No serious person is without contradictions. The test lies in the willingness or ability to recognize and confront them.”
Christopher Hitchens may not have been willing to recognize or confront the duality of his own motives, but in this book review seems awfully close to doing so. Because in the end he must have realized that he, like Muggeridge, had to a great extent squandered his strengths as a writer and political observer to become a hectoring preacher and a stern moralist in the trivial media circus that dominates the airwaves. Of Muggeridge he says: “He was drawn compulsively to that which he found loathsome.”
And yet, in and among the various potshots, Hitchens can write this of Muggeridge’s youthful hunger for faith: “He was still a long way from Roman Catholicism, but his quest for the ‘inclusive’—for a reconciliation between the sacred and the profane, as well as between the simple and the difficult—already involved catholicity.” That longing for an inclusive vision is what endears Muggeridge to me, even as the process of writing the biography revealed to me his many faults and flaws. Muggeridge’s own autobiography is entitled Chronicles of Wasted Time, a recognition and confrontation of his shortcomings if there ever was one. If Hitchens ever achieved a similar recognition, I’ve haven’t seen it.
As for me, I found that by the time I had finished the biography, I had learned a thing or two about my own duality of motive. I had lost the desire to lay about me in the public square, in part because I sensed the enormous vanity it would require. Perhaps that’s the thing about duality: once you sense how deeply divided the human heart is, you lose the sort of swagger and singularity needed to be the scourge of the age. I have looked in vain for the wisdom of atheism on the subject of duality, but my faith tells me all about it. And drives me toward an inclusive vision that reconciles divided peoples and riven hearts.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.