Christopher Hitchens is still stirring controversy, nearly a decade after his death.
In a hyped-up literary feud that Hitchens would have mocked, his widow and literary agent are seeking to halt a planned biography of the writer.
Carol Blue-Hitchens and Steve Wasserman sent an e-mail to Hitchens' associates asking them not to cooperate with author Stephen Phillips, who has a contract with W.W. Norton to publish "Pamphleteer: The Life and Times of Christopher Hitchens" in 2022.
The rarefied dispute gained momentum with a New York Times article Tuesday, following biographer David Nasaw's condemnation of Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman in a recent essay in the Nation.
Nasaw, the award-winning biographer of Andrew Carnegie and Joseph P. Kennedy, accused Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman of engaging "in a kind of censorship" and pointed out that efforts to control a subject's image through authorized biographies often backfire.
Calling Hitchens a significant figure of his times, Nasaw defended Phillips' effort to present opposing views of him.
A longtime writer for the Nation, Hitchens broke with his leftist colleagues over his support for the Iraq war and his increasingly misogynistic writing. A gifted raconteur, Hitchens frequently appeared on TV and as a public speaker.
As a leftist writer earlier in his career, Hitchens gained notoriety for books exposing Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger. A noted atheist, Hitchens reportedly shunned religious conversion while dying of cancer in 2011.
The email by Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman sounds like something from a satirical novel by David Lodge or Richard Russo, or even Evelyn Waugh, if e-mails had existed during his life.
"Dear Family, Friends, Colleagues, Fellow Scribblers, Brothers & Sisters, Comrades:
We are aware that a self-appointed would-be biographer, one Stephen Phillips, is embarked on a book on Christopher. 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.
Feel free to contact us with any questions as you may have.
Carol & Steve
Carol Blue-Hitchens, Executor of the Estate of Christopher Hitchens
Steve Wasserman, Literary Agent"
As The New York Times article pointed out, the email is self-defeating because it would silence those with the most favorable views of Hitchens. And those close to Hitchens are resisting; Hitchens' brother, Peter, a British conservative columnist, talked with Phillips, the Times article said
It's unlikely that Phillips can find many new revelations about Hitchens. He himself wrote the revealing and entertaining memoir "Hitch" before his death and has appeared in memoirs and a recent novel, "Inside Story," by his close friend Martin Amis. Former colleagues like Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn attacked Hitchens in print.
Phillips' title, "Pamphleteer," does seem limited. Hitchens was much more than that. But he wrote in the spirit of old-time pamphleteers like Thomas Paine. Perhaps the title is metaphorical.
Hitchens was a public intellectual who courted controversy. Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman's dubious campaign against Phillips runs counter to Hitchens' ideals.
A bit of good news emerged amid Trump's scorched earth exit and the raging Covid 19 pandemic.
The beloved Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Christmas specials will be shown on public television this year as well as Apple's subscription-based streaming channel.
Broadcast on commercial networks for years, cartoonist Charles Schultz's TV classics were to be shown only on the Apple + channel until public outcry resulted in Apple reaching a deal with PBS to broadcast the shows.
The Thanksgiving show will air on PBS Sunday, and the Christmas special featuring Vince Guaraldi's haunting jazz score Dec. 13. The shows will also be offered on Apple +, including times of free viewing.
Alas, the agreement arrived too late for the Charlie Brown Halloween special and the Great Pumpkin, absent from the public airwaves this autumn. Maybe next year, big boy.
Charlie Brown's Christmas includes a Bible verse and the singing of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."
But the widespread love for the show likely will head off any protest about it being shown on a channel partially funded by taxpayers.
We only hope that PBS avoids any temptation to carry out pledge drives.
The Amy Coney Barrett hearings showed that political speech no longer bears any relation to the truth.
That a law professor from the leading Catholic university could spread such a web of evasions and falsehoods before a U.S. Senate committee is sickening.
With the GOP railroading Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, the degradation of the U.S. Senate and the judiciary is complete. The Democratic members of the committee shamefully capitulated to Lindsay Graham and the other Republican apparatchiks.
"Here is the shadow of truth, for only the shadow is true," Robert Penn Warren said in the opening line of his poem "A Way to Love God."
In the Barrett hearing, the shadow spread further across the American republic.
Flannery O'Connor was among the long list of venerated authors who expressed racist views.
While her racist slurs and opposition to black civil rights have long been documented, author Paul Elie in a June 22 New Yorker article accuses O'Connor's followers of seeking to evade her racism.
O'Connor's adherents have denied Elie's claims. Amy Alznauer, in a better argued article published by The Bitter Southerner, says that O'Connor's racism has long drawn fire from critical commentators.
Elie, who included O'Connor in his survey of Catholic writers "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," asserts that O'Connor's supporters try to justify her views with the dubious argument that she was a product of her times. But he overstates her native Georgia's racial progress in the last years of her life, when the state's opposition to segregation hardened.
Elie's article coincides with the publication of Angela Alaimo O'Donnell's "Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O'Connor." Alznauer expresses outrage at Elie's cursory dismissal of O'Donnell's work.
Black authors like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison have condemned O'Connor's racism while admiring her fiction, Alznauer says.
As Elie points out, O'Connor like C.S. Lewis is one of those writers passionately followed because of her religious outlook. O'Connor's letters and essays with their spiritual reflections are as celebrated by many readers as her short stories and novels.
O'Connor's exalted position as a literary saint demands a reckoning with her racism, Elie says. He contrasts O'Connor with poet Philip Larkin, also exposed for casual racism.
"Unlike, say, the struggle over Philip Larkin, whose coarse, chauvinistic letters are at odds with his lapidary poetry, it’s not about protecting the work from the author; it’s about protecting an author who is now as beloved as her stories," Elie says.
An artist like O'Connor needs no such protection, no matter how condemnable her views.
Young male clerk wearing John Lennon glasses
at Livaria Bertrand, world's oldest bookstore,
stamps my books: Virginie Despentes and Pessoa.
"How did you get here so fast," I ask him
when he's already at the door,
without glasses, as I leave.
"I'm like that," he answers,
his smile like the sun on the Tagus.
Guitarist and trumpet player on the sidewalk.
playing Amy Winehouse songs.
Joyful music by young men in suits;
an old schizo joins their dance.
Smiles of women with dark hair,
the embrace of the female doctor
in her lab coat,
who takes my pulse
and assures me
my heartbeat is OK.
Small children in their school uniforms
at Sanhora do Rosario.
Community center for kids who grow up
wild on Porto's streets.
The director with his stutter
speaks of holiday barbecues,
afternoons playing football
with the young men.
At the nursing home, an old woman
wails in the corner as the elderly priest
awakens in a dusty glow
floating through the windows.
Doors flung open reveal
Christ on his cross, his downcast eyes.
How beautiful their Portuguese voices
searching for English words.
The man with legs bent backwards
begging on the Avenida de Liberdade,
men selling chestnuts on the street,
smoke rising in the light
reflected from the slippery sidewalks
made of yellow tile.
The happiness of old and middle aged men
gathered for lunch, hugs and kisses
cheek to cheek. The rain, changing to sun,
changing to rain, changing to sun,
the rivers, rushing to the Atlantic.
The suave guide John,
handsome as a rock star,
leads us to the castle,
tells how Ulysses founded Lisboa,
Tall pine trees, shaped like arrows,
cork held between our fingers.
Stylish young woman
guides us through
the immigration center.
Solemn faces of refugees
as they wait
in the enormous room.
Walking in the darkness
from the hotel to the airport,
5 a.m. departure.
Old oak trees, broken sidewalk.
As we sit on the bus,
to take us to the plane,
a song fills the space:
"I see fire burning the trees."
The Tudor Revival Rock Spring Presbyterian Church rises above the commercial clutter of Piedmont Road, a vision from a vanishing culture.
After years of declining membership and finances, the church founded in the 1870s by some of Atlanta's most illustrious pioneer families has decided to disband, according to a report by Channel 11's Jeff Hullinger, himself an Atlanta institution.
The fate of the church designed by Welsh architect Charles H. Hobson and completed in 1923 remains unclear. A developer bought surrounding acres from the church for $1.9 million in 2018 to build nine high-end houses, as reported by The AJC's all-time great freelance writer, H.M. Cauley.
Lovers of the old church and its historic cemetery fear the building will be torn down for commercial uses. The landmark was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, which might save it.
The church's demise will end its many community services, as well as the live Nativity scenes that marked the Christmas season for generations of Atlanta families. Those programs didn't bring in money as the church's membership aged and young families moved to more dynamic congregations.
Following the campaign to save the historic 152 Nassau Building downtown, where Fiddling John Carson recorded the first national country and western hit record in the 1923, Atlanta risks losing another essential landmark. Rock Spring, named like nearby Rock Springs Road for a spring that once flowed in the area, could be purchased by a more thriving congregation, or converted into an arts center or concert hall.
I've never visited the church, but its commanding presence as I drove down Piedmont Road gave the comfort of faith and tradition. The church on the hill was one of those places that defined my conception of Atlanta as a true city. The building's destruction would take away another piece of Atlanta's soul.
Aretha Franklin never left the church, her father exclaims in the documentary "Amazing Grace."
The film shot in 1972 shows Franklin recording her live gospel album "Amazing Grace" at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles' Watts district.
Unlike the album, her career best-seller, the film remained locked away for years because famed director Sydney Pollack failed to synchronize sound and action. Producer Alan Elliott discovered raw footage, fixed the technical problems with digital technology and completed an 89-minute film.
But before her death, Franklin prevented the documentary's release. After she died, her estate agreed to let the film come out in 2018.
Franklin grew up singing in the Detroit mega-church of her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a nationally known evangelist. She'd already recorded her big popular hits in 1972, when she decided at age 29 to return to her gospel roots and record the live album.
A regal presence in white caftan and robes, Franklin reaches a higher realm with her singing. As her father says in an electric appearance, her voice was a gift touched by God.
Performing gospel standards like "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and the title song, along with pop-inflected numbers like Marvin Gaye's "Wholly Holy" and Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," Franklin marshals her vocal power like an ethereal instrument, reaching high notes that cause men to weep and women to faint.
Gospel powerhouse the Rev. James Cleveland is a commanding presence, extolling the audience with his booming voice, accompanying Franklin by singing and playing the piano, and conducting the fine Southern California Community Choir. At times overweening, Franklin softens his showmanship with warmth and his enthusiasm for gospel.
Under the direction of the young and vibrant Alexander Hamilton, the Southern California Community Choir steals many scenes. With silver vests and black shirts, the choir responds to Franklin with passion and energy. Their "amens," frenetic movements and spirited singing reveal the roots of James Brown and other soul performers.
In one of the best moments, a male choir member with Afro and mustache fights back tears as Franklin improvises on "Amazing Grace." Her other-worldy keens and soaring and falling registers show a stunning virtuosity. Her father says she reached a "synthesis" of Mahalia Jackson and Cleta Ward. Her "Amazing Grace" mixes in elements of Eliza Fitzgerald and instrumentalists like Charlie Parker and Lester Young, blended into her special artistry.
Franklin's crack band of guitarist Cornell Dupree, drummer Bernard Purdie, bassist Chuck Rainey and keyboard player Kenneth Lupper make the oldest gospel hymns swing. As someone said, the blues gave rock and roll its rock, and gospel its roll.
The low-tech camera finds a surprise among the gray-lit audience, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, unrecognized by the congregation. The Rolling Stones at the time were recording Exile on Main Street in Los Angeles. That album's gospel flavors likely were influenced by Franklin's performance.
Franklin's voice sends the audience into emotional raptures. A female companion of the gospel pioneer Ward faints, and two women rise for an impromptu, frenzied dance. Seated at the piano, Cleveland can't resist a glance at the shaking backside of one of the women.
The appearance by Franklin's father gives the film a dramatic boost. C.L. Franklin heads to the altar and gives an impassioned appreciation of his daughter. A forceful, calculated speaker, Franklin exudes an unsettling mix of religiosity and charisma, inspirational and seductive.
His pride at his daughter's career glows when he tells an anecdcote about someone he sees at the cleaners saying that Aretha should return to the church. He answers that she never left. Songs like "Respect" retain their gospel foundation.
Later, in a strange scene, Franklin wipes the sweat from his daughter's s face as she plays the piano and sings a hymn about a place where people never age.
Cleveland was a mentor to Franklin when she began singing in her father's church as a child. During the film, her impassive face reveals her reserves of power in the presence of the two dynamic men of the gospel world.
The film's recovery is itself a story of "Amazing Grace." Franklin's voice, the impassioned performances of Hamilton, Cleveland and the choir, and the fervor of the congregation are uplifting gifts to a wounded nation. A TV channel would provide a great public service by broadcasting the movie to a broader audience.
On a stormy good Friday morning in Atlanta, I read John Donne's "Good Friday 1613, Riding Westward," as has been my custom for many years.
Wonderful to reopen the Norton Anthology of English Literature and rediscover Britain's literary treasures.
We're headed westward ourselves for a mini-family reunion and history-steeped weekend in Montgomery, Ala.
Other family members are on their way to Fort Worth to cheer the LSU gymnastics team on as they seek a national championship.
As we depart, here is an Easter message from George Hebert's "Easter Wings."
The Notre Dame Cathedral fire united France and the world in grief for the 850-year-old monument at the heart of Paris.
That didn't last long. Donations by corporations and wealthy families to rebuild the cathedral quickly drew criticism from right and left.
The leader of the yellow vest protests that have shaken Emmanuel Macron's government sniffed that the families behind LVMH and L'Oreal would receive tax breaks, meaning the average French taxpayer would really pay for the rebuilding.
And Disney, which reaped enormous profits from a cartoon version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," pledged a relatively meager $5 million.
Even Macron's vow to rebuild the cathedral in five years brought discord. Experts said a restoration likely would take as long as 20 years. A debate stirred over whether the restoration should add modern construction materials or aim for an illusory historical authenticity, which the cathedral had already lost.
The fire was the result of a restoration project that was scheduled to take at least 15 years. The old cathedral, extensively refurbished in the 19th century, was falling apart, a project that didn't excite as much passion as the fire's reconstruction campaign, as Slate's Henry Grabar pointed out.
As the fire burned, I imagined Victor Hugo's Quasimodo clambering upon the ancient roof to put out the flames. Absent the noble lover of Esmeralda, the Parisian firefighters performed heroically.
The Wall Street Journal Thursday detailed how a decision to stop the fire from spreading to the cathedral's signature bell towers saved the structure from collapsing. The WSJ also reported how the firefighters used water from the Seine River, at reduced pressure, to limit the fire's damage.
Notre Dame's construction in the Middle Ages came from a society united by religion and shared artistic values. The fire recalled one of the great books on medieval society, and its veneration of the Virgin Mary, Henry Adams' "Mont St. Michel and Chartres."
Since the French Revolution, France has been a steadfastly secular nation. Outside of Notre Dame, Catholic Masses are sparsely attended. My daughter said that during a high school stay in France, she and a couple of elderly women were the only worshipers.
Yet, the country remains intensely Catholic by culture. The French personality, with its talent for abstract thought and literature, love of sensual pleasure, and old-world inefficiency, derives from long centuries of Catholic influence.
Now, Western Europe is riven by social conflict, unable to reach agreement on whether Notre Dame should be rebuilt. Someone pointed out that the "forest" of ancient timber that fueled the fire can't be replaced; France no longer has a sufficient number of mature oak trees. In the past, ancient cathedrals ruined by fire have been rebuilt with modern construction methods, without loss of their authenticity.
While France's social divisions quickly split apart, the Notre Dame fire's aftermath brought a heart-warming show of unity in a leap in donations for three black churches in rural Louisiana burned by an accused arsonist. The Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish, in the heart of French Louisiana, received $1.8 million in donations.
France sees Notre Dame as the symbol of its historic greatness, which Macron wishes to restore. Now France must summon a unified will to rebuild Notre Dame.