Hitchens on Swine and Dickens
Today on Tablet
Today in Tablet Magazine, Failed Messiah blogger Shmarya Rosenberg relates how the late Christopher Hitchens, and specifically Hitch’s praise of pork in his atheist polemic God Is Not Great, clarified his own aversion to organized religion.
Meanwhile, this month’s Vanity Fair contains two essays of interest to us Hitchophiles. One is an appreciation by his old friend Salman Rushdie. Among other things, it has some good history on Hitchens’ defense of Rushdie when Iran’s supreme leader issued a fatwa calling for the novelist’s life, an episode that I argued, in my own appreciation, was crucial to shaping Hitchens’s intellectual development. “I have often been asked if Christopher defended me because he was my close friend,” Rushdie relates. “The truth is that he became my close friend because he wanted to defend me.”
The other essay is, of course, by Hitchens himself. It’s about Charles Dickens, and contains the following passage:
he was obviously very impressed when a prominent Jewish lady, Mrs. Eliza Davis, wrote him an anguished letter after the 1838 publication of Oliver Twist. She was obviously terribly upset about the character of Fagin and was not even quite willing to concede that some Jews had been involved in the stolen-goods racket. At any rate, Dickens went into the matter and convinced himself that he’d been part of an injustice. He thereupon did three things: He softened the description of Fagin in later versions of the book. When he himself took part in public “readings” from the story, he downplayed the “Jewish” characteristics of the villain. And he then created a whole new character to order. In Our Mutual Friend, we encounter a Jewish moneylender named Mr. Riah, who is friendly and helpful to Lizzie Hexam and Jenny Wren. I admit that I find this personage almost too altruistic to be true, but it says something for Dickens, surely, that he would take someone who had the same occupation as the infamous Shylock, but none of Shylock’s vices, and insert him at the heart of business, at a time when vulgar prejudice was easy to stir up. The story isn’t as well known as it ought to be.