Thompson, Hunter S. 1937(?)–2005

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Thompson, Hunter S. 1937(?)–2005

(Raoul Duke, Sebastian Owl, Hunter Stockton Thompson)

PERSONAL: Born July 18, 1937 (some sources say 1939), in Louisville, KY; died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, February 20, 2005, in Woody Creek, CO; son of Jack R. (an insurance agent) and Virginia (Ray) Thompson; married Sandra Dawn, May 19, 1963 (divorced); married Anita Beymuk, April 24, 2003; children: Juan. Education: Studied journalism at Columbia University. Politics: "Anarchist." Hobbies and other interests: Collecting guns.

CAREER: Writer and journalist. Began as a sports writer in Florida; Time, Caribbean correspondent, 1959; New York Herald Tribune, Caribbean correspondent, 1959–60; National Observer, South American correspondent, 1961–63; Nation, West Coast correspondent, 1964–66; Ramparts, columnist, 1967–68; Scanlan's Monthly, columnist, 1969–70; Rolling Stone, national affairs editor, 1970–84; High Times, global affairs correspondent, 1977–82; San Francisco Examiner, media critic, 1985–90; Smart, editor-at-large, beginning in 1988. Freelance political analyst for various European magazines, beginning in 1988;. Candidate for sheriff of Pitkin County, CO, 1968; member, sheriff's advisory committee, Pitkin County, 1976–81; executive director, Woody Creek Rod and Gun Club. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1956–58; journalist for base magazine.


Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, Random House (New York, NY), 1966, reprinted, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1999.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, illustrated by Ralph Steadman, Random House (New York, NY), 1972, published with an introduction by P.J. O'Rourke as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Other American Stories, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1996.

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, illustrated by Ralph Steadman, Straight Arrow Books (San Francisco, CA), 1973.

The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time; Gonzo Papers, Volume One, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1979.

(With Ralph Steadman) The Curse of Lono, Bantam (New York, NY), 1983.

Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s; Gonzo Papers, Volume Two, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1988.

(Author of introduction) Ralph Steadman, America, Fantagraphics Books (Seattle, WA), 1989.

Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream; Gonzo Papers, Volume Three, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1990.

Silk Road: Thirty-three Years in the Passing Lane, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1990.

Untitled Novel, David McKay (New York, NY), 1992.

Better than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie; Gonzo Papers, Volume Four, Random House (New York, NY), 1993.

The Proud Highway: The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955–1967, edited by Douglas Brinkley, foreword by William J. Kennedy, Villard (New York, NY), 1997.

(Author of introduction) Ralph Steadman, Gonzo: The Art, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1998.

The Rum Diary: The Long Lost Novel, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.

Screwjack and Other Stories, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.

Fear and Loathing in America: Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968–1976 (correspondence), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.

The Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.

Hey Rube, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.

Author of the novel Prince Jellyfish, 1960. Contributor to Russell Chatham, by Etel Adnan, Winn Books, 1984. Contributor of articles and essays, sometimes under pseudonym Raoul Duke, to Esquire, London Observer, New York Times Magazine, Reporter, Harper's, and other publications.

ADAPTATIONS: The motion picture Where the Buffalo Roam is based on the life and writings of Thompson, written by John Kaye, directed by Art Linson, starring Bill Murray as Thompson, Universal, 1980; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was adapted as a motion picture, written by Terry Gilliam with Tony Garisoni, Tod Davies, and Alex Cox, directed by Gilliam, starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro, Universal, 1998. An audio version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was released by Margaritaville Records, 1996 and features music by Todd Snider and voices of Harry Dean Stanton and Jim Jarmusch. The Rum Diary is being made into a motion picture starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro.

SIDELIGHTS: Hunter S. Thompson ranks among the first and foremost practitioners of New Journalism, a genre that evolved in the 1960s to reflect the particular mood of those times. Thompson, who has called his brand of reportage "Gonzo Journalism," was perhaps the most visible and most vituperative of the New Journalism correspondents, a group whose ranks included Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, among others. As national affairs editor for Rolling Stone and author of such widely read books as Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Thompson recorded both the disillusionment and the delirium of a volatile era. According to Morris Dickstein in Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties, Thompson "paraded one of the few original prose styles of recent years," a style that indulged in insult and stream-of-invective to an unparalleled degree. He pioneered a new approach to reporting, allowing the story of covering an event to become the central story itself, while never disguising the fact that he was "a half-cranked geek journalist caught in the center of the action," to quote Jerome Klinkowitz in The Life of Fiction.

Thompson was considered a seasoned journalist while still in his twenties. His early journalism was conventional, but as the tenor of the nation began to change (and as his own experiments with drugs increased), he embraced the nascent New Journalism style. New York Times Book Review contributor Crawford Woods explained that New Journalism's roots lay in "the particular sense of the 1960s that a new voice was demanded by the way people's public and private lives were coming together in a sensual panic stew, with murder its meat and potatoes, grass and acid its spice. How to tell the story of a time when all fiction was science fiction, all facts lies? The New Journalism was born." It was a style that "put the pseudo-objective soporifics of the broadsheets to shame by applying to journalism the techniques of the realistic novel," explained Richard Vigilante in the National Review, adding, "But, at the same time, it required a romance with reality that undermined the ideologues' lust for self-deceit. For all the literary liberties of the most famous New Journalists, their stories, when done right, were more true than traditional journalism."

Riding and drinking with the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, taking massive quantities of hallucinogenic drugs, and careening to assignments on little food and less sleep, Thompson became the "professional wildman" of the New Journalists, to quote Village Voice contributor Vivian Gornick. He also became a nationally known figure whose work "in particular caused currents of envy in the world of the straight journalists, who coveted his freedom from restraint," according to an Atlantic essayist. "He became a cult figure," Peter O. Whit-mer wrote in Saturday Review, "the outlaw who could drink excessively, drug indulgently, shout abusively, and write insightfully."

In Critique, John Hellmann wrote: "By conceiving his journalism as a form of fiction, Thompson has been able to shape actual events into meaningful works of literary art." Thompson's "Gonzo Journalism" narratives are first-person accounts in which the author appears as a persona, sometimes Raoul Duke, but more commonly Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a specialist variously in divinity, pharmaceuticals, or reporting.

To research Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, Thompson's 1966 account of the infamous California motorcycle gang, the young author rode with the Angels for almost a year, recording their road rallies, their home lives, and their sexual adventures. The book strives to present the gang objectively while exposing the fact that its brutal reputation was primarily the creation of the scandal-mongering media. New Republic contributor Richard M. Elman observed that in Hell's Angels Thompson has "managed to correct many popular misconceptions about [the Angels], and in the process, provided his readers with a tendentious but informative participant-observer study of those who are doomed to lose." In Nation, Elmer Bendiner likewise noted that throughout the book, "Thompson's point of view remains eminently sane and honest. He does not weep for the Angels or romanticize them or glorify them. Neither does he despise them. Instead, he views them as creatures of an irresponsible society, given their image by an irresponsible press, embodying the nation's puerile fantasy life. He sees the menace not so much in the Hell's Angels themselves, as in the poverty of spirit and perennial adolescence that spawned them." Hell's Angels garnered a mixture of critical reactions. Atlantic correspondent Oscar Handlin contended that Thompson's "lurid narrative, despite its sympathy for his subjects, reveals the threat they pose." William Hogan in Saturday Review called the work "a jarring piece of contemporary Californiana, as well as an examination of a weird branch of present-day show business." According to Elman, Thompson's "fascinating invocation to, evocation of, and reportage about the Hell's Angels … is certainly the most informative, thorough, and vividly written account of this phenomenon yet to appear."

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an all-out display of Gonzo Journalism that remains Thompson's best-known work. As Hellmann described the book in Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas "is, in barest outline, the author's purported autobiographical confession of his failure to fulfill the magazine's assignment to 'cover' two events in Las Vegas, the Fourth Annual 'Mint 40′ motorcycle desert race and the National Conference of District Attorneys Seminar on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. It is more exactly the author's (or 'Raoul Duke's') tale of his hallucinations and adventures…. The book is, then, even in its most general subject and presentation, either a report of an actual experience which was largely fantasy or an actual fantasy which is disguised as report."

In the guise of Raoul Duke, Thompson relates a series of episodic adventures revolving around drug use and carte blanche access to Las Vegas's finest hotels, accompanied by a three-hundred-pound Samoan attorney named Dr. Gonzo (based on Thompson's friend Oscar Zeta Acosta), who "serves as a parody of noble savage 'sidekicks' from Chingachgook to Tonto," according to Hellmann. National Observer contributor Michael Putney called the book "a trip, literally and figuratively, all the way to bad craziness and back again. It is also the most brilliant piece of writing about the dope subculture since Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and, at the same time, an acid, wrenchingly funny portrait of straight America's most celebrated and mean-spirited pleasure-dome, Las Vegas."

Thompson continues to explore "the politics of unreason" in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, a collection of articles that first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. Nation correspondent Steven d'Ara-zien called the work "a New Journalism account of the 1972 presidential campaign from before New Hampshire to Miami and beyond…. It will be regarded as a classic in the genre." As national affairs editor for Rolling Stone, Thompson traveled with the press corps that followed candidate George McGovern; according to Dickstein he "recorded the nuts and bolts of a presidential campaign with all the contempt and incredulity that other reporters must feel but censor out." According to Jules Witcover in Progressive magazine, the book, though "heavily personalized writing-on-the-run, riddled here and there by the clear eye of hindsight, does convey an honest picture of a political writer picking his way through all the hoopla, propaganda, tedium, and exhaustion of a campaign." Critics' opinions of the book depended on their assessment of Thompson's reporting style. Columbia Journalism Review essayist Wayne C. Booth characterized the work as "an inflated footnote on how Thompson used the campaign to achieve a 'very special kind of High.'" He concluded, "Cleverness, energy and brashness cannot, finally, make up for ignorance and lack of critical training." On the other hand, Saturday Review contributor Joseph Kanon found Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 to contain "the best political reporting in some time," and concluded that the book "manages to give politics, after years of televised lobotomy, some flesh." New York Times columnist Christopher Lehmann-Haupt admitted that while Thompson "doesn't exactly see America as Grandma Moses depicted it, or the way they painted it for us in civics class, he does in his own mad way betray a profound democratic concern for the polity. And in its own mad way, it's damned refreshing."

Thompson's subsequent books, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time—in which many of his essays on Watergate are collected—The Curse of Lono, Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s, and Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream, have continued to mine his vein of personal, high-energy reporting. Los Angeles Times Book Review correspondent Peter S. Greenburg noted that The Great Shark Hunt "is not so much an attack on America as it is a frightfully perceptive autopsy of our culture…. Thompson is the master of the cosmic metaphor and combines this talent with all the subtlety of a run at someone's jugular with a red-hot rail spike." In The Curse of Lono Thompson recounts his antics during a visit to Hawaii with his longtime friend and illustrator, Ralph Stead-man. Once again the author demonstrates his "very nearly unrelieved distemper," an attribute William F. Buckley, Jr., described as "the Sign of Thompson" in New York Times Book Review. Washington Post Book World reviewer Michael Dirda claimed of the work, "No one writes like Hunter Thompson, though many have tried, and The Curse of Lono dispenses pages rabid with his hilarious, frenzied rantings, gusts of '60s madness for the stuffy '80s."

In 1990 Thompson became the subject of media attention when a woman—described variously as an actress, a reporter, and an ex-pornographic film producer—accused him of sexual assault, claiming Thompson had grabbed her when she refused his invitation to join him in his hot tub. Local police conducted an eleven-hour search of Thompson's home, uncovering small quantities of marijuana, cocaine, and LSD, a number of Valium-like pills, an antique Gatling gun, and four sticks of dynamite. Thompson was charged with five felonies and three misdemeanors and faced up to fifty years in prison if found guilty on all counts. Soon, however, the case against Thompson began to erode and, after a preliminary hearing, the charges were dismissed. A number of people suggested that the entire case had simply been an attempt to rid the exclusive Aspen community of someone many of its newer residents considered a nuisance.

These events and others are described in Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream. A Washington Post Book World contributor suspected that at times, "'Dr.' Thompson has, after years of pursuing the complete derangement of his senses, finally made the journey to real madness, to a place where the parameters of truth and fantasy have blended into each other, and the result of this loss of perspective is often more disconcerting than it is enlightening."

More of Thompson's political writings are collected in Better than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, which includes his thoughts on George Bush's presidency and Bill Clinton's campaign and first years in Office. While the collection was not rated as highly as Thompson's earlier political ruminations, Thomas Gaughan maintained in Booklist that Better than Sex "quite shrewdly" asserts that "Bush is so guilty he makes Nixon look innocent … and Clinton is a swine, but he's our swine." In contrast, L.S. Klepp of Entertainment Weekly felt that the book "reads as if Thompson had emptied the contents of several files and wastebaskets into a large envelope addressed to his indulgent publisher and let it go at that."

Thompson's early years in journalism are documented in The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman. A compilation of some three hundred letters—just a fraction of his output—to friends and editors, famous writers, and anyone else to whom he wanted to express his opinion, the book reflects Thompson's early thirst for fame and penchant for bombast, according to reviewers. With an eye toward creating a literary persona, Thompson sent thousands of letters in his early years, asking Lyndon Johnson, for example, to appoint him governor of American Samoa, and imploring novelist William Faulkner—whom he had never met—to send him weekly checks. "Like all great wits, from Oscar Wilde to Gore Vidal," wrote Pico Iyer in Time, "Thompson saw that a pose was more compelling than a personality, not least because it was more consistent." Iyer concluded that "the pleasure of these letters is that they have all the rude vitality of the man who was not yet a myth."

According to David Gates in Newsweek, The Proud Highway illustrates several things about Thompson: "First, though Thompson casts himself as a wild man, he's also a precisionist. Second, he has ungodly energy: these letters are just the warm-up and spillover from his fiction, journalistic pieces and his first book…. Third, funny as he is, he's dead serious about his art and his reputation: he made carbons of all these letters. Just in case." Other reviewers duly praised the volume as well. "By turns exasperating and entertaining," wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, the book "is also a devas-tating portrait of the writer as an incorrigible outsider." And Bonnie Smothers in Booklist wrote that "letters like Hunter's are a reminder of what a letter can be—our own personal literature that is, indeed, a testament to our life and times."

In 1999 Thompson published his first novel, The Rum Diary, written while he was a neophyte reporter in the Caribbean at the dawn of the 1960s. True to the style he developed in his journalism, the novel is mostly autobiographical, recounting the adventures of a young journalist, Paul Kemp, who writes for a Puerto Rican newspaper and lives dangerously, swilling alcohol and pugnaciously tempting fate. The novel received mixed reviews. Vanessa V. Friedman, writing in Entertainment Weekly, called it "little more than a fervent first novel by a young man in thrall to both Hemingway and Kerouac." In contrast, Mike Benediktsson, in Library Journal, appreciated "the narrative's tight, urgent prose" that "exposes the twisted roots of Thompson's gonzo journalism." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly reviewer acknowledged that the novel lays the groundwork for Thompson's later style, but that "the best parts of the book are its occasional, almost grudging, acknowledgments of natural beauty."

Originally published in a limited edition in 1991, Thompson's Screwjack and Other Stories was released by Simon & Schuster in 2000. The book contains three stories that "offer the sustained flashes of the brilliance that characterized Thompson's early classics," according to one Publishers Weekly contributor. Stories such as "Death of a Poet" contain a mixture of violence, sex, and drugs set in the late 1960s. A Publishers Weekly critic considered this a "slight" addition to the author's ouevre, but still worth a look from loyal Thompson fans. The year 2000 also saw the publication of a collection of Thompson's letters titled Fear and Loathing in America: Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968–1976. Many of the missives in this book are addressed to publishers and concern books he was working on at the time; critics found them interesting for Thompson's observations of famous politicians, authors, and other renowned figures, such as President Jimmy Carter and Tom Wolfe. "What may surprise readers," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "is the sweetness of much of the writing." However, the critic added, "Thompson's strong suit is still invective, of which he remains the unsurpassed master."

In 2003 Thompson's memoir, titled The Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century, was published. A Publishers Weekly contributor called the book "an autobiography that is typically unorthodox in style but still revealing previously unknown facts about its subject." The memoir covers everything from Thompson's first brush with the law in 1946 to his run in with Clarence Thomas before he was elected to the Supreme Court to his latest take on the American political scene. "The book makes a strong case for Thompson as both a social prophet (his day-after analysis of the 9/11 tragedy proves particularly prescient) and a patriot," wrote a reviewer in Book. Ulrich Baer, writing in Library Journal, called Thompson's writing "lazy" but also noted, "There are some canny observations on the difference between outlaws and lawbreakers, insights into the corruption of politics by politicians' lust for power, and instructive pieces on voter rebellion." Booklist contributor Ray Olsen commented that "Thompson remains, in this hodgepodge of pieces spanning most of his life … a larger-than-life middle-American humorist whose only peers are Mark Twain and William Burroughs."

Although Thompson's style and his personality have led to conflicting opinions about his writing, more critics have praised Thompson than disparaged him. As Jerome Klinkowitz wrote, "For all of the charges against him, Hunter S. Thompson is an amazingly insightful writer. His 'journalism' is not in the least irresponsible. On the contrary, in each of his books he's pointed out the lies and gross distortions of conventional journalism…. Moreover, his books are richly intelligent." According to Gornick, Thompson's talent "lies in his ability to describe his own manic plunge into drink, drugs, and madness through a use of controlled exaggeration that is truly marvelous." John Leonard expressed a similar opinion in New York Times. Thompson "became, in the late 1960's, our point guard, our official crazy, patrolling the edge," Leonard wrote. "He reported back that the paranoids were right, and they were. The cool inwardness … the hugging of the self to keep from cracking up, is not for him. He inhabits his nerve endings; they are on the outside, like the skin of a baby…. He is also, as if this needs to be said, hilarious."

Thompson fatally shot himself on February 20, 2005, in Colorado. Thompson's will called for "The Gonzo Trust," a group of three people, lawyers Hal Haddon and George Tobia, along with historian Douglas Brinkley, to manage Thompson's archives and literary estate.



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Book, March-April 2003, review of Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century, p. 80.

Booklist, October 1, 1994, Thomas Gaughan, review of Better than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, p. 187; April 15, 1997, Bonnie Smothers, review of The Proud Highway, p. 1364; December 15, 2002, Ray Olson, review of Kingdom of Fear, p. 706.

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Entertainment Weekly, September 9, 1994, L.S. Klepp, review of Better than Sex, p. 73; October 16, 1998, Vanessa V. Friedman, review of The Rum Diary, p. 82; January 12, 2001, Glenn Gaslin, "Fear and Loathing on the Net: Hunter Thompson Goes Cyber," p. 87; March 23, 2001, Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, "Real World: News from Hollywood," p. 74.

Esquire, April, 1991, p. 152; February, 1993, p. 61.

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Progressive, July, 1973, Jules Witcover, review of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.

Publishers Weekly, April 21, 1997, review of The Proud Highway, p. 49; September 21, 1998, review of The Rum Diary, p. 71; October 23, 2000, review of Screwjack, p. 38; October 30, 2000, review of Fear and Loathing in America, p. 54; January 13, 2003, review of Kingdom of Fear, p. 51; January 13, 2003, Lynn Andrian, interview with Thompson, p. 53.

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The Great Thompson Hunt, (April 2, 2002).


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New York Times, February 22, 2005, p. A17.

Times (London, England), February 22, 2005, p. 55.

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Thompson, Hunter S. 1937(?)–2005

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