Thompson, Hunter S. (1939—)

views updated

Thompson, Hunter S. (1939—)

Hunter S. Thompson represents life on the edge, the counter to culture, the man who has listed his religion as none, his politics as anarchist, and his hobby as collecting guns. He claimed membership in the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Rifle Association, and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and once ran for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado. Strange as it may seem, the drug-and alcohol-abusing Thompson at one time worked for Time magazine, the New York Herald Tribune, and the National Observer before he went straight and started writing for the voice of the counterculture, Rolling Stone, and invented "gonzo journalism," or at least that's the storyline. He was even turned into a character in the comic strip Doonesbury.

Thompson made his first major visit to the edge in 1965, when he wrote an article for The Nation about the Hell's Angels entitled "The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders." The article led to a book contract. Thompson spent a year with the Angels as a field study for the book. He was charged with separating fact from fancy and in doing so he condemned the press for coverage that he felt misrepresented the Angels. Generally, the press merely repeated what law enforcement officials chose to say rather than learning the truth by riding with the members.

Thompson's book portrayed the Angels as drug-using and alcohol-abusing gang members who believed that women were put on earth to service them. Perhaps the lowest point of the book was Thompson's description of gang sex with one woman. And at the end, some Angels nearly stomped him to death and Thompson suddenly seemed not so fond of the motorcyclists.

The titles of Thompson's books say something about Thompson and his subject matter: The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time; Gonzo Papers, Volume One, The Curse of Lono, Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s; Gonzo Papers, Volume Two, Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream; Gonzo Papers, Volume Three, The Proud Highway: The Saga of a Desperate Northern Gentlemen; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. "Fear and Loathing in … " became a trademark Thompson headline on many of his Rolling Stone articles.

The two Fear books followed Hell's Angels and helped establish Thompson as a writer with an attitude. The Las Vegas book was purported to be an autobiographical account of Thompson's failure to cover two events for a magazine because he spent more time on drug trips than reporting. The book includes a character named Raoul Duke, who was really Thompson, and who in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury became "Uncle Duke." More than 25 years after the book was published, it was made into a movie that received some good reviews, but wasn't in the theaters very long.

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, a collection of articles Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone, to some extent continued to reflect Thompson's loathing of the mainstream press, while at the same time making Thompson the center of the reportage rather than the candidates. Another Rolling Stone writer, Timothy Crouse, wrote a book about how the press covered the 1972 presidential campaign, and he provided many of the stories about Thompson's non-journalistic antics. Crouse even claimed that, when Rolling Stone dispatched him and Thompson to Washington to open a bureau, Crouse was "to write the serious backup pieces, keep Thompson out of trouble, and carry the bail bond money." Thompson showed up on the campaign trail in sneakers, sunglasses, a Miami sports shirt, and a hunting jacket; everyone else in the press corps wore coats and ties. Thompson was downright irreverent, Crouse reported, offering to share his beer, Wild Turkey, and drugs and wondering outloud if at the next campaign stop he'd have time to drop some acid. Eventually, however, many members of the press came to respect Thompson because he was able to write what they couldn't. While his colleagues were committed to objective reporting, Thompson's talent was in his ability to fill his pieces with his own opinions expressed in descriptive language.

Thompson invented "gonzo journalism" while covering the Kentucky Derby (Thompson was born in Louisville) for Scanlan's Magazine in 1970. He claimed later that the article did not come about through any careful plotting of storyline and subsequent revision the way most writing is born, but had been created out of necessity when Thompson, unable to write, merely ripped pages out of his notebook, numbered them and sent them on to his editor. The result was "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," a hilarious account of Thompson in Louisville. Thompson's claim aside, the article worked too well to have been assembled randomly, but no one noticed, and Thompson later proclaimed himself the inventor of gonzo journalism.

Thompson continued to be published, if not in Rolling Stone or other magazines and newspapers, then in book collections of his journalistic pieces—namely, the "gonzo papers." Meanwhile, he continued to behave outrageously. "I'm afraid I've become addicted to my own adrenaline," he told a Washington Post writer in 1991. His writing style has been badly imitated but hardly duplicated. Generally, those who continued to follow him enjoyed his irreverent and rich writing, and he remained a larger-than-life example of the counterculture of the 1960s.

—R. Thomas Berner

Further Reading:

Berner, R. Thomas. The Literature of Journalism: Text and Context. State College, Pennsylvania, Strata Publishing, 1999.

Carroll, E. Jean. Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson. Dutton, 1993.

Crouse, Timothy. The Boys on the Bus. New York, Random House, 1973.

Mckeen, William. Hunter S. Thompson. Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1991

Perry, Paul. Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson. Thunder's Mouth Press. 1993.

Vetter, Craig. "Playboy Interview: Hunter Thompson." Playboy. November 1974.

Whitmer, Peter O. When the Going Gets Weird: The Twisted Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson. Hyperion, 1993.

About this article

Thompson, Hunter S. (1939—)

Updated About content Print Article