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Hunter S. Thompson is one of the original and best known practitioners of New Journalism, a style of reporting that evolved in the United States in the 1960s and combines the techniques of fiction with traditional reportage. Thompson, who has called his brand of reporting ”Gonzo journalism,” was perhaps the most visible—and harshest—of the New Journalism writers, a group that included Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, among others. As national affairs editor for Rolling Stone, freelance writer, and author of widely read books, including Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1966), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1972), and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), Thompson recorded the disillusionment and the delirium of a volatile era. He pioneered a new approach to reporting, allowing the story of covering an event to become the central story itself.
Biographical and Historical Context
Hunter S. Thompson (also known as Hunter Stockton Thompson) was born July 18, 1939, in Louisville, Kentucky, one of three sons to insurance salesman Jack R. Thompson and his wife Virginia, who would go on to struggle with alcoholism. Hunter attended public schools in Louisville, where he gained a reputation as an intelligent but unmanageable rascal. In the spring of his senior year, he was arrested for vandalism during the middle of the school day and taken to a juvenile detention center. According to friends, Thompson enjoyed the trip. Eleven days before graduation he was arrested again with two friends and charged with armed robbery. An attorney persuaded the judge to release Thompson after thirty days with the expectation that he enlist in the United States Air Force.
A week after his release from jail, Hunter Thompson arrived drunk at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas, for basic training. In December 1955, he was assigned to electronics school at Scott Air Force base in southern Illinois. Six months later he was sent to Eglin Air Force Base at Pensacola, Florida, where he quickly became a staff writer and sports editor for the base newspaper. He also moonlighted as a sports columnist for the Playground News in nearby Fort Walton Beach, writing under the byline ”Thorne Stockton.” A fictitious news release on Air Proving Ground Command stationery secured Thompson’s early discharge in late 1958. Thompson was ”totally unclassifiable,” the release said, quoting an Air Force classification officer. ”I almost had a stroke yesterday when I heard he was being given an honorable discharge. It’s terrifying—simply terrifying.”
Soon after his release from the Air Force, Thompson moved to New York City, where he landed an eighty-five-dollar-a-week job as a copyboy for Time magazine. There he met Sandra Dawn Conklin, a Goucher College graduate and businessman’s daughter who would eventually become his wife. Unsuccessful in his bids to become a foreign correspondent for Time, Thompson eventually landed a job as a reporter for El Sportivo in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Conklin joined him in Puerto Rico, where he survived by earning extra income as a stringer for the New York Herald Tribune and by writing tourist brochures.
Thompson and Conklin returned to the continental United States in 1960 and were eventually lured to California’s Big Sur, a long-fabled artists’ and writers’ colony. Thompson worked as a caretaker in exchange for the rent on a dilapidated cottage. In a July 1961 article, ”Big Sur: The Tropic of Henry Miller,” Thompson wrote: ”This place is a real menagerie. . . . There are two legitimate wives on the property; the other females are either mistresses, ‘companions,’ or hopeless losers.” The owner of the property—Bunny Murphy, grandmother of best-selling novelist Dennis Murphy—was furious and evicted him and Conklin within twenty-four hours.
Now homeless and broke, Sandy Conklin went back to New York, and Thompson retreated to live with his mother in Louisville and to continue freelancing. During the next few years, he wrote numerous articles for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and the National Observer. The last of these publications sent him to cover South America in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and finally, Brazil, where Conklin joined him again. When the pair returned home, Thompson was treated by the Observer ”as a man who’d been a star.” He and Conklin headed back to California, stopping in Jeffersonville, Indiana, to wed. The couple settled in San Francisco, where a social revolution was underway.
A “Great Rumbling The Countercultural Movement in America
”There was a great rumbling—you could feel it everywhere,” Thompson recalled, referring to the growing unrest that would result in the formation of a new counterculture and a nationwide social revolution during the 1960s. This revolution, which included the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the Free Speech Movement, and a general defiance of established authority, appealed to Thompson’s rebellious nature and was a great influence on his future anti-establishment writings.
Like the revolution itself, Thompson’s writings were, in large part, a reaction to what he saw as the hypocrisy and decadence of American life. As early as his high school days, and perhaps even earlier, Thompson had learned, according to a classmate, that the people who were in the establishment, the power structure, were not all that impressive.” This concept developed into a loathing of the establishment itself, societal structures and beliefs that had given rise to the American dream which, in Thompson’s view, boiled down to a license to steal.”
While many adherents of the 1960s social revolution expressed themselves with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, Thompson channeled his disillusionment into a revolutionary style of writing: Gonzo journalism.
In 1964, Thompson was commissioned by the editor of the Nation to write a story on Hell’s Angels, a motorcycle gang accused of viciously raping two teenage girls during a Labor Day rally. The resultant article grabbed the attention of publishers, who sent letters with offers to pay Thompson to write a book. Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs was published in March 1967, selling about 40,000 copies; the paperback followed in 1968. Reviews of the book show that it broke away from familiar, objective reporting methods, and demonstrated Thompson’s entry into the realm of what he would call Gonzo.
Gonzo journalism was an offshoot of a more broad-scoped journalistic movement: the New Journalism movement, of which Thompson is also considered a member. New Journalism applied certain techniques of fiction writing such as stream-of-consciousness, extended dialogue, and detailed characterization to traditional reportage. An outgrowth of the 1960s belief that everything was relative, this more objective style of reporting changed American journalism forever. As with most things, however, Thompson took New Journalism further. He experimented with more modern fiction techniques, such as stream-of-consciousness, collage, and exploded syntax, to create a style of writing that few or none have ever been able to imitate.
Hell’s Angels, the first example of this kind of writing, brought the twenty-six-year-old Thompson a degree of notoriety—and a steady stream of writing offers. In 1968, Pageant magazine sent him to the New Hampshire primary to write about the political comeback of former vice president Richard Milhous Nixon, then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. In Presenting: The Richard Nixon Doll (Overhauled 1968 Model),” published in July, Thompson called Nixon a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad.”
A Home Base in Colorado
In 1967, Thompson, Sandy, and their three-year-old son Juan moved to Aspen, Colorado, where Thompson bought a house and approximately 120 acres for $75,000. ”Owl Farm” at Woody Creek, five miles northeast of Aspen, became the base for his freelance forays and retreat for the next 30 years.
Soon after settling in Aspen, Thompson was assigned a freelance article about the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly. Thompson’s article, ”The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” (June 1970) unleashed his pent-up rage at the bigoted, chauvinistic, and caste-bound culture of his hometown. A few days after the story appeared, Thompson began getting phone calls and letters from around the country calling the article a journalistic breakthrough.
During the following decades, Thompson contributed over 30 articles to the fledgling Rolling Stone magazine, including an article investigating the 1970 death of Chicano journalist Reuben Salazar, which would ultimately lead to the Vegas getaways that inspired his hilarious and widely acclaimed masterpiece, Tear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.
Thompson’s next book-length treatise of Gonzo journalism, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, appeared only one year later and gave the writer an opportunity to vent his disgust with the establishment against the man who had been in charge of it for the past four years: President Richard Nixon. His goal of preventing Nixon s reelection was not a success, but the book was. By 1974 Thompson had gained a measure of celebrity status.
Columns and Collections
Sandra Conklin Thompson and Hunter S. Thompson filed for divorce in February 1979; the divorce became final in 1981. Thompson’s The Curse of Lono was published in 1983. The book, dedicated to Thompson’s mother, Virginia Ray Thompson, sold 200,000 copies in ten years.
Over the next few years, publishers, such as William Randolph Hearst III, commissioned Thompson to write columns in an effort to boost circulation. Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s (1988) collects the columns published between December 1985 and March 1988. In many of the articles, he attacked politicians for their deception and betrayal with a parody of biblical prophecy.
Another anthology, Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream; Gonzo Papers, Volume Three (1990), collected excerpts from his unpublished novels Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary and previously published articles interspersed with autobiographical commentaries on incidents in his career. The book concludes with a twenty-five-page section, ”Welcome the Nineties: Welcome to Jail,” that describes his arrest and indictment in 1990 for third-degree sexual assault and possession of controlled substances (LSD, cocaine, and marijuana) and incendiary devices (blasting caps and dynamite).
In the 1990s, Thompson’s writing career seemed to be winding down. Better than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie; Gonzo Papers, Volume Four (1993) was ”his final book on politics,” its dust-jacket copy stated. Newsweek proclaimed him ”the wise old hipster” who had become ”officially respected—if not quite respectable with the publication of a Modern Library edition of his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which ranks among the classics of the American literary canon.
Acceptance by the establishment, however, whether in publishing or politics, was never what Thompson had sought. After publishing his ”long lost novel” The Rum Diary in 1998 and two collections in the new millennium, he took his own life at his home in Aspen, Colorado, on February 22, 2005.
Works in Literary Context
Rising to prominence in the mid-1960s as one of the creators of New Journalism, Hunter Thompson went beyond the boundaries of the genre and developed a style of writing that he called ”Gonzo journalism. He combined the techniques of both traditional and contemporary fiction with reporting techniques, exploding the conventional belief that a reporter should be neutral. Also, unlike the more mannered writings of his contemporaries Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote, Thompson s Gonzo writings rely on vituperation, or sustained and bitter condemnation, to parody current events and satirize American culture.
While Thompson is credited with developing a style of journalism all his own, its roots belong to the New Journalism movement that arose in the United States in the 1960s. In New Journalism, much of the objectivity and impersonality of standard journalism is abandoned; the voice of the author is clearly heard, and sometimes the author even becomes a character in the article or book (as, for example, does Thompson in Tear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Since many authors of this style also write fictional works, they often employ numerous literary devices in their journalistic efforts, such as flashbacks and the invention of imaginary characters.
Thompson’s colleagues in New Journalism essentially revolutionized journalism by applying the literary conventions of the eighteenth century to modern reportage. The movement’s founder, Tom Wolfe, believed that more modern fiction techniques had no place in journalism. Thompson disagreed. He applied innovative methods such as stream-of-consciousness, exploded syntax, and collage to create one of the most unique American prose styles ever written. Thompson’s writings have been classified both as journalism and as fiction. This incongruity has created much critical controversy, and has occasionally served to discredit the authenticity of Thompson’s insights. Nevertheless, most critics consider Thompson’s work original and perceptive.
Works in Critical Context
Thompson is generally regarded as a highly original writer whose often-imitated style and viewpoint have earned their place in the American literary canon. His use of literary devices usually reserved for black-humor fictions creates a result that critic John Hellman has called ”journalism which reads as a savage cartoon.” The word ”savage” appears frequently both in Thompson’s work and in critiques of it, as if the word somehow expressed the essence of Thompson himself—and no wonder, since his work dissolves the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, biography and autobiography.
The Fear and Loathing Books
His best known and probably most accomplished works, Tear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail display the techniques Thompson employed to create Gonzo journalism. To overcome the tension between his own background and that of the subjects he wishes to explore, Thompson develops a persona to serve as both narrator and protagonist. According to Hellman, ”The persona is a paradox of compulsive violence and outraged innocence, an emblem of the author’s schizophrenic view of America.” It allows the narrator to parody America’s impulses to violence and paranoia while remaining untainted by them.
While the device may have enabled Thompson to develop an entirely new perspective on American life, some critics believe that it obstructs the writer’s message. It sets up an ”us-versus-them” mentality that forces the reader either to accept Thompson’s thesis completely or to side with the people he attacks. ”The thesis of Loathing is that Hunter Thompson is interesting,” states critic Wayne Booth in his comparison of Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and Theodore White’s The Making of the President. ”At his best, he can cover a lot of ground fast, and he can be both vivid and very funny. . . . At his worst, Thompson reads like a bad parody of himself.”
- Klein, Joe. ”Forever Weird.” The New York Times, November 18, 2007.
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