Hunter S Thompson wrote fiction, reported facts, philosophised, criticised, theorised, and cut straight to the heart of American culture. He was also the 'inventor' of gonzo journalism.
Gonzo* journalism is the reporting of facts from a personal perspective. The thoughts and attitudes of reporters have implications on how an event is reported, so they should write about their thoughts and feelings as much as the actual event.
Hunter S Thompson was born on 18 July, 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
His Brief Military Career
Thompson and two friends got into trouble with the law just over a week before he would have graduated from high school. His friends, being of wealthy families and having 'connections', got off with little or no consequence. Thompson himself was sentenced to 60 days in juvenile detention (reduced to 30 days for good behaviour) to be followed by enlistment in the Army. Instead he joined the Air Force.
Not surprisingly, however, he rebelled just as much against military regimentation as he had rebelled against any civilian restriction. After boot camp he was assigned to electronics school, which he loathed. 'His only way out of the less-than-exciting world of electronics would be to take a dishonorable discharge. But he didn't want such a heinous label following him the rest of his life. That isn't to say he didn't tempt fate.' [Perry 1, p.25]
He nearly did get thrown out, but several officers sympathised with the tortured but gifted young Thompson. And so he was honourably discharged in the fall of 1957.
Thompson had been an avid sportsman from childhood onward. He participated in local sports, attended every event in the Louisville area, and even organized an athletic league for children under 14. As he grew older he proved less talented on the field than he had hoped, but adjusted well by turning to sports writing. He was still only a boy when he first began writing sports columns for the Southern Star, a mimeographed paper edited by ten-year-old Walter Kaegi, Jr.
It was thanks to an opportunity in journalism that Thompson was able to escape the hated electronics school at Eglin Air Force Base during his brief enlistment. When the sports editor of the Command Courier, the base's newspaper, was busted for urinating in a public place, Thompson immediately applied for, and obtained, the position.
Author Paul Perry describes sports writing as the 'journalistic equivalent of being a dilettante' [Perry, p.26] but there is nothing to suggest that Thompson felt this way. He has demonstrated a life-long passion for sports, and has written about sports intermittently throughout his career. If anything, such a nomadic career admirably suits a man as ungovernable as Thompson; he simply could not remain confined for long, either at a classroom desk or in an office cubicle.
After his discharge, Thompson spent the tail end of the 1950s in South America working for various newspapers.
During the early 1960s he hung around with - and got into scrapes with - the Hell's Angels, he wrote books (including Rum Diary), and in 1964 he moved to San Francisco. Anyone hanging out in San Francisco during this period was going to meet some interesting people, and Thompson met them all, from Ken Kesey to Tom Wolfe to Allen Ginsberg. He also did some fun stuff, participating in Kesey's first acid tests, introducing some of his Hell's Angels friends to LSD... and, like many people in the 1960s counter-culture, experiencing at least one fundamentally life-changing moment.
Most people can look back on their lives and pick one momentous moment, a moment where their whole life turned on its axis and started spinning in a new orbit: if you'd gone into a different bar that day you wouldn't have met your wife, if you'd crossed the street 4.2 seconds earlier you wouldn't have been hit by that bus, that kind of thing. In June 1968, Thompson had one of these moments at the Chicago Democratic Convention.
At the time of the Convention, Hunter was a stringer for Scanlan's magazine and several newspapers, but it was speculative curiosity that led him to go to Chicago, and he walked unwittingly into the middle of the riot. The police ignored the press credentials hanging round his neck and set about him with their batons. He escaped a bad beating by falling backward through a plate glass window. Always a combative sort, Thompson was personally enraged by the behaviour of the authorities, but it would not be until the next US election that he became involved in political reporting.
By 1970 he was living in Aspen, Colorado, which at that time was the place to be seen by all the so-called movers and shakers (generally slimy Hollywood types, some greased-up greasy politicians and some of the worst sorts of hangers-on). There Thompson ran for sheriff, calling his ticket 'Freak Power', and he lost by only 500 votes.
This experience led to his own account of these events, entitled 'The Battle Of Aspen'. This was the first of his articles to be printed by Rolling Stone magazine, which still publishes his work today.
The piece of literature that he is most well known for it is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This is the apocryphal tale of Raoul Duke (aka Hunter S Thompson himself) and a wild weekend spent in Las Vegas. Thompson was originally sent to report on the Mint 400 motorbike race, but he ditched that idea to examine the American Dream, which he did, not through rose-tinted glasses, but through glasses heavily glazed with LSD. At the time Thompson claimed Fear and Loathing was his most accurate example of Gonzo journalism, but he later admitted that while the weekend took place, some of the events didn't. If you haven't read it, buy a copy. If you have read it, read it again. At the very least watch the 1998 movie of the same name, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp.
Fear and Loathing first appeared in Rolling Stone in two parts and it cemented the relationship between the magazine and Thompson. Shortly after the book was published Rolling Stone decided to make Thompson their political correspondent. He reported the Nixon v McGovern 1972 election from the heart of the McGovern campaign, and went on to write on many, many more articles over the years.
A Hunter S Thompson Bibliography
Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. New York: Ballantine, 1967. His first full-length book, and a solid popular success, Hell's Angels cleared up many of the myths and horror stories which surrounded the motorcycle outlaws.
'The Kentucky Derby is Evil and Depraved'. Scanlan's magazine, 1970. While not a stand-alone piece it is well worth citing for two reasons. First, it was the first partnership of Hunter's prose and Ralph Steadman's illustrations, and, second, it was the work which earned Thompson the sobriquet of 'gonzo'. He had in fact developed a serious writer's block and wound up filing his notes just before press deadline. But because those notes were so well-written and closely observed, they conveyed a coherent story.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was first published by Rolling Stone magazine, starting in 1971. It was based on two visits to Las Vegas on separate assignments, the first to cover the Mint 400 Motorcycle Race for Sports Illustrated, and then the National District Attorneys Association's Third Annual Convention on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (at the instigation of Rolling Stone). On both trips, Thompson took with him a radical and about-to-be-disbarred Chicano lawyer named Oscar Zeta Acosta, who featured in the final manuscript as a Samoan attorney and fellow debauchee. The story is a piece of psychedelia gone wrong, a tale of violent hyperbole, and it was a smashing success.
'Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72' was originally published as a series of articles by Rolling Stone Magazine.
The Curse of Lono. Ballantine, 1984. The book sold well, but contained comparatively little text by Thompson. Perry says that Ballantine padded out the book with excerpts from Mark Twain and Thomas Ellis, and published the book in what they called 'greeting card format', the better to highlight Ralph Steadman's copious illustrations.
Rum Diary. It can be regarded as a sign that a writer or artist has achieved master status when his/her early work, however unpolished, is published. Rum Diary, although not published until 1999, was written in 1959 while Hunter was living in Puerto Rico.
The remaining works listed below are compilations, of columns, magazine pieces, essays and letters.
- Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s. Random House, 1989.
- The Great Shark Hunt. Random House, 1991.
- Better Than Sex. Ballantine, 1995.
- The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman. Random House, 1998 (published in 1997 as The Fear and Loathing Letters).
Thompson committed suicide on 20 February, 2005 with a handgun at his home near Aspen, Colorado. A long time Football fan, he left a note titled 'Football Season is Over'2 which said-
No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun -- for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax -- This won't hurt.
Giving new meaning to the phrase 'going out with a bang', his ashes were put into a cannon and fired off into the sky.