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The One and Only Gonzo Journalist: Hunter S. Thompson

Counterculture, Gonzo, Hells Angels, Hunter Thompson

As the Great Depression dissipated into the post-World World War II boom, the dawn of the 1960s signaled the arrival of radical social, political, and cultural change in the United States. While the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, and emergence of the counterculture highlighted the political controversy surrounding the nation at the time, a cultural renaissance soon replaced the traditions of art, music, and literature with much more experimental and alternative forms.

In a similar fashion, a new wave of journalism began to develop in the 1960s that abandoned the conventions of objective reporting and instead focused on the writer as an essential part of the story. As a member of the New Journalism movement, Hunter S. Thompson crafted a unique writing style that embodied the drugs, free love, and rebellion of the 1960s counterculture. Today, Thompson’s gonzo journalism no longer possesses the novelty that it once had more than thirty years ago, but his legacy as a countercultural icon continues to resonate with American popular culture.

My purpose here is not to simply recount Thompson’s life but rather to investigate the early perceptions of his unusual lifestyle and literary work as compared to his public image in contemporary American society. These various responses and attitudes then and now will ultimately demonstrate the impact that gonzo journalism had on American culture in the 1960s and beyond.

In the early 1960s, a group of young journalists and former novelists developed a style of factual reporting that expanded the boundaries of American journalism. Stemming from the work of Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s and Jack Kerouac in the 1940s and 1950s, Tom Wolfe pioneered this movement that would later be classified as New Journalism. The movement was born when Wolfe sent his editor an unstructured narrative letter in place of a more traditional news story.

Beginning in magazines such as the New York Herald Tribune Sunday edition and Esquire, the new journalists began to apply many of the literary devices that fiction authors incorporated into their own literature, including stream of consciousness, conversational speech, and the writer’s own feelings and beliefs. Some journalists and essayists experimented with other literary techniques, such as free association, italics, and exclamation marks, within their articles.

In his 1968 bestseller The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, Wolfe applies these techniques to describe the psychedelic world of the 1960s, meshing factual reporting with figurative language to generate excitement and emotion from his readers. In 1970, Wolfe published Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, a book discussing the inner details of the Black Panther Party and the American government’s poverty program.

Aside from Wolfe, other journalists and writers emerged in the public sphere that followed this growing literary trend, including Terry Southern, John Sack, Gail Sheehy, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote. These new journalists frequently wrote about controversial issues surrounding the country. Whether reporting on the counterculture movement, Vietnam War, or political turmoil on the home front, the new journalism style covered most topics assumed by traditional journalists.

Beginning his journalism career in South America, Hunter S. Thompson followed along the path of these new journalists by developing his own technique for writing, which he termed gonzo journalism. A style of reporting loaded with debauchery, drug binges, and violence-activities representative of Thompson’s own lifestyle-created the framework for his early magazine stories published in the National Observer and The Nation.

Applying these alternative journalistic methods to the novel, Thompson published his first book, Hell’s Angels, in 1967 after spending more than a year in San Francisco with the motorcycle gang. The book immediately received complements regarding Thompson’s unconventional style of reporting. Ralph “Sonny” Barger, president of the Hell’s Angels, praised Thompson for his way with words: “The guy is a hell of a writer. He’s very descriptive and knows how to put his verse together. He’s one of the great writers I’ve ever read.”

Many book reviewers admired “the stunt” behind Hell’s Angels and appreciated the details in the reporting. The New York Times Book Review acknowledged Thompson’s first major work for its diction and insight: “His language is brilliant, his eye is remarkable, and his point of view is reminiscent of Huck Finn’s. He’ll look at anything; he won’t compromise his integrity. Somehow his exuberance and innocence are unaffected by what he sees.”

As Thompson further developed his own genre of non-fiction literature, he soon resembled the spirit and ideology of the 1960s counterculture movement. In the early 1970s, Thompson became one of the most publicized writers of the era with his editorial pieces in Scanlan’s and Rolling Stone.

Using a bold and daring style, Thompson became one of the most talked-about writers of the era with his editorial, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” in 1970. While trying to complete the story, Thompson panicked and sent torn pages of notes to his editor. Thompson thought the Derby piece would be the last article he would ever see printed. However, the reaction to the article was extremely positive from the New Journalism community. After the article gained prominence, Thompson refused to ever work as a “straight” journalist.

Working for the newly-established Rolling Stone Magazine in San Francisco, Thompson ultimately pushed gonzo journalism into the public realm with his second novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, in 1971. In this non-fiction piece, Thompson presents a novelistic and personal approach to his subject that transcends the customary practices of American journalism. Applying fictional techniques to enliven his experience, Thompson narrates the story of Raoul Duke, the author’s pseudonym, who visits Las Vegas to cover a dirt buggy race but instead becomes consumed in a drug-frenzy with his Latino attorney from East Los Angeles.

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The account, which was first published in Rolling Stone, reflects on Thompson’s feelings about the passing of the 1960s and his search for the American Dream. Thompson realized that he could not separate himself from the story and that the only way to speak the truth was through his deranged, drug-induced experiences. Consequently, Thompson insisted that he always be a participant and the focus of the story. However, Thompson later considered the book a “failed experiment” because it violated one of the basic tenets of gonzo: no revision.

Many critics still believed that Thompson’s finished product had a genuinely spontaneous and impulsive feel. For instance, John Filiatreau of the Courier-Journal defined Thompson’s gonzo style as “the fusion of reality and stark fantasy in a way that amuses the author and outrages his audience.”

In his article “Hunter S. Thompson and the ‘New’ Journalism,” Louis Proyect conveys the essence of Thompson’s creation: “In Thompson’s case, this meant projecting himself as a major character in whatever he wrote about, from presidential politics to motorcycle gangs…Hunter Thompson’s packaging of conventional liberal thinking with purple prose has parallels with Norman Mailer’s post-1960s journalism.

Further analysis of Thompson’s approach to non-fiction writing has been documented in the academic world. Bruce-Novoa voices his own interpretation of gonzo journalism in “Fear and Loathing on the Buffalo Trail.” He explains that “gonzo journalism is a camera-eye technique of reporting in which the writer’s notes are published without supposedly editing. Objectivity, however, is not the ideal; the writer is expected to select details and interpret events…” Documenting his own personal reactions to the subject, Thompson discovered not just a literary style but a voice that rejected all the rules and conventions of traditional journalism.

As this new wave of outlaw journalism emerged into American culture, Thompson received strong and positive responses from initial readers. Many critics accepted Thompson’s gonzo style because it could be easily read as fiction. The New York Times Book Review commented on the distinct form of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “The form that reached apothesis in [Norman Mailer’s] The Armies of the Night reaches the end of its rope in Fear and Loathing, a resilience to sense that the author’s purpose is more moralizing than sadistic. He is moving in a country where only a few cranky saviors-Jonathan Swift, for one-have gone before. And he moves with the cool integrity of an artist indifferent to his reception.”

The New York Times Book Review refused to distinguish whether Thompson’s work was fact or fiction. Instead, these critics further complemented the book, recognizing its realistic depiction of the 1960s counterculture: “[This] is by far the best book yet written on the decade of dope gone by…. [It is] a custom-crafted study of paranoia, a spew from the 1960s and-in all its hysteria, insolence, insult and rot-a desperate and important book…the funniest piece of American prose since Naked Lunch.” The New York Times believed that Thompson’s book conveyed a sense of madness that was poetic, comparing it favorably to other journalistic works such as Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or Mailer’s The Armies of the Night.

However, Thompson’s most acclaimed book did not earn praise across the board. For example, the New Republic described Thompson’s work as “more hype than book,” a style produced from the road-writing traditions of Jack Kerouac without the same passion. These critics also argued that Thompson presents his characters in one dimension and the book lacks an overall sense of love. Some reviewers questioned the novel’s value and central purpose, believing that it only provided insights to the drug culture.

Still, for the most part, reviews of Thompson’s work often highlight Fear and Loathing as a classic 1960s countercultural piece of literature. By the mid-1970s, the American public had come to accept gonzo journalism as a respectable form of journalism and literature. With Thompson and Wolfe entering the realm of literary prominence by this time, more and more individuals began to identify with their work in representing the “Me Decade.”

While Thompson earned respect from the American public and literary critics in detailing his psychedelic, lunatic experiences, many of his colleagues in the political realm did not initially accept him. Specifically, when Thompson traveled down to Washington, D.C. to cover the 1972 presidential election campaign for Rolling Stone, the major heavyweights of the American press excluded him from the establishment. Many of the other reporters had not been familiar with Thompson’s work or heard of the magazine.

Over time however, these reporters began reading Thompson’s articles, admiring the audacity and truthfulness of his work. Thompson had an instinctive quality that allowed him to always find the action. To some straight reporters, he even became a hero.

In the end, covering politics was a success for both Thompson and Rolling Stone. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times supported Thompson for betraying “a profound democratic concern for the polity.”

Nevertheless, Thompson eventually divided critics when he blurred the lines between fact and fiction in his third novel, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. While many regarded the paperback to be a masterpiece in modern political reporting, the traditional journalistic community was angered by its publication.

Even though some critics rated the work as one of the best pieces on politics, others argued that the writing was not really about politics. Thompson continually praises Democratic candidate George McGovern throughout the text, but the reader does not learn anything about him. Moreover, some criticized Thompson because he did not attempt to understand the psyche of Richard Nixon.

Even with critics attacking gonzo journalism as a device for political reporting, Thompson’s book regularly received accolades from some of the finest American journalists, including Garry Willis, David Halberstam of the New York Times, and Pullitzer-Prize winner David Broder of TheWashington Post. By the end of the campaign, Thompson had conducted some of the most iconoclastic and effective political coverage in the history of American journalism.

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Following his coverage of the McGovern campaign, Thompson stayed with Rolling Stone to report on the Watergate affair and other political stories around the nation. In 1979, he published The Great Shark Hunt as a retrospective of his work. A jumbled and disorganized collection of work, the book became a major best-seller.

However, Thompson’s production of novels declined dramatically with the beginning of the 1980s. In 1983, he published The Curse of Lono, a book about deep-sea fishing off the coast of Hawaii and two years later joined the San Francisco Examiner as a columnist.

Even in his last few years, Thompson’s work was still powerful and effective. As Mikal Gilmore of Rolling Stone remarks, “nobody wrote as perceptively or presciently about the horrors of 9/11 in the immediacy of the event as Thompson did the following day, in his ESPN column.”

Although Thompson repeatedly tried to break away from journalism and strictly write novels, he gained most of his fame in the realm of nonfiction. For this reason, many scholars still consider him an important figure in American literature despite his lack of production over the last twenty years.

As the founder of gonzo journalism, Thompson has gained great popularity today among youth readers and college students for his distinctive style and outlook on the dope decade. While other alternative forms of journalism have yet to be distinguished in the twenty-first century, gonzo journalism has entered American popular culture in the last few years.

For instance, Terry’ Gilliam’s 1998 movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas placed gonzo journalism and its founder in the public spotlight for the first time. Starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, the film closely follows Thompson’s psychedelic narrative in the desert. In “A Devotedly Drug-Addled Rampage Through a 1971 Vision of Las Vegas,” New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden applauds the film for its ability to reveal “Hunter S. Thompson’s brilliant, ranting explosion of verbal psychedelia…with a fidelity to the author’s hallucinatory imagery that until now seemed impossible to capture in a film.”

In addition, Holden points to the direction of Gilliam for his accurate portrayal of 1960s psychedelia: “But here it is in all its splendiferous funhouse terror: the closest sensory approximation of an acid trip ever achieved by a mainstream movie and the latest example of Mr. Gilliam’s visual bravura.” This sort of public attention that the movie received from various media outlets has helped expose Thompson to a wider audience.

However, Holden notes that the film also has certain flaws, rarely giving “the book’s appallingly funny anecdotes room to breathe.” Other viewers disapproved of the film’s storyline and overall purpose. For example, popular film critic Roger Ebert calls Gilliam’s work “a horrible mess of a movie, without shape, trajectory or purpose-a one joke movie, if it had one joke.”

Ebert continues with his critical analysis of the film, disapproving of its repetitive nature and cluttered structure: “The movie goes on and on, repeating the same setup and the same payoff: Duke and Gonzo take drugs, stagger into new situations, blunder, fall about, wreak havoc, and retreat to their hotel suite.

While these illegal activities were accepted during the 1960s counterculture movement, many now in the American mainstream frown upon those that live such a reckless and irresponsible lifestyle as Thompson. Ebert’s clear dislike for the film’s subject matter and plotline ultimately reveals the gradual change in cultural attitudes among Americans over the last thirty years.

Still, all of these responses, positive or negative, have helped inform the public of Thompson’s legacy in more recent years. In some regard, producing the film reinforced the prominence of the counterculture movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Thus, Gilliam’s film has played a crucial role in introducing gonzo journalism and the 1960s counterculture movement to contemporary American society.

More recently, Thompson’s death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on February 20, 2005 brought more public attention to the movement of gonzo journalism and its founder. This shocking news restored many of the same acclaim that Thompson received throughout his journalism career, particularly during the early 1970s.

Major news organizations recognized the achievements of Thompson, reporting on his legacy as a pioneering American author and journalist. Headlines in multiple publications focused on Thompson’s unexpected death and recognized his accomplishments in American literature.

For example, Rolling Stone magazine dedicated the cover story of its March 2005 issue to Thompson, remembering the man who embodied the spirit and ideology of the magazine for more than thirty years. Featuring anecdotes from family, friends, and colleagues as well as his finest work, the magazine relives the maniacal life and times of Thompson. In the edition, a collection of articles from friends of Thompson reminisce about the author and express the power of his work. Pat Buchanan, a top aide to President Richard Nixon, recognized the skill and precision with which Thompson covered politics. He openly stated that “whether you’re on the right or on the left, you can appreciate talent-and Hunter was undeniably an incredible talent.”

Bill Dixon, who Thompson met in 1971 during the McGovern campaign, called the writer “the most insightful social and political critic I’ve ever known.”

Other recognized people in the American mainstream accepted Thompson as a credible and gripping journalist, claiming that he was always at the center of the action. Ed Bradley, a correspondent for CBS News and “60 Minutes,” applauded Thompson and, in particular, his political coverage of the 1976 primaries: “Hunter’s stuff was just amazing. I’d never seen someone write that way. He put himself at the center of every story but still managed to cut through to the heart of the political coverage…A lot of people overlooked how good a reporter Hunter was, because his work could get obscured by the life he led.”

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By including such uplifting and kindhearted comments, Rolling Stone does not frown upon the writer’s longtime affection with drugs, alcohol, sex, and violence, but instead, portrays Thompson’s life ultimately as a success. In essence, the magazine portrays the notion that there will never again be another person like Hunter S. Thompson.

Television networks, including CBS, CNN, and Fox News, broadcasted several stories on Thompson’s death, paying tribute to the writer’s successful career. CNN national correspondent Bruce Morton, who covered the 1972 campaign presidential campaign for CBS, remembered Thompson for his ability to craft an engaging and animated story. On CNN’s “American Morning,” Morton praised Thompson’s vivacious storytelling and unpredictable character: “He was also, it’s fair to say, a very good writer. You read his stuff in Rolling Stone magazine, and maybe it wasn’t what you’ve seen and maybe it wasn’t what had happened, but by golly, it was good stuff and it was fun…You just never knew with him. He was a free spirit and a gifted one.” These complements from Morton paint Thompson’s life and professional career in a positive light, revealing the respect that other journalists and mainstream media had for Thompson and his work.

In an Associated Press story, Paul Kressner, a radical journalist and one of Thompson’s former editors, summed up the writer’s life with this statement: “He may have died relatively young but he made up for it in quality if not quantity of years.

Other mass media outside of the United States even recognized Thompson in their reports discussing his sudden death. BBC News characterized Thompson as “an unflinching and acerbic chronicler of U.S. counterculture.” In other reports from BBC News, author Martin A. Lee commented on the significance of Thompson’s writing: “[Thompson] did bequeath a very significant body of literature and journalism. It is wonderful and exuberant writing that opened a cultural space for other writers to follow.

This recent outpouring of praise for Thompson reveals the public’s familiarity with gonzo journalism and the effect that the genre had on 1960s counterculture movement. By featuring Thompson’s death as a major news story, these major media outlets show the profound impact that gonzo journalism has had on American literature and popular culture.

In March 2005, gonzo journalists from across the country reconvened in Las Vegas at the National Gonzo Press Club to honor Thompson and carry out his mission. The National Gonzo Press Club currently consists of nearly 3,000 journalists that have continued to practice the principles of gonzo journalism. The organization, now in its thirty-fourth year, has had fourteen of its members receive Pulitzer Prize awards for their literary achievements.

NGPC President Gene Zolonga told his fellow gonzo writers: “It’s up to us to carry on the mentor’s vision and expose all in American life that is strange, terrible, bad, crazy, or bad crazy.” Zolonga’s words reflect the grave importance that Thompson has had on a particular breed of American society. While college journalism departments have been critical of gonzo philosophy and practice, the movement is still recognized today as a form of alternative journalism.

However, columnist Stephen Schwartz of The Weekly Standard questions how long gonzo journalism will remain in American popular culture after the death of Thompson. With few prominent writers practicing gonzo journalism, Thompson’s death may, in fact, have marked the end of the counterculture.

Robert S. Boynton, contributor for the Los Angeles Times, claims that the New Journalism movement has finally come to an end. Boynton asks his readers, “Has ever a literary movement’s demise been more frequently hailed than New Journalism’s?”

While critics like Schwartz and Boynton believe that the New Journalism movement of the 1960s has long been extinct, Thompson’s death signaled a point in time to remember the author and his strong influence on youth culture in the United States. Thus, the extensive press coverage following Thompson’s death more convincingly indicates the respect that the he garnered from a considerable proportion of American society.

Looking at both past and present perceptions of Thompson, political figures, celebrities, and news media largely point to the author’s literary strengths and his larger contribution to the field of journalism. While there remains a reasonable amount of writing about Thompson and gonzo journalism, the majority of literature discussing the journalist’s career has contained a positive tone. Furthermore, descriptions of Thompson in mainstream media often include positive portrayals of the author despite his rather raw and bizarre lifestyle during the dope era.

These different forms of media have ultimately formed the general perception that Thompson was a compelling and memorable figure over the past thirty years in American society. In this way, many of the public perceptions surrounding Thompson have not considerably changed from the 1960s to 2006-the number of positive comments continues to outweigh criticism or other negativity.

With his frenetic writing revolutionizing an alternative form of journalism, Thompson has continued to earn respect from the general public as a pertinent figure in American journalism and as an icon of the 1960s counterculture movement.