h u n t e r   s .   t h o m p s o n   ( 1 9 3 7   -   2 0 0 5 )

journalist   •   storyteller   •   drug fiend

WE DON'T HAVE MANY outlaw journalists anymore, many Doctors of the Weird, many jesters prepared to draw so deeply from the Book of Revelation—and there may be no man left, at this late date, with the tacky self-confidence to use a cigarette holder. Hunter Thompson is dead now, shot himself in the head at sixty-seven.

Thompson was a man who would discharge a foghorn in a crowded restaurant1, who would deliver the heart of an elk to a friend's doorstep in the dead of night2, who would open his home to a rabble of Hell's Angels, be evicted for and later beaten by the Angels, and still consider their leader a friend. His admiration (and his full-bore derision) knew no ideology; he discriminated not between those he agreed with and those he did not, but between the genuine article and the fake. He befriended both Pat Buchanan and Jimmy Carter, and his contempt for Hubert H. Humphrey ("There is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey is," he writes, "until you've followed him around for a while"3) was only exceeded by his loathing of Richard Nixon.

He was a writer, better than most in the gristle of the language. He was a sports writer who fell into politics, carrying all the bone-snapping, turf-churning language along with him. He was a novelist who didn't make it, who settled for journalism and then evolved his journalism into fiction. He was an icon, caricatured in various forms of media, and for decades he lived in his fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado, surrounded by firearms and peacocks and a bit of land of his own.

His stories weren't always factual, but he wrote the truth. He wrote fearlessly. His talent for the vulgar American language—for the kinetic string of verbs and intensely precise adjectives, for the unflinching attack and the all-but-hopeless lament—was unmatched in his generation. His signature phrase, "fear and loathing," was coined in a letter reacting to the assassination of John Kennedy. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his seminal novel, was a response to the death of the sixties, to the "place where the wave finally broke and rolled back." His journalism, at the peak of his career, was the journalism of the loser, of the man beaten down and squeezed out. His breakout book was an anthropological look at the Hell's Angels, an angry group of losers; Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, his first political book, catalogued George McGovern's catastophic loss to Nixon in the 1972 U.S. Presidential campaign.

Taking, I think, Eugene V. Debs's famous mantra to heart and George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London as a model, Thompson wrote of misfits from a perspective of sympathetic detachment. Later, finding his unique and now iconic voice, he began his angry, sorrowful eulogy for what Lincoln called "the last, best hope of earth." His reporter's beat, he said, was the death of the American Dream.

Thompson's work developed from what we could, in retrospect, call "straight" journalism—the inverted pyramid, the five "W"-s, the primacy of the story—to ego-driven, madcap rants. He created a branch in the field of journalism, became its only master, and as a reductio ad absurdum, destroyed it. But I think it would be a mistake to remember him for the extremes in tone that he eventually reached: throughout, it was Thompson's ruthless honesty and instinct for storytelling that won him his many readers. And the language, the incredible, visceral language.

Hunter Thompson was a journalist, he was a storyteller, he was an icon of a time now passed.

I feel like I might as well be sitting up here carving the words for my own tombstone . . . and when I finish, the only fitting exit will be right straight off this fucking terrace and into The Fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yards out into the air and across Fifth Avenue.
   Nobody could follow that act.
   Not even me . . . and in fact the only way I can deal with this eerie situation at all is to make a conscious decision that I have already lived and finished the life I planned to live--(13 years longer, in fact)--and everything from now on will be A New Life, a different thing, a gig that ends tonight and starts tomorrow morning.
   So if I decide to leap for The Fountain when I finish this memo, I want to make one thing perfectly clear--I would genuinely love to make that leap, and if I don't I will always consider it a mistake and a failed opportunity, one of the very few serious mistakes of my First Life that is now ending.4

"Authors Note," The Great Shark Hunt

b i o g r a p h y

Hunter Stockton Thompson was born July 18, 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky to Jack Robert Thompson and Virginia Davidson Ray. Hunter was a sharp, charismatic, confident, and often violent child—a leader, and someone not to be crossed, even at a young age.

Thompson was arrested a number of times during his teenage years for drinking and property destruction, and actually spent 60 days in jail for theft when he was seventeen, indeed graduating from High School while incarcerated. He later joined the Air Force, working as a sports writer for the base paper at Eglin Air Proving Ground in Pensacola, Florida. He was immediately dissatisfied with military life and began looking for a way out.

Eglin AFB, Florida (Nov 8) . . . a reportedly "fanatical" airman had received his separation papers and was rumored to have set out in the direction of the gate house at high speed in a muffler-less car with no brakes. An immediate search was begun for Hunter S. Thompson . . .

from The Great Shark Hunt

Thompson continued as a sportswriter after his honorable discharge, writing for the El Sportivo in San Juan, Puerto Rico. During this time, he began writing the as-yet unpublished Prince Jellyfish and his only published novel, The Rum Diary (published in 1999), and survived by writing freelance articles for a number of major newspapers (many about South America, which gained him a degree of respect in the national journalism community).

Thompson married Sandy Conklin in 1963, and moved to Woody Creek, Colorado—discounting a couple odd years in places such as San Francisco, Thompson spent the rest of his life there.

An article about the Hell's Angels that he wrote for The Nation led to a book length piece, and in 1966 Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga was published. This book brought Thompson fame, money, an a great deal of respect.

"The Edge. . .There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others--the living--are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later.

But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it's In. The association of motorcyles with LSD is no accident of publicity. They are both a means to an end, to the place of definitions."

Hell's Angels

Hell's Angels recounted Thompson's experiences while following the Hell's Angels bike gang around for nearly a year, from partying at campgrounds and bars (and even at Ken Kesey's farm, with a number of Beat icons like Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady—some of which is recounted in Ginsburg's "First Party at Ken Kesey's with Hell's Angels"), to eventually (and inexplicably) being stomped by the Angels.

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive...." And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: "Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?"

Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. "What the hell are you yelling about?" he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. "Never mind," I said. "It's your turn to drive." I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The term "Gonzo Journalism" was coined by a friend of Thompson's, Bill Cardoso. It described an extremely subjective form of journalism where the journalist (and all his suspicions and opinions and prejudices) are an immediate part of the story. At its best, Thompson intended the writing to be in-the-moment, to set down on the page exactly what occurs, when it occurs. Needless to say, this is a difficult task, and his most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was considered by him to be "a failed expiriment in Gonzo Journalism," as it was actually written after-the-fact (see this for an interesting, if flawed—for reasons just explained—dissection of Thompson's gonzo stylings).

The interesting paradox in Thompson's writings (or, that is to say, "Gonzo Journalism" in general: the term is synonymous with Thompson) is that his hyper-subjective style has allowed him, over the years, to cut to the truth much more readily than "traditional" journalists (see his dissection of the police psyche in Hell's Angels or in "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan"—the piece he had been writing when he rode out into the desert toward Las Vegas with his "300-pound Samoan Attorney," (Chicano Lawyer and activist Oscar Zeta Acosta, the Brown Buffalo, or as Thompson later put it "One of God's own prototypes—a high-powered mutant of some kind") or his characterization of Nixon as a thug and a thief long before Watergate).

Strictly speaking, Thompson hasn't been a particularly prolific writer—at least in regard to books. He's a journalist. Thoroughout his career, Thompson has written a steady stream of hard (often seething) articles for a great number of newspapers and magazines, especially for Rolling Stone (in which Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was first published, in two parts). The four "Gonzo Paper" books are basically anthologies of Thompson's articles. The two "Fear and Loathing Letters" volumes (one more is on the way, as far as I understand it) are anthologies of letters by, and written to, the good doctor. Discounting these, Thompson's output has been, well, Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, The Curse of Lono (which is currently out of print), Screwjack and Other Stories, which is perplexing to say the least, and which I would describe as a very short collection of short stories, and The Rum Diary, a novel that Thompson spent so many years writing.

There were a number of other books Thompson had planned to write (for example, he had signed a contract to write a book about Lyndon Johnson during Johnson's presidency, but the market dried up as Johnson announced he was not seeking re-election).

I wouldn't recommend sex, drugs or insanity for everyone, but they've always worked for me.


Thompson seems, throughout his career, to have had three main interests: sports, drugs, and politics. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is his drug book, basically, though I consider it, at its heart, a book about politics as much as any other—his search for the American Dream and his drug-crazed indictment of those who are destroying it. Hells Angels, come to think of it, is about nearly the same thing. But Thompson's third book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, is his total immersion into the realm of national politics. He follows George McGovern around for the entirety of his grueling (and ill-fated) presidential campaign.

Well, to put it simply, Nixon crushed McGovern. If Hunter S. Thompson ever had a nemisis, it would be Richard M. Nixon: after Nixon's death in 1994, Thompson wrote a seething eulogy in Rolling Stone titled "He Was a Crook". After Nixon's resignation, Thompson decided to dedicate his anthology, The Great Shark Hunt, to "Richard Milhous Nixon, who never let me down."

He has poisoned our water forever. Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest. But he also shit in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.

from "He Was a Crook"

Thompson has been a self-proclaimed political junkie ever since. He even ran for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, on his Freak Power ticket, narrowly losing after the Republicans and Democrats combined their support behind a single candidate.

Thompson and Conklin were divorced in 1980. He continued to write articles and publish books—Generation of Swine, his indictment of the eighties, in 1988; Songs of the Doomed, a career retrospective of sorts, including early work by Thompson, work at his peak, and contemporary work, in 1990; Better than Sex, Thompson's take on the 1992 presidential election, in 1994; and Kingdom of Fear, a sometimes brilliant but extremely uneven memoir, in 2003—until the end of his life.

Hunter S. Thompson shot himself, at his home near Woody Creek, Colorado, February 20, 2005.

Thompson was an American icon. He was one of those few writers synonymous with the style, the medium, in which they work. He will be remembered, I think, for the sharp success of his early journalism and the lavish and vastly entertaining failures of his later work. His role in the field was not a correction so much as an over-correction. He, in other words, shifted the writing professions, just not to where he himself stood.

b i b l i o g r a p h y

s e l e c t e d   m e t a n o d e

HST on E2

This writeup is undergoing a full revision; there are currently footnotes numbers in the text that have no corresponding footnotes and sources that have not made it into the listing of sources. — Simpleton 2005-03-24

  • http://www.gonzo.org
  • http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Lofts/5752/
  • http://www.ejeanlive.com/huntesq.htm
  • http://espn.go.com/page2/s/thompson
Hunter S. Thompson is one of America’s great off-color anecdotists. Though a genius for all forms of writing, much of Thompson’s staying power rests in his ability to rattle off those delightful sound bites. Thompson lines are the kind that you can quote to the delight of all your smartass friends or stick in your home node. One of my favorite of Thompson’s axioms tackles the nebulous field of journalism:

"Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits, a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo cage." -Hunter S. Thompson

This quote is particularly effective when plastered on the wall of a university journalism department or campus newspaper.

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