Hunter S. Thompson – Rebel Journalist Hunting after the American Dream

Nathalie Weber

Hunter S. Thompson

Rebel Journalist Hunting after the American Dream

While the job of the journalist is usually not associated with fame and celebrity, there are a few – notorious – exceptions. One of them is, without a doubt, Hunter Stockton Thompson, who is renowned as much for his eccentric lifestyle as for his journalistic work. Born in 1937 in Kentucky, he moved away in his teens and led a life on the road before settling on his ”Owl Farm” on the outskirts of Aspen in the Rocky Mountains in his late 20s. While he is often reduced to his most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the associated culture of drugs, alcohol and guns, his story is a more complex one that stretches beyond the sphere of countercultural excesses into the political, social, and cultural realm and makes him one of the most profound analyzers of American culture and society. His waywardness lies precisely in his ambiguity: on the one hand, he seems like a classic young rebel constantly drunk and on drugs, on the other hand, he is a serious writer, politically engaged and very observant of his time and its social and political happenings. His writing reflects all these different sides of Thompson and of his fictional alter ego Raoul Duke, whom it is often difficult to separate from Thompson himself. It is precisely his innovative approach to writing that makes him an interesting character and wayward in the sense that he distinguished himself from mainstream society and produced lasting legacues in the literary and journalistic domain.

The most striking part about Hunter Thompson is that he does not fit in any stereotypical category; it is indeed very hard to grasp what he and his work is all about. He can best be characterized as a writer on the edge, both personality-wise and with regards to his written work. He himself appears as a rather unusual character. He always seems to move on the edge between sane and insane, but never quite losing it. While he does engage in heavy drinking and drug use of seemingly every existing kind, he does not let it show most of the time or let it impact his professional obligations. He does struggle with authority, has a tendency to hand in every writing assignment at the last possible minute, and is in general often hard to get along with, which results in him getting fired or voluntarily leaving the majority of his jobs. Nevertheless, his writing always seems to have enough appeal to his editors for him to get assignments and he persists in his aspirations.

What makes him as a person hard to grasp is the variety of his beliefs and his incredible power and willingness to defend them. On the one hand, he was part of the counterculture of the 1960s, on the other, he can also be read as embracing some profoundly libertarian ideals embodied by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. What he values above all else is freedom; and in many ways, he lived the life of a yeoman farmer up on his ranch in Colorado. Ralph Steadman, who served as an illustrator for many of his works, calls him ”a pioneer, frontiersman, last of the cowboys, even a conservative redneck with a huge and raging mind” (2). However,  far from apolitical, he began actively engaging in politics in 1970 when he ran for sheriff of his county on the ”Freak Ticket,” which attracted a number of his hippie followers to Aspen. Later, he covered politics more extensively in his articles and followed the candidates for the 1972 presidential election on the campaign trail for an entire year.

Image_1_thompson_gun

“Smith & Wesson Model 29. 44 Magnum.” Image courtesy of Michael Montfort, 1973.
Thompson’s relationship to guns is part of his ambiguous status. This picture was taken on his Owl Farm in Colorado where he lived for most of his life. It exemplifies his vision of himself as a yeoman farmer on his ranch along the lines of Thomas Jefferson, where he liked to shoot his own food. While he reflected critically on his own relationship to guns, he could never quite give up his passion and the freedom he associated with this lifestyle.

Thompson’s writing is similarly ambiguous to himself. It moves on the edge between fact and fiction, reality and the surreal. It is hard to detach Thompson from his writing. In many cases, it remains unclear whether his writing is about himself and real events that occurred to him, or if he made it all up. Because he considers a lot of the subjects he has to write about simply ”dull,” he ends up writing about his own experience while trying to cover a story. This makes it hard to separate his professional self from his personal self. Where does Hunter Thompson end and Raoul Duke begin? It is hard to tell if he himself knows the answer to that question.

Image_2_Letter_thompson_to_wenner_

“To Jan Wenner, Rolling Stone,” from Fear and Loathing in America


This letter from Thompson to his editor while he was on the campaign trail in 1972 shows how he doesn’t care about journalistic standards and conventions. He also does not hide his disillusion with the entire political system as well as the individual candidates. He bemoans that no-one has anything meaningful to say anymore, which is why he does not just want to be another journalist that writes because he has to but ultimately has nothing to say. His writing style is a rebellion against the dullness of his subjects.

He calls this new journalistic technique ”Gonzo journalism,” mainly because it sounds good. His writing style is largely influenced by his political views and his own disillusion with America and the failure of the 1960s culture. It is his way of rebelling against the political institution and everything that is wrong with it, in his eyes. He argues that American reality itself has become so distorted and absurd that he can only represent it by dragging his writing into the absurd as well. His writing thematizes the idea of the American Dream and the notion that you can find it somewhere. He sees possibilities for the American Dream in the hippie culture of the 1960s, but expresses a deep frustration and disillusion with American culture after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which was marked by heavy rioting and the escalation of police brutality, and, especially after the election of Nixon for president, whom he despised with all his heart. The new ”Gonzo journalism” he invents can be read as a ”response to the fear and loathing he felt for what was happening to the American Dream” (Bruce-Novoa 39). Thompson uses elements like wild exaggerations, distortions of reality and incoherent blabbering (obviously also corroborated by his alcohol and drug excesses) to reveal ”certain truths about human perversity” that can not be expressed by simply describing reality (Gibney). His writing becomes a parody of the American Dream and what is left of it. Especially Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas parodies (almost to the point of ridicule) the American idealist searching for an American Dream that has long made way for a reality shaped by decay and corruption. Las Vegas becomes the ultimate refuge for failed souls who didn’t succeed in the rest of America. While the hippie movement advocated the use of drugs to corroborate their ideology of peace, love and understanding, Thompson presents us with characters senselessly injecting everything they can find for no apparent reason except to get high. They become caricatures that desperately roam the Nevada desert to find some meaning, but fail to do so.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, dir. Terry Gilliam, 1998.

This is one of the only moments in the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Raoul Duke reflects upon the past, and he seems to speak for Hunter Thompson as well when he elaborates on the hippie culture of the 1960s. Very untypical for his character, he becomes almost nostalgic when he remembers that ”special” time that you just had to be part of, that now seems long gone. The wave has finally broken and backed down, and all that remains from the ideal of the hippie culture are the decrepit remnants and broken characters that Raoul and his attorney find in Las Vegas. 

In a way, they represent Hunter Thompson himself, so disillusioned in the end that he commits suicide at the age of 67. He has become a caricature of his own persona, himself confused about who he is and is supposed to be. He famously said in an interview that he’s ”not sure if they’re inviting Duke or Thompson […] so [he’s] not sure who to be” (Gibney) when invited to television interviews for instance. He has become a prisoner of his own persona and a victim of his fame. In his later years, he produces hardly any articles anymore along his own lines because it is difficult for him to work because he is recognized immediately everywhere he goes. The legacy of his early works, however, remains beyond his death.

Suggested Readings

Bruce-Novoa. “Fear and Loathing on the Buffalo Trail.” MELUS 6.4 (1979): 39-50. JSTOR. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.
McKeen, William. Outlaw Journalist. The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.
Steadman, Ralph. The Joke’s Over. Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson, and Me. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2006.
Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ´72. New York: Fawcett Popular Library, 1973.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Perf. Johnny Depp. Rhino Films, 1998. DVD.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Dir. Alex Gibney. Magnolia Pictures, 2008. DVD.

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This entry was posted by nathalieweb.

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