"The true voice of [Hunter S.] Thompson is revealed to be that of American moralist — one who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him." - Hari Kunzru
Journalist, renegade, druggie, booze-hound, professional troublemaker, an anti-hero whose only weapons were a typewriter, an array of uppers and downers and a raw hatred for Richard Nixon — Hunter S. Thompson was one of the most important figures in both a literary sense and a political sense.
I've had a hard time writing this. There's so much to say about Thompson, and I want so badly to spew all the reasons why I love this man so much. I could give background information on him, explaining his strange saga, hoping that you find the appeal. I could fill this column to the brim with quotes, stamp and seal it with his bizarre daily routine and call it a day. You'd get the gist, and I assure you, you will be curious, if not enthralled with the great Doctor of Journalism. But that wouldn't do the man who revolutionized journalism any justice.
An avid reader, Thompson idolized F. Scott Fitzgerald — so much so that he taught himself to write by literally typewriting Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' — word for word, over and over again. He loved Fitzgerald's critique of the American Dream and the scam that is the way to make it in America — except when Fitzgerald got close enough to the establishment, he watched his step as he wanted to peek inside.
Thompson, on the contrary — well, he was going to throw a brick through the window and burn the whole thing down.
Thompson's story is tragic. He had a tormented mind but was a hell of a writer, and it blows me away that he isn't taught in schools. If not for his writing, then as an example of what happens when you live your life locked in a serious drug frenzy, tinkering on the edge of consciousness.
"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," Thompson once said.
Thompson lived his life with his feet dangling over the edge, calm and collected. Thompson's kick started his career flying down the centerline on his motorcycle, riding with and covering the Hell's Angels -- California's infamous outlaw motorcycle gang. This came to an abrupt end when Thompson saw an Angel beating his wife and dog to a pulp. He bravely walked over and is quoted to have said, "Only a punk beats his wife like that."
"You want some, Hunter?" the Angel said.
"No," Thompson allegedly replied.
But he did. Thompson was knocked on the ground, and when one Angel hits someone, they all must join in. Thompson was brutally beaten by several members of the gang and barely walked away with his life.
This portion of Thompson's life is relatively insignificant, but the reason I tell it is to show his passion for truth and righteousness. Thompson knew what was going to happen when he stood up to that Angel, but he did it anyway. A major lesson to be learned for not just journalists reporting the truth, but for anyone who is afraid to stick up for what they believe is right in the face of adversity.
"Never turn your back on fear," Thompson once said. "It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed."
What Thompson is really known for is creating Gonzo Journalism — a literary form that he created by mistake. Gonzo Journalism came to life after Thompson reported on the Kentucky Derby, but was so bashed that he botched the initial assignment, he strayed from the conventional form of journalism and wrote a subjective piece on the hideousness of upper society in his 7,200-word article, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved."
Thompson was a patriot and held a great deal of optimism for America. Stuck between the moral pressures of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, Thompson was at the heart of the most cataclysmic events of the 1960s, including the 1968 Chicago riots, where he watched the American Dream club itself to death.
It was at this point that Thompson had lost hope — the fiery rage among the people had died, and the sense of revolution had collapsed. Perhaps the spirit died along with leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. or former President John F. Kennedy, or perhaps it died with the music of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Maybe it was former President Richard Nixon, having American society grasped firmly in the palm of his hand, squashing all sense of hope. Whatever it was, it took a little piece of Thompson with it.
"Freedom is something that dies unless it's used," Thompson once said.
"There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning..." Thompson wrote in his most famous book, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." "Now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-watermark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
In "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and another of Thompson's books, "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72", Thompson's voice was epitomized, highlighting the gonzo-style writing, a cross between literature and journalism in which the reporter is the main character of the story, rather than removed and unseen.
Thompson's personal and hilarious take on these events had the ability to shed light on the truth to the American people. Thompson would say that sometimes you have to be subjective to see the truth, and I firmly believe that. It's like Hans Landa says in "Inglorious Basterds," "I love rumors! Facts can be so misleading but rumors, true or false, are often revealing."
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However, this was the peak of gonzo journalism and Thompson's writing. I suppose the consistent use of drugs and booze caught up to him quicker than he thought — though he had a hard-charging, wayward spirit, he was not invincible.
He was eventually made into a celebrity, turned into a comic character named Raoul after his alter ego in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Raoul Duke. It must've been hard being seen as the drugged-up anti-hero Raoul Duke, and not Hunter S. Thompson. What a disrespectful way to portray someone so important to the 20th century.
Thompson's writings were often raw and foretelling. One of my favorite pieces of Thompson is his remarkably accurate essay following the collapse of the twin towers:
"The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for peace in our time, in the United States or any other country," Thompson wrote. "Make no mistake about it: We are at War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. It will be a religious war, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy."
The essay continues with more notes that proved to be true, as the country has been stuck in this war in the Middle East for so long that most of us have forgotten why we're even there.
The establishment he fought so hard to dismantle continued to burgeon, and his mental state continued to decline. Thompson grew dismal, dying by suicide in 2005 at the age of 67.
I wonder what Thompson would say about the events that are taking place now: the polarization of this country, the anger and rage and pointing fingers at one another ... I can't help but think that his words would unite us, or at the very least make us laugh.
Thompson may be gone, but his spirit lives on as he leaves us a blueprint — a reminder that the fight continues.
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