Reading from Left to Right


A Few Words of Appreciation for Hunter S. Thompson

by Joe Auciello


Journalist Hunter S. Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, committed suicide on February 20 at his home in Aspen, Colorado. Whether intended or not, Thompson chose a fate similar to a writer he admired. In 1962 Ernest Hemingway put a shotgun to his head; Thompson used a rifle. Like Hemingway at the end, Thompson was physically ill and depressed. Also, like Hemingway, Thompson was a self-mythologizing, larger than life figure who created a unique prose style that expanded the scope of American writing. And, by the time of their deaths, both writers had outlived their most creative years.

Thompson, creator and sole practitioner of “gonzo journalism,” represented the ultra-left of the 1960s inspired literary innovation known as the “New Journalism.” As practiced by writers like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, “New Journalism” defied the commandment of objectivity in reporting and instead placed the journalist’s experience and opinions at the center of the story. Thompson developed that method with a vengeance first in Hell’s Angels, the story of his personal experiences with that motorcycle gang, and then in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a drug-laden account of a “savage journey to the heart of the American dream.” Long a cult favorite, this book achieved classic status when in 1998 it joined the Modern Library series in a hardcover reprint. A newly issued paperback edition is currently on the New York Times bestseller list.

Thompson’s writing style was blunt, scatological, outrageous, scathing, and sometimes poetic, often in a stream-of-consciousness adrenaline rush. He showed that a flagrant display of opinion could be entertaining and informative, even more illuminating than the staid journalistic standards that seemed no longer adequate to chronicle the hurly-burly decade of 1965–1975.

Thompson developed a persona apparently fueled by prodigious consumption of alcohol and drugs and spoke proudly of such habits. His public image may well have – must have!—been exaggerated, but that image did accurately reflect Thompson’s chemically charged life.

Thompson told his audience the truth as he saw it and as they felt it. Hardly a youth himself, Thompson nonetheless brought the values of “youth culture” to political reporting as head of the “National Affairs Desk” at Rolling Stone magazine. 

In the 1960s and 1970s books like Theodore H. White’s reverential Making of the President series dominated political reporting. White, and most journalists, wrote as if the candidates for president were all candidates for Mt. Rushmore. Thompson knew better.  He, instead, wondered aloud, “How low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?” With a brazenly aggressive voice, Thompson treated the contemptible with contempt.

As a reporter of politics, though, Thompson presented little in the way of analysis. He was surface, not depth; mood, not idea. He could acknowledge the flaws of the American political system, but he nonetheless naively hoped that personalities could fix America’s ills. Here he justifies his support in 1972 for George McGovern over Richard Nixon: “There may not be much difference between Democrats and Republicans; I have made that argument myself—with considerable venom, as I recall—over the past ten months… But only a blind geek or a waterhead could miss the difference between McGovern and Richard Nixon. Granted, they are both white men; and both are politicians—but the similarity ends right there, and from that point on the difference is so vast that anybody who can’t see it deserves whatever happens to them if Nixon gets re-elected due to apathy, stupidity, and laziness on the part of potential McGovern voters” (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, p. 396).

Yes, in personal character, McGovern and Nixon were quite different. McGovern, for instance, appears not to have been a habitual liar, a crook, and an anti-Semite. But their difference is the least important of points. Both men were faithful servants of the same political system, and, in politics, that is what is decisive. The wounded idealist in Thompson did not permit him to recognize the distinction.

The fatal flaw of the “but this election is different” argument is that it is hauled out, dusted off for every election, and each time sold as new. It’s the perennial, last ditch plea of desperate Democrats. Who hasn’t heard it all before? At least, Johnson isn’t Goldwater; at least, McGovern isn’t Nixon; at least, Carter isn’t Reagan; at least, Kerry isn’t Bush. But if every electoral match-up is special, then none of them are. The names change, but the choices are the same: Bad or Worse. Pick one. It’s the politics of the lesser evil. For all the radicalism of Hunter Thompson’s style, his political views were merely run-of-the-mill, left-wing Democrat. Eventually he drifted with the tide. By 2004, Thompson, like any conventional Democrat, denounced Ralph Nader and supported “my man John Kerry.”

The limitations of Thompson’s political criteria made him less significant as his opinions seeped from the margins into the mainstream. Acceptance lessened his appeal. No longer was it original or daring to write that the president “represents that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise,” as, in 1972, Thompson wrote of Nixon. Denouncing George W. Bush as “a treacherous little freak” who, in the first 2004 presidential debate, “talked like a donkey with no brains at all,” merely heated up the rhetoric of respectable liberal editorial opinion from mild to medium.

Ultimately, though, Thompson’s ideas were not vital. It was Thompson’s writing style and tone that won admiration from readers, especially other writers, though most knew better than to try and imitate him directly. On the “Counterpunch” web site, the left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn wrote appreciatively of Thompson as someone who showed the liberating possibilities of American prose. This tip of the hat seems unexpected. It is something like discovering that the uncle whose intelligence and sensibility you have always respected spent the 1970s in an ashram chanting “Hare Krishna.”

The affect of Thompson on Cockburn is hard to recognize at first. Cockburn’s style, a sharpened needle to the jugular kind of wit, rests on a few hundred years of English literature, including, but not limited to, its great satirists. Cockburn’s collection of writings, The Golden Age Is Within Us, includes chapter headings that derive from Milton in Paradise Lost. Thompson, whose sarcasm is more like… well, a shotgun blast to the head, evolved from the Mark Twain of “a pen warmed up in hell.” Though he could cite the Book of Revelations, Thompson was more likely to quote rock’n’roll. Still, Thompson’s overall ethos—“a slap in the face of public taste”—to cite an earlier group of self-styled literary outlaws, would be delightfully appealing to any political commentator, Cockburn included.

But what to make of Thompson’s death? Thompson had long entertained thoughts of suicide. Writing the “Author’s Note” to a collection of his journalism—which, for most people would be a celebratory occasion—he said, “I feel like I might as well be sitting up here carving the words for my own tombstone,” and then imagined the jump out from the office building where he was writing onto Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. He concluded, “I would genuinely love to make that leap…”

Writers from all points of the political spectrum have criticized Thompson for resorting to suicide. Certainly his death caused pain to his family. But it might be better to quote from his book, The Great Shark Hunt, and say of Thompson what Thompson said of Hemingway: “He was an old, sick, and very troubled man, and the illusion of peace and contentment was not enough for him…So, finally, and for what he must have thought the best of reasons, he ended it…”