Hunter S. Thompson

The American journalist Hunter Stockton Thompson (born 1939) was known as one of the best examples of "Gonzo" journalism. His political and cultural criticism of the United States in the 1970s was largely a series of tales flowing from his eccentric personality and adventures.

Born July 18, 1939, in Louisville, Kentucky, Hunter S. Thompson was the son of Jack and Virginia (Ray) Thompson. His father was an insurance agent. After attending public schools, Thompson joined the Air Force, where the two major tendencies in his life were soon revealed: writing and outrageous behavior. Stationed in Florida, he became a sports reporter for the base newspaper. In 1958 he received a dishonorable discharge after an officer claimed his disregard for military dress and authority was having a bad influence on other airmen.

After being fired from jobs with a small New York newspaper and TIME magazine, Thompson went to Puerto Rico and wrote briefly for a bowling magazine. Returning to the United States in 1960, he traveled to California where he settled in Big Sur and wrote a novel that was never published. In 1961 he left for South America and wrote lengthy stories for the Dow Jones-owned weekly, The National Observer. In 1963 he returned again to the United States and continued writing for The National Observer on such topics as Indian fishing rights in Washington state. He quit the publication in 1964 when they wouldn't let him cover the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, California.

Settling in San Francisco, he did odd jobs while working as a free-lance writer. He wrote a story on Berkeley student politics for The Nation magazine, but his big break came when an article for The Nation in May 1965 on the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang drew the attention of numerous publishers. He signed a contract with Random House and spent a year riding and living with the gang, which led to his first book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1966).

Thompson had always admired author Nelsen Algren, whose novel A Walk on the Wild Side featured a marijuana-smoking country boy as a hero. Thompson's account of the notorious motorcycle gang was written in a conventional journalistic manner, but unlike the professional reporter, his personality resembled his subject. Thompson became a wild outlaw with a pen. As he said to one interviewer, "I've got a lot in common with the Hell's Angels. The main difference is that I've got a gimmick—I can write."

In the late 1960s he wrote for Ramparts and Scanlan's, two magazines that embraced his role in the counterculture. A story for Scanlan's in 1970 on the Kentucky Derby revealed the emergence of a full-blown persona and transformed Thompson's career. Experiencing writer's block, a drunken Thompson submitted only his disorganized notes, which focused more on himself than the race. Published intact and widely-acclaimed, Thompson's desperate deadline impulse gave birth to what was called "Gonzo" journalism.

Thompson found a home for his new style in Rolling Stone magazine. His first piece was entitled "The Battle of Aspen: Freak Power in the Rockies." A couple of years earlier, after facing police violence while covering the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, Thompson returned to his home in Aspen, Colorado, and ran for sheriff—unsuccessfully—on a "Freaks" platform.

His next assignment was to cover a motorcycle race and a national drug law enforcement convention in Las Vegas. The two-part story soon appeared as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), quickly heralded as a masterpiece of the New Journalism. The main topic was Thompson himself and his drug-induced, crazy adventures, written in a manic and comic style that defined his personal and literary reputation. His crazed persona, including such recognized trademarks as Hawaiian shirts, cigarette holder, and mirrored sunglasses, became the basis for Garry Trudeau's character Raoul Duke in the comic strip "Doonesbury."

In 1972 Thompson covered the presidential campaign for Rolling Stone and his articles were published as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973). The book contained some notable observations, such as being the first to predict George McGovern's nomination, but it was known more for his complete mockery of traditional reporting techniques. His utter lack of objectivity was often criticized, but Thompson, more than the candidates, was the real star of his writing, and some reporters envied his freedom. Said one television reporter, "After the revolution we'll all write like Hunter."

Thompson found it difficult to sustain a writing style in which his craziness was the real theme. He went to Zaire to cover the Muhammed Ali fight, but he contracted malaria and didn't write a story. He was in Saigon before the end of the Vietnam War, but only wrote a short dispatch. His last article for Rolling Stone was a piece on presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976.

At his peak, the eccentric Thompson was seen as one of the original prose writers of the 1970s who not only captured in writing but symbolized the disillusionment of an era. He was "America's quintessential outlaw journalist, " said one observer. His "Gonzo" journalism represented a new genre, but he also belonged to an older literary tradition beginning with Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

During the height of his popularity he became a cult figure and was solicited by such national publications as Playboy and The New Yorker. But, in retrospect, he was seen by one critic as "purely a creature of the fashion of the day" and a writer who ultimately undermined the promise of New Journalism through excessive self-promotion. But Thompson claimed he had little literary aspiration. He considered himself lazy and believed "writing is hard dollar." Journalism was a good way "to get someone else to pay to get me where the action really is, " he said.

A number of his early pieces were collected in The Great Shark Hunt (1979), in which he announced that the literary persona he invented was finished. In 1980 he worked on a film, "Where the Buffalo Roam, " about his adventures with attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta. In 1984 he published The Curse of Lono, a book about a trip to Hawaii.

In the mid 1980s he was living in the Florida Keys and writing a novel that introduced a new literary persona who expresses, according to Thompson, "a brutal attitude—antihumanist."

From 1985 to 1989 Thompson wrote a column for the San Francisco Examiner that was later syndicated to about 25 papers nationally. A second collection of writings, Generation of Swine: Gonzo Paper Vol. 2: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80's, appeared in 1988. Volume 3 of the Gonzo Papers was published in 1990 as Songs of the Doomed, a collection of snippets from 30 years of writing.

Thompson lived on a 100-acre farm in Woody Creek, Colorado, near Aspen, where he was known as a compulsive hermit with a fondness for drinking, loud music, and target shooting Chinese gongs with a Magnum .44. Thompson's greatest love was reported to be motorcycling. He loved to put his Ducati 900SP through its paces in Aspen. By age 50, Thompson had mellowed little and was charged with five felony counts of possessing drugs and possessing and storing explosives illegally, which were later dropped. He then resumed work on his big "sex" novel, Polo Is My Life.

Thompson's autobiographical Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was re-released in 1996 on the 25th anniversary of its publication. During the same year an audio adaptation of the work, narrated by Harry Dean Stanton, was produced by Margaritaville Records. Terry Gilliam (formerly of Monty Python) was tapped to direct a movie of the cult classic in 1997 with Johnny Depp in the role of Thompson.

Further Reading on Hunter Stockton Thompson

The best source on Thompson's writing style and personality is Thompson himself. His books include Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1966), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1972), Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973); The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (1979); The Curse of Lono (1983); Generation of Swine, Gonzo Papers Vol. 2: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the 80's (1988); and Songs of the Doomed (1990). Biographies of Hunter include Hunter S. Thompson by William Mckeen (1991) and When the Going Gets Weird: the Twisted Life and Time of Hunter S. Thompson: an Unauthorized Biography by Peter O. Whitmer (1993).

Thompson is featured prominently in Robert Sam Anson's story of Rolling Stone magazine, Gone Crazy and Back Again. His literary career is reviewed in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 23. A more critical assessment is found in an article, "How Hunter Thompson Killed New Journalism, " by Joseph Nocera in Washington Monthly (April 1981). Also see Peter Whitmer, "Hunter Thompson: Still Crazy After all These Years?" in Saturday Review (January-February 1984).