Hunter S. Thompson's World of Fear and Loathing
Profile of a leading journalist who made a significant contribution
to the contemporary world
by Talena Rose Brayer (Talenarose)
Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) began his journalistic career as a
sportswriter before taking various freelance jobs in American
newspapers and magazines, eventually finding work as a South America
correspondent for The National Observer. In 1960 Thompson wrote for
the Puerto Rican magazine El Sportivo before moving back to the
United States. Working as a caretaker at the Big Sur Hot Springs, he
comes up against one of his first accounts of persecution for his
work, after writing a piece on their bohemian culture for the
magazine Rogue, Thompson is fired from his position.
His personal style of writing, that derived from Tom Wolfe's "new
journalism," was labelled "Gonzo" (an Italian word for absurdities --
gonzagas) by Bill Cardoso. With this he left a mark on the world of
journalism; his three most acclaimed books being "Hell's Angels"
(1967), "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1971) and "Fear and
Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72" (1973). A fusion of fact and
untamed fiction that sought to provide a first-hand, subjective
account that conventional journalism could not, Thompson's work is
credited as the creation of Gonzo journalism.
It could be argued that the way in which Thompson wrote a lot of his
work is attributed to the New Journalism movement during the 1960's,
led mainly by Tom Wolfe. New journalism aimed to revolutionise and
break all the rules of traditional journalism, including features
like writing as if you are inside the head of a character or
documenting everyday events and details. Thompson has adopted many of
the features that are deemed to be part of this movement, but he has
made a positive contribution and a significant impact on it by taking
these features to a new level and putting his own spin on them. Thus
publicising an original branch to this wave of new styles, although
what he writes about is largely non-fiction he relies on satirical
devices to drive his point's home.
In 1965, Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation, gave Thompson the
opportunity to write a story documenting time spent with the
California-based Hells Angels motorcycle gang. After the article was
published in May of that year, several book offers came in and, as a
result, Thompson spent the next year living and riding with the
Hell's Angels. Unfortunately, the bikers suspected that Thompson
would profit from this experience and his writing and he was
punished. After demanding a share of the profits, the bikers punished
him with a brutal beating or "stomping" as the Angels referred to it.
He was quickly building a reputation as a leading journalist, with a
critic for The New York Times praising the book as an "angry,
knowledgeable, fascinating and excitedly written book, that shows the
Hells Angels not so much as dropouts from society but as total
misfits, or unfits -- emotionally, intellectually and educationally
unfit to achieve the rewards, such as they are, that the contemporary
social order offers."
After "Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw
Motorcycle Gangs" was published in 1966, the same reviewer also
praised Thompson as a "spirited, witty, observant and original
writer; his prose crackles like motorcycle exhaust." [Fremont-Smith,
Eliot "1967 Books of The Times; Motorcycle Misfits -- Fiction and
Fact," The New York Times, p.33.]
Desperate to correct the established view of Hell's Angels motorcycle
gangs, Thompson adopted a creative style similar to that of Tom
Wolfe, however he moulds this into his own personal style in order to
get closer to their way of life and the whole experience. A bold move
that many journalists would never have made, and still wouldn't
today. He wrote whatever he felt was the truth and in particular felt
the need for everyone to know about it regardless of patriotism, for
example one blurb reads: " ... a savage dissection of the American
Dream..." ["Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the
Heart of the American Dream Flamingo" 1993.] Thompson's lack of fear
and utter devotion to the pursuit of truth has left a positive
contribution on contemporary journalism; effectively he set a
standard for all who follow -- thoroughness. His significance being,
partly, the realisation and practice of the belief that objectivity
is not always imperative in journalism, as long as you uphold
journalistic justice to the subject(s) you are documenting.
Due to the success of "Hells Angels," Thompson was able to publish
articles in a number of popular magazines during the late 1960s, the
article "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" for Scanlan's
Monthly being the first to adopt his techniques of Gonzo journalism.
He later went on to use these techniques more recklessly. This
resulted in the book for which he is most remembered, "Fear and
Loathing in Las Vegas." A product of his drug fuelled trip to Vegas,
the book is a subjective account by a journalist named Raoul Duke
(Thompson's alter-ego) and was originally printed as a two-part
series in the November 1971 issues of Rolling Stone magazine.
Thompson's success was not, however, without danger and vilification.
Not only did the "stomping" from the Hell's Angels break his nose but
his work came up against an array of fierce criticism. It was
difficult for him to compete with the grandeur of previous work and
often he could not sustain his creativity, becoming an almost
imitator of himself. By the late 1970s he was receiving a barrage of
complaints that he was merely "regurgitating past glories" ["The
Great Thompson Hunt - HST & Friends" - Rolling Stone College Papers 1980.]
The greatest danger to Thompson's work was the problem that editors
faced when fact-checking his work, when the line between fact and
fiction was so blurred, "you knew you had better learn enough about
the subject at hand to know when the riff began and reality ended,"
[Love, Robert. 2005. "A Technical Guide for Editing Gonzo." Columbia
Journalism Review.] Renowned for documenting his harsh truths,
Thompson inevitably made many enemies and upset many people, one such
incident being his unflattering words on Richard Nixon after his
death, describing him, in Rolling Stone magazine in 1994, to be a man
who "could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time."
According to Thompson: "The true Gonzo reporter needs the talent of a
master journalist, the eye of an artist/photographer and the heavy
balls of an actor." Leading the Gonzo way, he would rarely proofread
his work and often sent editors copy straight from his notepad. This
gave a rough, unabridged style to his work, which has significantly
left a mark on the world of journalism. His articles are often
surreal and full of, most likely drug crazed, ramblings. Still, they
make for an interesting read and a form which countless contemporary
journalists have tried to recreate. Tom Wolfe described this on a
blurb for one on Thompson's books: "There are only two adjectives
writers care about any more... 'brilliant' and 'outrageous' ... and
Hunter Thompson has a freehold on both of them." ["Fear and Loathing
in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream
As an outlaw journalist who never played by the rules, Hunter S.
Thompson paved the way for contemporary journalists to have more
involvement in their stories and allowing the readers to, therefore,
grasp a better sense of happenings and situations. Gonzo journalism
is a highly subjective form of reporting where the journalist will
witness an event and quickly after document it, this is hugely
significant to current journalism because it allows articles to be
quickly deciphered into fact or opinion.
Hunter S. Thompson has, therefore, contributed, to the world of
contemporary journalism, a style of writing that is true to the
inevitability of human nature. On every non-fictional event the
reader will form a bias, and Thompson merely writes to this effect
without promising to be anything else. For example when he called
Richard Nixon a "walking embarrassment to the human race" [Thompson,
"Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72" Grand Central
Publishing 1985] this was clearly the writer's personal opinion, but
it is revolutionary style, still significantly used today, in which
the reader is left to decide whether to agree with the statement or not.
In 1970, Cardoso (editor of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine) wrote
to Thompson praising the Kentucky Derby piece in Scanlan's Monthly as
a breakthrough: "This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start,
keep rolling." As clear a statement as any that Hunter S. Thompson
was, in fact, responsible for the entire Gonzo style, without which
we probably wouldn't have as much freedom within magazine writing
today and endure a much more rigid and restricted style to
investigative journalism. His work received considerable critical
acclaim, including the New York Times critique as "by far the best
book yet written on the decade of dope." [Woods, Crawford, 23/07/72
The New York Times Book Review.] This kind of mainstream success
introduced his unique techniques to the masses and made the public
aware of different styles of writing.
The final determination on whether Hunter S. Thompson is really a
significant journalist and whether he has made any positive
contribution to contemporary journalism can be drawn from his legacy.
His style of writing being one of the main contributing factors; he
managed to integrate a blur between fiction and non-fiction that
would steer away from the previously objective form of journalism. He
made it more acceptable to write features in the first person whilst
adding his own feelings and experiences to the "story" he was
attempting to follow, a device which is still used in many magazine
features today. This kept the article flowing and unique, a factor
important to the writer's legacy as a "leading journalist."
The publisher of New York World described journalism as an
"institution that should always be drastically independent, never be
afraid to attack wrong..." [Pulitzer, Joseph 10/05/83, "The Proud
Highway: The Fear and Loathing Letters Volume 1 1955-1967,"
Bloomsbury Publishing 1997.] Thompson was one of the few journalists,
at the time, who achieved this and made it possible for future
writers to be more bold in their search for the truth. Before him,
"Journalism...had become far too professionalized," reporting that
"discourages honesty, self-expression or self-inclusion..." [Grueter,
Mark. "There's Always Smack, A Review of Fear and Loathing on the
Campaign Trail '72" Grand Central Publishing 1985,] conventional
journalism couldn't sufficiently cover subjects like political
stories because the trade was meant to remain objective and stick to
the facts, so Thompson's subjective work essentially turned this on
its head, allowing journalists the freedom to express the truth.
David Halberstam's foreword to the follow up of "Proud Highway"
reiterates Thompson's positive contribution to the world of
journalism, as a prize-winning journalist, he writes: "... [Thompson]
helps fill an immense vacuum in the world of journalism." ["Fear and
Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist
1968-1976" Bloomsbury 2000.]
Hunter S. Thompson may have been a product of Tom Wolfe's leading
journalism, but he is equally as significant for the way in which he
revolutionised an already iconic movement. He took the ideals of new
journalism and made them his, injecting himself as a participant in
the events and approaching articles with a humorous, colourful, and
often bizarre account. Thompson contributed to making journalism
entertaining, with Tom Wolfe himself calling the writer the "greatest
American comic writer of the 20th century" ["As Gonzo in Life as in
His Work: Hunter S. Thompson Died as He Lived" Wall Street Journal,
Opinion Journal 22/02/05.]
The impact on American society, in particular, was huge due to the
truths of society his style of writing sought out. He reached higher
truths than conventional journalism could, whilst encouraging others
to do likewise. Tom Wolfe once described Thompson's style as "...
part journalism and part personal memoir admixed with powers of wild
invention and wilder rhetoric." ["As Gonzo in Life as in His Work," 22/02/05.]
To argue that Thompson was not a significant and leading journalist
for his time would be pointless in light of the films, documentaries
and books that have been produced about his work and lifestyle. For
example the 1980 release of "Where the Buffalo Roam," a film
adaptation surrounding Thompson's early 1970s work, with Bill Murray
starring as the author and the 1998 release of the film "Fear and
Loathing in Las Vegas," with Johnny Depp as Thompson.
His impact on journalism was so influential it has led to no less
than "four biographies have been written about Thompson in the past
six years," [Brinkley, Douglas, "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign
Trail '72," Grand Central Publishing 1985.] Many publications adopt
the idea that he was in fact a leading journalist and his work was
imperative to the progression of contemporary journalism, one such
blurb reading "... an iconoclastic writer...it cements the author's
reputation as one of the great journalistic figures..." [Brinkley,
Douglas, "The Proud Highway: The Fear and Loathing letters Volume 1
1955-1967," Bloomsbury Publishing 1997.]
Without the work of Hunter S. Thompson, the ideas of Tom Wolfe may
never have seen as great a literary response or progressed to take
such a hold on journalism as it has in modern society. Investigative
journalism would also be seriously impeded, he opened the door for
subjectivity and journalist participation. His work effectively
suggested the best way to create anything interesting or fair is to
invent your own type of journalism.
He took new journalism into the mainstream public and got people
interested in less conventional styles. New York Times critic Herbert
Mitgang described this new "gonzo" journalism as being whatever
Hunter S. Thompson wrote: "Gonzo, his own brand of journalism ... No
one else gets credit for Gonzo journalism in the dictionary." ["Fear
and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72," Grand Central Publishing 1985.]
He has clearly left his mark on contemporary journalism. Leaving the
message to write what people actually want to read and giving
journalists the confidence to experiment and promote their own style.
Despite his encouragement, his legacy and significance is only
cemented by praise and statements from other writers that "he cannot
He clearly had something special in his fiercely subjective style;
critically acclaimed journalist David Halberstam is documented as
saying "... many young writer's ache to imitate Thompson's hyperbolic
style and maverick attitude, they nearly all fail miserably. There is
only one Hunter S. Thompson: an incorrigible, doom-haunted observer
whose dazzling prose and outlaw persona have made a distinctive mark
on our times." ["Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of
an Outlaw Journalist 1968-1976" Bloomsbury 2000.]
New generations are still reading his work, purely because there is
nothing else like it, and because it is some of the best political
coverage and insights into true American life. His legend and
reputation is still very much alive today.
Hunter S. Thompson Box Set Available Now
Los Angeles, CA (Top40 Charts/ Shout! Factory) - On October 28 Shout!
Factory will make available the previously unreleased Gonzo Tapes in
a newly produced collection titled The Gonzo Tapes: The Life and Work
of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, in concurrence with the Magnolia Pictures
film release of Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,
directed by Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney.
Legendary Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson knew from the beginning
of his career that he would one day be famous and so became a
dedicated archivist of his own writing, saving copies of all his
correspondence including personal letters, drafts for magazines and
books, angry letters to his editors, and even notes written on
But most important to Thompson was his tape recorder, which allowed
him to document his experiences as a participant rather than an
observer, often setting it down in a bar or hotel room to pick up the
mood and conversation, or to record what it was like spending days
speeding down highways with the Hell's Angels.
Recorded by Thompson between 1965 and 1975, these tapes capture his
thoughts and descriptions both as they're happening and in
reflection, as he would often go back to rerecord commentary.
Filmmaker Alex Gibney, producer Eva Orner and Gonzo archivist Don
Fleming were given permission by Thompson's widow to explore the
boxes of tapes stored in the basement of his Owl Farm home in Woody
Creek, Colorado, left behind after Thompson's suicide in 2005.
Fleming transferred the audiocassettes and reel-to-reel tapes to
digital files, and they made their way to the cutting room for the
film Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
Gibney, the producer/writer/director of the film who also made
'Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,' and 'Taxi to the Dark Side,'
writes in his introduction to The Gonzo Tapes, 'These tapes were pure
gold, lending an intimacy to the film that it couldn't have had
otherwise.' As Loren Jenkins writes in the notes that accompany The
Gonzo Tapes, 'The idea that these tapes will now be made available to
the public to help reveal some of what went on behind the Gonzo
screeds is something I believe Hunter would delight in if he were
still alive today.'
The Gonzo Tapes features original cover artwork by Gonzo artist Ralph
Steadman, an introduction by film director Alex Gibney, an essay by
journalist and Thompson's fellow foreign correspondent Loren Jenkins,
and notes by The Gonzo Tapes producer Don Fleming, former front man
of the Velvet Monkeys and Gumball who has produced Sonic Youth, Alice
Cooper, Hole, and more.
Disc 1 of the 5-CD set is titled 'Hell's Angels,' and includes
Thompson's notes from a year of riding with the infamous biker gang,
an unprecedented feat from which Thompson made a name for himself and
which famously became a book. Discs 2 and 3 contain the notes that
materialized as his well-known novel Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas,
and eventually of course a major motion picture.
Disc 4, titled 'Gonzo Gridlock 1973-1974,' captures Thompson in the
years following the completion of his book Fear And Loathing: On The
Campaign Trail '72, recording his thoughts for a new novel, drafts of
a never published Rolling Stone story involving Fear and Loathing
cohort Oscar Acosta, a cocaine-fueled never-written assignment from
Rolling Stone on a book titled Cocaine Papers: Sigmund Freud, as well
as notes and an argument with Ralph Steadman during a 1974 trip to
Zaire where he was to report on the legendary 'Rumble In The Jungle'
between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali for Rolling Stone, and which
he skipped for a swim in the hotel pool.
Disc 5, titled 'Fear and Loathing in Saigon,' finds Thompson
traveling to Vietnam just days before the fall of Saigon in 1975,
where, armed with a cooler of beer and wearing Bermuda shorts and a
Hawaiian shirt, he rode to the front line and observed the final
major combat action of the war. The day before Saigon fell Thompson
left for Laos to work on a story he had in mind about CIA concentration camps.
Shout! Factory is a diversified entertainment company devoted to
producing, uncovering and revitalizing the very best of pop culture -
The Stuff You Grew Up On But Never Outgrew. Founders Richard Foos,
Bob Emmer and Garson Foos have spent their careers sharing their
music, television and film faves with discerning consumers the world
over. Shout! Factory's DVD offerings serve up classic, contemporary
and cult TV series, riveting sports programs, live music, animation
and documentaries in lavish packages crammed with extras. The
company's audio catalogue boasts Grammy-nominated boxed sets, new
releases from storied artists and lovingly assembled album reissues.
These riches are the result of a creative acquisitions mandate that
has established the company as a hotbed of cultural preservation and
commercial reinvention. For more on Shout! Factory, visit
Disc 1 - HELL'S ANGELS
Bass Lake Run... Terry The Tramp Interview No 1... Driving Back
Through Oakland... The Merry Pranksters Welcome The Hell's Angels...
It's A Long Dirty Story... Ha-Ha, Not Thump-Thump... Terry The Tramp
Interview No 2... Zing Zong Wing Ding Rush... A Question For The Ages
Disc 2 - FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS
We Have Seized The High Ground... One Toke Over The Line... If All
Else Fails We Must Get Ether... In Search Of The American Dream...
Terry's Taco Stand, USA... Anybody In Search Of The American Dream
Needs A Lawyer, A Doctor And A Bodyguard
Disc 3 - MORE FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS
Goddamn! This Monster's Licking My Arm!... Oscar Fled In Terror...
Drug Up... Weird Road... Across This Treacherous Sand... A Huge Tidal
Wave Will Come In On Me Now... Vegas D.A. Final Notes... The Whole
Room Is Total Chaos... Wenner Calls... With A Big 'W' in 65-Pt Type
Disc 4 - GONZO GRIDLOCK 1973-1974
Guts Ball... Cozumel... Fear And Loathing In Acapulco... Freud
Cocaine Papers... Fear And Loathing In Kinshasa
Disc 5 - FEAR AND LOATHING IN SAIGON
I'm The One That's Supposed To Be Crazy... Hotel Continental
Palace... The Thursday Night Panic... Last Stand At Xuan Loc... Hong
Kong... The Last Dispatch From Saigon