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Fear and Loathing and Admiration of Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing and Admiration of Hunter S. Thompson post image

Hunter S. Thompson is one of those writers a reader seems to either love or hate. I’ve never read Thompson for a number of reasons, but I always felt like I should if I planned to blog about literary journalism extensively.

A few months ago Care (Care’s Online Book Club) said she was starting her own John Cusack Reading Challenge, I was a little surprised to see Thompson’s giant book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 on that list. I mentioned I wanted to read the book too, and lo-and-behold a mini-read-a-long was born.

This post is a bit of a journalistic introduction to Hunter S. Thompson and the movement he was writing in. Care is planning a post introducing some of the big players and historical events in this book — a bunch of stuff I had no idea about — which you should look for soonish too!

The New Journalism Movement

The New Journalism movement has traces all the way back to journalists like George Orwell and Mark Twain, but really got it’s start in the 1960s and ’70s. Journalists at the time felt like the sort of straight newspaper reporting that had been done wasn’t adequate to really express what it was like to live during their time when the world was rapidly changing and so many cultures and subcultures were being born (Sims).

New Journalists wrote primarily for magazines, which gave writers like Thompson, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and others the space they needed to explore stories in depth without the same pressure for objective reporting that mainstream newspapers required.

Each of the main New Journalists had their own unique style, voice, and agenda in writing stories. Truman Capote, for instance, is known of his extensive reporting without note-taking and the invention of the nonfiction novel with In Cold Blood. Joan Didion wrote a number of personal but journalistic essays that looked at ideas of fragmentation and anxiety.

Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo Journalism

Of the New Journalists, Thompson is best known for “inventing” the idea and style of gonzo journalism,

[a] style of journalism which is written subjectively, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first person narrative. The style tends to blend factual and fictional elements to emphasize an underlying message and engage the reader.

One of Thompson’s more famous gonzo journalism books is Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs in which he paints a portrait of  the group by spending more and more time with them, sometimes even inviting them to his house for interviews and general hanging out. Thompson is so involved, in fact, that the line between observer and participant blurs beyond recognition. In one controversial scene, Thompson witnesses the Hell’s Angels gang rape a young woman at a bar. Thompson has been critiqued both for watching the rape happen and by the tone he used to write about it in the book. However, Hell’s Angels is also considered to be one of Thompson’s most factually accurate books.

His most famous work is probably Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a book that “contributed the most to creating a personal for Thompson as a drug-crazed counterculture great, and it has only tenuous connections with objective reality,” said author Norman Sims. The book is based on some drug-hazed visits Thompson took to Las Vegas with his lawyer, although the plot rambles and often becomes surreal.

At the risk of quoting Sims too much, I really love a description he gives of Thompson in his book True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism:

Thompson was an abstract expressionist among the New Journalists, adapting Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings to prose. Yet, like Picasso, when he wanted to he could also paint in a representational style. His abstract journalism required the reader to interpret the artist’s mind in order to understand the subject matter.

My Fear and Loathing

I’ve always been a little intimidated to read Thompson. There’s something about his status as one of the founders of a movement combined with his totally-out-there style that has made me avoid most of his works. I’ve never been sure that I really want or need to read the drug-influenced writings of a 1960s journalist, even if he can be like Picasso when he wants to.

Knowing about some of Thompson’s choices, particularly the rape scene in Hell’s Angels, is also what’s made me dislike him. I get the principles of in-depth reporting, the idea of joining a group and trying to understand them, but there has to be a line you just don’t cross. From what I know, Thompson didn’t have lines, or if he did they were blurred through excessive uses of drugs and alcohol. I’m also skeptical about the radical ways in which Thompson makes not attempt to balance out his opinions and biases in his writing, although there are many, many writers who do the same thing.

fear and loathingIn any case, now is the time that I’ve decided to get over some of these things so that I can be a more well-informed reader/writer/critic of journalism — hence this little read-a-long. I’d like to end with one last quote from Thompson himself about why he wanted to write Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, which was printed in Sim’s book:

With the lone exception of the 1960 presidential campaign, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid any personal involvement in politics … but I have the feeling that we’re down to bedrock again, and if that’s the case I guess I want a piece of the action. Nixon is a monument to all the bad genes and broken chromosomes that have queered the reality of the ‘American Dream.’ Nixon is the Dorian Grey [sic] if our time, the twisted echo of Jay Gatsby — the candidate from almost-Los Angeles. I’m not looking for a career in politics or even a dam for Woody Creek. All I really want to do is get that evil pickf**ker out of the White House and not let Nixon in … and the only real hope I see right now is you friend Robert.

I suspect we’re in for an adventure.

Sims, Norman — True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Care February 12, 2010, 1:08 pm

    ah, see? I had to go look up Woody Creek! (Hunter’s home town in Colorado…) This is going to be fun!
    I was not aware of the Hell’s Angel book. I did have HST associated with gonzo journalism and that he did a lot of drugs but that was about it.
    Well done. My turn is ‘soonish’.

    • Kim February 14, 2010, 5:49 pm

      Care: I love your post, by the way. I’m lame though — I didn’t even both to look up Woody Creek. Oops 🙂

  • Steve February 12, 2010, 1:52 pm

    I’d suggest giving Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a try.

    Sure, it’s mostly crazed drug-fueled rambling. But Thompson has a hell of a gift when it comes to capturing the intensity of a time and place, nearly unmatched in any other writing I’ve read.

    Or you could be lazy and check the wikiquote page ( http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Fear_and_Loathing_in_Las_Vegas_(novel) ) which has an extensive list of quotes. Not as good as the full thing of course but good for bullet points.

    • Kim February 14, 2010, 5:50 pm

      Steve: Thanks for the encouragement. I do want to try the book sometime, I just always unnecessarily psych myself out about it. After reading about 100 pages of Fear and Loathing on Campaign Trail I can definitely see what you mean about being able to capture a time and place perfectly — he’s so good.

  • Amy February 12, 2010, 3:33 pm

    I am a huge fan of HST! Loved this post. He did drink a lot and do a lot of drugs but what I like about his writing and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in “72 is one of his best books (in my opinion) is that he writes what he sees. He doesn’t sugarcoat and he also writes really well, his descriptions and imagery are great. He latched onto the idea of the death and destruction of the American Dream early on in his career and that informed a lot of his work.

    The one other thing that fascinates me about HST is that early on when he first started writing and was working for Time, he wanted to learn to write and understand writing styles so he sat down at his typewriter and typed out “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” to understand their writing styles! Pretty wild & smart!
    Happy reading!

    • Kim February 14, 2010, 5:51 pm

      Amy: Absolutely. Even in the first few pages I can tell he’s not going to gloss over anything. It impresses me how much access he got despite that, since politicians are so careful about spinning image and HST isn’t going for any of it.

      I love that anecdote, I never thought of doing that!

    • Steve February 14, 2010, 7:02 pm

      As a sidenote, I’ve been trying out the “typing out” someone you respect’s writing with Thompson’s Las Vegas and it’s a pretty neat experiment. Give it a try.

  • charley February 12, 2010, 4:05 pm

    I like Hunter S. Thompson, too. I liked Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas a lot, and I read Hell’s Angels, too, but I remember struggling with some parts of that one.

    • Kim February 14, 2010, 5:52 pm

      charley: I imagine both are books that are hard to read, but it sounds like well worth it.

  • Norman Sims February 13, 2010, 8:51 am


    A revival of Hunter Thompson fandom seems to be going on. There will be a panel on “Re-visioning Hunter S. Thompson’s Literary Journalism” at the fifth annual conference of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies this May in London (Google IALJS for info). Two of the panelists are from Canada, two from the United Kingdom, and one from the United States.

    Having met the man, I always thought his works were distorted by the enjoyable myth that he was always stoned and drunk, which was probably true toward the end of his life but not nearly the case when he was writing Hell’s Angels and his other books.

    Clearly, Las Vegas is a novel. But Hell’s Angels is a pretty good piece of participatory reporting that examines both sides of the reputation attributed to the Angels by law enforcement officials who had something to gain from those depictions. And Campaign Trail was lauded by other reporters on the campaign as a (pretty) true depiction of life on the bus. (For confirmation, see “The Boys on the Bus” by Timothy Crouse, who was there for Rolling Stone.)

    BTW, I haven’t checked the book, buy my recollection of the rape scene in Hell’s Angels is that it was not witnessed by Thompson. Rather, he heard it was going on out back. I’m not defending his ethics here, but we need to remember that the Angels stomped him into the floor of a bar at the end of the book. “Exterminate the brutes!”

    Norm Sims

    • Kim February 14, 2010, 5:55 pm

      Norm: Thank you so much for your comment. The panel at IALJS sounds fascinating; I hope there will be transcripts or information from it for people not able to attend.

      I do think that he has gotten to be a bit more myth than man in some respects, which means it’s important to give all of it some more time. So far I’m reading enjoying Campaign Trail — it’s much better political reporting than I’ve ever seen, especially recently. In any case, there’s a lot of stuff going on with all his works that a blog post certainly wouldn’t totally address and that I’ll have to think about when looking for more of his work.

  • Lisa February 13, 2010, 4:53 pm

    Thompson didn’t just invent gonzo journalism, he really was gonzo. Certainly not anyone I would want to hang with but he did know his politics.

    • Kim February 14, 2010, 5:55 pm

      Lisa: I totally agree. I’m not sure I’d have much fun with him, but he’s so very smart.

  • Jenny February 13, 2010, 8:20 pm

    I’m reading a book called Looking Forward To It, which is all gonzo journalism on the campaign trail in 2000 – I kinda think I should try the Hunter Thompson first. Since it’s the original!

    • Care February 14, 2010, 1:06 pm

      Join us! Yes, the similarities between the recent election and this one in ’72 have been suggested.

    • Kim February 14, 2010, 5:56 pm

      Jenny: That book sounds awesome! I am going to look for it when I finish this one. I hope you can read it too, I think the comparisons would be interesting. I already made some margin notes about how Campaign Trail reminds me of the most recent election.

  • Prudence May 3, 2010, 2:45 pm

    I was angry at Hunter S. for incidents I read about involving extreme animal cruelty. I’m a very gentle person, a Quaker actually, and I was horrified at some of the stunts he pulled. I’m in the middle of watching the DVD Gonzo. Perhaps I will learn from it what drove the good doctor to engage in animal cruety for fun.

    • Kim May 5, 2010, 1:18 pm

      Prudence: I didn’t know that about HST, although I guess it’s not really that surprising given how out of control he seems during the rest of his life. I hope you do learn more from the DVD.

  • Ida May 4, 2010, 8:36 am

    I love Hunter and every book he wrote. I really love the Rum Diaries. You should check that one out if you haven’t already. Now I’m reading The Deportation Officer Handbook by Claiborne Tchoupitoulas, recommended by a friend who knows I love Hunter. It’s terrific! Raw and funny and a great story too.

    • Kim May 5, 2010, 1:18 pm

      Ida: Thanks for the recommendations, I’ll keep them in mind!

  • Shell May 19, 2010, 7:43 pm

    Ida, you are right on. I just finished “The Deportation Officer Handbook,” and I think Claiborne Tchoupitoulas is on something new the way Hunter was when he broke out with “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” It is a literary innovation for sure, something never seen. And I don’t just mean the New Orleans story pretending to be a thriller pretending to be a handbook thing. It’s just… new. We’ve seen funny and sad and scary before, I’m sure, but TDOH is such a ride. And I profess my love for Rayford Purvis!