Before Gonzo: Hunter S. Thompson's Early, Underrated Journalism Career

The largely forgotten first works by Thompson, who will be inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame today, display his descriptive flair—but no fear or loathing.
Thompson talks to reporters as he leaves a courtroom at the Pitkin County Courthouse in Aspen, Colo., Monday, April 10, 1990. (Frank Martin / AP)

When the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications announced earlier this month that the late Hunter S. Thompson would be included among its 2014 inductees into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, journalists and bloggers reporting the story made a point to set Thompson apart from his fellow honorees. Thompson, a wayward Kentuckian, would be installed “along with six more traditional journalists,” noted his hometown Louisville Courier-Journal. “More traditional… Less inebriated… State it any way you want,” snickered Mediabistro’s FishbowlNY blog. “We double-checked,” a local radio station chimed in. “It’s not an April Fool’s joke.”

There’s no arguing that Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005, left behind an iconoclast’s legacy. In his middle and later career, the author of Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas earned a reputation as a literary profligate and a mild fabulist, owing to his unconcealed fondness for recreational drugs, hyperbole, Wild Turkey, fictionalized dialogue, explosives, and Ominous Capitalization—all crucial components to what he termed “gonzo journalism.” But as Thompson and his Hall of Fame classmates are inducted this week, it’s worth remembering that well before he was a “gonzo journalist” or a “New Journalist” or an “outlaw journalist,” Hunter S. Thompson was simply a journalist, just another twenty-something freelancer who spent most of the 1960s hustling his way from paycheck to unglamorous paycheck.

Little of Thompson’s pre-gonzo reporting exists outside of microform. Before 1967, the year that Hells’ Angels made his journalistic reputation at age 29, he wrote for a motley collection of mid-market daily papers, men’s magazines, a few general interest digests, and an upstart national weekly called The National Observer—next to none of which have survived to the present day. Like a lot of young reporters, Thompson stayed on the move. Between 1960 and 1967, he filed dispatches from California, the Appalachian South, the Caribbean, South America, and the northern Rockies. His output consisted of everything from straightforward reportage and service-y travel pieces to book reviews and the occasional essay. And while he traipsed among several different beats, Thompson’s early articles are, viewed collectively, a kind of study in mid-20th-century frontiers: His datelines are the battlefronts of the Cold War, the blurry social boundaries of the counterculture, and the fading frontiers of the American West.

A smattering of young Thompson’s work can be found in his (essential) 1979 collection The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time. While researching my upcoming book, The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America, I scoured microfilm archives to dig up another couple dozen articles. My primary interest was Thompson’s forgotten foreign correspondence from South America in 1962 and 1963, a year on the road for The National Observer, reporting on the specter of Castroite communism and fallout from America’s foreign policy. But I also read through some pedestrian New York Herald Tribune pieces about infrastructure in Puerto Rico, several quick-fire book reviews, and a series of American Futures-style community profiles from the American “New West.”

My takeaway: It is a mistake to allow Thompson’s reputation to derive solely—or even mostly—from the madcap participatory reportage that characterized his Rolling Stone years, the cartoonish spleen of his later political commentary, or the sort of counterculture flamboyance that arguably eclipsed his writing in his later years. Thompson’s early journalism is both uniformly excellent and every bit as “traditional” as that of the other accomplished reporters joining him in Kentucky’s Journalism Hall of Fame. His early stories contain glimmers of the caustic humor, first-person POV, and darkly elegant prose that would come to characterize his “gonzo” writing style. They are, however, totally free from bombast and authorial asides about things like drunken drag racing or burning effigies while high on mescaline. Instead, Thompson approaches potentially dry subjects like student politics or Brazilian inflation with a voice that’s understated and not a little bit wonkish, laced with reportorial authority and a touch of literary flair.

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Brian Kevin is the author of The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America and a contributing editor at Down East magazine. He has also written for OutsideTravel + Leisure, Men’s Journal, Sierra, and Mother Jones.

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