August 26, 1997
SOMETHING very strange is going on in the control room, that mysterious place where important cultural decisions get made. Here, now, in the midst of the public rout of traditions and hierarchies, when forces from all sides are tearing down the armatures, comes the bid to enshrine, to canonize Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo malcontent. The Modern Library has recently released Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in its high-profile series of classic American works, and now -- more ambitious and telling still -- Villard has issued The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, a 680-plus page collection of Thompson's letters over a twelve-year period, with two no doubt equally substantive volumes eventually to follow.
This should not escape remark. In an era when most people don't even write letters anymore, the publication of what will end up being close to a cubic foot of epistolary prose has to signify. Even Presidents haven't warranted this sort of attention, certainly not lately. More perplexing still is the fact that nothing seems more defunct now than the brief but spirited "Yahoo!" of the counterculture that Thompson not only adorned but helped in crucial ways to define.
Who was -- is -- Hunter S. Thompson? A voice, mainly; a set of raw-nerve responses to a society running amok; an evolving self-dramatizing style that fused true impulse with antic exaggeration; and finally, it appears, an icon, his dangerous energies largely neutralized by the media kiss. Put a frame around subversion and you finish it off -- this we are learning. Look at the late William Burroughs. Look at rock & roll. Now Dr. Thompson.
Once, though, he was at the sizzling center of things, commenting on the spirit of the era even as he was contributing much to its strange effervescence. Thompson's heyday, from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, was the period when, far more than is always the case, no one knew where things were going, or what catastrophes and consummations might result. No one knew, really, whether with enough pressure from the dissenters the whole historical moment might not change, spin off into an all-transforming revolution.
Thompson was, in part, putting on airs, striking poses -- the rowdy, the paranoid, the substance-abuser supremo -- acting out more and more spectacularly as he felt the beam of the spotlight moving toward him. But, centrally, he was venting genuine outrage, and manifesting genuine excitement about the whole prospect of reinventing journalism. And he was, I believe, hoping in the romantic chamber of his cynical heart that the wheel of change would really turn toward the good.
Reading through the vast tract of his correspondence in The Proud Highway, we have a chance to reflect upon the writer in the first stages of his becoming, and to observe, almost as if in a laboratory, how the author and the times changed in tandem, with Thompson's iconic identity growing on the page as public life heated up. Looking through one lens, as did a New York Times reviewer recently, we might also complain that "Thompson most often confines himself to the mundane facts of his everyday life between 1955 ... and 1967." We do feel the longueurs of it all at times -- the scrapping with landlords, grousing about editors, bragging about drinking exploits. But for the person who would brood on the history of our times, especially that wild epoch known as The Sixties (as differentiated from the chronological 1960s), this is a fascinating document. For behind all of Thompson's revving and sputtering we can, if we are attentive, see the whole weather system moving in.
Here is Thompson in 1958 -- he is just twenty-one and living in New York. He writes to his friend Larry Callen with some excitement that "the 'beat generation' is taking over American literature," adding that "although I'm neither beat nor necessarily angry, I'm glad to see somebody taking a stand for a change." Beat he may not have been -- detached 'cool' was never Thompson's personality style -- but angry is another matter. The comment to Callen is disingenuous. Almost from the start we read Thompson railing, inveighing, tilting, and flinging down malediction. Just two months later he writes to another friend, "The mind of America is seized by a fatal dry rot -- and it's only a question of time before all that the mind controls will run amuck in a frenzy of stupid, impotent fear." Not angry? In a pig's eye.
Already we hear the Thompson note, the ramped-up hyperbole that strains to get across his sense of outrage at the doings of the larger world. With the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November, 1963, Thompson's dark tendencies crystallized into an outlook. Writing to his friend, the novelist William Kennedy, on the very day of the calamity, he first makes use of the noun combination that will eventually serve as his tag line: "There is no human being within 500 miles to whom I can communicate anything -- much less the fear and loathing that is on me after today's murder." And, "We now enter the era of the shitrain, President Johnson and the hardening of the arteries." And, "This is the end of reason, the dirtiest hour in our time."
Here is Thompson's truest register. Like Lenny Bruce, like Norman Mailer at his best, or Allen Ginsberg at his, he found a way to say what needed saying. Few people have the temerity to reach that far into the hoard of their rage. Thompson did. In a very real sense, the "fear and loathing" writings that were so defining for a whole generation -- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 -- were born at this moment. Though years would have to pass before the author achieved his full notoriety, from this point on we feel it is somehow just a matter of time. Thompson's course was set, and so was the country's. The rendezvous lay ahead.
Premonitions of the convergence keep coming. Writing in 1965 to a Marxist friend living abroad, Thompson, then living in San Francisco, tries to describe the stirring of contrarian forces in the republic: "I think you will find a different atmosphere than the one you left here. Dr. [Benjamin] Spock, for instance, is traveling around the country berating our Vietnam policy. Mailer, at Berkeley, told a crowd of 10,000 that Johnson is insane, and they cheered wildly. Strange pollen is in the air."
During the mid-1960s, Thompson, who had been writing journalism of various descriptions for nearly a decade, began to acquire a reputation among progressive political and cultural magazines as a writer who could take the pulse of the American fringe. What would become his celebrated first book, Hell's Angels, began as a piece of reportage for The Nation. Thompson was simply not content to work from conventional sources, at a distance. He got a bike, got close to Angel leader Sonny Barger, and he rode. Only then did he write.
With this book, published in 1967, Thompson emerged before a larger public as a practitioner of high-immersion journalism, which Tom Wolfe was just then trying to copyright for himself as "The New Journalism." But Wolfe and Thompson were just part of a larger wave, one that included writers like Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, and a number of others. Thompson defined his own special spin on this -- now known far and wide as "Gonzo" -- as "a style of 'reporting' based on William Faulkner's idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism."
Thompson's explanation notwithstanding (and he has set out both the ethos and aesthetics of the mode), it is the "Gonzo" handle that has stuck. Gonzo, with its suggestions of mad, adrenalin-and-substance induced obsession -- reportage as psychodrama featuring the deranged reporter in the extreme foreground.
For a time, certainly well into the 1970s, the combustible brew of Thompson's persona and his subjects gratified a deep public need. The man was read, quoted, caricatured (by Garry Trudeau), and revered along the tom-tom networks of the youth culture, as much for his insights into American mayhem as for his comic-paranoid all-sluices-open delivery.
Things have changed -- again. That is, Thompson and the culture have changed, and somehow the tension, the chemistry of edge, are missing. For his part, Thompson has let what were at first his eccentric protrusions -- his weirdnesses -- become his whole persona. Over time everything has come to feel less like the expression of a self than of orneriness fueled by public expectation. Thompson is only Thompson now if he's doing the Thompson thing. This is deadly.
But the reader should not be entirely put off the case by the sadness of recent ventures, nor take them as a sign that in the war between America and Hunter S. Thompson, America won. Both lost. Nor should we look at age as the failure of youth, but as its necessary consequence. We owe too much to Thompson to simply maroon him in the present. Indeed, we owe the same courtesy to our own better selves. We all need to go back to the early work and inhale.
Sven Birkerts writes on literary subjects for various publications, including The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic Monthly, and Agni. He is the author, most recently, of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.
Photos by Hunter S. Thompson. Courtesy of the HST Collection.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.