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.

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.

Consider the opening lines of this 1962 Observer piece on the collapse of the Bolivian mining industry:

Near each tin mine in the arid, poverty-ridden nation of Bolivia, where the 12,000-foot altitude makes breathing difficult, stands a large, bleak, and fully visible graveyard.

The graveyard is a symbol of the condition of the miner, who is responsible for 88 percent of Bolivian exports and whose life expectancy is 29 years. It may become a symbol of the nation. Circumstances are fast bringing Bolivia to a point where its problems are either going to explode or begin responding to one of the most expensive cures in the history of foreign aid.

Elsewhere, Thompson indulges his fondness for long, descriptive ledes, as in this 1964 piece about the changing fortunes of Butte, Montana:

On a half-moon night in this dreary little city, you can walk for hours in the hilly, broken streets above the downtown district and hear little sound but the rumble of ore crushers and conveyer belts. You hear, too, the hiss of steam from underground vents and occasional shouts from men on the graveyard shift up at the Never Sweat Mine.

Once Butte was one of the wildest, richest boom towns in the West. But now there is an atmosphere of age and tiredness about the place, a feeling that the very earth you walk on is worn out from too much mining, that the air you breathe has gone stale from too much steam and ore dust, and that even the people are running low on energy.

Thompson also shows a knack for making potentially unwieldy subjects approachable, as in the first paragraphs of this Observer story about a Uruguayan recession in 1963:

In downtown Montevideo, on a corner shaded by several trees, is a place called “El Palacio de los Sandwiches.” Its sandwiches are cut in triangles and displayed in a glass case so the customer sees a cross-section of each sandwich. It is an appetizing sight. The bread is very thin — so thin, in fact, that it seems barely adequate to contain all the readily visible ingredients…

When it arrives, you notice each sandwich slopes very queerly towards the back corner. This is because there is nothing between the bread on that corner. In fact, there is nothing between the bread at all, except along the front edge of the sandwich—the edge you looked at when you peered through the glass. This makes for a generally unpleasant lunch of dry bread and expensive beer. There is no sense trying another sandwich shop, because they are all the same.

The story would not be worth the telling if not for the fact that Uruguay’s economy is very much like one of these niggardly sandwiches: It looks pretty healthy at a glance, but once past the façade there is plenty missing…

There are some memorable turns of phrase in these early pieces. The taxis in Quito, Ecuador, Thompson writes, “rolled back and forth like animals looking for meat.” A wizened bartender in a divey California saloon speaks in a voice that’s “still crisp with the ageless authority of an old soldier or retired bandit.” Asuncion, Paraguay, Thompson laments, is “an O. Henry kind of place … about as lively as Atlantis, and nearly as isolated.”

Occasionally, young Thompson’s choice of subjects prefigures his better-known later work. A profile of a Triple Crown winner at Belmont Park, for example, foreshadows “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” A National Observer piece on the lost art of hitchhiking calls to mind the opening chapter of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But on the whole, Thompson’s early writing is the work of a talented and earnest young reporter, one not yet preoccupied with decadence or depravity, fear or loathing. It is the foundation upon which Thompson built his gonzo journalism, and it’s why this week’s Hall of Fame nod is a needed reminder that Thompson ought to be remembered for his journalism and not just his gonzo.