Thompson, Hunter S.
Hunter S. Thompson 1939–2005
(Has also written under pseudonyms Raoul Duke and Sebastian Owl) American nonfiction writer, journalist, editor, and scriptwriter.
The following entry presents criticism of-Thompson's work. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 9, 17, and 40.
Thompson is best known as the inventor of "gonzo journalism," a form of outspoken, irreverent commentary. Gonzo journalism grew out of the New Journalism movement of Thomas Wolfe and others who wanted to bring journalism beyond merely reporting facts to a level of literature in which writers bring their creativity to beat on the subject. Thompson's gonzo style parodies current events and satirizes American culture.
Thompson was born on July 18, 1939, in Louisville, Kentucky. Planning to someday make an impact in the world, Thompson retained carbon copies of all of his correspondence for future publication. These letters were eventually published as The Proud Highway (1997). Thompson began his career with a series of jobs at small newspapers, including stints as the sports editor of The Jersey Shore Herald and as a reporter for The Middletown Daily News. He then moved on to freelance writing, first based in Puerto Rico and then as the South American correspondent for The National Observer. During this time he also tried his hand at novel writing, but only fragments of his two novels were ever published. Thompson's unique brand of political writing gained widespread attention through his affiliation with Rolling Stone magazine, where the articles that later became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973) were originally published. Thompson also worked as a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. He currently lives on a farm in Woody Creek, Colorado, where he continues to write.
Thompson is known for his unique perspective and brutal honesty as a writer as well as for his flamboyant lifestyle. As a practitioner of gonzo journalism, Thompson enters a scene—the world of the Hell's Angels, Las Vegas gambling, and Washington politics are examples—and becomes a char-acter in the story. Far from maintaining the traditional journalistic ideal of impartiality, Thompson interacts with the players and records his impressions, often with scathing irreverence. His first book, Hell's Angels (1966), portrays his time on the road with the infamous motorcycle gang. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas collects his articles about five days spent in a drug-induced haze, immersed in the world of casino gambling. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 includes Thompson's behind-the-scenes impressions of the 1972 presidential campaign and its candidates. Two decades later, Better Than Sex (1993) offers the same perspective on the 1992 presidential campaign.
Thompson's gonzo journalism drew controversy from its inception, and many of the arguments it sparked remain unresolved. One of the points of contention among reviewers is the validity of labeling Thompson's writing "journalism": many believe that since he eschews neutrality, Thompson's writing by definition cannot be categorized as journalism. Beyond the semantics issues, however, critics are divided in their opinions of the quality of Thompson's prose. Some agree with Michael E. Ross, who considers him "one of our most incisive, insightful and hilarious social critics," while others reject his topics as insignificant and unnecessarily offensive. While some critics complain that Thompson's prejudices influence his writing excessively, others praise him for displaying his biases as other journalists attempt to hide theirs. Even some critics who disagree with Thompson's ideas and approach nonetheless comment favorably on the quality of his writing. Some critics in later years, however, have complained that Thompson's recent works do little more than rehash his earlier writings and that the author himself has become his own main subject.
Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (nonfiction) 1966
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (nonfiction) 1972
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (nonfiction) 1973
The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time; Gonzo Papers, Volume One (nonfiction) 1979
The Curse of Lono (nonfiction) 1983
Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s; Gonzo Papers, Volume Two (nonfiction) 1988
Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream; Gonzo Papers, Volume Three (nonfiction) 1990
Silk Road: Thirty-three Years in the Passing Lane (nonfiction) 1990
Untitled Novel (novel) 1992
Better Than Sex: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1992 (nonfiction) 1993
The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman (nonfiction) 1997
(The entire section is 122 words.)
SOURCE: "The Art of the Insult, or Gonzo Writer Strikes Again," in The New York Times, August 11, 1988, p. C23.
[In the following review, Mitgang asserts that Thompson "takes no prisoners" in his Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the 80s.]
Hunter S. Thompson, who gained a fan club with such hand-stitched books as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, is back with a collection of his pieces that appeared in The San Francisco Examiner in the last few years. They combine name-calling, bomb-throwing and sardonic humor. He's a little more strident this time out, but if you happen to share his public enemies, Mr. Thompson's your man.
Nearly everything he writes makes yellow journalism pale. With his targets the high rollers, from Sunset Strip to the White House, the former political writer for Rolling Stone elevates insult to an art form. He's dead serious and we blink, wondering how he can get away with it.
Gonzo, his own brand of journalism, has even found its way into the new Random House dictionary, which uses such words as bizarre, crazy and eccentric to define it. No one else gets credit for gonzo journalism in the dictionary; but then not many journalists would want it. Timothy Crouse—in his own perceptive book, The Boys on the Bus, about the behavior of reporters...
(The entire section is 780 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s, in The New York Times Book Review, August 14, 1988, p. 17.
[In the following review, Ross asserts the value of Thompson's wisdom in Generation of Swine.]
In the literary free-fire zone of American culture and political commentary, Hunter S. Thompson has always been on point. In his latest book, Mr. Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, addresses new targets of opportunity—from Muammar el-Qaddafi and Ferdinand Marcos to a Soldier of Fortune trade show, from the George Bush campaign to handicapping the likelihood of a Democratic victory in November. His writing, ever feisty, proves again (as if it were necessary) that he is one of our most incisive, insightful and hilarious social critics. This collection, from his stint as a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner, is vintage Thompson. His celebrated gonzo style is here: facts blended with a savage embroidery of the truth. There are many swings of style and mood, but the heart of the book is disquieting. Mr. Thompson peers into the American future (so far as he is able) and is not happy. Assailing the present Administration, stockbrokers, television, newspapers and various foreign powers, he sees a sobering and profound discontent in American life. With Generation of Swine...
(The entire section is 262 words.)
SOURCE: "Lost Generation," in National Review, Vol. XL, No. 18, September 16, 1988, pp. 52-3.
[In the following review, Vigilante complains that Thompson's "Generation of Swine is no more than the wish-fulfillment of a slightly deranged registered Democrat."]
It is hard to admit how bad Hunter Thompson's new book is. To me—as to most of the younger writers I have worked with over the past few years—Thompson, along with Tom Wolfe and a bunch of other now-aging New Journalists and their long-defunct movement, still represents the wild hope that journalism could aspire to the condition of literature, while beating the "just the facts, ma'am" boys at their own game.
It was—heck, it still is—an exciting prospect, even if (especially if?) you were, like us, primarily political journalists at constant risk of being consumed and destroyed by the hack imperative, the insistent demand of the audience to be lied to.
If the audience is made up of political ideologues, the lie they demand is that they are the only ones who see the truth in a sick world and can set things to rights. If they are typical New York Times readers, the lie is that everything is under control, or at least would be if the ideologues could be persuaded to sink into that ecstasy of equanimity, that libido of the tedious, that Tiresian torpor of a Times-man who has seen it all...
(The entire section is 1083 words.)
SOURCE: "An Evening (Gasp!) with Hunter Thompson," in Time, Vol. 135, No. 4, January 22, 1990, p. 64.
[In the following interview, Allis describes his attempt to interview Thompson.]
Boston correspondent Sam Allis went to Colorado last week to interview Hunter S. Thompson, the inventor of gonzo journalism, author (Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and defiant eccentric, at his home in Woody Creek. This is what happened:
I gave up on the interview and started worrying about my life when Hunter Thompson squirted two cans of fire starter on the Christmas tree he was going to burn in his living-room fireplace, a few feet away from an unopened wooden crate of 9-mm bullets. That the tree was far too large to fit into the fireplace mattered not a whit to Hunter, who was sporting a dime-store wig at the time and resembled Tony Perkins in Psycho. Minutes earlier, he had smashed a Polaroid camera on the floor.
Hunter had decided to videotape the Christmas tree burning, and we later heard on the replay the terrified voices of Deborah Fuller, his longtime secretary-baby sitter, and me off-camera pleading with him, "NO, HUNTER, NO! PLEASE, HUNTER, DON'T DO IT!" The original manuscript of Hell's Angels was on the table, and there were the bullets. Nothing doing. Thompson was a man possessed by now, full of the Chivas Regal he had been...
(The entire section is 913 words.)
SOURCE: "Still Gonzo After All These Years," in The New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1990, pp. 7-8.
[In the following review, Rosenbaum asserts that Thompson is at his best in Songs of the Doomed when he's on the road after a story, instead of writing from the sidelines of his Woody Creek home.]
Saigon, May 1975. The city is about to fall to the National Liberation Front. The last American reporters left in the besieged capital are calculating when to fly out before the honorable desire to stay to the bloody end becomes merely suicidal. Meanwhile, Hunter S. Thompson has just flown in to the encircled city with $30,000 in cash taped to his body (don't ask). Only to learn he has been fired by Rolling Stone (some bitter dispute with its publisher, Jann Wenner, over a book advance) and both his medical insurance and his Telex card link to the outside world have been canceled by the magazine.
No problem. He's got a plan. He's going to convince the enemy that he's their one true friend in American journalism, that he should be the one to cover the final assault on the capital—from behind enemy lines. And so up in his room in Saigon's Hotel Continental Plaza he bangs out a "Confidential Memo to Colonel Giang Vo Don Giang," one of a number of memos, cables, fragments of memoirs and novels, and eviction notices collected in Songs of the Doomed, along with...
(The entire section is 1331 words.)
SOURCE: "Life in the Stone Age," in The New Republic, Vol. 204, Nos. 1 and 2, January 7 and 14, 1991, pp. 38-44.
[In the following excerpt, Menand reviews Thompson's Songs of the Doomed, charging that the author is still living in the counterculture of the 1970s.]
After the Altamont concert disaster in December 1969, when a fan was killed a few feet from the stage where The Rolling Stones were performing, psychedelia lost its middle-class appeal. More unpleasant news followed in 1970—the Kent State and Jackson State shootings, the Manson Family trials, the deaths by overdose of famous rock stars. And even more quickly than it had sprung up, the media fascination with the counterculture evaporated.
But the counterculture, stripped of its idealism and its sexiness, lingered on. If you drove down the main street of any small city in America in the 1970s, you saw clusters of teenagers standing around, wearing long hair and bell-bottom jeans, listening to Led Zeppelin, furtively getting stoned. This was the massive middle of the baby-boom generation, the remnant of the counterculture—a remnant that was much bigger than the original, but in which the media had lost interest. These people were not activists or dropouts. They had very few public voices. One of them was Hunter Thompson's.
Thompson came to Rolling Stone in 1970, an important moment in the...
(The entire section is 1356 words.)
SOURCE: "When the Going Gets Weird," in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 23, December 19, 1991.
[In the following review, Copetas discusses Thompson's Songs of the Doomed and offers personal reminiscences of socializing with "Doc" Thompson.]
The winter of 1978 is full of strange and apocalyptic memories now. Doc and I were weird-betting a college basketball game in the gentrified servants' quarters of a large Georgetown estate house that December. Magic Johnson was playing for Michigan that Saturday night and I'd gambled that three successive baskets would be made by players with odd-numbered jerseys. I was ahead a few bucks when the Ohio State centre put a savage elbow into Magic's young chin and Doc's screams of 'foul' were interrupted by the sight of a White House adviser about to break open a vial of cocaine. Doc slapped me on the shoulder and muttered 'Jeeesus'—a sure sign of impending doom.
Doc always sees things before anyone else. As Magic picked himself up off the court, Doc first glanced quickly at the other fifteen or so people in the spacious loft, and then bored in on the looming White House official. Doc poured two long shots of whisky and offered his prognosis. He said there was venom in the air, a generation of swine were nearing maturity, and life was going to be a whole lot different and a hell of a lot more ominous for anyone who believed in the...
(The entire section is 4445 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, in Booklist, Vol. 91, No. 3, October 1, 1994, p. 187.
[In the following review, Gaughan asserts that although Thompson's Better Than Sex is not better than his Fear and Loathing books, it is worthy of attention.]
At some point, people as diverse as John Wayne and the members of Aerosmith appeared to achieve a kind of wisdom when they began to parody themselves. There are hints in Better Than Sex that HST is winking—broadly—at us. Sure, he's still a vicious, twisted psychotic thug who can write that Richard Nixon was criminally insane from birth, but he also closes any number of preposterous gonzo screeds with the equally preposterous, "Take my word for it, Bubba. I was there." This is Thompson's take on Clinton's campaign and his first year in office—and its an outrage per page. Nobody escapes the good doctor's wrath: Bush is so guilty he makes Nixon look innocent; Clinton is a swine, but he's our swine; and Hillary is pilloried. Ross Perot, James Carville, Margaret Thatcher, James Baker III, Al Gore, and even Walter Cronkite also get savaged. Along the way, Thompson ruminates, occasionally quite shrewdly, nearly always hilariously, on politics, society, and of course, himself. Better Than Sex is not better than Thompson's great Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail or the gonzo bible...
(The entire section is 246 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, in The New York Times Book Review, October 23, 1994, p. 18.
[In the following review, Ross praises Thompson's style but complains that his Better Than Sex is too disjointed.]
In Better Than Sex, Hunter S. Thompson has assembled a collection of mash notes—faxes to George Stephanopoulos, James Carville and others in the Clinton inner circle, missives that suggest Mr. Thompson's involvement in the Clinton Presidential campaign went beyond that of a mere observer. Mr. Thompson offers pointers on strategy and policy, even instructsthe candidate on speaking properly. Mr. Thompson is back in the form we've come to know and love (or at least tolerate), firing at the usual targets, from George Bush and James Baker 3d, the former Secretary of State, to Mr. Thompson's nemesis, Richard M. Nixon, who died just before the book was finished (but not before Mr. Thompson worked up a remembrance that may be charitably described as uncharitable). Such shooting from the hip is Mr. Thompson's forte; what disappoints in this book is its disjointedness. Better Than Sex reads like a hodgepodge, a series of dispatches hurriedly lashed together. But in his own cracked, inimitable style, Mr. Thompson proves to be an upbeat Jeremiah, a civic-minded curmudgeon. "It is a very elegant feeling," he writes, "to wake up in the morning...
(The entire section is 248 words.)
SOURCE: "Rum Days, Acid Nights," in The Observer Review, No. 10607, February 5, 1995, p. 22.
[In the following review, Freely discusses Thompson's Better Than Sex and Paul Perry's unauthorized biography of Thompson and asserts that the gonzo journalist has lost his edge.]
When Peter Cook died, his friends kept apologising for his best comic acts not seeming so shocking anymore. You had to understand how strict the conventions were, and what an exhilarating shock it was to see him break them. To appreciate Hunter S Thompson's humour, as is clear from Better Than Sex, you also have to put yourself bak 20 years and remember just how much reverence the silent majority had then for people in office, and just how much faith in the redemptive powers of the party animal.
'Getting assigned to cover Nixon,' said Thompson while covering the '72 election campaign, was 'like being sentenced to six months in a Holiday Inn.' He preferred Wallace: 'The air was electric even before he started talking, and by the time he was five or six minutes into his spiel I had a sense that the bastard had somehow levitated himself and was hovering over us. It reminded me of a Janis Joplin concert.' His political allies were much harder to bear. Of Hubert Humphrey he said: 'He looks like he died in 1959 and has been frozen over ever since.' His least favourite was Ed Muskie, a 'mushmouth,...
(The entire section is 807 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Better Than Sex, in Rapport, Vol. 18, No. 5, 1995, p. 30.
[In the following review, the critic faults Thompson's Better Than Sex, saying, "The aim is true but the barbs not quite as lethal as his earlier literary death blows."]
As irreverent as a T-shirt in church and as illuminating as a wildfire, this Volume 4 of the author's Gonzo Papers is somehow not as focused, nor as forceful as the earlier installments. On any given weekend, this novelist/Rolling Stone correspondent is at the forefront of political reporting, but maybe after four consecutive collections on the same subject (not to mention everal earlier works) he needs to change lanes.
President Bill Clinton and his administration is the main target here, and Dr. Thompson does not miss. "Let's face it, Bubba. The main reason I'll vote for Bill Clinton is George Bush, and it has been that way from the start," explains the author about his allegiance to the Democratic camp. And on the President's indiscretions, he writes, "Of course Bill Clinton never inhaled when he put the bong to his lips. Of course he never knew Gennifer Flowers. Never admit anything except when you were born. Why should he? He is, after all, the President. And the President never acts weird."
The aim is true but the barbs not quite as lethal as his earlier literary death blows, particularly when the...
(The entire section is 308 words.)
SOURCE: "The Mad Adventure Continues," in The Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1996, p. 1.
[In the following essay, McCumber discusses the impact of Thompson's work and his current projects.]
"I have weird dreams," Hunter Stockton Thompson says. "I never expected to be looking over my life, page by page. It's like an animal eating its own intestines."
It is 3:45 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and he is perched like a barn owl on a high stool in his kitchen, eating not innards but a TV dinner, microwaved and then slathered with a hellbroth of mysterious mustards, chutneys and chili sauces. The plate suddenly lows with an unearthly light. I take this at first to be the sign of a chemical reaction, but it is actually the work of Thompson's newest gadget—the man is a gadget freak—a motorized, illuminated pepper grinder. The spotlighted meal is rapidly covered with black flakes, sort of like Pittsburgh in the early 1900s.
This dish alone would probably give most people nightmares for a week, but the famed journalist says the weird dreams he's been having are a byproduct of a gratifying but grueling forced march through his past, caused by the 25th anniversary last month of the publication of his rolling pharmacy classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and also by the preparation of the first volume of his collected letters, due in the spring from Villard Books....
(The entire section is 1921 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, in The New York Times Book Review, July 13, 1997.
[In the following review, Kaiser calls Thompson's The Proud Highway "neither particularly interesting nor particularly well-written."]
In the introduction to this nearly 700-page collection of the letters of Hunter S. Thompson, the novelist William J. Kennedy provides a useful definition of the "gonzo journalism" that made Thompson famous. "It was not lunacy defined," Kennedy writes, "but lunacy imagined: in short, a novel." Unfortunately, in these pages Thompson most often cnfines himself to the mundane facts of his everyday life between 1955 (when he was 17 years old) and 1967 (following the publication of Hell's Angels), and the results are generally underwhelming. Occasionally we see flashes of humor or intelligence, but for vast stretches we are subjected to observations like these: "I have paid my rent for one month. The apartment seemed horrible at first, but I've been working on it most of the day, and it looks a little better now." Most of the more than 200 letters included in this volume—the first of a projected three—are neither particularly interesting nor particularly well written. There is not enough here to sustain the interest of a Hunter S. Thompson fan—only a fanatic would want to plow through all the way to the end.
(The entire section is 222 words.)
SOURCE: "Letters of the Young Author (He Saved Them All)," in The New York Times Book Review, July 25, 1997.
[In the following review, Bernstein discusses Thompson's need to record his life and share it with the public in The Proud Highway.]
One thing that this collection of letters makes clear at the outset is that Hunter S. Thompson, he of the Fear and Loathing books, for whom the phrase "gonzo journalist" was invented, has always burned to carve his initials onto the collective awareness. What other kind of person would, beginning in his teen years, make carbon copies of every letter he wrote—to his mother, his Army friends and commanding officers, his girlfriends, his various agents and editors—specifically in the hope that they would be published?
Mr. Thompson, by dint of hard work and enormous talent, has gotten his wish. Edited by Douglas Brinkley and adorned with a sparkling essay by the novelist William J. Kennedy, The Proud Highway takes Mr. Thompson's caustic, furious, funny, look-at-me correspondence through 1967, when the author, having arrived on the scene with his book Hell's Angels, was 30. It is noteworthy that although just one in seven of the relevant cache of letters was included, this book, labeled The Fear and Loathing Letters, Volume I, weighs in at just under 700 pages—and there are still 30 more years to go. Even some of the...
(The entire section is 1038 words.)
McKeen, William. Hunter S. Thompson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991, 120-27.
Provides information about Thompson's life and career.
"Hunter S. Thompson." Vanity Fair 57, No. 9 (September 1994): 214.
A brief sketch in which Thompson answers questions about his life
(The entire section is 77 words.)