Hunter S. Thompson Thompson, Hunter S. - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Herbert Mitgang (review date 11 August 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 during the 1972 Presidential campaign—recalled when Mr. Thompson first earned his stripes as a political storm trooper by reporting that he had told Richard M. Nixon, "Go get 'em, Dick, throw the bomb! Fifty years more of the Thousand-Year Reich!"

Mr. Crouse observed, "After the revolution, we'll all write like Thompson." Not quite yet. His train of though often seems stuck at the Finland Station.


(The entire section is 780 words.)

Michael E. Ross (review date 14 August 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Mr. Thompson shows himself to be an outlandish, skeptical Jeremiah. But one harbors a suspicion that his is the kind of unvarnished, crazy wisdom that is valuable in these times. In moderation, of course.

Richard Vigilante (review date 16 September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1083 words.)

Hunter S. Thompson with Sam Allis (interview date 22 January 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 913 words.)

Ron Rosenbaum (review date 25 November 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1331 words.)

Louis Menand (review date 7 and 14 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1356 words.)

A. Craig Copetas (review date 19 December 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4445 words.)

Thomas Gaughan (review date 1 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

Michael E. Ross (review date 23 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 248 words.)

Maureen Freely (review date 5 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 807 words.)

Rapport (review date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 308 words.)

David McCumber (essay date 9 December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1921 words.)

Charles Kaiser (review date 13 July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 222 words.)

Richard Bernstein (review date 25 July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1038 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.)