Hunter S. Thompson Thompson, Hunter S(tockton) (Vol. 17) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hunter S(tockton) Thompson 1939–2005

(Has also written under pseudonyms Sebastian Owl and Raoul Duke) Autobiographer, author of fiction and nonfiction, journalist, and editor.

Thompson's work depicts the aftermath of the explosion of the American Dream. Despite his iconoclasm, he is considered essentially conservative, a righteous citizen who sets high moral standards for society's leaders, especially politicians. Their failures often trigger the indignation and black humor which distinguish his books.

Because he blurs the distinction between fact and fiction in his work, Thompson cannot easily be categorized. He turns reality into fantasy and real people into characters in order to mirror and comment on the madness of contemporary culture. As his own central character, Thompson becomes a barometer of the excesses he describes.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the Heart of the American Dream is Thompson's best-known work. A tall tale of how Thompson and his lawyer friend attempted to cover two news stories while stoned on an arsenal of drugs, it gave Thompson a reputation as a decadent outlaw while also establishing him as a writer of creativity and imagination. It also introduced the iconoclastic literary style Thompson has dubbed "gonzo journalism," a form which depends on vituperation and insult to make its points while concentrating on the novelistic demand for truth and the journalistic demand for fact.

With Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, a collection of journalism reports first published in Rolling Stone magazine, Thompson attempted to capture the immediacy of political events before they began to be viewed in retrospect. This work applied Thompson's "gonzo" style to the often mundane facts of the campaign. Critics called it overly subjective in its canonization of McGovern and its condemnation of Nixon, and it was criticized for ignoring many of the facts, but its unique approach and clear concern for the country's welfare were praised, as was Thompson's success in capturing background detail.

It has been said of Thompson that he writes best when the country is at its worst, such as in the period of Nixon's presidency. Some critics feel that Thompson and his style are becoming outmoded, since he is so closely associated with the major events of the 1960s and early 1970s. His latest book, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time, a retrospective collection of excerpts from his earlier books and journalistic reprints, has been criticized for its lack of innovation and freshness. Throughout his career, Thompson's writing has been called self-indulgent, grating, and inaccurate. However, for the many young people who have made him into a cult figure, Thompson's position as a believable commentator on the decline of society appears unshaken, and for them his popularity shows little sign of diminishing. (See also CLC, Vol. 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Leo E. Litwak

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The easy acceptance of violence lends to ["Hell's Angels"] a cartoon quality. We observe Angels brutalizing themselves and others and somehow we expect them to recover as quickly as the cartoon cat and mouse. It's not that Thompson doesn't give us a vivid picture of brawls and orgies. His language is brilliant, his eye is remarkable, and his point of view is reminiscent of Huck Finn's. He'll look at anything; he won't compromise his integrity. Somehow his exuberance and innocence are unaffected by what he sees. (pp. 6, 44)

Hunter Thompson has presented us with a close view of a world most of us would never dare encounter, yet one with which we should be familiar. (p. 44)

Leo E. Litwak, "On the Wild Side," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 29, 1967, pp. 6, 44.

Oscar Handlin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Hell's Angels] shows the extent to which, in our society, the individual needs protection against himself as well as against others. This is a reporter's account of approximately a year spent in contact with the California gang of motorcycle outlaws…. Thompson complains that the news media have exaggerated the extent to which the Angels terrorize the communities through which they ride. But his lurid narrative, despite its sympathy for his subjects, reveals the threat they pose.

Speed, violence, sex, and drugs are the outlets of absolute individualists committed to total defiance of society. "There is more to their stance than a wistful yearning for acceptance in a world they never made. Their real motivation is an instinctive certainty as to what the score really is. They are out of the ball-game and they know it…. The outlaw motorcyclist views the future with the baleful eye of a man with no upward mobility at all…. The Hell's Angels are obvious losers, and it bugs them. But instead of submitting quietly to their collective fate, they have made it the basis of a full-time social vendetta. They don't expect to win anything, but on the other hand, they have nothing to lose."

The fallacy lies in the inaccuracy of the appraisal. Thompson makes much of the fact that the Angels are war babies, the offspring of the uprooted Okies and Arkies of the Depression. But what forces in personal and family life led...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I guess you'd best forget trying to understand the rationale behind Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to The Heart of the American Dream." Never mind if you don't wholly agree with him when he writes that "Every now and then when you life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas." Don't worry if it strikes you as odd to respond to the nightmare of certain middle-America realities by internalizing them with the aid of grass, mescaline, acid, downers, screamers, laughers, tequila, rum beer, ether and amyls….

Don't let it throw you if you can't buy Mr. Thompson's doomsday sociology about "this doomstruck era of Nixon."… Don't even bother if you find unbelievable the mad adventurers reported here. Just try to accept Hunter S. Thompson on his own terms….

Why should you bother to accept Mr. Thompson on his own terms, especially when what goes on in these pages makes Lenny Bruce seem angelic? Well, because it's kind of awesome when the huge bats begin to flap over the desert and the pterodactyls start stomping around in blood. Because it's bizzare when Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo … infiltrate a district attorneys' convention on Dangerous Drugs and Narcotics…. Because it's not entirely untrue that the reality that Vegas offered up to them—with "The Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley" blaring over radios and the "344-pound police chief from Waco, Texas, necking openly with his 290-pound wife …" might have been just a little more disorienting than an acid trip; so why not bomb out? And because the whole book boils down to a kind of mad, corrosive prose poetry that picks up where Norman Mailer's "An American Dream" left off and explores what Tom Wolfe left out. Besides, it's—gulp—funny.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Heinous Chemicals at Work," in The New York Times (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 23, 1972, p. 37.

Michael Putney

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bad craziness. Dangerous lunacy. Permanent hysteria. But especially bad craziness. That is Hunter S. Thompson's real destination on his "savage journey to the heart of the American dream," and you know it from the first moment the drug-addled duo heave into view….

[Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream] is a trip, literally and figuratively, all the way to bad craziness and back again.

It is also the most brilliant piece of writing about the dope subculture since Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and, at the same time, and acid, wrenchingly funny portrait of straight America's most celebrated and mean-spirited pleasure-dome, Las Vegas….

If you don't take it all on faith, Fear and Loathing comes off as the wretched excess of the year—an overwritten, underedited, foul-mouthed, drug-crazed screed. But if you do suspend your disbelief and climb out on that precarious psychic limb with Thompson and, once there, slosh down great quantities of Wild Turkey and Chivas Regal, vicariously smoke grass, snort coke, shoot smack, break open amyls, and go without sleeping for, say, 70 hours at a stretch, then and only then Fear and Loathing comes off as a mad, manic masterpiece. But in fact, Fear and Loathing is both raving screed and manic masterpiece. If that's not enough, just read it for the survivor emotion….

Is any of it true? Whether it is matters less in the end than the impression that...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

Joseph Kanon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] December 1971, as national correspondent for Rolling Stone. Thompson hit the presidential campaign trail, and his stream of monthly Gonzo journalism reports became one of the brighter features of that otherwise sorry year. Now rushed into book form with some additional material …, they seem even better than the first time round—the gaps, delays, and general fooling around have melted away with the heat of events. It simply doesn't matter as much now that he doesn't discuss McGovern's welfare proposals at any length or that the elaborate parliamentary maneuverings of the Democratic convention are no clearer here than they were elsewhere. What remains, instead, is very much what Thompson says he...

(The entire section is 697 words.)

Jonathan Raban

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's taken me a month to get through [Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas], and Thompson's slickly unpleasant sentences still stick in the gullet. Does the road of subjective reporting, of fact-into-fiction, necessarily lead to the New Journalism, to that Death Gulch presided over by the grinning skulls of Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson? In its present phase, the New Journalism is an instrument of vulgar imaginative totalitarianism, and it commands the kind of attention one might give to the psychology of the mass rally or the implications of military uniform. Like these, the style itself endows its wearers with real power…. (p. 97)

[Thompson] has it every way round: he writes fiction without...

(The entire section is 1136 words.)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I worry about the health of Dr. Hunter Thompson. I think I am supposed to do that. He is the most creatively crazy and vulnerable of the New Journalists, seemingly, and scattered throughout his dispatches are alarming reports on his health. Nor are his sicknesses imaginary. In this, his latest book, he gives the opinion of a physician: "He'd never seen anybody with as bad a case of anxiety as I had. He said I was right on the verge of a complete mental, physical, and emotional collapse."

Why would he tell us this? What could this be but a cry for help? And what can we do to help him? It isn't as though he doesn't try to help himself. He isn't like George Orwell, for instance, who is said to have been...

(The entire section is 623 words.)

Jules Witcover

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[If] you accept what Thompson is doing, [Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72] works. That is, this heavily personalized writing-on-the-run, riddled here and there by the clear eye of hindsight, does convey an honest picture of a political writer picking his way through all the hoopla, propaganda, tedium, and exhaustion of a campaign.

For the straight political writer, survival is sought both physically and professionally throughout an election year; keeping the body functioning and the soul unsold. For the advocacy journalist such as Thompson, whose soul straightforwardly was on the barrelhead for George McGovern from the start, the odyssey is much less detached, but for that very...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Wayne C. Booth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

These days The Making of the President 1972 is of course damned, because Theodore White comes too close to accepting President Nixon's view of himself…. Hunter Thompson …, with his [Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail '72] has aroused even more partisan comment: if you hate President Nixon and the American establishment generally, Thompson is good; if not, he's unbelievably bad. (p. 7)

It is true that [Thompson] claims to "record the reality of an incredibly volatile presidential campaign while it was happening" …, but his reality is openly—one might say deliberately—biased. "Combining aggressive ignorance with a natural instinct to mock the conventional wisdom," he would...

(The entire section is 1856 words.)

Morris Dickstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The change in journalism in the sixties showed itself more spectacularly on the fringes than at the center of established institutions. The so-called New Journalism, or "para-journalism," as its critics labeled it, developed parallel to the chief organs of information, influencing them only subtly and gradually, in tandem with the influence of the age….

This work included a broad spectrum of underground writing—political, countercultural, feminist, pornographic, and so on—that dealt with cultural developments ignored, distorted, or merely exploited by the established media. (p. 132)

What these different strands of writing shared was the range of things traditional journalism...

(The entire section is 307 words.)

Jerome Klinkowitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thompson's methods … go beyond traditional fiction into those of more innovative art—techniques and styles tasting more of [Ronald] Sukenick and [Steve] Katz than of [Henry] Fielding and [William] Thackeray. Plus he identifies with (and even becomes a part of) the action more than does Tom Wolfe or most of the other New Journalists. Thompson calls his new style "Gonzo Journalism," and its effect discredits Wolfe's thesis that the techniques of recent fiction are inappropriate for the serious literature of our age.

Thompson began this style with Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga…. As he describes it, "By the middle of summer I had become so involved in the outlaw scene that I was...

(The entire section is 1372 words.)

John Hellmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

By conceiving his journalism as a form of fiction, Thompson has been able to shape actual events into meaningful works of literary art. (p. 16)

New journalists, such as Thompson, and fabulators, such as [Kurt] Vonnegut, make opposing epistemological contracts with the reader for similar ends. While the one promises fact and the other fantasy, both seek a greater freedom for their fictive imaginations. Because they both assume that artifice is an essential element in all knowledge and communication, they even draw on similar techniques. The results are in formal terms so close that a work like On the Campaign Trail, while certainly journalistic in its subject matter, is fabulist in its methods...

(The entire section is 2412 words.)

William F. Buckley, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The "60's," which ran from 1965 to 1974, brought forth a fresh, raw journalism appropriate to the general abandon…. Hunter Thompson is indisputably a hugely important sociological phenomenon. The age's distinctive feature was iconoclasm—anyone in a position of authority was presumptively engaged in nefarious enterprise…. So it was iconoclasm and a personal hedonism expressed in sex, drugs—and rhetoric. (p. 1)

[What] emerges with a most awful vividness from ["The Great Shark Hunt"], presented as a chrestomathy by the most highly accredited bard of the period, is a very nearly unrelieved distemper, and this, along with the tintinnabulary drugs, is so markedly the Sign of Thompson that to...

(The entire section is 682 words.)

Garry Wills

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Apocalypse has come and gone, and what will the psychedelic writers do now—Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson? Did they flame out, like their decade? Their long roller-coaster sentences, whose art was to seem half out of control, caught the veerings of the '60s. It was a breathless time, no one could keep up—take notes as you run, and stop every now and then to exclaim something like, "Just so!"

Mailer got there first…. Thompson came last and most extravagant, using Hawkeye Pierce's technique of homeopathic madness to outlast the time by outcrazying it. Did they capture the time so well that they were captured by it, and have nowhere to go? That may not be true of the other two;...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Ralph Whitehead, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Great Shark Hunt, a Hunter Thompson reader, offers the bulk and flavor of his work in the mainstream and on the margins of popular journalism….

[By] pulling so much of his topical work into a single pile, The Great Shark Hunt … creates a surprising impression. If you drop all these pages of HST at only a few sittings, you're likely to experience a striking acid insight—in spite of the engagingly manic ravings of his Rolling Stone persona, Thompson is actually a conventional writer, provided he's judged by the full body of his work.

For one thing, he's versed in the American classics, and his writing shows it. For the title piece in this reader, and for...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Gene Lyons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As I write, Raoul Duke is standing blindfolded in front of an Iranian firing squad, haggling over the bribe he is offering. For Doonesbury's sake, I hope those atavistic waterheads grease the twisted little bugger; he hasn't been funny for months now. We would all be better off without him. Like Hunter S. Thompson's journalistic style, Uncle Duke has grown predictable….

Perhaps that is a harsher way to put it than Thompson's work deserves. Many people I respect consider Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas an American classic. Certainly parts of it are very funny in a deranged sort of way, mostly the parts that would fit into a George Carlin monologue under the aegis of "How stoned were...

(The entire section is 482 words.)