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Hunter S. Thompson: The Dean of Gonzo Journalism Essay (Biography)

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Biography

Hunter S. Thompson was born July 18, 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky. His father died when he was very young. As he was raised by an alcoholic mother, he started drinking himself when he was 11. He attended I.N. Bloom Elementary School and Atherton High School and after the death of his father he was transferred to Louisville Male High School. He joined the Athenaeum Literary Association the same year he got transferred. It was a school sponsored literary and social club having members from Louisville’s wealthiest families. The club included big names like Porter Bibb and Ted Turner. Thompson contributed articles and helped edit the year book, but he was thrown out of the club in 1955 due to his constant legal problems.

He graduated when he was serving a six week sentence for robbery. This was not the first time he went to jail, but this is where his conflict with the law started. This conflict can be clearly seen in his writings, where he shows his constant connection with drugs, gangs and crime. A week after his release, he joined U.S. Air Force. Thompson did his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. In 1956 he applied to become a pilot but got rejected and transferred to Eglin Air Force Base, near Pensacola, Florida. This is where his career in journalism began. He became sports editor for the base’s newspaper. Though it against Air Force Regulations to work outside, Thompson wrote for another sports magazine too. This was his style; he would always do something out of norm, rules and regulations. This style of Thompson’s can be clearly seen in his articles and even in his letters. He travelled with the football team around the U.S. covering its games. Though he excelled as a journalist he was always interested in literature. He was very much influenced by the writers of that time. Such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Ayn Rand, but H.L. Mencken made the greatest influence on his career. His relationship with Kentucky also had a great impact on his writings.

He had a very weird way of studying the writers he loved. In order to find out about the particular style of a writer, he used to transcribe his work on a typewriter. He typed “A farewell to arms” and “The Great Gatsby”. He also had a hobby of keeping record of all of his correspondences. His controversial life style, his drinking habits and use of drugs, made his weird writing habits and his flamboyant writing style.

After receiving an honorable discharge from the Air Force in 1957, he started to work as a sports editor for a newspaper in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania. After sometime he moved to New York and started attending Columbia University’s School Of General Studies. There he learned about short story writing on G.I. Bill (Brinkley, 139). During this time he worked as a copy boy for Time Magazine. This shows he was a man of dignity and did not feel ashamed working as a copy boy, but he did feel bad about his country’s corruption problem. This hatred can be felt in his articles he wrote about Nixon’s campaign.

In 1959 he got tired of the climate in the east and became determined to move to the Caribbean. In 1960 he moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Nine months later he returned to New York and stated working on his novel “The Rum Diary” which, was based on his time in the Caribbean. After a few months he went to west coast and settled in Big Sur. While in Big Sur he wrote an article for The Rogue Magazine. Due to this article he was later kicked out of his house by his land lady, who did not like the way he characterized local inhabitants in his article. At that time he was constantly travelling. This constant travelling, tiring conditions and pressing deadlines made him an extempore writer. He wrote whatever came in his mind and this on the cuff writing made him famous.

From May 1962 to May 1963 Thompson travelled to South America to write for National Observer. He worked for Brazil Herald while he stayed there. He worked with National Observer for quite some time writing on variation of domestic subjects. In 1964 he visited Idaho to investigate Hemingway’s suicide. That was his last work with National Observer. After this he moved to San Francisco and started writing for The Spider.

Thompson got married in 1963, to Sandy Conklin. Though the couple conceived almost five times, none of the children survived. After seventeen years of marriage the couple got divorced in 1980 (Whitmer, pp. 23-27).

His work

In 1964 what is today known as the “Gonzo Journalism” started. Thompson believed that there was nothing more important and interesting than a reporter’s perception of what was going on. He was at that time writing for The National Observer. Once again Thompson moved to San Francisco.

In 1965 editor of The Nation offered Thompson the opportunity to write about ‘Hell’s Angels’, a motorcycle gang. After the publication of his article he was offered to write a book on the same subject. For this purpose he spent the entire next year living with the Hell’s Angels. This was a very dangerous thing to do, but Thompson was a dangerous man. One can feel his risky and venturesome attitude in this book.

After suspecting that Thompson would make money out of this relationship the angels asked for their share and when he could not give them any, they beat him severely and this is when his relationship with the gang ended. In 1966, the first edition of his book ‘Hell’s Angels: The Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang’ was published by Random House.

A reviewer working for New York Times praised Thompson’s work as;

“Angry, knowledgeable, fascinating and excitedly written book,”

He also praised him as: “Spirited, witty, observant and original writer; his prose crackles like motorcycle exhaust.” (Smith, p. 33)

Due to this success Thompson received numerous offers from various popular publications like ‘The New York Times Magazine’, Esquire and Saturday Evening Post. In the late 1960’s Thompson wrote an article entitled ‘The Hashbury is the capital of Hippies’ for Times Magazine. He did not just write about the hippie culture but got so immersed in the culture himself that this indulgence could be noted in his article.

In 1968 Thompson purchased a house near Woody Creek, Colorado. Woody creek was a small mountain hamlet near Aspen. In the peace and quiet of Aspen, Thompson wanted to write the death of American dream. This book never got finished but he made sure he worked on the theme later on.

Thompson then signed a contract with Ballantine Books in 1968, promising that he will write a book named ‘The Johnson File’. Very soon this contract was cancelled by Thompson himself.

In the early sixties, Universal Life church presented Thompson with the title of ‘Doctor’.

In 1970, Thompson wrote an article named ‘The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved’ for Scanlan’s Monthly. It was the first time Thompson used Gonzo Journalism style. Thompson met Bill Cardoso in a bus full of journalists. After the publication of his article ‘Kentucky Derby’, Cardoso praised Thompson by saying: “This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.” (Douglas, n.p)

Thompson really liked the word Gonzo; he took that word right away and said this is what his work should be called. His first published use of the word was cited in ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’.

‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ was one of Thompson’s best works. The center of this book is the character named Raoul Duke, who is actually Thompson’s alter ego. He has portrayed him as an eccentric, cynical and a drug addict. At a lower level of course, Thompson also had these qualities, a reflection of which can be seen in his other writings too.

This Novel was greeted with considerable critical acclaim. All through the next year Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone covering the elections of Richard Nixon. The articles were combined to publish as ‘Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail 72’. This book focuses mainly on Nixon as a Democratic Party leader. Thompson followed the ‘campaign trail’ all through the campaign. During this time he became very critical of Nixon. In one of his articles in the rolling stone (which later became ‘Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail 72’) he wrote about Nixon that:

Could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time” and said “his casket [should] have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. [He] was an evil man—evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it” (Hunter, n.p)

Thompson was again asked to provide a similar article for 1976 Presidential Election. Somehow this article did not happen. However the Publisher of Rolling Stone asked Thompson to travel to Vietnam to report on the Vietnam War. As soon as he reached the country he found out that all journalists were evacuating. Hence yet another work of Thompson got halted before it even started. After this Thompson contributed very less work to the Rolling Stone, as he found out that both of his works were stopped due to the publisher’s orders. This was against his nature. He was one of those people, who, if got angry, would come looking for you with a gun in his hand. His love for weaponry and his self destructive nature made his style blunt less and grave.

In 1980 ‘Where the Buffalo Roam’ was released. It was a loose film on the adaptation of Thompsons work in 1970’s. Thompson then moved to Hawaii to work on his new novel ‘The Curse of Lono’.

In 1983, he wrote about the U.S. invasion on Grenada. In the same year he wrote an article for the Rolling Stone called ‘A Dog took my place’. It was a work on Roxanne Pulitzer’s divorce. Shortly after this Thompson started to write a novel named ‘The Night Manager’. For this he visited many strip clubs in San Francisco. But the novel never got published. In early 1990 he started working on yet another novel ‘Polo is my Life’. A small part of this novel was printed in the Rolling Stone in 1994. The novel was to be published in 1999 by Random House, but this also never got materialized.

From the mid 1980’s until the end of the decade Thompson became a media critic, whereas he also continued writing for the Rolling Stone. Some of his publications were, ‘Fear and Loathing in Elko’, ‘Mr. Bill’s Neighborhood’; ‘Better than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie’ and ‘Fear and Loathing, Campaign 2004’.

In December 1996, Thompson was named ‘Kentucky Colonel’ by the government of Kentucky (Whitehead, n.p).

After late 1970’s a 4 volume book series called ‘The Gonzo Papers’ was published. It had all of Thompson’s work from ‘The Shark Hunt’ in 1979 to ‘Better than Sex’ in 1994.

Thompson: an influential writer

Thompson became very influential. Why? It’s very simple. He had something new for the readers. He never gave just facts and figures; instead he injected himself in the particular situation, added a fictitious element and a little bit of exaggeration. The amalgam of all this, though very confusing in the beginning, makes sense in the end. This confusion in the beginning makes the reader read it till the end in order to unravel the story. He was almost always the centre of attention. His novels made you feel like being on a journey. His criminal behavior and his nonchalant attitude is visible in all his writings. His reports were more of an excursion. He was an outlaw but not an offensive one. His writings and his lifestyle were reflections of each other.

Thompson is known as the dean of gonzo journalism. His writing style is considered to be new and modern form of journalism. His writing style was very different from the reporters at that time. In those days the reporters used an objective style where they just reported the facts and figures. Thompson became popular because he always wrote in the first person, using his own experiences and emotions. This attracted the readers because it was a totally new style. His aim was to be humorous and bizarre.

Thompson portrays himself as an author who is callus, erratic and self destructive. He also calls Himself alcohol and drug addict. He uses a blend of fact and fiction. A number of critics say that as Thompson grew older the characteristics of his work that distinguished him from others deteriorated, but whatever he wrote was indeed the best.

Thompson’s books have become a must to read. It is not what he writes but the way he writes. His words catch actions as they happen; his form is wild and breathless; the element of fiction blurring the scenes and then making sense in the end. His writings have no social barrier and are famous in diametrically opposite audiences, like law enforcement officials, politicians, journalists and especially young and restless youth. He was certainly the undisputed king of Gonzo Journalism. Thompson had old fashioned principles such as working hard and telling the truth. People think he is different because of his obsession with liquor, guns and drugs, but I think he is different because he is truthful. He is not just one of America’s but one of world’s best writers. We can compare him with writers such as Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs.

Majority of Thompsons work appeared in the Rolling stone. Thompson was the only staff writer who never contributed any article on music but his articles were sometimes topped with a wide collection of music references. Thompson owned a fax machine, which he carried everywhere he went. Sometimes the articles he sent via his machine were written so haphazardly that it was almost impossible to read them.

Thompson mixed the facts and fiction so well that it was very difficult to understand where the truth ends and the lie begins. Thompson said that people will believe any kind of twisted story about politicians. And he was right.

Thompson took his writings as a quest. He went into a situation as an observer, in order to write about it, but his presence not only changed the events but also it became more important than the event itself. Thompson made journalism look like a dangerous but fantastic occupation. For a generation of students, journalism became a work for people who smoked cigarettes and wore glasses no matter what time of the day it was.

Robert love, Thompson’s editor at the Rolling stone said about him and his work:

I never drank with Hunter, nor did I do drugs with him, but I was his editor on about a dozen pieces over three decades and with three magazines. Some of these were short and pointed, like the obloquy for Richard Nixon on the occasion of his death or his review of Kitty Kelley’s loathsome book on Nancy Reagan. Two were lengthy gonzo creations for Rolling Stone. The first, “Fear and Loathing in Elko,” took the reader on a fanciful night ride through Nevada, where Hunter ran into Clarence Thomas driving two surly hookers through sheep country. “Polo Is My Life, Part I” followed the Aspen polo team to the U.S. Open at the Meadowbrook Club on Long Island, and included a long bar chat with the ghost of Averell Harriman.” (Robert. n.p)

Thompson was one of a kind. He stepped beyond who, what, where, when and why mentality of the reporters of that time. He tried to deliver something that was not subjective. He believed that more important than the fact itself is the opinion the reporter has. He never called himself a reporter but a writer. He had something new.

Thompson wrote many letters. He saved a carbon copy of each for himself. He saved about 20,000 letters. Most of his correspondences were typed. Some of his letters were published under the name of ‘The Fear and Loathing Letters’.

His wife said that he was very patriotic to his country and his friends. He believed that our nation was better than what we elected.

Conclusion

Thompson committed suicide on February 20, 2005. Many biographies have been written on him, but he never wrote an autobiography of himself. At the time of his suicide his daughter in law and grandson were present in the adjacent room. They thought they heard a book falling but it was a gunshot. When they went to the room where Thompson was present, they found that he was sitting at his type writer with the words ‘counselor’ written in the middle. Thompson’s wife was on the phone with him when he shot himself.

He gave a suicide not to his wife four days before his death. But obviously the way he wrote it nobody could understand that it was a suicide note.

Thompson’s ashes were fired on August 20, 2005 from a cannon which he designed himself in the shape of a fist clutching a peyote button. Red, White, Blue and green fireworks were launched along with his ashes. There were about 280 people in the funeral. U.S Senator John Kerry and former U.S senator George McGovern also attended it. Actor Johnny Depp financed the funeral. He also played the role of Raoul Duke (Thompson’s fictional alter ego) in the movie adaptation ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’.

Works Cited

  1. Fremont-Smith, Eliot. 1967. Books of the Times; Motorcycle Misfits—Fiction and Fact. The New York Times
  2. Brinkley, Douglas. 2005. Last Days at Owl Farm: Rolling Stone.
  3. Love, Robert. 2005. A Technical Guide For Editing Gonzo. Columbia Journalism Review.
  4. Martin, Douglas, 2006. Editor Who Coined ‘Gonzo’, Is Dead. The New York Times.
  5. Mendenhall, Merideth. n.d. Web.
  6. Thompson, Hunter S. 1994. He Was a Crook Rolling Stone.
  7. Whitehead, Ron. 2005. . Web.
  8. Whitmer, Peter O. (1993). When The Going Gets Weird: The Twisted Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson

Appendix A

List of his published works

  • Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, Random House, 1966
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, illustrated by Ralph Steadman, Random House, 1972, published with and introduction by P.J. O’Rourke as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Other American Stories, Modern Library, 1996
  • Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, illustrated by Steadman, Straight Arrow Books, 1973
  • The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time; Gonzo Papers, Volume One, Summit Books, 1979
  • The Curse of Lono, illustrated by Steadman, Bantam, 1983
  • (contributor) Etel Adnan, Russell Chatham, Winn Books, 1984
  • Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s; Gonzo Papers, Volume Two, Summit Books, 1988
  • (Author of Introduction) Steadman, America, Fantagraphics Books, 1989
  • Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream; Gonzo Papers, Volume Three, Summit Books, 1990
  • Silk Road: Thirty-three Years in the Passing Lane, Simon & Schuster, 1990
  • Untitled Novel, David McKay, 1992
  • Better than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie; Gonzo Papers, Volume Four, Random House, 1993
  • The Proud Highway: The Saga of a Desperate southern Gentleman, 1995-1967, Villard (New York City), 1997
  • (Author of Introduction) Ralph Steadman, Gonzo: The Art, Harcourt (New York City), 1998
  • The Rum Diary: The Long Lost Novel, Simon & Schuster (New York City), 1998
  • Screwjack, 1991 (self-published in limited quantity).
  • Screwjack is also a 64 page e-book in conjunction with Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976. They can be purchased at iPublish for $15 (Staff).
  • (Merideth. n.p.)
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