Today, July 18 2015, is the birthday of Hunter S. Thompson (books by this author), born in Louisville, Kentucky (1937). When he was in high school, his father died of myasthenia gravis, leaving the family impoverished. Thompson’s mother had to take a job as a librarian to support the family, and she turned to the bottle to cope with the loss of her husband. Thompson rebelled and embarked on a brief criminal career during his senior year. He spent a month in jail as accessory to a robbery. As soon as he was released, he got into trouble again. This time, the judge gave him a choice between prison and the military, so he joined the Air Force. He began writing articles for the base’s newspaper, and when he was discharged, he took any newspaper jobs he could get.
His break came in 1964, when The Nation hired him to write about a dangerous new motorcycle gang known as the Hell’s Angels. The short investigative piece he wrote turned into a book deal, and he used his advance to buy a motorcycle. He rode around the country, and wrote about the bikers he met and the adventures he had. Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs was the end result; it was published in 1967, and it became a best-seller.
Thompson was a pioneer of a journalistic style that came to be known as “gonzo journalism.” The journalist becomes part of the story he’s researching, and the story is told through his eyes. There’s usually profanity, sarcasm, and exaggeration so that the line between journalism and fiction becomes blurred – mostly for the protection of the journalist and his subjects. As Thompson told Rolling Stone, “Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.” The style was born, Thompson said, when he was up against a deadline for a piece about the Kentucky Derby. He ended up writing a rambling account of watching the race. “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” appeared in Scanlan’s Monthly in June 1970. People loved it, and Thompson started getting bags of fan mail.
His most famous book started as an assignment for Sports Illustrated. That book is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971). “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” the book begins. He published Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), a collection of his Rolling Stone articles about the 1972 presidential election. He considered Richard Nixon his nemesis, and after Nixon’s death, he wrote an obituary of sorts, titled “He Was a Crook,” for Rolling Stone. “I have had my own bloody relationship with Nixon for many years, but I am not worried about it landing me in hell with him,” Thompson wrote. “I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better person for it.” His final magazine feature article was “Fear and Loathing, Campaign 2004,” reporting on a campaign trip he took with Democratic candidate John Kerry.
Thompson eventually ended up in Aspen, Colorado, where he took great delight in playing pranks on his neighbors. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2005, after a period of illness. Per his request, his ashes were shot from a cannon while Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” played.