After reading the new oral biography of Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo, by Thompson’s friend and patron, Rolling Stone chief Jann Wenner, and former R.S. writer Corey Seymour, I have come to believe that Thompson deserves his iconic status in the history of American letters. Many will disagree, wondering how in the world a drug addicted, alcoholic man-child with a regrettably low output of truly important work can be so celebrated. It is true that when compared to that of some of his well known contemporaries – Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe, for example – Thompson’s oeuvre appears paltry. The drugs took their toll, and at some point Thompson just could not recapture his original form.
Gonzo gives us a compound view of Hunter Thompson through the words of most, if not all, of those who were closest to him. This mosaic approach, not limited to the distillations of a single mind, is informative, of course, but the book is also surprisingly well conceived and assembled. It is as easy to enjoy as vanilla ice cream. What struck me most was how often different people echoed common impressions of Thompson, from his legendary tolerance for drugs and booze, his obsession with guns, the exhausting torment of acting as Hunter’s “handler” when he was out on the road, to the thoughtfulness with which he approached a conversation, as prepared to be educated as he was to educate. More biographies should be constructed this way.
Thompson earned his iconic status by capturing the essence of a singularly ticklish chapter in American history. The sixties and seventies were War and Peace to the post-WWII era’s Hop on Pop, which is to say, history became denser, a lot more difficult to parse out and interpret, a lot more contradictory and complex, as America passed through a crucible of change. Civil Rights, Vietnam, Kennedy, Nixon. Sex, drugs, rock and roll; Peace, love, and violence. Youth movements. Thompson’s brash style and often illicit subject matter will always resonate with young people. But more important than the surface bombast is the fact that because of the commentary of writers like Hunter Thompson, people of my generation have a sense that something about that time period was a little off, a vague notion that promises went unfulfilled. What is more difficult to recognize is the profound way that that era shaped the America that we were born into. The wave may have broken and rolled back, but not before fundamentally reshaping the landscape. America is still scratching its head over the 60s, still trying to figure out what the hell happened, like a drunk waking up in a strange hotel room wearing someone else’s clothes, wondering how he got there.
Hunter Thompson put a voice to that era. Gonzo journalism is more than a catchy turn of phrase: it is an approach that Thompson pretty much invented, purists be damned. That approach matched perfectly to those tempestuous times as observed through raging, bloodshot eyes. When Thompson let loose on the political and cultural Scene, the result was truth in seething absurdity. Wenner’s role in helping to legitimize this risky style of reporting cannot be overstated. Rolling Stone was the purveyor of Thompson’s most significant work. Without Jann Wenner, there would be no Hunter Thompson. Then again, can we imagine a Rolling Stone without Thompson’s seminal contributions?
For better or for worse, Hunter S. Thompson is an American literary icon. Anti-establishment impresario, counter-cultural crank, Thompson not only chronicled but actually helped to author the zeitgeist of the sixties and seventies. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thompson did not simply write about the times in which he lived, he lived them, and in moments of clarity he was able to fashion true wisdom out of what he saw:
San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run … History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash … You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.
And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil … Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
(Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Raoul Duke, Rolling Stone no. 95, Nov. 11 1971, pp. 44-46)
The man was a walking (lurching) symbol of how all that activism, all those good vibrations, yielded to atavistic hedonism and paranoia. His writings for Rolling Stone were madcap dispatches from the front line of a cultural battleground in which America, its customs, institutions, and leaders, stood poised to fall prey to the fear of fear itself. He better than any other writer was able to evoke such turbulence.
Like Fitzgerald, Thompson outlived his time, through a miracle of corporeal endurance. His decision to shoot himself on February 20, 2005, constituted the final rebellious act of an old soldier who was loathe to fade away. No one who knew him could claim to be surprised that he went out with a bang.