It’s dangerous to write about Louisville’s most celebrated writer, who died nine years ago tomorrow. “Hunter S. Thompson, the maverick journalist and author whose savage chronicling of the underbelly of American life and politics embodied a new kind of nonfiction writing he called ‘gonzo journalism’ died yesterday in Colorado,” reported The New York Times. “He was 65.”
The Washington Post wrote, “Thompson, 67, was celebrated as a practitioner of an outraged form of personal journalism, offering off-beat ideas and observations in a style that was wildly and vividly his own and that brought him a cult-like status and widespread recognition.” The Post got his age right; he was 67.
“Arguably, Thompson wasn’t really a journalist so much as a profane, lyrical, hyperactive critic of American culture,” wrote David Emery in his “Urban Legends” column. “The New Journalism of the early ’60s tipped the sacred cow of objective reporting on its ear; Gonzo Journalism … slaughtered it and tossed it on the barbie.”
Emery’s painstaking mission was to identify the variously attributed subject of one of Thompson’s diatribes. It was television. “The TV business is uglier than most things,” Thompson wrote in a column for The San Francisco Examiner. “It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long, plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”
Thompson had a love-hate relationship with TV. In a blistering 1994 obituary for Richard Nixon published in The Atlantic, he wrote, “Nixon’s meteoric rise from the unemployment line to the vice presidency in six quick years would never have happened if TV had come along 10 years earlier.”
“He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time,” Thompson inveighed. He’d stabbed Nixon in the front, telling him how hatred for him had brought his family together. Nixon laughed and told him, “Don’t worry. I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same about you.”
In the same piece, Thompson explained his antipathy for traditional journalism. “Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House … You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly …”
Thompson liked JFK. Amid his post-assassination “fear and loathing,” Thompson wrote to Paul Semonin, “This savage, unbelievable killing, this monstrous stupidity, has guaranteed that my children and yours will be born in a shitrain.”
Two outstanding retrospectives on Thompson offer insights into his genre. Kevin Kizer of “Literary Kicks” noted the New Journalists “felt that there was nothing more interesting than the reporter’s perception of what was going on — not just the facts and figures.”
Andie Tucher wrote that Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote also were dismissing “disingenuous, dull and inadequate” traditions in favor of “an unapologetically personal point of view, and sometimes embraced the principle that a higher truth could come from a lower threshold of strict accuracy.”
Tucher also referenced Thompson’s landmark essay, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” as “a drunken mob scene overrun by” what Thompson described as “the whiskey gentry — a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture.”
“A large part of the story was about his own extravagant adventures,” Tucher wrote. “Thompson confessed he had barely been able to see” (the race).
“I’d blown my mind, couldn’t work,” an openly drug-addicted Thompson told Playboy. “I was sure it was the last article I was ever going to do for anybody.” Instead, it was like “falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids.”
In memoriam, William Randolph Hearst III told The Times, “We will miss his words.” Mercifully, we won’t. They survive in a dozen books as well as thousands of dispatches, letters and quotes, including this: “Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy, piss-ridden little hole nailed off by a building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”