We were six weeks into a trail building project in Phoenix and I was looking for something to do. My teammate handed me a book, a little paper-bound novel with an acid trip on the cover. I cracked it open and the first sentence read “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Instantly, I was hooked.
That was my first brush with the writing of one of the greatest American writers, a man who has become one of my personal heroes. He fathered an entire school of journalism, covered elections, presidencies and horse races with rapier wit and barbed pen, and survived more drug use than anybody short of Ozzy Osbourne.
Colorful doesn’t begin to cover it. Love him or hate him, the one thing a politician never dared do was ignore him. His name was Hunter S. Thompson.
Thompson was born on July 18, 1937 in Louisville, Ky. Following a turbulent childhood, he served 60 days in prison for abetting a robbery. Subsequently joining the Air Force, he served for two years before being honorably discharged in 1958. It was then that he began his journalism career.
He wrote for a variety of papers, traveled around the world, got married and worked a number of jobs until, in 1966, he got his first big published work. “Hell’s Angels, The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs” was the result of Thompson spending a year riding and living with the Hell’s Angels. After the book’s success, Thompson was able to write for a number of major publications, including the New Yorker and Esquire.
He published several more novels over the course of his life, including his most famous work, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” a piece about journalist Raoul Duke and his Samoan attorney Dr. Gonzo running wild in Las Vegas over a long weekend.
One of Thompson’s greatest contributions to the field of American literature was his pioneering work in the field of gonzo journalism, a style of journalistic writing that rejected the pretense of objectivity and involved the author as a part of the story. Usually told from a first person perspective, the great strength of Thompson’s gonzo journalism was that its subjective style communicated the human element of the events he covered.
Indeed, the subjective approach made him a more reliable source of information in some ways, since you always knew exactly how far and in what direction the articles were slanted. He set the stage for other subjectivist news coverage, including the unexpected reliance on shows like the Daily Show and the Colbert Report for actual journalistic news reporting. Thompson saw objective journalism as a “pompous contradiction in terms,” blaming the industry’s emphasis on objective writing for the rampant corruption in American politics.
Nowhere was this plainer than in his decades-long battle with Richard Nixon. Thompson and Nixon were the best of enemies until Nixon’s death. Thompson famously wrote in Nixon’s obituary that the man had been able to slither into the White House through the blind spots in objective journalism, that you “had to get subjective to see Nixon clearly.”
Thompson wasn’t just a journalistic pioneer. He was also a literary genius and totally dedicated to his craft. His unique way of writing was so powerful and evocative that his readers report seeing visions themselves after reading his descriptions of drug-fueled hallucinations and acid binges.
On the strength of his writing alone, he inspired hundreds of people to jump in their cars and make for the Nevada border, hoping to catch a sniff of the experiences he portrayed in Vegas. In the course of pursuing stories, he survived vicious beatings, gunfights and his own lifestyle all in the name of the craft to which he dedicated his life. He never set out to be famous, but fame found him.