Happy Birthday, Hunter…

[UPDATE] Hunter’s widow, Anita, has a nice post on Hunter’s birthday at Owl Farm Blog.


You may have noticed that Hunter Thompson is back on the masthead. Today would have been The Doctor’s 70th birthday (July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005), and we thought it appropriate to honor the memory of a journalist who was an incredible influence on a number of our writers.

I originally wrote the piece below when he died, and since I think it addresses a number of issues that are as important today as they ever were, I’ve chosen to offer it up for reflection.

Happy Birthday, Hunter, wherever you are…

HST: a champion for social justice cashes his check

– I heard the news today, oh boy…

(February 22, 2005) – One of the brightest lights in the American firmament blinked out Sunday. Word of Hunter Thompson’s death arrived at our house via the crawl on the network happy news this morning , and there’s irony enough in that fact alone.

I barely know where to start. Most of us don’t get a lot of practice eulogizing our heroes, and even if we did, Thompson wasn’t the sort whose passing fits into any kind of usable template. So I guess I’m going to have to wing it, huh?

Hunter Stockton Thompson, the Good Doctor, is most remembered for his over-the-top tours des excès – Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas being the most famous – pieces where he was writing under the influence of enough narcotics and Wild Turkey to buckle the knees of a moderately sized Central American nation. And why not – Hunter was fun. He was outrageous. He was the sort of balls-to-the-wall, larger-than-life, fuck-all-authority rebel a lot of us probably fantasize about being. He lived life on his own terms, and if he was tortured by demons, they were by god his own demons. Even as I admit that’s probably not the life I’d choose for myself if I had a magic wand, it’s hard not to respect such a fierce refusal to compromise.

It’s not the gonzo high spots I’ll remember him for, though. What has gotten so lost in the legend that Thompson became (and the self-parody he sometimes lapsed into later in his career) is that he was a damned fine reporter. Forget gonzo for a second. Before HST became an icon of the New Journalism he was an exceptional practitioner of a more conventional journalism, something that’s evident to anybody who’s read the early works collected in The Great Shark Hunt: Gonzo Papers, Volume 1.

Thompson had a gift for the details and one of the best crap detectors in history. His flawless nose for the truths, dynamics, and motivations driving the players starring in his stories lent those narratives a quality that somehow fused unflinching naturalism with sweeping mythology.

Read “A Southern City with Northern Problems,” for instance, where Thompson examines the issue of race in his native Louisville:

The white power structure has given way in the public sector, only to entrench itself more firmly in the private. And the Negro – especially the educated Negro – feels that his victories are hollow and his “progress” is something he reads about in the newspapers. The outlook for Louisville’s Negroes may have improved from “separate but equal” to “equal but separate.” But that still leaves a good deal to be desired.

Read Hell’s Angels, Thompson’s landmark study of one of America’s unique subcultures. This wasn’t just exceptional journalism, it was some of the best scholarship I’ve ever read. It was ethnography, the anthropological study of cultures, and whereas some anthropologists study the rites, rituals and folkways of natives in exotic faraway jungles, Thompson studied the rites, rituals and folkways of natives living in exotic faraway Oakland.

As a doctoral student in a mass communication program that was heavily influenced by both British and American Cultural Studies traditions, I always wondered why we never read Hell’s Angels for any of our classes. Well, okay, that’s not true – I know exactly why we never studied Hell’s Angels. But we should have. The study would have made perfect sense on so many levels – especially when it came time to caution the intrepid field researcher against the perils of “going native.”

Read Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail, which remains perhaps the greatest political book I’ve ever encountered. While Thompson became famous for harpooning Nixon – “a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president [who] was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning” – Campaign Trail made clear that you didn’t have to pick sides. He lashed on the Democrats more violently than he did Nixon, in fact (“[t]here is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey is until you’ve followed him around for a while on the campaign trail,” and for good measure, “Humphrey campaigned like a caged rat in heat”). And for good reason. There’s plenty of ineptitude and corruption in both camps, it turns out – a lesson America circa 2005 would do well to learn.

As tragic as Thompson’s death is – has there been a time when we needed his honesty and brutality more than we do now? – I was somewhat heartened by the explosion of tributes around the Web yesterday. My e-mail box was buried by individual notes and list mailings from all directions, with some issuing from journalists saying they’d never have become reporters in the first place without his influence. Almost every blog I checked had, at the very least, a link to an obit, which is more than appropriate given how important, how absolutely essential the pioneering work of people like Thompson and Wolfe has been to the brand of interpretive journalism being practiced in the more enlightened corners of cyberspace.

Further, his death arrives at a moment when the journalism industry is finally starting to contemplate issues that Thompson was railing about four decades ago. A number of very serious figures in the field have recently begun examining the repeated failings of objectivity in the press, with one – Geneva Overholser of the highly respected Missouri School of Journalism – telling the Hartford Courant that 2004 was “the year when it finally became unmistakably clear that objectivity has outlived its usefulness as an ethical touchstone for journalism.” Her complaint makes perfect sense to those who were actually paying attention to reporting during the last election cycle: “The way it is currently construed, ‘objectivity’ makes the media easily manipulable by an executive branch intent on and adept at controlling the message.” Her concern is echoed by people like Steve Lovelady, managing editor of, and Washington and Lee University journalism professor Ed Wasserman, who calls what the public gets now “negotiated news.” Daniel Okrent, the New York Times‘ public editor explains that negotiated news is “where the response is dictated by efforts to keep people off your back” instead of the desire to report the actual news.

Of course, Thompson called the institution of Objective Journalism out by name in Campaign Trail, and in the epilogue to his 1994 book, Better Than Sex (a section he entitled “Chapter 666: The Death of Richard Nixon”), he laid the blame for Nixon on the doorstep of the journalism establishment, writing that:

“[s]ome 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 in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

Hunter tried to teach us that objectivity is a rule set that can be gamed, corrupted, and shaped into a weapon for use against the very principles it was developed to protect. He tried to teach us that fact and truth aren’t the same thing. Quoting Faulkner, he noted that “the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism – and the best journalists have always known this.” He set an uncompromising determination to get at the truth ahead of what he saw as artificial rules and conventions, and if the “facts” got in the way of the truth, well, that told you something about the facts, didn’t it?

Although I never heard him say it in these words, Hunter S. Thompson I think understood the artificial Red/Blue, Conservative/Liberal divide that most Americans seem to have bought into for the cynical construction that it is – a rhetorical fluff job that turns Americans with common cause against each other and that serves the power elites in both parties to the detriment of the public they take turns fleecing.

There was a divide, in Thompson’s world – no doubt about that – but it wasn’t Left/Right, it was Top/Bottom. He was a working man born in the borderlands of the rapidly (and sometimes violently) evolving mid-century South, and his reporting reflects an unfailing empathy for those who spent most of their lives scrambling for a foothold on the lower rungs of the political and economic ladder. The rich and powerful were usually cast as evil, soulless swine, and his sense of social and moral justice provided countless column inches to individuals and groups who’d been ignored or silenced by a society that cared way more about money than justice.

In short, Hunter Thompson was a champion of the common people. Yes, his reporting was so crazed at times that you couldn’t be sure if you were reading an eyewitness account or a drug-addled hallucination. But he remained to the end one of the most unswervingly ethical reporters of our generation, a man whose commitment to social justice and the public good trumped everything.

8 replies »

  1. Remember that the original Hells Angels were a product of returning veterans no longer fitting into a society that used them and then tried to discard them. These inconvenient organizations seem to appear after a lot of wars. Another one will be ending soon. Meanwhile, how America treats its returning veterans might be something to think about.

  2. Nice tribute, Sam. Didn’t realize “Hell’s Angels,” which I missed, was such an important work.

    Loved HST, even his late-life ESPN columns. Only problem — shooting self while on phone to wife. Serious karmic black mark.

    If you ever want to read an unusually informal interview with him (2003), check out the one I excerpted below from Freezerbox (full disc. — I edit). . .

    “OK, then. What is the state of the American dream today?

    “Oh, god. That’s a pretty pre-thought out, written-on-a-list kind of question. Not very good. Yeah, I would say not. The American Dream ran out with the American century. I’m still figuring it out. That’s a pretty strong statement. I’m still putting the pieces together right now.”

  3. Interviewer: What do you think Horatio Alger would do if he was alive today?

    Thompson: He’d probably be a terrorist.

    Nearly choked on that one – I’d give anything to have met the man, interviewed him, anything. Great link.

    And yeah, go get Hell’s Angels. Incredibly important. Not quite as much fun as Campaign Trail or Las Vegas, maybe, but every bit as vital.

  4. I always knew I wanted to or should have read his stuff. I think I’ll search some out quite soon.

    The only exposure I’ve had to the man was the movie. How would you rate that? Close or left field?

  5. You mean the Johnny Depp/Terry Gilliam “Las Vegas?” Pretty good flick, although you only get the Las Vegas Hunter. That’s a defining moment for him, but in truth I’ve always thought he did some other stuff that was better.

  6. That was the one. I wanted to be sure I didn’t place too much weight on the only exposure I’ve had if it wasn’t merited. I’d ask which one to read first, but it’ll likely come down to availability and the luck of the draw.