Thompson, Hunter S(tockton)

(1937–2005)
   Although not usually considered a full-fledged member of the Beat Generation, Hunter S. Thompson maintained an association with several principle Beat figures. Thompson’s body of work would seem at first to be at odds ideologically with that of the Beats in that he did not embrace the spirituality and communal living that were usually associated with Beat writers, but he shares several vital characteristics with them. Above all, Thompson and the Beats write with an uncompromising, truth-seeking intensity that does not shy from unauthorized accounts of American culture and unconventional views of the individual’s place in American society. Ultimately, Thompson differs ideologically from some of the main currents of thought in Beat writing and, in fact, became one of their most outstanding critics. Nevertheless, Thompson and such Beats as allen ginsberg, neal cassady, and ken kesey always maintained a respectful admiration of each other due to the earnestness and integrity of their respective attempts to investigate, critique, and influence their surrounding culture.
   Thompson was probably born on July 18, 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky. Most sources agree upon 1937 as his birth year, although several sources claim it was 1939. True to character, Thompson himself never provided clarification on this matter. From the start he was someone who took unconventional routes and someone who had a conflicted relationship with traditional values and authority. In high school, Thompson was a gifted athlete but was also prone to run-ins with the local authorities. Several arrests and a 30-day jail sentence for robbery in 1956 prevented Thompson from graduating, although he later received his diploma through the air force, which he joined a week after leaving high school. It was in the air force that Thompson began his work in journalism. While assigned to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, he became a staff writer and sports editor for the base newspaper. Following an honorable discharge due to general insubordination and his moonlighting activities on a local civilian paper, Thompson briefly held a reporting job in Pennsylvania before winding up in New York City where he first worked as a low-level copy writer for Time magazine and where he also took a few formal classes in journalism at Columbia University. But the Time job did not last long either, and due to his continual unruly, defiant behavior, Thompson would continue to migrate from job to job throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s (he was fired from one paper for driving a writer’s car into the river, another for destroying the office candy machine). During this period, Thompson also fell under the influence of the Beats and embarked on a cross-country journey of discovery inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the road.
   Despite his notoriously difficult nature, Thompson began to amass a prolific body of journalistic work and a reputation as a highly competent, if highly eccentric, reporter. Among other publications, he wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, the Chicago Tribune, and the National Observer, for which he became the South American correspondent from 1961 to 1963. Returning to the United States, Thompson settled in the Bay area on the West Coast where he became acquainted with Beat writers Kesey and Ginsberg.
   He began to write for the Nation after once again being fired, this time from the Observer, for inflammatory remarks. All the while, Thompson was carving a niche as a reporter of the burgeoning counterculture movement and was asked to write a piece for the Nation on the motorcycle gang known as the Hell’s Angels. This assignment led him to immerse himself in the culture of the Hell’s Angels for almost a year and ultimately resulted in the publication of his first book, Hell’s anGels: a stranGe and terriBle saGa (1967). While the book provided an intimate glimpse inside the gang’s activities, it also examined the media’s role in the creation of the gang’s notorious reputation and featured Thompson’s unique, novelistic, and subjective style of reportage that he eventually coined “gonzo journalism.” In gonzo journalism, the reporter’s involvement in the story becomes as crucial to the story as the subject being reported. During the research for his book, Thompson introduced the Angels to the San Francisco Beat world of Kesey, Ginsberg, and Cassady. The association between the Angels and the Beats was short-lived, but Thompson makes his observations on their ideological differences that were central to his conclusions in Hell’s Angels, and the book furthermore cemented Thompson as one of the foremost cultural critics of the 1960s.
   Thompson’s newfound journalistic celebrity resulted in a Pageant magazine assignment to interview Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon in 1968 and to follow him on the campaign trail. He wound up at the Democratic National Convention that year in Chicago and both witnessed and was victimized by the police brutality during the rioting. It was a pivotal moment for Thompson. As he later remarked, “I went to the Democratic Convention as a journalist and returned as a raving beast.” Thompson became increasingly wary of politics but also much more critical of its reach: “We have to get into politics-if only in self-defense.” This stance actually led Thompson to run for the office of sheriff in his new home, Aspen, Colorado, in 1970. He did not win, but he was one of the strongest voices in Aspen’s famous ongoing “Freak Power” campaign that hoped to ban all commercial exploitation of the region, preserve its natural splendor, and establish a haven of antiauthoritarian civil rights for its residents. Earlier that year, in June 1970, Thompson published “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” for Scanlan’s Monthly. British illustrator Ralph Steadman worked with Thompson on the piece. The result of Thompson’s quick editing of his notes resulted in an accidental breakthrough in journalistic writing that furthered Thompson’s gonzo style.
   Thompson worked for several publications before finding a home at Rolling Stone, where he worked from 1970 until 1984. His first piece in the magazine was an account of the political struggle in Aspen. His second article covered the murder of a Hispanic Los Angeles Times reporter, Reuben Salazar, and the consequent volatile response throughout the Hispanic community. During his research he befriended the activist attorney oscar zeta acosta, and after accepting an offer from Sports Illustrated to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race in Las Vegas, Thompson invited Acosta along with him. The resulting article, based on their experiences in Las Vegas, was rejected outright by Sports Illustrated, but was printed in Rolling Stone in 1971. The article was soon published in book form with Steadman’s illustrations: fear and loathing in Las Vegas: a savage journey to tHe Heart of the american dream.
   Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas catapulted Thompson to the heights of literary fame, and, aside from being one of the best-loved books of its time, it remains one of the most trenchant examinations of late 20th-century American culture. In December 1971 the editors at Rolling Stone decided to finance Thompson as their correspondent for the Nixon–McGovern campaign trail of 1972. The resulting book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973) is considered one of the most controversial, subjective, and hilarious pieces of political journalism to be ever written. Thompson used his gonzo journalism in an effort to get 18-year-olds, who had recently been given the right to vote, to defy Nixon’s reelection. McGovern became friendly with Thompson despite the futility of Thompson’s efforts, and McGovern’s campaign chief, Frank Mankiewicz, called Thompson’s take on the campaign “the most accurate and least factual account of the campaign.”
   In addition to articles for Rolling Stone and other magazines, Thompson went on to publish eight more books (mostly anthologies of previously published articles) that catalogued political corruption and the disillusionment of the times, but none ever again achieved the astounding cultural resonance of the two Fear and Loathing books. His writing remained insightful and uncompromising—and gonzo as ever—but failed to find the same kind of mass audience as his masterpiece. In a 1979 preface Thompson wrote that he had “already lived and finished the life [he] had planned to live” and that he may as well end it all. He may not have been serious at the time, but 25 years later he certainly was. On February 20, 2005, Thompson took his own life with a handgun blast to the head. Uncompromising in his writing, he was equally uncompromising in how he lived and how he ended, his life. Like the greatest of the Beat authors, Thompson had the rare ability to give succinct voice to the unarticulated thoughts and concerns of his own generation and of those to follow him. He was able to crystallize in writing the spirit of an age, to show us a vision of ourselves that, while perhaps unappealing, is nonetheless honest. Finally, he showed us how to tolerate, or even defiantly rejoice in, our degenerate civilization, and he exposed lives of willing complicity.
 Bibliography
■ Carroll, E. Jean. Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson. New York: Dutton, 1993.
■ McKeen, William. Hunter S. Thompson. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
■ Perry, Paul. Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 1992.
■ Thompson, Hunter S. The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967 (The Fear and Loathing Letter, Volume One). Edited by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.
■ Whitmer, Peter O. When the Going Gets Weird: The Twisted Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson. New York: Hyperion, 1993.
   Luther Riedel

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Thompson, Hunter S(tockton) — born July 18, 1939, Louisville, Ky., U.S. U.S. journalist. He had run ins with the law as a young man and served in the U.S. Air Force. In 1965 he infiltrated the Hell s Angels motorcycle gang and published his account, Hell s Angels, in 1966.… …   Universalium

  • Thompson, Hunter S(tockton) — (18 jul. 1939, Louisville, Ky., EE.UU.). Periodista estadounidense. Tuvo dificultades con la ley en su juventud y más tarde sirvió en la Fuerza Aérea estadounidense. En 1965 se infiltró en la banda de motociclistas que se hacía llamar Hells… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Thompson — Thompson, Benjamin Thompson, Francis * * * (as used in expressions) Seton, Ernest Thompson Ernest Evan Thompson Ernest Seton Thompson Thompson, Dorothy Thompson, E(dward) P(almer) Thompson, Emma Thompson, Hunter S(tockton) …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Hunter — (as used in expressions) Hubel, David (Hunter) Hunter, John Hunter, río Hunter, William Thompson, Hunter S(tockton) …   Enciclopedia Universal

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