Hunter S. Thompson — A Tempered Defense

Here’s something I posted to DC Craigslist in response to a post attacking HST…

Was Thompson a great writer? Sure…until about 1976. It’s something he actually recognized himself. The foreword Thompson wrote to The Great Shark Hunt, published that same year, is dark and foreboding; it’s clear that Thompson sees the collection as sort of his literary tombstone, and even alludes to his potentially killing himself once the foreword is completed. Clearly he realizes he’s finished as writer, that he’s basically dining out on the mythos surrounding his personal and literary persona. And the last couple decades bore this out.

But during his prime, from the early Sixties onward, he clearly captured the zeitgeist. He’s been called a counterculture hero, and he most certainly made friends on the left in his attacks on Richard Nixon, something he did with an almost joyful exuberance. But anyone who’s read his work closely should notice that the leftist counterculture doesn’t escape his wrath either. Indeed, if Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about anything, it’s about the ugly, horrid wasteland America had become after the Revolutionaries and the kids from the Summer of Love and bourgeious Middle Class America had finished kicking the shit out of each other. In fact, when liberals found themselves on the business end of a Thompson piece, they weren’t spared either. I don’t think Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey ever really recovered from the unsparing vicious assaults Thompson waged against them in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. In fact, Thompson himself confessed that he was hardly a liberal in an interview he did with PJ O’Rourke for the 25h anniversary issue of “Rolling Stone.”

What I admire most about him was his personal and intellectual bravery. In writing Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, he understood what would be involved in getting this story: hanging out with the Hells Angels, and risking becoming a victim of their unprovoked and brutal assaults, some of which he witnessed at firsthand. And, as it became clear that in writing the book he would have to be honest and name names, he also must have understood that he risked a serious thumping should they eventually find him, which is precisely what they did. The attack nearly killed him, something he documents in the afterword to the book. As well, one of my favorite correspondences in all of literature, ranking right up there with the Evelyn Waugh-Nancy Mitford and Kingsley Amis-Philip Larkin correspondence, is the correspondence between Thompson and Newsweek/Washington Post owner/editor Philip Graham. Thompson, then an obscure reporter with a backwater beat as a reporter for the Brazil Herald, had the cojones to write Graham and criticize the paper’s coverage of South America in general and Brazil in particular: “Your South American ‘coverage’ is a silly joke, and about as nourishing as a month-old hamburger.” Graham, so intrigued not only by the prose style but by the temerity of this young upstart, who was clearly risking potential employment with any Post-affiliated paper by doing this, responded personally to the Thompson. The correspondence continued until, ironically enough, Graham’s suicide a few years later.

Besides being one of the first of the New Journalists, writers who abandoned any pretence of objectivity and wrote from a clearly personal point of view, Thompson forged a prose style that was completely his. Take one of his more epigrammatic sentences and place it next to the efforts of some of his contemporaries, and you’ll instantly realize how easy it is to pick his out. Forging a signature prose style that recognizable is no mean feat in the world of letters, and he did it. Not bad for a hopelessly middle class kid from Louisville who never set foot in a university.

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