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This past week saw what would have been Hunter S. Thompson’s 75th birthday. Born July 18, 1937, the writer committed suicide in 2005 after suffering from poor health.
Novelist, sports columnist, political commentator, drug addict: as far as writers go, he was quite rare, able to keep up with his writing as he lived a life that would have destroyed others. In fact, it was his rampant alcohol and drug use that gave him material for his writings, which have proven to be profoundly influential.
His most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is a “roman a clef” of him and his friend traveling to Las Vegas to compose a report on a car race that ultimately would not be written. The two instead take heavy drugs, ruminate on American culture, and go looking for the American dream. Nothing is taboo here: rape and kidnapping play a part in the story, and Thompson himself knows that he is not above the people he satirizes. Terry Gilliam adapted it into a film in 1998, starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro.
The novel is probably the most well-known example of gonzo journalism, a style of journalism that Thompson popularized and was itself a part of the New Journalism movement of the 70s. Other writers who took part in this movement include the acclaimed Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. While traditional journalism is more about simply the facts, gonzo journalism is about first-person narratives; more about telling a story than reporting something. Thompson frequently wrote for Rolling Stone, and many of his articles were in that style, including his first, entitled “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” which can be found here online.
Thompson also wrote about politics. Much of this stemmed from his own personal interests. In 1970, he ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. In 1972, he followed the election campaigns of Richard Nixon and George McGovern and wrote a series of article which were later collected in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. He also wrote a book, Kingdom of Fear, featuring detailed essays and stories about rebelling against authority in a post-9/11 world.
Although toward the end of his life Thompson’s work consisted mainly of potboilers and collections of material he had done in his prime, he remained a figure to be reckoned with. He is, in a sense, much like Henry Miller. Although Thompson did not face censorship issues like Miller did, both pushed the envelope of what was considered acceptable for publication. Miller wrote about sex, Thompson drugs and madness and politics, often blending them together to create works that had a political commentary. Most times, it would have been impossible to create the same effect through other means.
Last year his novel The Rum Diary, which he had written during his twenties but which was only published in the 90s, was made into a feature film starring Johnny Depp. Although it received a mixed reception and failed at the box office, it proves that Thompson is still remembered. And with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas still widely read, it seems we will be in the shadow of Hunter S. Thompson for some time yet.