Fifty years ago, Hunter S. Thompson’s ground-breaking Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was published, turning the underground writer into a household name. Before long, it was being referenced and even parodied like the novels written by his literary idols – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Kerouac.
Like Kerouac, though, fame did not sit well with Thompson, who holed up in his “fortified compound” near Aspen and descended into cocaine addiction over the coming years. His output dried up in terms of both quantity and quality, but he had been so prolific during the sixties and early seventies that there was plenty for his new fans to look back on, and these books continued to sell well throughout his life and even since his death. There was the dazzling Hell’s Angels (1967), which saw him assimilate into the nation’s most notorious biker gang; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the astoundingly original fact-fiction hybrid that also dissected the American Dream and eulogized the sixties counterculture; and then Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, a weighty tome that redefined political journalism and inspired a generation of reporters.
A half-century on, Thompson’s influence is abundantly obvious. Journalists around the world look back on his brand of vitriolic satire and take inspiration. The very fact that we can today savagely admonish our politicians is at least in part due to Thompson’s fearless trailblazing, while his hallucinatory blend of reality and imagination, intended to prompt his reader to question official narratives, opened yet more possibilities. Meanwhile, generations of authors have looked to him for inspiration not only in what he got away with saying, but in terms of form. His writing was, above all else, phenomenally innovative.
It is odd, then, that he is still viewed by the academy as a minor figure on the peripheries of twentieth-century literature. He is touched upon in journalism schools across the country but almost entirely overlooked in literary departments, and it seems any self-respecting professor sneers at the mention of him. When pitching my recent book, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism, I was told by several university presses in the UK and US that Hunter Thompson was simply “not an important writer” and “has no place in the canon.”
Perhaps this should not be surprising. He was, after all, a proud outsider. From a young age, he deliberately affected an outlaw personality and went to lengths in his writing to portray himself as a rebel with no interest in the establishment. However, whilst such writers are invariably shunned by the literary establishment of their day, they are usually accepted and incorporated later. The Beat Generation, which popped up a decade prior to Thompson, is a good example of this, but whilst the field of Beat Studies is vibrant and growing, there has been no such interest in Gonzo.
Academia may eventually incorporate that which was once too outrageous, but only when it deems that work to be serious, and perhaps this is the problem. Thompson was one of the finest satirists of the twentieth century, but the drug-fueled buffoonery that he employed to highlight his themes, coupled with his absurd antics and outrageous language, presented a juvenile surface text that few have bothered to penetrate. At a cursory glance, his work appears one-dimensional and silly. Still, though, it is hard to see why William S. Burroughs’ bold and shocking satire would be accepted and Thompson’s ignored. They employed the same sort of shock tactics, hiding their cultural criticisms beneath layers of dark comedy, drug abuse, and foul language.
Part of the problem may have been his instance upon inserting himself into every story to the extent that his writing often appeared little more than bragging. In the mid-sixties, he created Raoul Duke, his literary persona, and used him to great success on a number of occasions, fascinated by how a fictional character could be transposed onto real scenes. However, only a decade later he became trapped by Duke and felt compelled to act as outrageously as his creation whenever he was in public. Generation after generation of teenagers and frat boys have been drawn to his comical outbursts and acts of macho self-destruction. Even today, Thompson’s reputation is consistently undermined by his legions of incel-like fans who proudly boast about their own drug consumption whilst quoting lines from movies based on his work, evidently unaware of the distinction between Duke and Thompson.
Thompson, then, appears to have become a victim of his own success. His insights and his satirical writings had such a broad appeal that they resonate even with the most reluctant of readers. He inspired imitators and became a popular Halloween costume, with hordes of new fans spawned by the 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas starring Johnny Depp. Yet neither fame nor infamy have helped his reputation in a literary sense, and his books remain a guilty pleasure among the educated – something one would rather not admit to liking in public.
When he took his own life in February 2005, Thompson viewed himself as a failure for having not reached his full potential. As a young man, he had worked tirelessly to forge his own style of writing, but fame and drug abuse had put an end to his efforts. After his 1972 campaign book, there were three painful decades of inferior-quality work, with writing an agonizing chore for him. Time and again, fans and critics were disappointed by his coke-addled attempts to reproduce his once-brilliant style of work.
Still, one does not judge a writer by the quality of his worst books, and the body of work Thompson produced between 1965 and 1973 is stunning and influential. He was perhaps the foremost chronicler of that era and surely one of the most original thinkers and writers of the latter half of the twentieth century, even if his peak was painfully brief. Three of his books were revolutionary and there are innumerable articles of similar importance, whilst two length volumes of correspondence confirm that he was also a true master of the epistolary form.
To write off Thompson’s best work because of his fallow years, or because of his legions of irritating frat-boy fans, or because he was too successful as a satirist, is to rob our culture of one of its great contributors. Thompson was a writer of incalculable significance and it is high time we overcome this snooty, exclusionary attitude and give him the serious consideration he deserves. He ought to be taught in universities alongside his heroes and peers as one of the important American writers of the twentieth century.