Why Hunter S. Thompson Was a Rebel of Modern American Literature

Photo of Phillip Spradley
26 December 2016

As the creator of Gonzo journalism and the author of several important American novels turned cult films, Hunter S. Thompson was known to immerse himself in the culture of his subjects. Phillip Spradley explores how Thompson’s deeply personal experience was revealed through both his journalism and his fiction.

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Hunter Stockton Thompson is considered one of the greatest American writers and one of the original creators of “Gonzo Journalism”. Thompson’s hard driving lifestyle, which included the steady use of drugs and alcohol, made him an icon of American counterculture.

Thompson was born to Jack Robert and Virginia Davidson Ray on July 18, 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky. Following the death of Thompson’ father when the author was only in high school, Hunter, his two younger brothers and his mother fell from middle class to poverty. Thompson excelled in sports and writing as a teenager but was better known as a mischief-maker. In 1955 he was charged as an accomplice in a robbery and sentenced to 60 days in Kentucky’s Jefferson County Jail. Given a choice by the judge, Thompson served 30 of those days and joined the Armed Services. As a result he never received his high school diploma.

After basic training Thompson transferred to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Here he worked for the base’s newspaper, The Command Courier, for which he covered the base’s football team and edited the sports section. In 1958 Thompson was given an honourable discharge from the Air Force and set his sights on New York City.

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While studying writing at Columbia University, Thompson landed a low paying job at TIME magazine as a copy boy. During this time he had also begun writing his first novel, Prince Jellyfish, although it would not be published until years later. He spent his free time typing out Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in order to learn their writing styles.

In New York he would meet the woman that would inspire and nurture him for the next 20 years, Sandra Conklin. In 1960 the two left New York City and headed south to San Juan, Puerto Rico where Thompson wrote as a freelancer. While in San Juan he was struck with an idea to write a semi-autobiographical novel of an alcoholic journalist in the Caribbean. The work was called The Rum Diary and would not be published until the late 1990’s. When his freelance work dried up, he put the novel on hold and moved back to the States.

In 1961 after moving to Big Sur, California Thompson pitched an article to Rogue Magazine about the life around Big Sur. He brought into light the artists, outcasts, hippies and mountain men who called Big Sur home. The article was published as his first magazine feature. In 1963, following a year in South America, Thompson returned home to Louisville, married Conklin, had a son and then moved his family to San Francisco, California. In their home in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood, Thompson immersed himself in the drug and hippie culture of the area.

In 1965 after spending a year with the biker gang, The Hells Angels, he became internationally known for turning a series of articles into a book, Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. He would go on write for other well-known magazines in the late 1960’s such as The New York Times Magazine, Pageant, Esquire and more.
Watch Hunter S.Thompson defends his book, Hell’s Angels, against an irate Hell’s Angels biker below:

In 1967, with the success of his book, he settled on a 100 acre ranch in Woody Creek, Colorado known as the ‘Owl Farm’. Two years later, wanting to control his environment, he ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. A few goals of his anti-establishment platform were to rename Aspen ‘Fat City’ to deter investors, to tear up streets and make them into grassy knolls and to decriminalise drugs for personal use. He lost by a very small margin. Despite his defeat his antics made national news and caught the interest of the most influential magazine at the time, Rolling Stone. His first piece for Rolling Stone was a chronicle of his run for sheriff. It was entitled The Battle of Aspen.

Thompson teamed up with British artist Ralph Steadman to write an exposé on the Kentucky Derby. The article, titled The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, was published by Scanlan’s Monthly. As one of the first uses of Gonzo journalism, the reporter provides a first person narrative and draws on his own experience to achieve an accurate representation.

In 1971 Sports Illustrated hired Thompson to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race in the Nevada desert and a National Law Enforcement Convention on Narcotics in Las Vegas. What was supposed to be a short caption of both events turned into a 2,500 word manuscript; it had little to do with the race or the Narcotics Convention, but was about Thompson’s own drug filled rampage through the cheesy playground that is Las Vegas. Entitled Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it would be the book from which Thompson gained most of his cult fame.

In 1980 Thompson and his wife Sandra divorced and life on the compound became more erratic. Alcohol, guns, drugs, and late nights were frequent. Although he continued to take assignments throughout the 1980’s, due to a strained relationship with Rolling Stone, and the collapse of his marriage, Thompson became increasingly withdrawn. He would often retreat to his compound in Woody Creek and reject assignments or refuse to complete them.

In the mid 1990’s Thompson was made popular again with the rise of a new generation. The writer received the highest honour in his home state of Kentucky when in 1996 he was named a Kentucky Colonel and given the keys to Louisville. In 1998 Thompson released hundreds of personal letters from over the years. This book of his most private and intimate correspondence was titled, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955 – 1967. This would be the first volume of The Fear and Loathing Letters.

The same year his most popular book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was turned into a motion picture and soon after became a cult film. 1998 was also Thompson’s debut of his long lost novel of over 40 years, The Rum Diary. It became a New York Times Notable Book. Thompson’s last book was entitled Kingdom of Fear and was released in 2003. The book gives an account of the author’s life and includes both old and new writings with a focus on rebellion against authority.

© Gustavo Medde/Flickr

Frustration towards his physical frailty caused Thompson to have violent mood swings in his late 60s. Alone in his home office on February 20, 2005 he fired a single shot from his 45 caliber revolver into his mouth. He left a suicide note that was later published in Rolling Stone. It was entitled ‘Football Season Is Over’ and reads:
No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun – for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax – This won’t hurt.

While the social and political unrest that fuelled his writing are gone, his cocktail of honesty and fearlessness will continue to resonate with future generations.

By Phillip Spradley

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