The persona Hunter S. Thompson, who committed suicide Sunday in Aspen, created for himself was so unattractive that it is easy to find yourself nodding in agreement with Stephen Schwartz’s non-appreciation.
Schwartz writes that Thompson’s suicide “may definitively mark the conclusion of the chaotic ‘baby-boomer’ rebellion that began in the 1950s and crested in the 1960s, and which was dignified with the title of ‘the counter-culture.’
“‘Counter’ it was, as an expression of defiance toward everything normal and reliable in society. ‘Culture’ it was not, any more than Thompson’s incoherent scribblings constituted, as they were so often indulgently described, a form of journalism.”
“When a major representative of any dramatic period in history dies, it is tempting to proclaim the end of an epoch, but the lonely death of Thompson–he shot himself in his kitchen–seems more emblematic than any other associated with the ’60s. The incident might even have been accidental, brought on by one of Thompson’s self-storied flings into the ingestion of garbage drugs. Who knows?”
“Thompson was a counter-culture hero at the height of the Watergate era,” the new D.C. Examiner said in its notably dry-eyed obituary, “and once said Nixon represented ‘that dark, venal and incurably violent dark side of the American character.”
But it was Thompson more than Richard Nixon, the uptight, constantly disappointed Quaker, who represented the incurably violent, dark, and venal side of the American character. Schwartz places Thompson in the tradition of William S. Burroughs, whose fixation on guns was even more pronounced than Thompson’s (he actually killed somebody), Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, noir comedian Lenny Bruce and the author Jack Kerouac, another booze-soaked Beat.
“Thompson had much in common with Burroughs and Ginsberg,” says Schwartz. “First, their products were mainly noise. Their books were reissued but now sit inertly on bookstore shelves, incapable of inspiring younger readers, or even nostalgic baby boomers, to purchase them. Thompson claimed credit for the invention of ‘gonzo journalism,’ epitomized by his great success, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, published in 1972. He will inevitably be hailed by newswriters as the creator of a genre. But if his work is taught to the young, it is as an exemplar of the madness of the ’60s, not as literature or journalism. Aside from his own later works, including such trivia, bearing his signature, as The Great Shark Hunt, Generation of Swine, and Songs of the Doomed, of what did ‘gonzo’ journalism consist? Thompson left no authorial legacy.”
I am one of those who scan the skies for signs that the baleful influence of the low dishonest decade in which Thompson made his name is waning. I welcome any signs. But there is one thing that must be said about Thompson: the guy could write. No, not that dreck he turned out in his latter years, and, truth to tell, not the lion’s share of the work he did in his prime.
But there is an authorial legacy.
I’ll never forget the impression his famous book on the Hell’s Angels made on me. I bought the slim book from a book stall one Sunday when I lived in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Not being a church goer in those days, I climbed the stairs to my minuscule attic apartment on Pirate’s Alley and began reading:
“California, Labor Day weekend…early, with ocean fog still in the streets, outlaw motorcyclists wearing chains, shades and greasy Levis roll out from damp garages, all-night diners and cast-off one-night pads in Frisco, Hollywood, Berdoo and East Oakland, heading for the Monterey peninsula, north of Big Sur…The Menace is loose again.”
I loved it from that striking opening to the very end when,seeing the Angels for what they are, Thompson borrows words from Conrad: “The horror! The horror!…Exterminate all the brutes!”
Thompson did embody so much that was wrong about the Boomers. He became an odious man. But no less a figure in American letters than Tom Wolfe can see his authorial legacy for what it is:
“Hunter’s life, like his work, was one long barbaric yawp, to use Whitman’s term, of the drug-fueled freedom from and mockery of all conventional proprieties that began in the 1960s. In that enterprise Hunter was something entirely new, something unique in our literary history. When I included an excerpt from ’The Hell’s Angels’ in a 1973 anthology called ‘The New Journalism,’ he said he wasn’t part of anybody’s group. He wrote ’gonzo.’ He was suigeneris. And that he was.
“Yet he was also part of a century-old tradition in American letters, the tradition of Mark Twain, Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby, comic writers who mined the human comedy of a new chapter in the history of the West, namely, the American story, and wrote in a form that was part journalism and part personal memoir admixed with powers of wild invention, and wilder rhetoric inspired by the bizarre exuberance of a young civilization. No one categorization covers this new form unless it is Hunter Thompson’s own word, gonzo. If so, in the 19th century Mark Twain was king of all the gonzo-writers. In the 20th century it was Hunter Thompson, whom I would nominate as the century’s greatest comic writer in the English language.”