Hunter S. Thompson: Literary Gentleman from Louisville

Warren James Hinckle III—the iconic San Franciscan with an eyepatch and a beloved basset hound named Bentley — called his autobiography If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade. He followed his own advice. With heaps of help from the extravagantly creative British artist, Ralph Steadman, Hinckle made Ramparts, once a lemon of a publication, into a juicy, muckraking magazine that was essential reading for everyone on the left in the mid and late 1960s. Later, at Scanlan’s magazine, Hinckle connected Steadman to Hunter S. Thompson, who had been writing journalism for more than a decade, including sports and a brilliant book on the motorcycle gang, the Hell’s Angels, published in 1967. The boys on their bikes didn’t appreciate the attention and roughed up the author, which made for good publicity.

Thompson always had a nose for notoriety as well as for the news, though he didn’t really find himself until 1970 at the age of 33 when Hinckle published in the pages of Scanlon’s, his sensational article, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” Alas, the magazine soon folded. Steadman provided the art for Thompson’s expose of Louisville’s filthy rich. Apparently, he drew the illustrations with lipstick and eyeliner.

Peter Richardson tells the riveting story of the Hinckle/Steadman/Thompson triumvirate in Savage Journey (University of California Press; $27.95), a biography, in which he also traces what he calls the “Weird Road to Gonzo.” True, the road could be bumpy with twists and turns, but Thompson’s journey looks and feels a lot more civilized than Richardson makes it seem. At times, Hunter —as friends called him— even appeared to be a gentleman of the old school, especially with his long cigarette holder and shiny bald head and in photos of him sitting next to Senator George McGovern in 1972. Gonzo was a genuine part of his act; much as Beat was a genuine part of Kerouac’s act.

It was A. Craig Copetas, a longtime friend of Thompson’s and his editor at High Times and Esquire, (two magazines Richardson omits from his story), who emphasized his identity as a gentleman. “My wife and I visited Hunter at Owl Creek in Colorado,” Copetas told me. “My wife freaked out because Hunter and I were futzing with guns, and talking about the coverage of war. She was so freaked she ran outside. Hunter followed her and apologized. In addition to everything else about him, he was a real Southern gentleman.”

Copetas persuaded me to reread Thompson, take him seriously as a writer and to appreciate that his “lesson to writers was that you have to make your reader your sidekicks so that he or she is with you and participating in the story.” I tried to do that in my own neo-gonzo, adventure story, Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War, published by High Times.

Call me crazy, but I admire Thompson’s, The Rum Diaries, as much as I admire Fear and Loathing. I admire his craft as a novelist and also because he offered his work as a moral compass. I said that in the essay I wrote for Warren Hinkle’s collection of essays, Who Killed Hunter S: Thompson?: An Inquiry into the Life & Death of the Master of Gonzo. Contributors include: Johnny Depp, Emory Douglas, William Kennedy, Paul Krassner, Gary Trudeau, Wavy Gravy and Tom Wolfe.

“Who killed Hunter”?

“America!” the same monster that killed Jack London.

Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone magazine figure in intimate and intriguing ways in the gonzo/murder mystery story. Wenner published Thompson’s breakthrough book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in 1971.Those two words, “fear” and “loathing,” were Thompson’s tickets to fame and success in much the same way that the two words, “naked” and “dead,” brought Norman Mailer acclaim with the publication of his first novel in 1948. Like Mailer, Thompson understood that it was far better to be a bad boy in America than to be a good boy, especially if you want to make literary history and arrive on best seller lists. Of course, it also helps to have talent and even a bit of genius.Thompson had both. He also put the reader in his sidecar

Once he started his journey—after a substantial apprenticeship— there was no stopping him. In 1972, he published Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in which he skewered the national political scene that Nixon had poisoned and that would come back to bite him with Watergate. A collection of Thompson’s letters, Fear and Loathing in America, was published after he commited suicide in 2005 at the age of 67. Remember? He put a gun to his head, pulled the trigger and blew his brains out. Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone, subtitled The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson, appeared in print in 2011.

Savage Journey is Richardson’s fourth book. His first was a biography, titled American Prophet, of Carey McWilliams, the editor of The Nation and the author of Factories in the Field, which amplified the message that Steinbeck broadcast about California ag in his epic novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Richardson’s second book, which is about Ramparts, is titled A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (2009). His third, No Simple Highway, offers a cultural history of the Grateful Dead (2015). The L.A. Times review of Richardson’s bio of McWilliams was titled, “The Conscience of California.”

Since then, Richardson, rather than McWilliams, has emerged as the conscience of California, or at least one of them, and as a kind of prophet crying out against Trump and his boy in “the wilderness of North America,” as Malcolm X called it.

His bio is not the first to track Thompson’s life on and off the page. William McKeen wrote Outlaw Journalist and Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour compiled an oral history, as did J. C. Gabel and James Hughes. There are bound to be more biographies. As Richardson points out in his Introduction, Thompson’s archive is under lock and key, “reportedly housed in a Los Angeles storage facility and contains some eight hundred boxes of materials, including a massive trove of letters that Thompson began producing and saving as a youth.” Until that material is available to scholars and researchers, any bio of Thompson, however competent it may be, is bound to be incomplete.

The emphasis in Savage Journey is on geography, especially the places where Thompson lived, that he wrote about and that nurtured his creativity, from Louisville, where he was born and raised, to San Francisco, which he called the “best place in the world” to live in the 1960s, then to Las Vegas, Nevada, which instilled in him a sense of fear and loathing, and finally on to to Aspen, Colorado, where he ran for county sheriff and didn’t win. The outlaw as a lawman made for an ironic chapter in his life.

Not surprisingly, Savage Journey is probably the most academic of the books about Thompson. After all, it’s published by the University of California Press. It boasts nearly two dozen pages of notes, many of them tied to Thompson’s own work, including the fear and loathing books, and an eleven-page bibliography that begins with Oscar Acosta, Thompson’s sidekick on his wild rides. It ends with Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and (1968) and The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), both of which anticipated the kind of in-your-face journalism that Thompson would embrace. If you want gonzo writing don’t turn to Richardson. If you want serious, balanced, thoughtful prose you’ll find it here. You’ll also find what academics call a thesis and arguments.

“I would argue that Thompson was not only an accomplished journalist, satirist and media critic, but also the most distinctive American voice in the second half of the twentieth century,” Richardson writes.

Right now, in the world of American letters, and in the wake of Joan Didion’s death on December 23, 2021, at the age of 87, that statement would be contested. In a way, there couldn’t be a worse time than right now for an enthusiastic defense of Hunter S. Thompson as a journalist, satirist, media critic and American voice. This moment belongs largely to Joan Didion, the California New Yorker, who expressed over the past half-century the kind of values in the distinctive voice that editors and publishers in New York have wanted to hear.

Richardson devotes several pages to Didion. He aims to speak cautiously and to be balanced, allows that Didion was “precise,” and adds that she was also “fragile, even neurasthenic.” Perhaps so, though she could be as scathing in her prose as Thompson in his.

“The social breakdowns she documented in her work mirrored the psychological ones she was experiencing personally,” Richardson writes. The same might be said for Hunter S. Thompson, whose addictions to illicit drugs, fascination with guns and suicide suggest his own dark psychology which mirrored some of the social patterns he explored in fiction and non-fiction and in books that broke the barriers between them.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.