Hunter S. Thompson: The Man, The Legend, and his effect on the Digital Age

Jennifer Marinelli explores HST's impact on todays' digital innovators

“The Edge. There is no honest way to explain it, because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” These words belong to a man who once described himself as decadent and depraved. The general public knows him as Hunter S. Thompson. But to those who know his work, he is Rauol Duke and the Good Doctor. The edge is where Thompson lived his life. For that, the world of was introduced to the strange and powerful force that is gonzo journalism.

Hunter S. Thompson didn’t just create a new form of journalism. He created a new way of thinking that is still important in today’s society. A style that is so influential that it has seeped through to the hearts and minds of the succeeding generations. Within the last two decades there have been an onslaught of novels, documentaries, works of art, and websites devoted to Thompson. It is doubtful that many members of the Digital Age partake in the hard gonzo lifestyle of drugs and alcohol that Thompson symbolizes. However, it is hard to ignore the similarities between Thompson’s gonzo journalism and today’s growing popularity of citizen journalism through new media like blogs and Twitter.

Through a lifetime of unique work in gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson has left a legacy that has inspired a new generation of media users and creators.

In contrast to the barrage of counterculture references that we associate with Thompson, his beginnings were humble. In the summer of 1937, Hunter Stockton Thompson was born into a middle class family in Louisville, Kentucky.  His father an insurance agent, his mother a librarian, Thompson’s early childhood gave no inclination that the man would singlehandedly shake the foundations of the journalistic world.

Thompson got his first taste of journalism through a school-sponsored social club called the Athenaeum Literary Association, which mainly reserved membership for those of the affluent upper-middle class. Thompson’s school career took a turn in 1952, however, when his father died suddenly. Barreling into adolescences without a father figure, irreverence for authority became a prominent theme in Thompson’s life. In fact, even though him teachers describe him as brilliant, Thompson did not make it to his own graduation. Instead he completed his high school education from jail, having been arrested for participating in a robbery.

Officially classified a juvenile delinquent, Thompson joined the Air Force. It didn’t take long before he found work as a sports writer for a publication ran from him base in Niceville, Florida. He also wrote for a competing news publication under the alias of Thorne Stockton, diligently neglecting his duties at the air base to accommodate all of his deadlines.

After being honorably discharged from the Air Force in 1957, Thompson began a frenzied journey to find work as a writer. It began in New York City, where spent a short period of time working as a copy boy for Time magazine. Thompson then moved to Puerto Rico where he secured a job as a sports writer for El Sportivo, a bowling magazine. The publication quickly sunk after Thompson took the job.

During his time in the Caribbean, Thompson wrote two novels, Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary, along with several fictional short stories. None of these works were published at the time. The Rum Diary eventually appeared on store shelves in 1998, long after Thompson had become famous.

Several bounced checks from El Sportivo later , Thompson was on the move again. He relocated to Big Sur, San Francisco, and South Africa before eventually settling in Aspen, Colorado, and marrying his girlfriend Sandy Conklin, with whom he had his son Juan Fitzgerald Thompson.

In the middle of his restless search to find work, somewhere in between the move from San Francisco to Aspen, Thompson got a green light from Carey McWilliams from The Nation  to write a story he had pitched the magazine about the notorious motorcycle gang The Hells Angels. Thompson lived alongside the motorcycle gang for several years, assuming the role of a serious journalist. However the Angles began to suspect that he was making money off their story and wanted a cut. After breaking the Angel’s trust, Thompson was literally beaten out of the group.

Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga was published in The Nation in 1965 and Random House soon offered a book deal. Thompson was on the edge of discovering his infamous gonzo writing style. Hell’s Angels was considered straight reporting, but there was a certain edge to Thompson’s tone that hinted at fiction writing. He created an anti-heroic mystique for The Hell’s Angels. Much of Thompson’s material for the Hell’s Angels story was recorded on videotapes, which were later used as inspiration for Tom Wolfe’s novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

In 1970 Thompson secured an assignment from Scalan’s Monthly to cover the Kentucky Derby. It was on this assignment that Thompson first met Ralph Steadman, a young artist from England. Thompson was said to have corrupted Steadman (a self-proclaimed goody two-shoes) during their trip, creating a life long partnership between author and illustrator.  The resulting story, entitled The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, is not an account of the tournament, but of Thompson’s and Steadman haphazard navigation through the sporting event. Thompson became a character in his own work and blurred the lines between fact and fiction through the outrage tale, and thus came the birth of Gonzo Journalism.

Bill Cardoso, a fellow journalist Thompson met while covering the 1968 New Hampshire Primary, is credited with labeling Thompson’s work “gonzo.” He spoke with Thompson in 1970 in order to comment on his Kentucky Derby article and said “This is it; this is pure gonzo, if this is a start, keep rolling.” To which Thompson replied, “Okay, that’s what I do, gonzo.”    

Fear and Loathing

In tandem with the creation of gonzo journalism was the creation of the Myth of Hunter Thompson, gonzo extraordinaire. The myth exploded in 1971 with his next story about the search of the American Dream. The story was originally supposed to be a small piece covering the Mint 400 for Sports Illustrated, but ended up becoming a lengthy two-part feature for Rolling Stone magazine and was eventually turned into a novel.

 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream begins with the famous line, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Thompson introduced the world to the character Rauol Duke, his literary alter ego and the ultimate symbol for gonzo. Thompson’s depiction of his own excessive drinking and drug use would follow him as an ever-present expectation to practice extreme counterculture tendencies. “…Once you get locked up in a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can,” Thompson explains.

In 1972 Thompson returned to Rolling Stone to write Fear and Loathing On the Campaign trail ’72. The story covered the presidential race between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. Continuing with the themes of gonzo journalism, the story exhibited a kind of vicious truth. After the election was over, McGovern himself was quoted as saying that Thompson’s work was the least factual and most accurate account of the 1972 race to the White House. 

 In the late 1970’s, Thompson began to realize that the public could no longer distinguish Hunter S. Thompson from Rauol Duke. The thought of this drove Thompson mad. He often told second wife Anita Thompson that whenever he was invited to give speeches or attend parties he did not know if people were excepting to see Rauol or Hunter.

Though he continued to write steadily during the later years of his life, Thompson became a recluse and would often retreat to what he referred to as his “fortress” in Woody Creek, Colorado. Many times he would refuse to complete assignments he had been given. The few things he did manage to finish hailed to his roots in sports journalism. He wrote a weekly column for entitled “Hey Rube” that seamlessly intertwined sports and politics, and ran from the year 2000 until his death.

Thompson took his own life on February 20, 2005 at his home in Colorado. Thompson left a letter on his typewriter that read:

No More Games. 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’re getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax- this won’t hurt.”

His ashes were shot out of a cannon at the top of a 153-foot tower of the Gonzo symbol, a fist with two thumbs, which he created with the help of Ralph Steadman. This was accompanied with red, white and blue fireworks that short off along with the ashes as “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan played in the background.

Though the Good Doctor is no longer with us, his influence on today’s world is far from fading. Thompson’s work has inspired a well established cult following that shows no hint of dying out any time soon.

Throughout the years, Thompson was the inspiration for many other forms of media.  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe was published in the 1970s and is now scheduled to released as a film in 2011. Where the Buffalo Roam in 1980 was a film adaptation of Thompson’s coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign starring Bill Murray. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas starring Johnny Depp was released in 1998. Later this year The Rum Diary will be released with Depp and Amanda Heard in leading roles.  Since his death there has been numerous documentaries made about Thompson’s life work, Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride by Tom Thurman and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson by Alex Gibney just to name a few.

More importantly, however, is that Thompson’s influence has crossed over to the digital world. Whether we realize it or not, Thompson laid the foundations for how media work today, especially in regards to new social media. In true Thompson fashion, every time a blogger sit down at their computer to write they undermined huge new institutions like the New York Times and The Washington Post. There are no editors in the blogosphere to tell them content is too outrageous or advertisers breathing down the necks of writers. 

Bloggers, vloggers, and tweeters can cater to niche audiences as gonzo journalists. This media revolution is nothing to shake a stick at. As the years go one, more and more people are turning to the work of citizen journalists and bloggers with opinions for their news. This trend would do Thompson proud. He is, after all, the man who claimed that, “Objective journalism is one of the main reasons that American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long.”      

Jeremy Griffin from Ignite Social Media published The Fear and Loathing Guide to Blogging last year. It explains how to become a successful blogger by directly invoking Thompson’s Gonzo style claiming it has the ”kind of no-holds-barred attitude that we should apply to blogging.” Griffin breaks this idea down into six characteristics of Thompson’s work. He insists that bloggers must:

  • tell the truth even if it is frightening,
  •  break the rules,
  • fail,
  •  step on toes,
  • leave a mark, and
  • keep at it, to avoid becoming a “half-ass blogger.”

Is blogging the new form of gonzo journalism? It is hard to say for sure. Only time will tell how this new form of media will develop. However, there is no refuting the incredible impact of Hunter S. Thompson’s work on today. His legacy is one that will continue on in the hearts and minds of his fans all over the world.

3 comments to Hunter S. Thompson: The Man, the Legend, and his effect on the Digital Age

  • Denise Schley

    Wow, who knew? This was fascinating; I want to know more.

  • Blogging like you do is such an art and you obviously have that skill here – I don’t but I did find this that made me smile so maybe I can return the favour by making you smile too?
    I wouldn’t be caught dead with a necrophiliac. :)

  • Mitch Rohrs

    I’m writing a paper on Thompson and this article gave me a whole new perspective on his work.

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