Photo Credit: David Hiser (see bottom of post for more details)
Hard to believe that today marks the 15th anniversary of Hunter’s death. I was studying at Regis University in Denver when I learned that he had taken his life at his beloved Owl Farm in Woody Creek. The timing was weird, I had only been talking about him with some friends the previous night in the Hilltop Bar, the favourite watering hole for Regis students and assorted colorful characters that lived near the university. It was the kind of establishment that you could well imagine Hunter holding court, full of weirdness, laughter and an eclectic mix of Americana on the jukebox. The recent election was on everyone’s mind, someone mentioned Hunter and I told them he had been writing about it for ESPN. His most recent column, and what would be sadly his last, involved a conversation he had with Bill Murray, a fellow Regis alumni (and Hilltop!), in which Hunter discussed a new sport he had invented – Shotgun Golf. One of my friends remarked that it was a miracle that Hunter hadn’t shot himself by now. That was February 19th. Like Hunter, the bar is gone now too.
I had tried to visit Woody Creek in October of 2004 in the hope of running into The Good Doctor himself, urged on by Professor Daryl Palmer, my English Literature teacher at Regis University. He had encouraged me to write my final year dissertation on Hunter and his work. It would be great if I could score an interview, no matter how unlikely. The trip was nothing short of a disaster, I had set off on a whim one weekend close to Halloween with some friends and needless to say we were totally unprepared for the dramatic and unpredictable mountain weather. Somewhere around Breckenridge we pulled off the highway to visit a lookout point for a short rest from the road. Within minutes of our detour a massive blizzard descended and trapped us on the mountainside for the night. I had brought with me a gift for Hunter that I picked up in Heathrow Airport, a bottle oi absinthe, the first bottle of which had supposedly been sold to one Johnny Depp who had also bought it for his good friend – Hunter S. Thompson. I figured it would be my trump card to lure him out of Owl Farm, if not I’d leave it outside his front gate and hope that he got it. Only a fool would dare to enter Owl Farm uninvited.
We barely made it through the night. The temperature plunged well below zero and I thought we were going to freeze to death at the side of the mountain. I can’t remember why we couldn’t rely on the heater in the car but there was some sort of problem. The absinthe was cracked open and consumed. By the morning we looked and felt like slightly warmed up death. We also had altitude sickness. We slid down the road towards Breckenridge for some breakfast and much coffee. Woody Creek was another few hours up the road, at an even higher elevation. We quickly concluded that only a goddamn lunatic would live in such a place and that it would be better to return in the spring or summer when it was more hospitable.
Sadly that was never to happen. George W. Bush got re-elected, the mood everywhere turned foul. Football season was over.
When news of Hunter’s death broke I was saddened but not entirely surprised. Friends dropped by my dorm room to see if I had heard, they all knew I loved his writing. As I was walking across the quad, I ran into Professor Palmer.
“You jinxed him!” he shouted upon spotting me. “Now you have to write about him.”
The coverage of Hunter’s death continued that week. A lot of it bothered me, with the focus more concerned with his celebrity than the fact that he was a great American writer. It felt wrong and it was wrong. He deserved better.
I returned to Ireland and wrote the dissertation. I got an A grade. After graduation, my English lecturer Dr. Eugene O’Brien asked me if I would like to do an MA in English. That quickly snowballed into a PhD. My dissertation title was – “The Genesis of the Hunter Figure: A study of the Dialectic between the Biographical and the Aesthetic in the Early Writings of Hunter S. Thompson.” It was 130,000 words in length. The viva voce, or dissertation defense, took place on February 21st 2018, a day after Hunter’s anniversary. A huge photo of Hunter projected onto a big screen in the exam room looked down upon me as I defended my work. My external examiner was Professor William McKeen of Boston University and author of Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson. McKeen was brilliant and the hour and a half discussion flew by. After a brief deliberation, I was awarded a Mode A, no corrections and the highest grade you can get. It was a great feeling to reach that point after years of really hard work.
In closing, here is an excerpt from the conclusion of my PhD dissertation. It gives a flavour of what the whole thing was about. I am currently working on getting it published in book form.
Spare a thought for Hunter’s family and friends today, keep them in your thoughts. Hopefully Hunter, wherever he is, has found peace at last.
The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic
conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything,
means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast,
vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a
seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was
faithful to the end.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
It has been fifty years since Hunter S. Thompson made his breakthrough onto the literary scene with the publication of his first major work, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang. Were he alive today, Thompson would have just marked his 80th birthday. It has been over a decade now since Thompson’s death, yet interest in his life and work is as fervent as ever. The Hunter Figure, with his aviator shades, converse tennis shoes, Hawaiian shirts and cigarette holder, has become a modern-day myth, a pop culture reference known to millions who have never read a single word of his writings. His trademark phrase, ‘Fear and Loathing’ has become part of the public lexicon, inevitably invoked with each election cycle, and recognised around the world as a succinct epithet for contemptuous human behaviour. Likewise, ‘Gonzo’ has flourished to describe all manner of first-person subjective endeavours, particularly those that reject established traditions. Thompson is one of those rare writers who have had the honour of contributing a word to the dictionary, with ‘Gonzo’ now a standard entry, its first widespread use being attributed to Thompson’s brand of journalism, even if the origins of the word are uncertain.
Indeed, uncertainty has followed Gonzo since Thompson popularised the phrase, with its meaning, origin and Thompson’s brand of journalism confounding many a critic. Defining what Gonzo is was no simple task, not least to Thompson himself, who had adopted the phrase as a convenient way to distinguish his own writing from that of the New Journalism movement. Explaining and defining it, was an entirely different matter, with Thompson viewing his most celebrated Gonzo Journalism effort, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as a failed experiment in Gonzo Journalism (Thompson 2003, p. 106) Ultimately, Gonzo Journalism became whatever Hunter S. Thompson wrote. This confusion as to what exactly Gonzo is in terms of epistemology, even had its own pop culture reference in the form of Gonzo the Muppet, with the ambiguity surrounding his species used as a point of comedy throughout the Muppet show – ‘It’s a bird, it’s a plane …What is it? It’s Gonzo!’ In the movie The Great Muppet Caper he is shipped to Blighty in a crate labelled ‘Whatever’ (Elborough 2005, p. 15). In his review of Muppets from Space (1999), critic Roger Ebert stated: ‘The funniest scene in Muppets from Space is the first one, where Gonzo is refused a place on Noah’s Ark because he is one of a kind’ (http://www.rogerebert. com/reviews/muppets-from-space-1999). Likewise, this has long been a problem when it comes to critically evaluating the work of Hunter S. Thompson. The tendency has long been to downplay the Hunter Figure persona and to emphasis Thompson’s creation of Gonzo Journalism as the measure of his literary worth. This has proven to be enormously problematic when it comes to evaluating, not just Thompson’s work, particularly the latter half of his career, but also his legacy and influence. The present study argues that it is fact the Hunter Figure that is Thompson’s greatest literary achievement, serving as the fulcrum around which Gonzo Journalism operates. Indeed, this helps to address many of the problems concerning Gonzo Journalism, from determining its merit as a unique genre; to issues regarding its definition; to questions concerning Thompson’s literary influence. By recognising the Hunter Figure as Thompson’s greatest work, we must reconsider not just the early part of Thompson’s career (as in this thesis) but in fact his entire literary oeuvre. In the foreword to Thompson’s second volume of letters, David Halberstam writes:
His voice is sui generis. He is who he is. No one created Hunter other than Hunter. Somehow he found his voice, and he knew, before anyone else, that it was special. It is not to be imitated, and I can’t think of anything worse than for any young journalist to try and imitate Hunter. That’s the price of being an original. There’s room for only one on the ark. (Halberstam in Thompson 2001, p. x)
It is fitting that the ark is used in reference to the uniqueness of Gonzo, albeit in two entirely different contexts, and with two entirely different outcomes. Thompson always warned of the pitfalls of following in his footsteps. Given the role of the Hunter Figure as the focal point of Gonzo Journalism, coupled with the enormity of that presence, attempts by other writers to pursue Gonzo Journalism frequently results in misguided pastiche. Without the Hunter Figure, Gonzo Journalism loses its heart and authenticity.
The dictionary definition for Gonzo also presents us a second alternative meaning for the word, one that addresses another aspect of our understanding of Thompson and the Hunter Figure, namely a sense of the bizarre or the crazy. This resurrects a longstanding problem that the Hunter Figure has presented for academia, with Thompson’s persona too easily utilised as justification for dismissing the credibility of his writing amongst critics. To do so however, is to misunderstand Thompson almost entirely. In his tribute to Thompson in the aftermath of his death, Kentucky poet Ron Whitehead, invoked the figure of the Madman prophet from Jewish mysticism in relation to this very issue:
I have heard more than once that Hunter S. Thompson is a madman. That oh look at what he could have done if he lived a more sane life. Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, preeminent Jewish author, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, in THE TOWN BEYOND THE WALL, says: ‘Mad Moishe, the fat man who cries when he sings and laughs when he is silent…Moishe – I speak of the real Moishe, the one who hides behind the madman – is a great man. He is far-seeing. He sees worlds that remain inaccessible to us. His madness is only a wall, erected to protect us- us: to see what Moishe’s bloodshot eyes see would be dangerous.’ In Jewish mysticism the prophet often bears the facade of madness. Hunter S. Thompson stands in direct lineage to the great writers and prophets. And as with the prophets of old, the message may be too painful for the masses to tolerate, to hear, to bear. They may, and usually do, condemn, even kill, the messenger. Hunter stood as long as he could. He fought a valiant fight. (Whitehead, http://www.tappingmyownphone.com /tribute-to-hunter-s-thompson/)
Whitehead has perhaps, come closest of anyone to understanding what the Hunter Figure was, and the manner in which Thompson utilised his persona throughout his writing. For Thompson, it was all about the greater truths, which lay at the core of his persona, and the core of his entire oeuvre. It was no coincidence that his mail-order doctorate came from the Church of the New Truth. Thompson appreciated truth when he saw it, even if it was cloaked in apparent madness. This is evident in a letter Thompson wrote to Selma Shapiro, publicist at Random House in 1969, in which he praised Frederick Exley’s novel A Fan’s Notes, a fictional memoir of Frederick Exley that addressed the carnage that alcoholism, mental illness and obsessive fandom had inflicted upon his life. Addressing the American Dream and the consequences of failing to achieve it led to comparisons with The Great Gatsby, no doubt one of the reasons that it appealed to Thompson’s sensibilities. In writing to Shapiro however, he singled out another aspect of the book that had caught his attention: ‘there is something very good and right about it, hard to define. He’s not a “good writer” in any classic sense, and most of what he says makes me feel I’d prefer to avoid him . . . but the book is still good. Very weird. I suppose it’s the truth-level, a demented kind of honesty’ (Thompson 2001, p. 184). David Halberstam singled out the same quote for its importance in his foreword to Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 1968 – 1976, with Halberstam also quoting from another portion of that letter in which Thompson states ‘it’s clear to me – and has been since the age of 10 or so – that most people are bastards, thieves and yes – even pigfuckers’ (Thompson 2001, p. 185). As Halberstam notes: ‘that is, I think, a very important passage, and perhaps the most revealing in the book – it shows what he is really about and what he is searching for, and why his work is so powerful. It’s all in the truths’ (Halberstam in Thompson 2001, p. xi).
Truth, authenticity, honesty – these words became the preserve of Hunter S. Thompson and part of the very DNA of the Hunter Figure, cloaked in the mantle of the righteous outlaw. Recalling the first time he met Thompson, Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner acknowledges that what he saw was already ‘classic, fully formed Hunter’ (Wenner 2007, p. 245). The focus of this study has been to delineate the genesis of the Hunter Figure in his earlier writings, and to demonstrate the extraordinary manner in which Thompson fused his life and work in a complex creative process: the intricate self-referential circular dance took on a momentum that propelled and encouraged Thompson to take ever more radical choices and to increasingly break boundaries both in terms of living and literature. The end result, was that Hunter S. Thompson revolutionised journalism and his commitment to his aesthetic ultimately cost him his life.
Dr Rory Feehan 2017
PS: The above photo by David Hiser is my favourite of Hunter. You can buy prints of it signed by David at Gonzo Gallery