‘Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb’ is the documentary that Hunter S. Thompson has long deserved

Hunter S. Thompson gives his concession speech. Credit: David Hiser

As we close in on election day in the most contentious and insane presidential election in living memory, one question that keeps popping up across the media landscape is this – “What would Hunter S. Thompson have to say about the current election and the sorry state of American politics?”

It is a fair question to ask. As the author of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter S. Thompson was responsible for one of the most incendiary and celebrated books on the circus that is American politics. His coverage for Rolling Stone was a revelation at the time and is as fresh and compelling today as ever. Indeed, many so-called journalists and pretenders to the throne could do well to go back and read Thompson’s coverage and learn about the difference between actual insightful and revealing writing and that of merely serving up sycophantic bulletin board puff pieces for their preferred candidate. Thompson took no prisoners and skewered politicians on both sides. It was a brave thing to do in the era of Nixon but then Thompson was no ordinary journalist. He refused to merely stand on the sidelines, sniping at the participants – Thompson got directly involved. In 1970 he ran for Sheriff of Pitken County, Colorado, on the Freak Power ticket in a surreal campaign that drew international attention. And he almost won. Though he lost the battle, his campaign kick-started a political movement in Aspen that ultimately won the war, the reverberations of which still ripple throughout the community today.

The new documentary Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb, co-directed by Daniel Joseph Watkins and Ajax Phillips, tells the story of Thompson’s campaign and builds upon Watkins’ previous effort, the hugely impressive book Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff (reviewed here). In addition to the massive volume of research that they had from that project, they discovered a virtual treasure trove of original campaign footage, some of it not even developed, which forms the basis of this new film. Essentially, this allowed Watkins and Phillips to tell the entire story of Thompson’s run for sheriff using original footage from 1970, filmed as the campaign progressed. Watkins also discovered nearly 3000 photographs from the campaign taken by David Hiser and Bob Kreuger. It is truly remarkable material that presents the real Hunter S. Thompson, totally unfiltered as he makes a serious attempt to affect political change in his home town.

Hunter S. Thompson and supporters writing campaign newsletters. Credit: David Hiser

The directors made the sensible decision to let this extraordinary footage tell the story through the participants own words, captured as they were on the scene in 1970. Complimenting this are several voice-overs from the individuals involved, from Bob Braudis (former Sheriff of Pitken County) and Joe Edwards (former Pitken County commissioner) to the artist Ralph Steadman and Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone. In a clever move, we don’t actually see these people until the very end, 50 years later, which proves to be strangely poignant.

I don’t want to give a complete breakdown of all the footage here or indeed the story. I think it is best that you see it unfold for yourself but I will say this – the parallel with what is happening today is uncanny. Through sheer serendipity, Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb serves to show us how little has changed in 50 years. The dynamics involved, the generational clashes and dirty political tactics deployed by the establishment are frighteningly familiar and relevant. One such powerful example of this is the scene at the beginning of the film as the incumbent Sheriff, Carrol D. Whitmire, representing the Democratic Party, debates Thompson. When asked about the source of Thompson’s support, Carroll responds – “I don’t know what Freak Power is. I don’t know what they are talking about when they talk about Freak Power.” Thompson’s answer was as salient then as it is today – “[Freak Power] is the ability to act, to have control over your environment, to have control of your government. My idea of running for sheriff is to expand the notion of the office. As it is now you just don’t talk to a cop, they are the enemy and that’s true not only of Aspen but of all over the country. That’s a dangerous situation when the enforcement arm is totally out of communication with the reality…It is time that we either bridge that chasm with some kind of realistic law enforcement or else I don’t think it is going to be bridged in this country, we are going to have revolution.”

Hunter S. Thompson conspires with Oscar Zeta Acosta about his campaign. Credit: Bob Krueger

As someone who has invested many years writing and researching about Hunter S. Thompson for my PhD, I have to say it is a delight to see the man treated onscreen in a serious, respectful manner. Hunter on film has been very hit and miss over the years and there has always been a temptation to indulge the Gonzo persona or idle celebrity gossip. The film also benefits from the focus being solely on his pre-Fear and Loathing days, with none of the over-the-top theatrics that define his later career. I have always maintained the view that Hunter S. Thompson’s career in the decade prior to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is actually the most interesting period of his life and the one which arguably contains his best work. Thankfully, more and more people are now discovering the incredible output from Hunter during this period (I highly recommend his letters collection The Proud Highway in this regard)

Freak Power shows us the serious writer and concerned citizen from that period, determined to take a stand against the greedheads that threatened his community. It reminds us that there was a lot more to Hunter S. Thompson than drugs and bad behavior. Clearly the film was a labor of love for all involved and this is reflected in every aspect of the production, from the soaring soundtrack to the unmistakable film poster by none other than the legendary Ralph Steadman. I also believe that the film contains the only known footage of Hunter with his legendary attorney, Oscar Zeta Acosta, who is shown briefly with Thompson on election night as he learns of his political fate.

On that note, I will leave you with words from Thompson himself, from his concession speech, as though he is speaking to us today – “Unfortunately I proved what I set out to prove ….that the American Dream really is fucked.” However, as Thompson’s campaign manager Ed Bastian added – “In retrospect, we can see that it was a really powerful oar-stroke forward for the change and political dynamics in the valley area around Aspen. All of the things we did…they all set the stage for what was to soon follow.” Thompson’s would later offer the mantra – “Politics is the art of controlling your environment.” He proved that to be the case by getting involved and taking action. We can all learn from that.

Freak Power is out now on Amazon, Vimeo and Apple – visit freakpower.com to learn more.

Watch the trailer below:

Appearance at Las Vegas Book Festival

I had the honour of appearing at the Las Vegas Book Festival this year to discuss the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson, alongside Hunter’s son Juan F. Thompson who is the author of Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up With Hunter S. Thompson, Margaret Harrell who was Hunter’s copy-editor for Hell’s Angels and author of the recently published The Hell’s Angels Letters: Hunter S. Thompson, Margaret Harrell and the Making of an American Classic and Timothy Denevi, author of Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism. It was a very enjoyable discussion and many thanks to Scott Dickensheets and all at the Las Vegas Book Festival for making this happen.

Book I contributed to wins two awards

Just learned that a book I contributed to won two awards. American Political Humor: Masters of Satire and Their Impact on U.S. Policy and Culture was published last year and won the 2020 Outstanding Reference Source awarded by the Reference and User Services Association [RUSA] and also won Best Reference of 2019 awarded by Library Journal. I contributed the entry on Hunter S. Thompson.

Nice to hear and thanks again to Jody Baumgartner for including my essay on Hunter in the book.

Panel discussion on The Hell’s Angels Letters

I was delighted to participate in this two hour panel discussion on The Hell’s Angels Letters with some of the best experts out there on Hunter S. Thompson. Here’s the lowdown on all involved:

Margaret Harrell is hands on with Life. A dual national, she has lived and written in Morocco, Switzerland, and Belgium as well as the U.S.
The copy editor/assistant editor of Hell’s Angels and other remarkable books at Random House, she also was the international coordinator
of a museum project in Belgium. Now living in Raleigh NC, she is a longtime freelance book editor, a light body meditation teacher,
and a cloud photographer. She has thirteen published books, including the Keep This Quiet! memoir series.

Professor William McKeen is the author of eight books and the editor of four more, including Mile Marker Zero (Crown, 2011), a non-fiction narrative about Key West; Outlaw Journalist (W.W. Norton, 2008), a biography of Hunter S. Thompson; Highway 61 (W.W. Norton, 2003), a memoir of a 6,000-mile road trip with his teenage son; and two anthologies, Rock and Roll is Here to Stay (W. W. Norton, 2000) and Literary Journalism: A Reader (Wadsworth, 2000).

His most recent book is Everybody Had an Ocean (Chicago Review Press, 2017), about the intersection of music and crime in Los Angeles during the 1960s. It focuses on how Charles Manson was able to infiltrate the peace-love-and-flowers world of rock’n’roll royalty in Laurel Canyon, becoming a roommate to Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys.

McKeen also produced an anthology about Florida, where he spent most of his life. Homegrown in Florida (University Press of Florida, 2012) celebrates childhood in the Sunshine State. In addition to writing two stories in the collection, McKeen gathered contributions from Carl Hiaasen, Michael Connelly, Kristin Harmel, Fabiola Santiago and Tom Petty.

His major teaching areas are literary journalism, history of journalism, reporting, feature writing and history of rock’n’roll.

Ron Whitehead is the founder of the Louisville Gonzo Fest. He is also the Beat Poet Laureate of Kentucky (2019‒2021) who received the City of Louisville Proclamation (2019) for a Lifetime Achievement of Supporting the Arts. A poet, writer, editor, publisher, organizer, scholar, Ron has produced over 3,000 Arts Events from New York City to the Netherlands. Whitehead has also taught at the University of Louisville, New York University, Trinity College Dublin, and the University of Iceland.

Professor Peter Richardson teaches humanities and American Studies at San Francisco State University. His latest book, about Hunter S. Thompson, will be published by the University of California Press. His previous publications include books about the Grateful Dead, Ramparts magazine, and Carey McWilliams, Thompson’s editor at “The Nation” magazine.

And of course, myself. Many thanks to Alice Osborn for bringing all this together, it was a great discussion.

The Hell’s Angels Letters: Hunter S. Thompson, Margaret Harrell and the Making of an American Classic

By Margaret Harrell

I was honoured to recently contribute an essay to this fascinating new book by Margaret Harrell, alongside William McKeen, author of the excellent Thompson biography Outlaw Journalist, and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Streitfeld, author of Hunter S. Thompson: The Last Interview. I will be posting more about my experience working with Margaret on this and about the book itself but for now here is a description from the publisher, Norfolk Press, followed by a blurb I contributed to the back cover and most importantly, the link to where you can buy a copy.

Take note, this is a large A4 full colour book and is heavy, hence the price.

From the publisher – “The Hell’s Angels Letters: Hunter S. Thompson, Margaret Harrell and the Making of an American Classic is an important revelation in the legacy of Thompson, with letters that survived precarious shipping and travel over decades, cloaked away from the public. “If Hell’s Angels hadn’t happened I never would have been able to write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or anything else . . . I felt like I got through a door just as it was closing,” Hunter told Paris Review. When he secured a hardcover contract with Jim Silberman (Random House), the known part of the story breaks off. To whip up the final edits, Margaret A. Harrell, a young copy editor/assistant editor to Jim, was—in a break from the norm—given full rein to work with him by expensive long-distance phone and letter. This galvanizing action led to a fascinating tale. She uses the letters to resuscitate the cloaked, suspenseful withheld drama. The book peaks in their romantic get-together at his ranch twenty-one years after they last met, a moving tie maintained over the years. What happens, then? Read on and see.”

The Hell’s Angels Letters: Hunter S. Thompson, Margaret Harrell and the Making of an American Classic reveals an oft-overlooked side of Hunter S. Thompson – that of the serious writer and journalist dedicated to his craft and determined to reveal the truth to his audience, no matter the cost. The correspondence covers a pivotal moment in Thompson’s career, on the cusp of making his literary impact as part of the New Journalism movement while simultaneously moving towards realizing his Gonzo persona and style. The letters here reveal the painstaking task of bringing Hunter’s vision to fruition, and Margaret Harrell played an integral role in this journey. – Dr. Rory Patrick Feehan

Buy a copy from the publisher here.

An inside look at how sports shaped Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘gonzo’ journalism

WOODY CREEK,ASPEN,CO, – OCTOBER 12: Hunter Thompson aka Hunter S Thompson aka Gonzo Journalist at his ranch sitting in his kitchen which he also used as an office on October 12, 1990 in Woody Creek, Aspen, Colorado (Photo by Paul Harris/Getty Images)

Hi folks,

Really enjoyed reading this overview of how sports shaped Hunter as a writer. I had a chat with the author Bill Shea and he included a quote of mine in the piece.

“One longtime observer of Thompson’s career is Rory Patrick Feehan, a gonzo scholar who may be the only person in the world with a doctorate (from Ireland’s University of Limerick) focused on Thompson.

“The influence of his sports writing background is evident across his entire oeuvre, fostering his love of action verbs and rollicking energy charged narratives that pulled you into the story,” Feehan wrote of Thompson in an email. “Much of that skill was honed during his military days when he had to make even the dullest football game sound exciting, not to say the least for his reporting on bowling in Puerto Rico. It also transferred particularly well to his political journalism – he essentially saw it as a form of sports and wrote about the campaign trail as though it were football season. Rival candidates, underhand tactics and killer blows in the final stretch – that all began with Hunter’s love of sports.””

You can read the full article here 

Rory

Guest Lecture at Western Kentucky University

Was delighted to give a guest lecture via Skype on Hunter S. Thompson with Professor Andrea Billups as part of her Feature Writing class in the School of Journalism & Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University last November. Western Kentucky University’s School of Journalism & Broadcasting has won the Hearst Journalism Awards Program’s Intercollegiate Photojournalism Competition an incredible 25 times in the past 30 years. Known as the Pulitzer Prizes of student journalism, I was not surprised to find the group of students to be smart, inquisitive and eager to learn about the Godfather of Gonzo Journalism. I talked about why I did my PhD on Hunter, why he remains relevant, what writers and journalists can learn from Hunter and also discussed The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.

Many thanks to Professor Andrea Billups for the opportunity, it was a great experience.

On a side note, what a beautiful campus they have there!

 

Western-Kentucky-University-Best-MSW-in-East-2016CMCampus1024

Interview with Genevieve Walker for GQ Magazine

02-GettyImages-871379730

Hunter S. Thompson, October 12, 1990.Paul Harris / Getty Images

 

Had a really enjoyable chat with Genevieve Walker of GQ Magazine before Christmas for an article that she was writing about how Louisville is embracing Hunter’s legacy. We talked for almost two hours and the article turned out great. I am quoted a few times throughout and it was a strange feeling seeing my name in GQ Magazine!

Here’s a snippet of the article where I am quoted, for the full article click the link below the extract:

When Dr. Rory Feehan, a Hunter S. Thompson scholar based in Limerick, Ireland, visited Louisville for the first time this year, he noticed an absence of permanent public embrace of Thompson. “Why don’t they have a boulevard or street named after him? He’s an icon. This great writer is part of the cultural heritage of Louisville.”

This year’s GonzoFest kicked off with an evening at the museum on the 19th of July (a day after Thompson’s birthday). The festivities included a panel discussion between Juan Thompson and Whitehead, moderated by WFPL President Stephen George. The Curator, Erika Holmquist-Wall, gave a gallery talk alongside Dr. Rory Feehan.

Flying into Louisville for the first time, Feehan said, “I saw that flat, green land. It was like Ireland in the sun.” Not unlike Kentucky, said Feehan, Ireland is known for whiskey and horse racing. Not unlike Louisville, Dublin had a contentious relationship with its own James Joyce, who is now very celebrated.

Thompson died over a dozen years ago, which for a historian, is no time at all. Already, though, there has been significant renewed interest and engagement with Thompson’s work. “In the last 15 years there has been an explosion of research papers,” said Feehan. As the Gonzoville movement builds momentum and academics fine-tune theories, reframing Thompson’s situation in literature, it makes sense to start defining his place in his hometown, too.

The goal, said Whitehead, is to have a permanent place for all things Hunter S. Thompson. A place that can showcase, and maintain, all of his personal archives.

There are many parties interested in the Thompson archives, and where they’ll eventually come to rest. (Johnny Depp owns a portion.) Will a multi-million dollar facility, like the Muhammad Ali Center, ever be built for them in Louisville? Right now it seems unlikely. But, as Lindenberger said, “If anybody can do it, Ron would pull it together.”

Ron Whitehead—the Outlaw Poet, as he calls himself—will be 69 years old this November. He cares deeply about Thompson’s work, and giving him his proper due in Louisville. He’s also ready to pass the torch. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” said Whitehead. “Juan [Thompson] has moved to town. I’m turning this all over to him. Everybody knows that I’m going to stay on top of whatever is going on. I’ll work behind the scenes, but 25 years is enough. This is an ending and a beginning.”

To read the full article on GQ.com click here

 

15 Years – Remembering Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (July 18th 1937 – February 20th 2005)

10-29-70-3+#4_WEB_v1

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