Hunter S. Thompson – Gonzo Frontiersman
“My only faith in this country is rooted in such places as Colorado and Idaho and maybe Big Sur as it was before the war. The cities are greasepits and not worth blowing off the map.”
– Hunter S. Thompson (from a letter to Lionel Olay, February 16, 1962)
Hunter S. Thompson is a name that will always be associated with a variety of locations – from his birthplace of Louisville Kentucky to his longstanding fortified compound in Woody Creek Colorado, from San Juan Puerto Rico courtesy of The Rum Diary to Las Vegas and his journey to the heart of the American Dream. Thompson was a seasoned traveller and indeed such was the extent of his time on the road in his early twenties that he once declared that his wanderlust made ‘Kerouac look like a piker’ (Thompson 1997, p.244). Although the natural environment has always played an integral role in the make-up of Thompson’s work, it remains an element of his writing that is all too often overlooked in favour of focusing on the more radical characteristics that have come to define both his literary persona and Gonzo Journalism. In order to fully understand and appreciate the various underlying principles that motivated Thompson and shaped his development as a writer, attention must be paid both to the manner in which he utilises the natural environment as a literary device and how the frontier as a concept lies at the heart of his literary oeuvre. Interestingly, the very point in Thompson’s life where the aforementioned come into being, a time and place that could be considered the genesis of both the fictive persona of The Hunterfigure and Gonzo Journalism, is actually one of the most overlooked periods in his life. That place is none other than Big Sur, California. Thompson arrived there in November of 1960 in the hope of settling down to write what he called “The Great Puerto Rican Novel” inspired by his experiences living in San Juan. His journey from the Caribbean island to his new home on the west coast of America had been far from straightforward however, with New York City being the first port of call in July of 1960 in what would become a westward bound voyage across the country that echoed Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It is important however, to first examine how and why Thompson ended up in Big Sur from San Juan, as the journey itself reveals important details concerning Thompson’s motivationsthat ultimately find their ultimate expression through his writing.
The West Is The Best – Goodbye to the Rat Race
The catalyst that spurred Thompson on his travels echoed that of certain frontiersmen that first journeyed westward across the land in search of pastures new; they were both equally motivated by a desire stay one step ahead of the law. In the time honoured tradition of the Outlaw heroes that he so admired in his youth, Thompson had fled Puerto Rico whilst out on bail awaiting charges of breach of the peace and resisting arrest, following an incident in which he had first refused to pay for his meal at a restaurant and subsequently got into an ugly confrontation with the police, of whom he compared to Nazi’s when asked to explain his actions in front of a judge in San Juan. Rather than await his fate, Thompson as ever opted to control his own destiny and thus returned to the familiar scene of New York. Though he had become disillusioned with journalism following his stint in Puerto Rico, he still had a strong desire to get his fiction published and whilst in New York he made one final pitch to Grove Press to garner interest in Prince Jellyfish, his first novel. Success however, was far off, and upon receiving yet another rejection letter, Thompson decided to move on from the novel, declaring to William Kennedy that he would ‘chalk that year up to experience’ (Thompson 1997, p. 22). For Thompson though, New York proved to be only a temporary stay. His focus quickly switched to the horizon and an escape route away from the big city. He was never comfortable living in a city the size of New York, though he did find it to be a never ending source of intrigue. When he first arrived there on Christmas Eve, 1957, the towering skyscrapers made such an impression that he later wrote:
I’d never been there, never even seen it. I remember being stunned at the New York skyline as I drove over this big freeway, coming across the flats in Secaucus. All of a sudden it was looming up in front of me and I almost lost control of the car. I thought it was a vision. (Thompson 1992, p.39)
However, the constant struggle to survive on a meagre wage in New York had been the principle reason for Thompson fleeing to Puerto Rico by January of 1960 and now, six months later, he had come full circle. The city had proven to be a rich learning experience in the past, from his stint working as a copyboy at Time, to the classes in “Literary Style & Structure” and “Short Story Writing” that he had taken at Columbia University. Living in New York had also exposed him to the very epicentre of the Beat Generation universe, and their rise to literary prominence did not escape his attention. He was particularly taken by Jack Kerouac whose “confessional prose made quite an impact on Thompson’s philosophy for living, if not on his writing style” (Brinkley in Thompson 1997, p. 110). For Thompson though, the negative aspects of living in New York far outweighed the positive, to such an extent that he harboured a life long aversion to the “rat-race” reality of big city life, a sentiment that was all too clear from even the earliest days of his time in New York, as is illustrated in his letter to his former English teacher at Louisville Male High School, Arch Gerhart, dated January 29, 1958:
Anyone who could live in this huge reclaimed tenement called Manhattan for more than a year, without losing all vestiges of respect for everything that walks on two legs, would have to be either in love, or possessed of an almost divine understanding. The sight of eight million people struggling silently but desperately to merely stay alive is anything but inspiring. For my money, at least eight million people would be much better off if all five boroughs of New York should suddenly sink into the sea. (Thompson 1997, p.106)
In the two years that followed that appraisal, Thompson had only found more reason to convince him that his time was best spent elsewhere. He had hoped that Puerto Rico would have been the solution to his problem, but even a supposed Caribbean paradise turned out to have a dark side. Thompson however, had not entirely given up on the region and by August of 1960 he had another island in the Caribbean in his sights – Cuba.
As with all of his endeavours, the potential for excitement and adventure was always paramount and in 1960 Cuba was at the centre of attention following the exploits of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara a little over a year earlier. The image of the Guerrilla fighter in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, fighting to overthrow the Batista regime, greatly appealed to Thompson’s romantic sensibilities. There was also the Hemingway connection to contend with which only served to heighten Thompson’s desire to travel to the country in search of work and indulge his fantasy of following in his literary heroes footsteps. The dream however quickly fell by the wayside once Thompson realised that work opportunities on the island were scarce and his own financial situation had deteriorated to the point of making any return to the Caribbean impossible. Undaunted by this disappointment, a new plan of action swung into gear by September of 1960, with Thompson and his friend Paul Semonin deciding to undertake the cross country road trip that would culminate in his arrival in Big Sur.
The duo’s first destination was to be Seattle, which involved delivering the vehicle they were journeying in to a car dealer, after which they hoped to make their way down to San Francisco. Once they took to the highways though, they quickly found themselves paying homage to Kerouac’s On the Road:
Their first rule of the road was to pick up every hitchhiker. In western Kansas, Semonin stopped for a man carrying a five-gallon gas can. When the hitchhiker got into the backseat, he flipped the latches on the can to reveal it was stuffed with clothes. “No one will pick you up if they think you’re a hitchhiker,” he explained. “You have to be a motorist in distress.” Hunter smelled a story and interviewed the man about the difficulty of getting rides. When they neared a signpost that proved they were in the middle of nowhere, Hunter made Semonin stop and take a picture of the interviewee with his thumb out, looking forlorn. (Perry 2004, p. 53)
Given the nature of their expedition and literary sensibilities, the Beat Generation connotations are unsurprising. Thompson was particularly fixated on the image of the lone hitchhiker during this jaunt, with multiple photographs taken by both Thompson and Semonin along the way consisting of a solitary figure standing at the edge of an empty highway, awaiting the opportunity to catch a ride to the next town from a stranger that might never materialise. The sheer vastness of the landscape in the background creates an overwhelming sense of isolation but also raises the alluring prospect of endless possibilities and unlimited freedom. It was an intoxicating picture for Thompson but one that he felt was increasingly under threat, as is evident from his article Low Octane For The Long Haul:
Hitchhikers have fallen on bad times in recent years. The raised thumb, long a symbol of youthful adventure, suddenly took on a threatening aspect when both Hollywood and the Readers’ Digest decided the public would be better off if hitchhiking were a lost art. It almost is – and things have come to such a sad pass that only uniformed servicemen and Jack Kerouac seem to be able to move about the country with any ease. The others are having trouble. Most people are afraid of them, insurance regulations prevent truckers from picking them up, and a good many of those who still stop for the stranded thumb are often more dangerous than the hitchhikers themselves. (Thompson 2006, p. 23)
It was a doomed image that Thompson himself brought to fruition in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with his alter ego Raoul Duke and attorney Dr. Gonzo terrorizing a hitchhiker on the desert highway to Las Vegas, a place that we are ominously reminded as being the last known home of the Manson family.
In 1960 however, there was a still a vestige of innocence and youthful optimism that had yet to be swept away by the tide of violence that would come to define the decade ahead. Upon his eventual arrival in San Francisco in October of that year, Thompson delighted in seeking out the North Beach haunts of the Beats, including the City Lights Bookshop owned by Laurence Ferlinghetti. The novelty of the city by the bay soon wore off though and once more Thompson found himself cursing the pressures of city life. The task of finding accommodation was temporarily eased by his friend John Clancy offering him the use of his vacated apartment until the lease had expired. Clancy was moving across the bay to Berkeley and so Thompson seized the opportunity with relish. Yet the perennial problem of employment once more reared its ugly head, with a soon-to-be despairing Thompson applying for everything from bartending to selling encyclopaedias. He was met with rejection across the board. When his application to the San Francisco Chronicle for work went completely unacknowledged, Thompson sent editor Abe Mellinkoff an Orwellian inspired put down entitled – Down and Out in San Francisco:
City of hills and fog and water, bankers and boobs – Republicans all…city of no money except what you find at the General Delivery window, and somehow it’s always enough – city, like all cities, of lonely women, lost souls, and people slowly going under. City of newspapers for Nixon (“careful now, don’t upset the balance of terror”)…where you talk with editors and news directors and creative directors and hear over and over again how easy and necessary it is to sell out…(Thompson 1997, pp. 237-8)
There was now also a notable political edge seeping into Thompson’s writing, no doubt a reflection of the extraordinary political circus that was unfolding before an electrified nation – the first televised presidential debates between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy…
Okay folks if you want to read the entire article, which is a good deal longer, then head over to Amazon where you can pick it up in either paperback ot for kindle. Beatdom #11 also includes interviews with leading Kearouac scholar Ann Charters, Al Hinkle (Ed Dunkel from Kerouac’s On the Road), musicians Hank Williams III & Richie Ramone, alongside articles on William Blake, William S. Burroughs and Arthur Rimbaud.
All the best,