The definition of journalism most of us are familiar with would align with “just the facts ma’am” — that is, objectivity over all. Yet, it’s hard not to associate the term with a certain cigarette-chomping, gravel-voiced professional hooligan who obliterated the wall separating himself and his subject via a homemade cocktail of narcotics, explosives and fearlessness (some would argue foolishness, no doubt). I’m referring, of course, to Hunter Stockton Thompson, who wrote some of the most scathing journalism of the latter half of the 20th century by completely rewriting the rules of journalism itself. Respect for and distance from the subject were not often determining factors in Thompson’s work. The man’s knack for plunging headfirst into any given story, be it the Kentucky Derby or Richard Nixon, is so well-documented as to be notorious. And yet his work has uncommon and unerring reverberations in today’s culture, where anyone with an internet connection can call themselves a journalist.
Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky and reluctantly joined the military as a young man after a series of run-ins with the law saw our future gonzo journalist spending his prom night in jail. Early on, he scribbled for a sports rag in Puerto Rico, wrote about the then-emerging bohemian culture of Big Sur and penned two novels: The Rum Diary and Prince Jellyfish. It wasn’t until his breakthrough nonfiction book Hell’s Angels, in which Thompson earned the trust of the infamous motorcycle gang by submerging himself in their ranks, that he found the voice we now fondly remember. The young writer’s gamble with his own life was appalling — the Angels served him a near-fatal beating — but he was able to gain a degree of access that other journalists simply could not get.
Thompson would go on to publish other important works, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his celebrated, though failed, attempt at covering a desert race and drug expo in Nevada, which somehow denigrated into drug-induced dementia, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, in which our perpetually inebriated hero attempts to cover the 1972 presidential race between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. Thompson’s last book was Hey Rube, a bifurcated collection of essays about sports and George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.” It was angry, but without the trademark acerbic humor and acid wit; the bile was still there, the joy in writing was not.
Thompson’s likeness has since been crudely slapped onto T-shirts, tote bags and other memorabilia as a sort of vague, generalized rebellion. It’s easy and fun to remember the author as a non-stop party animal, a fool and a madman whose copious intake of drugs and alcohol will forever brand him an American outlaw. It is more difficult — precisely because the nuances of his writing are so frequently overlooked by those with a penchant for his feverish antics — to remember that, by eliminating the imaginary wall between the subject and the observer, Thompson revolutionized (and called bullshit on) modern journalism.
Whether or not this is a cause for celebration is up for debate. Online journalists can now proffer up their opinions — be they uninformed or, in some cases, even incorrect — in regards to any story, and it’s no longer seen as radical; it is the norm. But before Thompson, it was unthinkable that a journalist would disregard The Assignment in favor of a mescaline-fueled rumination on the death of the American Dream. Thompson gave journalism ferocious color and a streak of wild unpredictability. The malleability and freedom afforded to journalists in the modern age is due in no small regard to his efforts to simultaneously destroy and redefine its parameters. Looking back at the apex of Thompson’s wild, indelible career, you can see what he means when he writes about “the high-water mark — the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
The high-water mark is Thompson’s work itself. Viva la Gonzo.
Nicholas Laskin is a Los Angeles-based writer who primarily works in screenwriting but also dabbles in prose and journalism. He is the co-creator of the upcoming web series Talents and has worked for the American Film Institute and Sundance. In his spare time, he can be found doing one of the following things: reading, writing, binge-watching movies, making meager efforts at the gym or seeking out exotic and possibly dangerous Thai food.
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