Today the major news networks picked up the story of the untimely death of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. The story goes that he apparently shot himself in the kitchen at his compound (the Owl Farm) in Woody Creek, Colorado. Thompson was credited as the father of Gonzo journalism… a form of journalism “rooted in the idea that absolute fidelity to the indisputably factual and provable did not always provide the best avenue to truth” and that “a deeper truth could be found in the ambiguous zones between fact and fiction.” That does not sound so gonzo/crazy to me. As I watch the news and read the accounts of the events unfolding in our country and abroad it seems only reasonable to move away from what our politicians declare to be factual and provable (as so often they are neither.) The ambiguous zone between the Known Facts and the Speculative seems to provide the only real answers for the political and social predicaments that human kind finds itself steeped in these days.
HST was one of my favorite outlaws, writers and social commentators. His work gave me a reason to contemplate, and therefore question my socio-cultural situation, not always with the intent to correct the problem, but at least to identify the hypocrisy. HST felt no compulsion to belong, which went against his traditional southern background, military service, and (in spite of himself) his legitimate literary career. That in itself is so refreshing in an era (or three) of political and social commentators who take themselves so seriously they have totally lost perspective on that which they speak. HST understood that the stories we tell are not just about the story, but the need to tell said story.
I am the proud owner of a majority of HST’s published work… and I can say I have read the books as well; they do not sit as proud trophies of a wasted intellect. I have even tried using his writing in my work because I have found no better teaching tool for the rigors and screwed up intricacies of a presidential campaign than Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. I have read and re-read his collections of Gonzo papers and Fear and Loathing Letters. They speak to something in me that is deeper than my normal everyday cynicism and they provide, somehow, a sense of hope that if we have collectively survived thus far, then tomorrow will again arrive.
The Washington Post article that my local paper ripped off from the wire said, “part of what made for his outlaw-seeming independence and his defiance of convention appeared to be an affinity for the drug lifestyle, which limited his appeal to many.” What? First, let us just say there was very little about the Good Doctor that could be accurately labeled as “seeming.” If he appeared to be an outlaw, guess what? He was. This is the man who accidentally shot his assistant trying to shoot a bear at the Owl Farm, a man who actively fought to free a woman jailed for her role in the shooting a Colorado law enforcement officer, a man who was so sick of the laws in his community that he ran for sheriff as part of the Freak Power Party (and almost won.) As his successes grew, so did his ability to be more independent, as it seems abject poverty or ridiculous wealth look to be the only roads to greater independence. As far as his drug lifestyle, I say did Hemmingway’s drinking put us off? Did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s affinity for cocaine lessen his popularity? HST’s drug lifestyle simply reminded us of his honesty and his refusal to conform to social mores that did not work for him.
Thompson regularly described his beat as the “death of the American dream.” In recent years he found himself as a recurring columnist for ESPN (his lifelong fascination with the world of sport found a perfect home…) where he had another audience and venue for examining the myth of the American dream, for if not the professional athletes reaching epic/heroic status in America who does embody the classic American dream? And, even if Thompson did, in many ways, embody that dream, one cannot ignore the strange mutations of the dream over time and perhaps he considered that it’s death. What constitutes HST’s American dream? Perhaps painful honesty, or maybe the end of hypocrisy, who really knows save for the Doctor himself and it is unlikely that he would feel compelled to explain to anyone who had the audacity to ask. I think that Thompson was able to see the manifestation of the American dream in many lights with or without chemical enhancement and he offered a critique of our culture that is fundamental for our survival. Doctor Thompson declared that the American Century has passed… and I believe that is true. And so we are left with a final question… what next?
I hope that a new generation of people, regardless of age will now be exposed to the work of HST as usually happens with the passing of genius. Unfortunately, I fear the dilapidation of the critical mind will dismiss his work as trivial musings of a crazy man. Without any social, cultural, or historical context his work will end up in the pile of stuff many people I know see as useless, since it does not enhance their opportunity to earn a buck. In a culture that begs for “just the facts ma’am,” those of us who believe that the real truth lies in that gray area between fact and fiction face an uphill battle. Where thought is required we may be careening off a great cliff with little regard for the consequences. And so the owner of the 21st Century will be decided.
HST – RIP, if peace is what you seek.