A Sad Day in February: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson 1937-2005

Hunter S. Thompson died on Sunday, February 20, 2005 after having fatally shot himself — a genuine shock given that Hunter was an acerbic, wild man who always seemed to stay true to himself, who fought the government, both local and national, his contemporaries, and his past.

His notorious “Gonzo journalism,” in which he inserted himself, and his skewed, often inflammatory opinions, into his stories reinvigorated American journalism, and, for a brief period, he made political journalism a hip endeavor.

Inspired by William Faulkner’s contention that the greatest fiction is truer than journalism, the esteemed Dr. Thompson dedicated his career to sharpening his wit and unleashing his invective on the world. But Thompson’s incendiary tongue wasn’t solely responsible for the legendary status that he later accrued; his heart, and the pain of witnessing the disintegration of the country that he so adored, was ultimately what fueled his articles and inspired his legend; Hunter suffered because the world was suffering, and he never lowered his eyebrows, batted an eye, turned the other cheek, or lessened criticisms against people and institutions that shocked, saddened, or infuriated him.

Thompson had always been an iconoclastic writer. As a youth he was highly regarded by his English teachers, but he didn’t take writing seriously until he joined the Air Force in the late 1950s. Already a reckless con man, the then-19-year-old Hunter failed to fit into the ardent lifestyle — both socially and professionally — that the air force base offered him. Almost on a whim, he finagled his way into a writing gig at the Command Courier, the official newspaper of Englin Air Force Base, in Pensacola, Florida.

He soon ingratiated himself into the journalist’s lifestyle and began to moonlight at several Florida based newspapers. Upon his dismissal from the Air Force, Hunter traveled the United States, and later South America, as a freelance journalist. Often struggling to make ends meet, and always conning his way into new gigs as a journalist, he found himself covering the Hell’s Angels in the early 1960s as part of an ongoing investigative piece. He rode with the Angels for a year, and painted them in a fairly decent light, despite the fact that his relationship with the organization ended with a severe beating from several members.

His time spent with the notorious bikers resulted in his first published book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange And Terrible Saga (Random House, 1967). The book illustrated a full year in Hunter’s life in which he conned his way into the gang’s inner-circles. It was the first in-depth portrait of the Hell’s Angels and, as legend has it, police departments began to cite it as a manual on infiltrating and understanding the gang.

Hunter continued to struggle as a freelance journalist, and in the years following the release of Hell’s Angels he conceived an idea for a book that would illustrate the death of the American Dream. This book would appear in 1971, first serialized in Rolling Stone magazine, for which Thompson was a regular correspondent, and later released by Warner Books as the now infamous Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Featuring illustrations by British artist Ralph Steadman, whom Hunter had previously worked with on stories such as “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” loosely detailed a visit that Dr. Thompson and his friend, Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta, who was fictionalized as Dr Gonzo in the book, took to Las Vegas the year before.

“Fear and Loathing” is a drug-induced nightmare, a satirical and socially conscious look at the world following the demise of the so-called hippy revolution. It was, as Hunter would later lament, the final nail in the coffin of that generation. The book became an instant classic and the New York Times heralded it as “the best book on the dope decade.” By its release, however, following a sordid affair in which Acosta tried to halt the release of the book because he demanded co-authorship, Thompson had grown momentarily weary of the book. As it was flying off of bookshelves, the consummate journalist and self-professed political junky had applied for White House credentials so that he could participate in covering the 1972 elections, and he feared that a book about excessive drug use would compromise efforts to obtain those credentials.

But the book made Dr. Thompson a counterculture icon, and it was seemingly overlooked when credentials were handed out; Thompson acquired the right to travel with traditional and orthodox reporters, and his subsequent experiences informed his book, Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ’72, a book considered by many to be the greatest account of flying face first into the American political process. The book detailed President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. Thompson had long been a vocal critic of President Nixon; he often vilified the President in scathing articles such as “Presenting the Richard Nixon Doll (Overhauled 1968 Model),” and Nixon, in turn, characterized Thompson as a “dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character.”

Following the one-two punch of both Fear and Loathing books, Hunter S. Thompson became a certified celebrity, and he continued to follow stories, political, local, and sports related. Although he reveled in the violence of the latter half of the twentieth century, his works were never more powerful than they were in the 60s and during the Nixon Administration. Richard Nixon proved an admirable foe, and, when he died in 1994, Thompson strangely lamented his adversary while violently condemning him.

Over the next three decades, Dr. Thompson published nearly a dozen books, including The Great Shark Hunt, which featured several of his most memorable stories, and several of those were the inspiration for the 1980 film Where The Buffalo Roam, starring Bill Murray.

Hunter S. Thompson’s comet was a light that illuminated the skies for over four decades. He was a specimen who was too strange to fit into any single category, too mad to be accepted by traditionalists. He was one of the great American writer’s who struggled to understand and dispel the bullshit propagated by the general madness that comprised the twentieth century. He was a liar, a cheat, a drug addict, an alcoholic, a violent and temperamental person, and he was a brilliant writer — a funny writer, a creator of masterful, thought provoking analysis and social dissections. His longevity has never been questioned and, following his untimely demise, he will continue to flourish. He was, as he once described his pal, attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, “one of God’s prototypes. Some kind of high-powered mutant never considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”