Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay
Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

How George Orwell Inspired Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo Journalism

Hunter S. Thompson’s primary muse was not F. Scott Fitzgerald, but rather George Orwell and his fact-bending 1933 memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London.

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line.’

Essays, George Orwell

George Orwell wrote those words in 1947, a quarter of a century before Hunter S. Thompson set off on the campaign trail for Rolling Stone, where he drastically redefined what “political writing” could be and did so very much in the mould of a rebel. Yet Orwell did not merely prophesise Thompson’s Gonzo reporting; he also inspired it. 

In the mid-’60s, Thompson was beginning to move away from his early efforts at literature and journalism, which largely copied the styles of his other heroes, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. As he found his own voice, his work became not just original, but challenging. Essentially, he dreamed of becoming a great novelist but was trapped in journalism, and so he attempted to fuse the two forms, layering fiction onto reality in a style that would, in 1970, become known as Gonzo. However, as he plotted out the concept of his first book, Hell’s Angels (1967), he explained that this approach was not entirely his own. It owed a little something to George Orwell

Fiction is a bridge to the truth that journalism can’t reach. Facts are lies when they’re added up, and the only kind of journalism I can pay much attention to is something like Down and Out in Paris and London. […] But in order to write that kind of punch-out stuff you have to add up the facts in your own fuzzy way, and to hell with the hired swine who use adding machines.

The Proud Highway, Hunter S. Thompson (1997)

Thompson had been a fan of Orwell’s debut since at least 1960 and made various references to it in his letters, even saying that the original article he had written on the Hell’s Angels, prior to his book deal, had been “another down-and-out assignment” (Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson, 2008). But it was more than just a catchy phrase; Orwell’s book held the key to Thompson’s developing ideas about the fusion of fact and fiction that would ultimately dominate his style of literary journalism. Indeed, it was virtually a template for Hell’s Angels

In Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), Orwell succeeded in discussing broad social issues not through a collection of dull essays but rather by presenting a personal story of one man’s journey through a subculture. Orwell used the people his protagonist met as characters in a narrative that he twisted into a fascinating tale, heightened by an emphasis on the narrator’s own desperation and the looming spectre of starvation. Sometimes marketed as a memoir and sometimes a novel, it was the same approach to writing that Thompson termed “personal journalism” and he attempted to copy it throughout his own articles of the 1960s, presenting himself as a comically inept reporter, frequently in dangerous or absurd situations, encountering an assortment of weird and wonderful characters. 

In Thompson’s work, particularly of the ’60s, those wonderful characters were more often than not invented or grossly exaggerated. His friends were often shocked when he wrote about them and invented absurd stories or attributed to them statements they never made, and people he interviewed sometimes complained to his editors about how he twisted or changed their words.

For Thompson, though, none of this was important. As he explained, “Fiction is a bridge to the truth that journalism can’t reach.” This meant that little lies were perfectly acceptable when composing a story that pointed to a greater truth. If he had to change someone’s words or even invent a character to explain something, it was fine as long as this contributed to the reader’s understanding of something Thompson knew to be true. 

Naturally, his employers were less than enthusiastic about this, but when questioned about such fabrications when working at the National Observer, he simply remarked, “Maybe I heard some of these stories and didn’t see them. But they sure as hell happened.” (Fear and Loathing, Paul Perry, 1992) This is oddly similar to what George Orwell said in defence of the veracity of his claims in Down and Out in Paris and London:

As for the truth of my story, I think I can say that I have exaggerated nothing except in so far as all writers exaggerate by selecting. I did not feel that I had to describe events in the exact order in which they happened, but everything I have described did take place at one time or another.

Orwell: Life and Art, Jeffrey Meyers (2010)

In the late ’20s, Orwell (then known as Eric Blair), spent time living and working among the poor of London and Paris, eventually turning this into his first book by reversing the order of events and then fictionalising them to some degree. The result was an engaging narrative that gave the impression that the author’s situation was rather more perilous than it had been. Orwell changed a few details for other reasons, such as hiding the fact that he had been robbed by a woman he brought home and assigning blame instead to an Italian man.

In fact, Down and Out in Paris and London is a patchwork of real and imagined scenes and people. In a copy of his book annotated for a relative, he noted that certain sections were more or less true but then acknowledged that some of the individuals described were “intended more as representative types” – a tacit acknowledgement of a degree of fictionalisation for the sake of a better narrative. (The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell: An Age Like This: 1920-1940, p. 114, Orwell) Indeed, it is hardly surprising, given how well each character that flits in and out of the narrative represents an idea and how concisely they tell their life stories or rail against some injustice or other. 

In Thompson’s version of journalism, none of this made the story any less true. He subscribed to Hemingway’s notion that “If a man is making a story up it will be true in proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious he is; so that if he makes something up it is as it truly would be.” (By-Line, Ernest Hemingway, 1967-77) Hell’s Angels, like much of Thompson’s reporting from that era, features a great many imagined scenes and quotations.

Years later, he admitted that he had “paraphrased a lot of dialogue without giving it a second thought,” even inventing people to deliver his own words or pretending that drunken motorcyclists had said something they hadn’t purely because it expressed an idea he wanted his reader to hear. (Fear and Loathing in America, Hunter S. Thompson, 2000). Many of the claims he made about the club were also disputed by Sonny Barger, the Hell’s Angels’ president, but that hardly mattered. It all made for a better story, and one that he felt was true – at least in spirit. 

As Orwell had done in his first book, Thompson continually reminded the reader that he was in serious danger, and this leads up to a violent beating at the end of the book. Whilst the beating certainly took place, Thompson frequently contradicted himself regarding how it had happened, and no one that witnessed it agreed with his version of events. It seems rather likely that he deliberately coaxed the notoriously violent gang into attacking him in order to give the book a fitting postscript.

In his mind, the fine details of how this “stomping” occurred were trivial; all that mattered was that it happened and it illustrated perfectly how even a journalist that had gained their trust could be subject to random violence. It was no different, really, to Orwell pretending that he had nearly starved to death. It merely illustrated the truth, which was that people routinely did starve even in the middle of the world’s wealthiest cities. 

Both Thompson and Orwell spent time with genuinely fascinating people during their research, but both writers were unsatisfied with merely portraying them as they were and would often fill gaps in their stories with rather convenient characters, impossible to disprove. This is something Thompson had been doing for years. Just as Orwell included some “representative types” in Down and Out in Paris and London, Thompson specialised in entering underworlds, observing the locals, and then piecing together composites that were a little too perfect to be real. After a trip to South America in the early ’60s, he took this to an extreme in an article about wealth inequality and racial tensions: 

One of my most vivid memories of South America is that of a man with a golf club—a five-iron, if memory serves—driving golf balls off a penthouse terrace in Cali, Colombia […] Beside him on a small patio table was a long gin-and-tonic, which he refilled from time to time at the nearby bar.

Great Shark Hunt, Hunter S. Thompson (1979)

This image perfectly captured the idea of privilege running amok and served as a counterpoint to portraits of desperate Latinos and their anti-Gringo sentiment. Another character, also rather hard to believe, is described as “a representative” of an American aid organisation. One must wonder whether this was a subtle nod to his being representative of white people in the region. Such people pop up often in Thompson’s work and they are not wholly different from characters like Paddy, the ignorant but affable Irish tramp in Down and Out in Paris and London, a rather crude stereotype intended to signal innocence and hopelessness amongst the uneducated classes. 

Transposing fiction onto reality ultimately became a defining characteristic of Thompson’s writing. After Hell’s Angels, he spent the next several years refining his voice until, in 1970, he created Gonzo Journalism – a one-man literary genre characterised by that mixture of fantasy and reality, with the journalist at the centre of the story and other (often imagined, representative) characters illuminating key issues and often acting as sounding-boards to let Thompson explain the premise of his metajournalistic adventure.

In “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” (1970), he set the scene with a made-up character called Jimbo, representative of wealthy Derby patrons, while others simply blur together into a faceless crowd of drunken racists that he felt made up the Southern aristocracy. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he essentially re-wrote Jimbo as a pale hitchhiker on the road to Vegas, but here he served more as a device that allowed Thompson to address the reader and state the purpose of his trip to Vegas. 

In his next book, 1973’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, he would do the same with two young men called Lester and Jerry – characters clearly intended as representative of the average Rolling Stone reader and most likely named for Lester Bangs and Jerry Garcia. This was the opening to his coverage of that year’s presidential campaign and it was fittingly offbeat. Thompson and Rolling Stone founder, Jann Wenner, hatched the idea of turning politics into Gonzo fodder by sending the magazine’s star writer on the campaign trail for a year. Thompson viewed it as a way to turn a generation of readers onto politics, while Wenner saw politics as the new rock ‘n’ roll and thus a potential stream of income for his growing publishing empire. Everyone else at the magazine thought it had to be some kind of joke. 

As Orwell had foretold, a writer capable of producing good political writing would be an outspoken rebel, and by 1972 that is precisely what Hunter S. Thompson had become. He was about as far from a typical political reporter as it got, instead known for penetrating underground scenes where he would get drunk, take drugs, and mingle with the “fringe types” he encountered. He was an anthropologist of the counterculture, translating the unimaginable for middle American readers.

Yet he was not totally ignorant of politics, having covered Nixon’s campaign and inauguration during the previous election and he had even run his own campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. Still, his previous efforts at political coverage had been rather unusual. In one notable story, he had called Nixon “a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; […] a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad” (Great Shark Hunt). And that was the published version with all the profanity removed by the editors. 

It was in this mode that Thompson set off for Washington DC. Every two weeks, he turned in dispatches that frustrated and baffled his editors but delighted his readers. He tossed vile insults and took off on bizarre digressions and flights of fancy that depicted, for example, journalist Frank Mankiewicz having his big toes cut off, Nixon morphing into a werewolf, and a young lawyer being drugged and forced to rape a child.

His articles were littered with profanity, drug abuse, firearms, and violence, and after a few months of amusing hyperbole, he even began influencing the election by spreading rumours about candidates taking obscure African drugs. Much to the chagrin of the Secret Service, he then gave away his press credentials to a man who publicly harangued one candidate, possibly influencing his failure in the presidential campaign. Thompson, meanwhile, just sat back and wrote it all down. 

Whilst it is hard to look at even Orwell’s dystopian visions and see any inspiration for such oddball participatory reportage, once again Thompson cited Down and Out in Paris and London when it came to producing his wild and violent scenes. Not long before his foray into political reporting, he pointed to that book as an example of how creative non-fiction could be as engaging as pure fiction: 

I was reading The Great Gatsby again the other night, looking for a quote …and it struck me, in light of all this heavy [Ernest] Hemingway publicity going around, that Gatsby is better than any three of Hemingway’s books lumped together … and I wonder what that means, except that re-reading Gatsby makes me wonder why I bother with nonfiction … but now I think of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris & London … well, fuck …

Fear and Loathing in America (ibid)

Though Orwell’s most political works are, of course, Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949), in Down and Out in Paris and London, Thompson found a far greater inspiration as it was personal and illuminated issues not through allegory but through individuals. As in all his best work, Thompson’s approach to a presidential campaign was essentially the story of an outsider journalist trying and mostly failing to report on his given assignment, whilst at the same time somehow cutting through the rhetoric and conventions to present a more intimate, outrageous, and accurate account. Through his constant complaints about deadlines and descriptions of the minutiae of political reporting, coupled with outrageous and near-libellous claims about the candidates, he somehow managed to write what George McGovern’s campaign manager famously called “the most accurate and least factual book about the campaign.” (Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone, Hunter S. Thompson, 2009)

Whilst he laughed at the concept of objectivity and revelled in the freedom to say vile and outrageous things, Thompson was mostly fair and honest, using his hyperbole and vitriol only to cut through carefully crafted press releases and depict the candidates as he knew them to be. That was the point of his reality distortions. It may have sounded very different to Orwell’s portraits of Parisian plongeurs, but the effect was again the same. “Facts are lies when they’re added up,” he explained, “and the only kind of journalism I can pay much attention to is something like Down and Out in Paris and London.” 

From a cursory glance, the two writers could hardly have been more different in demeanour and even style, yet Orwell somehow both inspired and predicted the most innovative political writer of the 20thth century. Down and Out in Paris and London had shown Thompson that non-fiction could be art. It was possible to essentially craft a novel from reality, with the author as the observer-participant, exploring unbelievable underworlds, depicting the most fascinating of people, and giving the story a shove in the right direction whenever reality threatened to turn dull. He saw that Orwell could explore serious issues through lengthy digressions and character studies inserted into otherwise conventional narrative structures, and even in the darkest of situations use humour to further illuminate the bleak reality of existence. They were men willing to suffer for their art and to do anything to present the truth – even if that meant, rather paradoxically, bending it nearly to breaking point. 

Looking through Thompson’s body of work, it is easy to see that much of his literary career was an attempt at writing a new Great Gatsby and that he wanted to be viewed as a young Ernest Hemingway. Yet perhaps among all his literary idols, he gained more from George Orwell, the man who had uncannily predicted Thompson’s Gonzo political reportage.