The Death of A Dream - Hunter S. Thompson and the American Dream

Diploma Thesis 2010 163 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents


1. Loved & Loathed - The Art of Not Fitting into One Box
1.1 Turn on, Tune in, Drop out - the American 1960s and its Counterculture
1.2 What is so New about New Journalism?
1.3 Pure Gonzo Journalism?
1.4 Outlawed
1.5 Thompson's Fear and Loathing
1.6 Fear and Loathing versus Fear and Loathing

2. The Heart of the American Dream
2.1 Take this White Cadillac and Go Find the American Dream
2.2 New Beginnings
2.3 The American Frontier and its Dream
2.4 Live, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
2.5 The Dream of Social Mobility
2.6 I'm Bad but I Don't Care, Boys, Gonna Be a Millionaire
2.7 Transcending the American Dream

3. Fear and Loathing: When Puritan Minds search the Dream at the Frontier
3.1 Symbolic Landscapes
3.1.1 Roll the Dice and Never Think Twice
3.2 Primitive Christian Instincts
3.3 The Fear of Being Caught
3.4 Pranks & Revulsion
3.5 This is a Mad Society
3.5.1 They hate Us - We hate Them!

4. A Schizophrenic Society
4.1 Countercultural Idealism Betrayed
4.2 Violent Realities
4.2.1 Political Animals
4.2.2 He who Makes a Beast of Himself, Gets Rid of the Pain of Being a Man
4.3 Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride
4.3.1 In Other Words
4.3.2 Jesus! Another Deadline Missed


Works Cited

A) Transcripts of Personal Interviews with William McKeen and Max Stites


When I first saw the movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas around 2001, I was so fascinated by the wild story that evolves around Raoul Duke that I bought the book the next day. I read it, held a presentation in my English class and I remember the skeptical reactions of my classmates when I argued that “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is not about drugs”. Most of them did not understand that there was more to the story than just a journalist going crazy on drugs in Vegas. Hunter Thompson's style and the way he described the 60s seemed more appropriate and honest than anything I had ever read before. During the following years, I read almost all of his books and became a huge fan. When the journalist killed himself in 2005, it was clear to me that the world had lost a great writer.

Hunter Stockton Thompson was one of the most important reporters of the 1960s who witnessed and experienced a time marked by social unrest and a new consciousness that arose with the counterculture. He vividly conveyed his perceptions of the time in his texts and never hid his opinion about what was happening in the American nation. After publishing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he became an idol of the counterculture and today, he is a pop cultural icon, whose ideas are sold on t-shirts and posters. However, Thompson was not a friend of his own popularity because people never wanted the “real” Hunter S. Thompson but Raoul Duke, the crazy journalist, and focused on the writer's open drug use and excesses. For many scholars, Thompson's work is still not much more than shameful gibberish written in a drug-frenzy.

This lack of interest in Hunter Thompson's work on a scholarly level sparked the idea that I could pay tribute to the late author by writing a thesis about his social and political criticism and its importance for American literature. Due to the subtitle of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - “A savage journey into the heart of the American Dream”- I reread some of his work, paying attention to his view of the American Dream and started researching. First, I had to understand the vast concept of the American Dream, which probably was the most difficult part. With the help of my supervisor, I managed to keep my research question as simple as possible and decided to focus on how Hunter S. Thompson engaged the American Dream in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail 72.

Due to a scholarship from the University of Vienna and the help of my supervisor Univ.-Prof. Dr. Astrid Fellner, I had the possibility to do parts of my research at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where I had access to innumerable resources from which this thesis has definitely profited. Through the proximity to San Francisco, I was able to retrace Hunter Thompson's steps in the '60s countercultural epicenter.

William McKeen, who has published two very informative biographies about Thompson, and Max Stites, who compared the myth of the American Dream in the works of Charles Dickens and Hunter Thompson in his publication Fellow Travellers in the Land of Fear and Loathing: Dickens, Thompson and the American Dream, were so friendly as to be available for interviews that helped me very much to understand Thompson, his work and his view of the American Dream. The transcripts of these interviews can be found in Appendix A.

A major point that I had to understand before writing this thesis was that people need to structure the feelings and events with which they are confronted into a narrative. Andrew Delbanco explains “when that story leads somewhere and thereby helps us navigate through life to its inevitable terminus in death, it gives us hope” (1). He claims that “if such a sustaining narrative established itself over time in the minds of a substantial number of people, we call it culture” (1). The American Dream is a great example of such a story that established itself over the centuries and has become an important part of American culture. The narrative provides people with hope and without it the first settlers would have never accomplished their journey across the Atlantic. Nevertheless, one has to bear in mind that where is hope, there is also melancholy and it is often argued that American literature has largely been influenced by such a melancholic strive to find something worth living for as abundance does not cure the inner longing for fulfillment (see Delbanco 2).

In my thesis, I attempt to outline that Thompson followed this melancholic tradition and therefore concerned himself with the myth of the American Dream as a basic element of American culture. I will show that the writer engaged symbols and themes, which are related to the myth, for example, the Puritan roots of the Dream, the Christian moral or the dark, violent side of the myth that was always present in American society. I will also illustrate that Hunter Thompson used several narrative and journalistic techniques in order to express his subjective view of the American nation in the socially perturbed 60s.

In Chapter One, I position Thompson's work and detect what kind of literature he produced. To achieve this, I briefly outline the historical background in which Thompson was working and focus on the American counterculture of the 1960s. As there is little agreement about which genre one can ascribe to the journalist, I try to show that although Thompson shared many aspects with the New Journalists, he was an outlaw journalist that broke all genre rules. To conclude, I introduce Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72.

Chapter Two is an attempt at explaining the concept of the American Dream through a historical review from the Puritans and their hope for a better future, the American Frontier and its dream, the Declaration of Independence and its implications for the dream, as well as Horatio Alger’s popular stories that have nourished the myth the American Dream ever since. I then go ahead in time to the 1960s and the American Dream of the counterculture that influenced Thompson's writing.

Chapter Three contains an analysis of Thompson's work. I will dismantle the texts according to recurring themes and symbols, for example, the symbolic landscape of Las Vegas that bears special significance for the American Dream. Another crucial theme on which I focus is Christian symbolism, mostly expressed through Thompson's narrators that can be linked to the Puritan roots of American culture. Furthermore, I will examine the fear that Thompson's characters experience, which is caused by internal and external events, for example, drugs and the surreal reality of Las Vegas, and the loathing they turn to in order to cope with what they experience. I also mention the similarities between the Vice character of Early English drama and Thompson's narrators that love to play pranks and always display coruscating humor in which criticism is hidden. Finally, I will point out how the narrators perceive their environment and society and how they express their antipathy for, for example, authorities and fellow citizens.

The next chapter's central point is the schizophrenia of Thompson's narrators: their righteous thoughts and their violent actions. I will show how Thompson articulates his disillusionment with the American system as his innate belief in democracy is betrayed, and how this is reflected in the violent reality, in which his characters find themselves. I will explain how the author realizes this violence through various techniques, for example, a vivid imagery that turns politicians, society and even himself into predatory beasts. Or the journalistic elements that support his viewpoints, for example, newspaper clippings or author's notes that inform the readers about the narrators' struggle with reality.

The main motivation behind this thesis is to contribute to the scholarly perception of Hunter S. Thompson and to shift the focus from him being a drug culture icon to him being a serious writer. I want to show that he was an important voice in the chorus of great American writers and critics that innovated an unprecedented and irreproducible style that helped to express the fear and the loathing many people felt in the wild 60s. He was a mouthpiece for a whole generation that was often ignored by American society.

1. Loved & Loathed - The Art of Not Fitting into One Box

Hunter Stockton Thompson (HST) was a highly controversial writer. He was either loved or hated, his work praised as the masterpiece of a genius or disdained as the pointless gibberish of a drug-addict. His public image was larger than life - the myth he created around himself was sometimes more notorious than the people Thompson wanted to interview. He was called insane and a wannabe-journalist who lacked objectivity and had no respect for nothing, or a misunderstood mastermind who comprehended the American 1960s in a way no one else did.

Clearly, Thompson's place in American literature is one to be discussed since he has often been neglected and excluded from it due to his nonconformist behavior and style of writing. His position as a writer is as unclear as the real amount of drugs he used to consume. Tom Wolfe included him in the tradition of New Journalism, but Thompson protested and distanced himself from it, calling Wolfe “too crusty to participate in his stories” (HST, Shark Hunt 108). His colleague Bill Cardoso[1] labeled Thompson's style as “pure gonzo”, a term that has remained undefined but has entered the common American vocabulary (Perry in Hirst 5). Thompson himself was not happy that his style of writing was called gonzo, meaning “crazy or extremist.”[2] He, however, did accept this label since there seemed to be no other category or name that fit his style. He later called Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas “a failed experiment” in gonzo journalism because it did not adhere to the most basic rule of what gonzo journalism implied for Thompson - no editing or revising is allowed (HST qtd. in McKeen, Thompson 49). In Hellmann's literary analysis, HST's work is categorized as “new fiction” and is opposed to New Journalism. Hellmann claims it to be part of “a contemporary genre in which journalistic material is presented in the forms of fiction” (Hellmann 1). Jerome Klinkowitz, on the other hand, named him “a Superfictionist” because “he has created his own mythology, his own life of fiction” (Life of Fiction 31), and Daniel Grubb concludes by calling Thompson an “outlaw journalist” (66).

Obviously, Thompson's work does not conform to any conventions and breaks all rules. He did neither adhere to any stylistic boundaries except his own, nor obey any rules except his own. Therefore, it is difficult to position HST correctly in any of the corners of the literature ring without generalizing or reducing his work. Instead, one can find similarities and differences that make his writings neither one, nor the other, and him a controversial figure in American post-war literature.

However, in order to understand his work, one has to consider the time and mood in which this particular journalist has been working - the wild American 60s, a time that left no stone unturned in American society and affected every American citizen in some or another way.

1.1 Turn on, Tune in, Drop out - the American 1960s and its Counterculture

There are not many other times in American history that have left such vivid memories than the decade of the 1960s. For many Americans, it was a time where everything seemed possible and people fought for the idealistic goals they had set. The images of the 1960s, of, for example, the batik clothes wearing, dope-smoking flower children with peace signs around their necks, dancing in the streets of San Francisco to the sound of the Grateful Dead, are ever present, but represent only a tiny aspect of this time that was marked by the struggle for social change. The Vietnam War, the student protest movement and civil rights risings polarized American society and caused confusion and chaos in the American nation.

According to David Farber, the 1960s and the confrontation the period entailed were caused by two contradicting sets of values that were present in American society: First, the postwar and Eisenhower ideology of “discipline, delayed gratification, good character and the acceptance of hard work done in rigidly hierarchical workplaces” (4). This perspective had developed in the post-WWII years due to the Cold War and its constant threat of communism, the war in Korea, as well as the possibility of a nuclear war that had altogether “driven Americans into a psychological retreat” (Klinkowitz, Imaginative Acts 5). The traditional, working class set of values was then challenged by new approaches to life that slowly came into existence at the end of the 1950s and the early 1960s: “license, immediate gratification, mutable lifestyle and an egalitarian, hedonistic pursuit of self-expression” (Farber 4). Bell calls these two strands of thinking the “cultural contradictions of consumerism that had developed due to the postwar prosperity and the rise of national advertising campaigns that gave people the idea and the possibility of limitless consumption (Bell in Farber 5). Lifestyle was invented in the early 1960s and with its rise, “worries about the moral quality of “uninhibited search for self-expression” became apparent (Farber 55). This ambivalence between hard work and hedonism created tensions.

According to the Gramscian concept of hegemony, dominant groups of a culture, the hegemonic bloc, temporarily exercise control over the culture of certain groups. Thereby a series of alliances between different social groups are formed which constantly negotiate their place in society and thus provoke a struggle over meaning as the groups promote different sets of values (see Barker 66ff). Opposed to this hegemonic bloc, there is a counter- hegemonic bloc that challenges the dominant values and “seeks to gain ascendancy within civil society” (Barker 67). These separate blocs are constantly negotiating their status in the spheres of society. In the American 1960s, such a “struggle over meaning” between two different blocs and two different sets of values, different discourses, became noticeable.

The hegemonic bloc and its “traditional” set of values had fortified its position in the years after the WWII that brought economical prosperity and financial stability to most white Americans. Eisenhower's America was a mainly patriarchal society marked by the constant fear of communism and nuclear assaults, as well as racism and inequality. People secluded themselves from the outside world and preferred to watch their nation on the TV set that had become an indispensable tool in most American households by the beginning of the 1960s. With the TV came a new desire for consumer products and the promotion of free choice - the choice to buy whatever product made one happy (see Farber 5). Especially for young Americans, this consumerist freedom of choice was attractive and many of them began rejecting “authorities' right to tell them what music, clothes and even drugs were culturally and morally acceptable” since it contradicted what advertisement told them (Farber 5).

Further arguments that triggered the birth of a different culture comprise the fact the youth was no longer dependent on their parents since by the mid 1960s most of them had their own money in their pockets. Their generation was larger in number than the one of their parents, who had suffered the Great Depression and the WWII (see Farber 57). These young Americans did not only indulge in consumerism but also in education, which was reflected in the growing number of college graduates (see Farber 57). These elements added up to stimulate changes in the youth's perception of the world. According to Farber, “by the early 1960s, young people - youth as they came to be known - had years together to develop their own world” (Farber 57).

However, more threatening to American society than the resistant youth was the Vietnam War. It separated the public into two groups - the antiwar protestors and patriotic Americans who thought that one has to stand behind one's nation in no matter what circumstances and opposed any kind of protest (see Farber 167 ff.). Some of the most memorable examples of antiwar protestors that have become famous all over the world were the so-called hippies and freaks “of what was then called the counterculture” (168). But what was this counterculture?

As its name implies, it was a culture opposed to the mainstream culture of the time, or as Gramsci might put it, the hegemonic bloc. This counterculture was a hard to define phenomenon since it incorporated various subgroups, styles and attitudes. Farber calls it “a way of life, a community, an infrastructure, and even an economy” (169). Peter Braunstein and Michael W. Doyle explain the counterculture as an “inherently unstable collection of attitudes, tendencies, postures, gestures,”lifestyles,” ideals, visions, hedonistic pleasures, moralisms, negations, and affirmations” (10). As opposed to a subculture, a counterculture is “a fully fledged oppositional movement with a distinctively separate set of norms and values that are produced dialectically out of a sharply delineated conflict with the dominant society” (Braunstein and Doyle 7). It is very difficult to put one's finger on the 1960s counterculture as it was far from being a homogeneous group.

Farber argues that the Diggers, a group of thinkers that organized free stores, crash pads, street theaters, free concerts, an instant news service, and so forth, in San Francisco, represented the counterculture's visionary heart and were fueled by the idea of “breaking free from the money nexus and the profit motive that underwrote American society” (Farber 170). Logically, these visionaries were appalled by America's involvement in the Vietnam War. They did not only protest against it but also believed that in order to stop it, they “had to fight the mad internal nightmare of control” they experienced in the U.S. (Farber 170 ff.). Some of these revolutionaries were famous poets and writers such as Allen Ginsberg or Ken Kesey, who in their popular works offered ideological cornerstones for the younger generation that strove for societal changes. According to their worldview, American society would only change “if and when enough people had transformed themselves” (Braunstein and Doyle 10). This utopian vision of a better future through internal change characterized the counterculture in the period between 1964 and 1968. With the reelection of President Nixon in 1968, the fragmentation and decline of the counterculture into a more violent protest movement set in.

As is widely known, drug trips were part of the counterculture since according to many of its main leaders “a state of intoxication and psychic exploration were requisites to a higher wisdom of the body and soul” (Farber 172). It was “the consumption and distribution of illegal drugs that more than any other factor was responsible for the creation and development of America's many counterculture enclaves” and also “the single most important factor linking the small counterculture with the vast majority of going-to-school, living-at- home young people” (Farber 173). But the 60s youth was not the first generation that took drugs - the generation of their parents consumed large amounts of alcohol and nicotine, but were moreover prescribed sedatives, tranquilizers and amphetamines accompanying their psychological therapies, turning America into a nation on psychotropics (see Farber 176 ff.). Their kids did not welcome the drugs that were accepted by the establishment, but rather, in pure consumerist fashion, felt free to choose their drugs themselves. What they chose was marihuana and LSD, which had a huge effect on the counterculture, making it grow with the rising amount of trips that were sold. This hallucinogenic drug did not only alter the states of mind of the hippies and flower children but also provoked a community feeling and made the world appear as a place without rules where everything was possible.

One of these new possibilities that opened up to the counterculture was sexual freedom - the youth had grown up with often “hypocritical social norms...that attempted to keep sex hidden, illicit and ‘dirty’” and some of the countercultural groups “saw themselves at the forefront of a sexual revolution” (Farber 183). This shift of perception also influenced college students to speak out publicly against the “conventional American morality” and in favor of oral contraceptives and the destigmatization of premarital sex (Farber 184).

Due to its culture and the magnetism it exerted, the Haight-Ashbury district and countercultural epicenter in San Francisco had become a tourist spot by 1968 and some entrepreneurs saw a chance to make money by turning the “main nerve” of the counterculture into a business. By then the counterculture also attracted violent people like Charles Manson or the Hell's Angels (see Farber 186). According to Farber, “about 15 percent of the young people drawn into the Haight were ‘psychotics and religious obsessives’ and about 45 percent were dropouts, lowlifes, and hard livers, most of them young men looking to find sex and get stoned as often as possible” (Farber 186). Some people who witnessed these changes, like Hunter S. Thompson, who had lived in the countercultural centre in Haight-Ashbury, moved on and out.

By the end of 1968, the counterculture was getting out of control and the mass media coverage on TV, radio and in print contributed to the “Haight-Ashbury hype” by exploiting its stories. Towards the end of the 60s, most of the countercultural dwelling places had “devolved into combination tourist traps and hard drug, runaway-dropout scenes”, while “the trappings and some of the practices of freak culture had then made way into the mainstream culture” (Farber 188). The visionaries that had stimulated the counterculture's original ideology moved on to rural communities and often engaged in the mystical faction of the counterculture that later became the New Age movement (see Farber 188).

Although the “hippie way of life” did not become part of the dominant culture, many of its ideas influenced the student and radical political movement that gained strength at the same time. Triggered by the Vietnam War and the sight of thousands of young Americans coming home in body bags, more and more students participated in antiwar protests and more general, in protests against their lack of freedom on the college campuses, for example, against not being allowed to openly express their political opinions. The first eruption that subsequently elicited similar events was the founding of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1965. The student activists “dreamed of bringing that democratic energy [the one of the Civil Rights movement] to a white student movement dedicated to racial justice but also a radically reoriented foreign and domestic political agenda” (Farber 192). The student protest movement incorporated antiwar or equality protestors, as well as the Green movement, the Women's Rights movement and the Gay and Lesbian Rights movement. According to David Farber, “the projection of twenty years of stasis indefinitely into the future promised the inheritance of a sterile world without any chance to alter it” and so the students felt the need to challenge the dominant national beliefs by freely expressing their opinions and protesting against the establishment (199). The movement was influenced by the Southern civil rights struggles of the 1950s and their tactics of sit-ins and protest marches (see Gair 31).

For some students, mere protesting was not enough and by 1968, they were disillusioned by the lack of changes the nonviolent activism had stimulated. Thus, militant groups appeared by the end of the 1960s, like, for example, the Black Panthers who often gave impetus for riots and violence. By 1970 at the latest, violence had become an excruciating reality in America - especially the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. led to an outbreak of riots in over 130 places all over the United States (see Farber 209). The militant groups, however, weakened all movements struggling for social justice as people considered them too radical and rejected their tactics.

As stated by Farber, the average white middle-class American adult felt negatively affected by the protest movements and “called for Law and Order”, while “the mainstream politics and national policy were imploding” (210). By 1970, most Americans had understood that their nation was experiencing a major cultural and political change, although most of the countercultural goals have never been realized. Nevertheless, the demands of the 60s sparked changes, for example, the “freedom of expression had become practically limitless, gender roles were up for reexamination, and the spiritual and religious enthusiasms multiplied” (Farber 263 ff.). Moreover, the 60s taught the Americans skepticism about their nation's foreign and domestic policy. The frustration with their system was later reflected in 1970s and 80s and the baby boomers turning into yuppies and “to drugs and the relentless search for individual pleasure that consumer capitalism seemed to promise” (Farber 267).

As a means to cope with the general feeling of protest and struggle against the establishment, people invented new ways of describing the reality they experienced in order to make sense of it. The conventional way of dealing with what was happening in the nation did not suffice to explain the events of that time. Therefore, new ways of making sense of the 1960s reality came into life. One such innovation was New Journalism - a strand of journalism that evolved in the early 60s, and one could claim that it represented some aspects of the counterculture as it rebelled against conventional journalism. Tom Wolfe, its main artist who included Hunter S. Thompson in the realm of New Journalists, first theorized it.

1.2 What is so New about New Journalism?

If one takes the basic definition of New Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson seems to be a perfect example of New Journalistic writing. According to Fowler, New Journalism “occupies a sort of demilitarized zone between two writing traditions, where fact and fiction are free to fraternize” (Fowler qtd. in Haas 45). Hannes Haas claims the main goal of New Journalism is to “convey the researched facts in descriptive contexts through techniques of fiction...to reconstruct subjective versions of truth on the basis of research and observation”[3] (Haas 47).

One could claim that the New Journalists represented a journalistic aspect of the 1960s counterculture since according to Wolfe, “the New Journalists - Parajournalists - had the whole crazed obscene uproarious Mammon-faced drug-soaked mau-mau lust-oozing 60s in America all to themselves” (Wolfe 31). They felt that conventional journalism failed to describe the events of the 60s in an appropriate manner so that people could make sense of what was happening in their nation. Some writers, mainly journalists and reporters, started covering events in an unconventional way and “one was aware only that all of a sudden there was some sort of artistic excitement in journalism, and that was a new thing in itself” (Wolfe 23). Wolfe argues that new styles of living evolved in the 1960s and that “these styles were right there for all to see, ricocheting off every eyeball - and again a few amazed journalists working in the new form [New Journalism] had it all to themselves” since in the beginning conventional media was not interested in, for example, the counterculture (30). One has to remember that many Americans did not take the events of the early 60s seriously and turned their back in disgust on the counterculture and the protest movement. The New Journalists, who often were part of these events, reported in a new fashion and a very emotional and subjective style, trying to grasp the feeling of the time and to represent the other side of the medal that conventional journalists rarely investigated.

Tom Wolfe, the father of New Journalism, like many other scholars, included Hunter S. Thompson in the league of New Journalists. For him, HST made use of the four crucial techniques that differentiated the new form of journalism from conventional journalism (see Wolfe 31 ff.). First, he composed his texts scene-by-scene, giving the reader the feeling of witnessing the events the author tries to describe. Then, he often recorded the full dialogue of a certain situation in his text in order to represent the people and the situation. Moreover, Wolfe claims that HST made use of a third-person point of view, “presenting every scene to the reader through the eyes of a particular character” (32). This assertion might be true for some of HST's texts, but more often he speaks from a first person that Wolfe calls “limiting...- a point of view that often proves irrelevant to the story and irritating to the reader” (Wolfe, 32). The final distinction that according to Wolfe makes Thompson a New Journalist is “the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture...and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene” (32). For Wolfe, these details help to recreate and explain “people's status life.the entire pattern of behavior and possessions through which people express their position in the world or what they think it is or what they hope it to be” (32). While Wolfe's writing is very detailed and meticulous, HST often avoids going into detail, but rather takes few features that distinguish a situation and the people he is describing and highlights them in his text. In some respects, Hunter S. Thompson does fit Wolfe's New Journalism - he definitely applied the crucial techniques, he worked hard on his style and expression, he began as a “low life” reporter but always applied novelistic techniques (see Wolfe 25 ff.). But does this make him a real New Journalist?

A different approach to Thompson can be found in John Hellmann's work From Fact To Fiction: From New Journalism to New Fiction. Hellmann bases his literary analysis on the assumption that “since it [journalism] is a product of the human mind and language, journalism can never passively mirror the whole reality, but must instead actively select, transform, and interpret it” (4). For him, the problem with conventional journalism is that it does not admit its selectivity and limitedness and calls itself objective (see Hellmann 4). New Journalists shared distaste for conventional journalism and HST started his research on the Hell's Angels book “in direct reaction against conventional journalism” (Hellmann, 7). HST thought that conventional journalists misrepresented the motorcycle gang because they had only talked to the police, but not to a single member of the gang. Hellmann further argues that all the societal and political changes in the U.S. in the 1960s triggered a change in journalism - there was the need for a new sort of journalism in order to deal with the altered reality of war, race riots, the assassination of JFK, drugs, hippies, and so forth. These events could not be explained in a conventional way by answering the five W-questions (9).

However, for Hellmann, Thompson is more a fabulist than a journalist who creates pieces that “read(s) remarkably like the parodic work of fabulation” (67). In this sense, HST’s work is compared to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut since both authors “confront their subjects with the controlling power of parody, bringing a...bizarre fantasy to them” (67 ff.).

Whereas Vonnegut is “seeding his fabulation with facts”, Thompson is “spicing his journalism with fantasies” (68). The importance of Thompson's persona, the caricature to whom he gives his voice, is also highlighted (see Hellmann 70) - this persona usually is greatly exaggerated and stylized and cannot be compared to Wolfe's more realistic descriptions of people. Additionally, in Thompson's writing there are instances where the reader does not know if what is described has really happened or simply was an invention of the writer’s fantasy (see Hellmann 73), whereas in Wolfe's journalism one can assume that most of the information is true. Hellmann concludes that New Journalism was a new form of fiction that appeared in the 1960s due to the general changes in society and that HST was definitely part of a new generation of writers, who felt free to mix fact and fiction and did not obey conventional stylistic rules (99). However, he does clarify that Thompson has a special position within these New Journalists because of his exaggerated characters and self­caricature that are crucial parts of his writing (99ff.).

Thompson himself did not like to be included in the category of New Journalists. As mentioned above, for him the New Journalists, especially Tom Wolfe, did participate too little in their stories - they were watching situations from a safe distance, while Thompson was right in the middle of the events, sometimes he was the event. Hannes Haas argues that although Thompson can be seen as a New Journalist, it is necessary to acknowledge that he went one step further by turning “from the observer to the actor, who actively influences the action and thus alters it” (68).[4] Thompson's journalism differs as far as he was more active in his stories and sometimes even set the scene, so that the boundaries between the journalist who tells the story and the actors in the story vanished - “the journalist-image and the narrator-image become blurred” (Bleichner 147).[5] Wolfe instead did not risk getting lost in the events and always remained in a more passive, observing role in order to be able to report from a third-person perspective.

In his book, The Life of Fiction, Jerome Klinkowitz presents many reasons why HST is not a New Journalist but more of what he calls a SuperFictionist and compares him with Ronald Sukenick and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Klinkowitz admits that HST shares some similarities with the New Journalists when he states that “some make the case that HST is a New Journalist, as Tom Wolfe uses the term. Thompson is so only to the extent that he employs some methods of traditional fiction to present his otherwise documentary material” (33). He moreover contradicts Wolfe's positioning of Thompson and claims that “Thompson's methods go beyond traditional fiction into those of more innovative art” and that “he identifies with (and even becomes part of) the action more than does Tom Wolfe or most of the other New Journalists” and with that, supports Thompson's own opinion of the New Journalists (33). Klinkowitz continues by giving specific examples of why Thompson should not be labeled a New Journalist, mainly focusing on the various techniques HST applied in his work, such as the addition of personal comments, transcriptions of phone calls or recordings, news clippings, and so forth, “all spatially organized as a graphic comment on the action” in the form of a collage (36). However, for Klinkowitz, the main difference between Thompson and the New Journalists is his “self-reflexive manner”: “He never disguises the fact that he is a half-cranked geek journalist caught in the center of action. Right in the middle of story, he will break down, but the breakdown itself carries much of the 'information' about the country of the writer's own imagination which he is, like Sukenick, reporting” (36). By comparing the SuperFictionists like Vonnegut and Sukenick to the Cubists in art, Klinkowitz highlights his idea that these writers “rearrange(d) our visual censors so that we see all planes - all sides of the story at once” and by representing the “strange and terrible elements which just may be a crucial part of our lives”, they multiply the perspectives, which for him is “more a SuperFictional than journalistic” approach (39).

Thompson produces multiple perspectives by applying several specific techniques and stylistic aspects to his work, such as “by including references to his own mythology as a writer”, which means the persona and the myth that had created around his person, or “by constantly downgrading his own paranoid fantasies in proportion to the raving madness of the so-called straight world” (39ff.). The final important distinction that separates Thompson from the New Journalists is the fact that he includes himself not only in the stories, but underlines the fact that he is not much different, not “better” or more “normal” than the people and events in which he is situated. Klinkowitz describes this as “Thompson's candid admission that he is a trash addict himself, that the conditions of our time have infected him even more than the others” (43). This is visible in the final paragraph of Thompson's article The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved when he realizes:

My eyes had finally opened enough for me to focus on the mirror across the room and I was stunned at the shock of recognition. For a confused instant, I thought that Ralph had somebody with him - a model for that one special face we'd been looking for. There he was, by God - a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature...like an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in some once-proud mother's family photo album. It was the face we'd been looking for - and it was, of course, my own (HST, Shark Hunt 37). Klinkowitz's assumptions can be concluded by removing the New Journalism label from Thompson's writing and by highlighting that although HST applied techniques similar to the New Journalists, his work must be set apart or seen as an extension of New Journalism. This position on HST is shared by many scholars who have attempted to prove that Thompson's work is more radical in terms of technique and style as any of the other writers who have been associated with New Journalism.

In the German publication Grenzganger: Formen des New Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson is associated with the New Journalists. Haas states HST as one of the protagonists of New Journalism next to Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Joan Didion, while acknowledging that each of these authors was dealing with different topics and applying different styles and techniques (see Haas 67). Furthermore, he characterizes Thompson's style as similar to “method-acting”- “he [HST] lives what he writes and changes with the role. Immersion becomes identification”[6], which is definitely a technique the New Journalists applied, but Haas also points out that Thompson does not stop here, but makes one step further and becomes the main actor in the scene he describes and through this position actually changes the scene (see 68). Due to his highly subjective viewpoint most of the information Thompson presents cannot be proven as “true” or “real” and subsequently some of his texts can not be categorized as New Journalism since the New Journalists did at least stick to some facts and represent what they have experienced and not what they have fantasized (see Haas 69). According to this, Thompson must be considered separate from classical New Journalists like Tom Wolfe.

Bleichner also considers Thompson a protagonist of New Journalism, but differentiates between “true” New Journalism and Thompson's Gonzo Journalism in which, as mentioned above, “the author-ego is in the centre of the self-dramatization” (147).[7] Therefore, Thompson's own assertion that the level of author participation makes the difference between the New Journalists, who in general did not go as far as Thompson, and him, who sometimes was the action himself, is confirmed.

Daniel Grubb states that the genre of New Journalism itself is hard to define due to “the vast spectrum of style found under the rubric of New Journalism” and all the sub-genres the category comprises such as literary journalism, participatory journalism and gonzo journalism (2). What Grubb, however, emphasizes is that the level of participation of Wolfe and Thompson do not correspond. He argues that while Wolfe “is obviously in the scene” but “rarely jumps right into the middle of the action”, Thompson often becomes the story himself (2). Therefore, it can again be argued that Thompson's style shares elements with the New Journalists, but that he differentiated himself through his participation in the action.

However, all of these scholars do assert Thompson a special position within the within or apart from the New Journalists that has mostly been labeled Gonzo Journalism - a term that Thompson, as mentioned above, applied only cautiously. This genre is neither well defined, nor are there any other writers who have been labeled gonzo.

1.3 Pure Gonzo Journalism?

Gonzo is a strange little word that entered the English language in the 1980s although its meaning is not clear and has remained a riddle for scholars. The person who first uttered it in connection with Hunter Thompson was Bill Cardoso, a contemporary and colleague of Thompson who worked as editor for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. He was the one who, in a letter to Thompson which expressed his excitement with Thompson's Kentucky Derby article from 1970, labeled Thompson's style of writing as gonzo: “Forget all this shit you've been writing, this is it; this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling” (Cardoso qtd. in Perry 142). But what does gonzo mean?

An etymological research conducted by Martin Hirst did reveal neither its real origin, nor its true meaning. What is known is that Cardoso claimed it to stem from French “gonzeaux”, meaning “shining path” (see Carroll 124). However, this interpretation does not correspond to any dictionary entries. According to Hirst, the closest French expression he could find was “gonze”, meaning “guy” or “bloke” (see 6ff.). The word's earliest appearance Quotation from HST, Vegas 12.

in a dictionary dates to the Random House dictionary of 1987, which refers to HST's journalism and states its origin to be either Italian or Spanish (see Hirst 6). The Italian and French root words “gonzo” (meaning “fool” or “dolt”) and “ganso” (meaning “idiot” or “bumpkin”) do not correspond to the adjective's meaning in Thompson's case since Thompson's gonzo style “is neither dull, nor foolish” (Hirst 7). Due to the various different and often contradicting explanations, it is not possible to pin its meaning down to either a single origin or a single meaning. Hirst summarizes correctly, when he states that “the excitement and seriousness of HST's contribution to journalism hangs on one small word, but we still don't know where it came from. It's one of the enduring puzzles of 20th century literary and journalistic history” (7).

According to the book Key Concepts of Journalism Studies, gonzo journalism can be defined as “a style of journalism inextricably associated with the late American writer Hunter S. Thompson and more broadly with the New Journalism of the 1960s” that “features a bold, exaggerated, style of writing, which positions the author at the centre of the narrative” (Franklin 95). It is stated that a concise definition of gonzo journalism is impossible due the vastness of interpretations that have arisen over time, but the key element that distinguishes this specific style from others is explained as “the requirement for the gonzo journalist to write in the first person and to become the dominant participant in the narrative” (Franklin 96).

However, gonzo has mostly been connected to New Journalism and is sometimes even considered one of its sub-genres (see Hirst 3). According to Daniel Grubb, New Journalism incorporates a huge field of different styles and many labels have been applied to these styles - one of them is gonzo journalism, “of which Thompson is the best known - and possibly only - practitioner” (2). Nevertheless, Grubb avoids to simply labeling Thompson either New Journalist or gonzo - for being a New Journalist, HST participates too much in the action, and the expression gonzo “carries an implied inferiority” since it “sounds unprepared, strung together, and madcap” (2). He bases these assumptions not only on his own observations, but moreover on Thompson's personal opinion - in an interview he once stated that he did not like to be labeled as gonzo because the expression was originally not from him (see Grubb 65).

Thompson's opinion about this label is difficult to distill from the few instances he talked about it. While Grubb presents HST's opposition to the term, other scholars highlight the fact that Thompson, nevertheless, accepted the term. Thompson even called Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas “a failed experiment” of gonzo journalism “because it violated one of the basic tenets of gonzo: no revision” (McKeen, Thompson 49). Thompson's rare attempts to define his work focus on the idea of writing without revision, claiming that his “idea was to buy a fat notebook and record the whole thing as it happened, then send in the notebook for publication - without editing” (HST qtd. in McKeen, Thompson 50). Moreover, he distinguishes himself from the New Journalists, calling Wolfe, as mentioned above, “too crusty to participate in his stories” and underlines that the idea was to write - without editing. That way, I felt the eye and the mind of the journalist would be functioning as a camera.

...True Gonzo reporting needs the talents of a master journalist, the eye of an artist/photographer and the heavy balls of an actor. Because the writer must be a participant in the scene, while he's writing it - or at least taping it, or even sketching it. Or all three (HST qtd. in McKeen, Thompson 50).

One of the few definitions that have been offered for gonzo journalism is provided by William McKeen, who concludes that “gonzo requires virtually no re-writing, with the reporter and the quest for information as the focal point. Notes, snatches from other articles, transcribed interviews, verbatim telephone conversations, telegrams - these are all elements of a piece of gonzo journalism” (McKeen, Thompson 36). This definition is consistent with most attempts to specify the key elements that make this genre so particular. What becomes clear is the fact that HST seemed to be the only true gonzo journalist and that it is the level of author participation, as well as the amount of editing that differentiates gonzo from any other style of writing.

It can be argued that the label gonzo journalism with its underlying negative connotation does not fully live up to Hunter Thompson's style. Due to this classification, his work mostly remains undervalued and is often scorned and dismissed by critics. In order to overcome this lack of appreciation, one has to provide further terms that might do justice to the author's particular style of writing.

1.4 Outlawed

Hunter S. Thompson frequently referred to himself as an outlaw writer, for example, in his autobiographical collection of texts Kingdom of Fear, he states that “it may be that every culture needs an Outlaw god of some kind and maybe this time around I'm it” (203). Some scholars also engage this assertion, mainly to position HST’s work and argue that what he did was neither real New Journalism, nor gonzo journalism, but a wild style that did not adhere to any rules at all.

Porombka and Schmundt argue that “HST invented his role as journalistic outlaw while working on the Hell's Angels book” (241). But he dropped out of the gang at the end of the book in order to remain in this outlaw positing by not risking to become a member of any group (see Porombka and Schmundt 244). They assert that throughout his career Thompson cultivated this exile status by, for example, “not adhering to the establishment's production requirements”[8] or “not obeying the directives through which one could become a greater and more famous journalist and celebrated writer”[9] (244). Looking at Thompson’s very particular style and the nonchalance with which he encountered much of the criticism directed to his work can easily prove these arguments. In the early phases of his career, he showed eager enthusiasm to establish himself as a writer and become as famous as Scott F. Fitzgerald, but this ambitious approach to writing became less evident after the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson no longer needed to work hard to become a great writer when he could actually “get away” with the style he used in his book.

William McKeen asserts HST's role as a gonzo journalist, which for him “is by definition an outlaw journalist” (Interview with McKeen, Appendix A). For him, the writer engaged in a more traditional form of journalism because his writings resemble the 18th- century journalism of, for example, a James Boswell, who “was a journalist [emphasis added] in the sense that he was...keeping a journal, a public journal that he shared and that's what Hunter Thompson did” (Interview with McKeen, Appendix A). He continues by calling Thompson “a pure journalist” whose stories were usually influenced by his emotions, not trying to omit his personal experience in specific situations (Interview with McKeen Appendix A). McKeen, similar to the scholars that have been mentioned above, also states that Thompson was much more involved in his stories to be put on a par with Tom Wolfe.

In their article, Porombka and Schmundt agree with the fact that HST cannot simply be mingled with the New Journalists because “one would not understand his role and his script if one compared him to the productivity of the great New Journalists or the conventional journalistic practice” (244).[10] They add that Thompson “does not have any ambitions to compete with the journalistic control freaks, who work on the side of the normal and the usual”[11] and define what the work of an outlaw actually is:

Maybe the outlaw is the secret central figure of New Journalism. And maybe he [HST] secretly occupies the leading role and the main script of the modern journalism, which individualizes one's way of observing and styles of writing and separates one's information processing from other systems of function and directives and rules of the society. Because the outlaw is a lawbreaker. He ignores the existing rules. He installs his own rules” (245 ff.).[12] This opinion is supported by Daniel Grubb, who in the conclusion of his thesis The Rhetoric and Role of Hunter S. Thompson suggests that “outlaws have made a decision to break the rules” and that “Thompson's writing spits in the face of journalistic tradition and does so much more than the New Journalists” (65). With this assertion, he does not want to undervalue the innovative character of the New Journalists, but wants to highlight that Thompson has done much more in terms of ingenuity - “He went beyond New Journalism. He broke the rules of the rule breakers” (66).

It can be concluded that if one takes a closer look at Thompson's writings, it becomes evident that he cannot simply be categorized or labeled. While his work does share certain aspects of the New Journalistic style, it also breaks the genre's rules. Sometimes he wrote in a naturalist or realist fashion or set up a story similar to a tell tale but he never did so to the extent that it could be summarized in a specific category. Rather he seemed to apply techniques that he considered appropriate for his style. “The truth is”, Daniel Grubb states, “Thompson is all of these. More accurately, he uses all of these [techniques mentioned above]” (64). By using all the narrative and journalistic techniques he liked and not sticking to the limitations of a single genre, he can be called an outlaw writer - someone who does not adhere to any formal directives or obey any stylistic rules.

1.5 Thompson's Fear and Loathing

Thompson's most famous story Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was first published in two parts in the issues 95 and 96 of the Rolling Stone magazine in November 1971. The reactions to the articles were unexpectedly positive - they attracted the attention of countless numbers of readers and fellow writers who praised his work as “an epochal sensation”.[13]

The story had evolved in the course of a different article about the assassination of the Mexican-American journalist Ruben Salazar in Los Angeles that Thompson had been assigned. In L.A., Thompson met Oscar Zeta Acosta, a Hispanic lawyer, whom he wanted to interview in order to gain insight to the local political Chicano scene. Nevertheless, it was difficult to discuss the Salazar murder in L.A. because Acosta's associates did not trust Thompson and never left him alone. Therefore, he asked Acosta to come with him to Las Vegas for a small assignment on the Mint 400 Race for Sports Illustrated to openly discuss the Salazar story. The article about the race he sent to the magazine was “aggressively rejected” and the editors refused to pay any expenses the journalist had acquired in Vegas (HST qtd. in McKeen, Outlaw 164). While working on the Salazar piece for Rolling Stone, he started writing a journal of his Las Vegas experience. The Rolling Stone's editor, Jann Wenner, had the idea to send HST back to Vegas to cover the National District Attorneys Association's Third Annual Institute on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs that was being held at the Flamingo Hotel. For this opportunity, Acosta rejoined Thompson. After the convention, the journalist finished both the Salazar article, which was later published in Rolling Stone as Strange Rumblings in Aztlan, but also the Las Vegas journal-like story that impressed his editor.

As mentioned above, HST later referred to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as “a failed experiment” since he had violated the golden rule of gonzo journalism, which says that is no revision, or redrafting is allowed (HST qtd. in McKeen, Thompson 49). He admitted that he had been working hard on the piece, consciously shaping every sentence in order to keep up the immediate feel (see Hellmann 72). However, the text was something new or at least different from what was written at the time. With this account and its content, the author felt like he could fulfill the book contract on a book about “The Death of the American Dream” he had signed for Random House years before by subtitling the Vegas story A Savage Journey Into the Heart of the American Dream. Although Random House did not accept Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as fulfillment of the old contract, Thompson nevertheless portrayed the nation's dream in a very graphic and frightening way.

William McKeen notes that “Hunter's tale soon took on the nature of an epitaph on the 60s as the nation lurched through the Nixon era. It was a look back at the promise and hope of the 60s that had been stomped to death somewhere in the middle of 1968” (McKeen, Outlaw 174). But first, HST did not think of the article to be much more than a writing exercise, and in an interview with McKeen the journalist admitted that “the story came from his subconscious and that people saw more in it than he had put there” (McKeen, Outlaw 174). McKeen further suggests that “a lot of what we ascribe to Fear and Loathing was not intended. I think it was entirely accidental. I think it all came out of Hunter's subconscious” (see McKeen Interview, Appendix A). Nevertheless, Thompson managed to mirror the feelings of a time and a generation in his account, maybe not in an overtly descriptive manner as the essence is communicated between the lines.


1 Spelling differs in sources: Cardoso in HST, America 99, Cardoza in Perry, Terrible Saga and in Whitmer, Twisted Life.

2 See Thorne, 97 ff.

[3] My translation of: “mit Techniken der Fiktion die recherchierten Fakten in erklarenden Zusammenhangen zu vermitteln.. .auf der Basis von Recherchen und Beobachtungen deklariert subjektive Versionen von Wirklichkeit zu (re)konstruieren”.

[4] My translation of: “vom Beobachter zum Akteur, der aktiv in das Geschehen eingreift und dieses damit verandert”.

5 My translation of: “das Journalisten-Image und das Erzahler-Image beginnen zu verschwimmen”.

[6] My translation of: “er [HST] lebt, was er schreibt und verandert sich mit der Rolle. Immersion wird zu Identifikation”.

7 My translation of: “das Autoren-Ich im Zentrum der Selbstinszenierung steht”.

8 My translation of: “sich nicht an die Produktionsvorgaben des Establishments zu halten”.

[9] My translation of: “nicht den Gesetzen zu folgen, durch die man ein noch groBerer und noch beruhmterer Journalist und ein gefeierter Schriftsteller werden kann”.

[10] My translation of: “Doch wurde man seine Rolle und sein Skript nicht ganz verstehen, wollte man ihn an der Produktivitat der groBen New Journalists oder der ublichen journalistischen Praxis messen”.

[11] My translation of: “Ambitionen, sich mit den journalistischen Control-Freaks zu messen, die auf der Seite des Normalen und des Ublichen arbeiten, hat er nicht”.

[12] My translation of: “Vielleicht ist der Outlaw die heimliche Zentralfigur des New Journalism. Und vielleicht kommt ihm die geheime Fuhrungsrolle und das geheime Hauptskript im modernen Journalismus zu, der seine Beobachtungsformen und Schreibweisen verselbstandigt und seine Informationsverarbeitungsprozesse weitgehend von anderen Funktionssystemen der Gesellschaft und ihre Vorgaben und Regeln abgekoppelt hat. Denn der Outlaw ist der Gesetzesbrecher. Er ignoriert die bestehenden Regeln. Er setzt die eigenen Regeln durch”.

13 Taken from Tom Wolfe's review of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, back cover, special overseas edition, 1998.


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Hunter S. Thompson American Dream Las Vegas 60s counterculture fear and loathing



Title: The Death of A Dream - Hunter S. Thompson and the American Dream