ARCHIVE: Hunter S. Thompson – Loathing and Fear for a Nation 1939-2005

Andrew wrote this obituary in 2005. ‘It was an awful few months in 2005,’ says Andrew, ‘A number of poets, writers and personal friends died. I had a spate of obituaries to write for a number of magazines. This is one of many I did on Hunter S. Thompson, it was written 24 hours after his suicide. He would have hated this obituary’.

Hunter S. Thompson: Loathing and Fear for a Nation 1939-2005. Article by Andrew Oldham

Hunter S. Thompson was much more than drink, drugs, guns and motorcycles, he was a million miles from the paranoid Doonesbury character, he was a continent away from the media portrayal of him in his latter years. This was a writer trying to make sense of not just a country but a home; and in many ways coming to terms with a growing right wing government and his own impending old age. Unafraid to view his thoughts and ideas, he did seem more and more afraid that he was unable to stop the tide, that the America he loved, the America he celebrated, the America he admonished had changed so rapidly.

This was not a liberal hippie or rebel without clue crying out with anger against apathy, this was not Howard Stern, he wasn’t climbing on any old band wagon. Thompson had seen the blooming and inevitable death of the American Dream in favour of money, control and mass paranoia. The America he would grow old in wasn’t the America of his youth or aspirations. Thompson had and was coming to terms with modern America, the puzzle that became the USA.

Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky on the 18th July 1939. His father, an insurance agent died from a rare immune disorder whilst the young Thompson was at High School. The young Thompson up till then had grown up in a comfortable, affluent home. Thompson was everything middle America wanted, a member of prestigious club called the Athenaeum Literary Association, he ran with rich, socially elite young people of Louisville and would have inevitably become a Republican but the death of his father forced his mother to take a job as a librarian to support the family. Suddenly he was the poor kid amongst his friends, the dreams of an Ivy League school were now beyond him. With increasing frustration and anger, the young Thompson rebelled against the Athenaeum Literary Association and became famous for outrageous pranks; flooding the ground floor of his high school with three inches of water, dumping a truckload of pumpkins in front of a downtown hotel. During this period he turned to writing and began to publish bitter and sarcastic essays for the literary association’s newsletter, including one called, Open Letter to the Youth of Our Nation, signed John J. Righteous-Hypocrite: “Young people of America, awake from your slumber of indolence and harken to the call of the future. Do you realize you are rapidly becoming a doomed generation?”

During his senior year, Thompson was arrested several times for vandalism and attempted robbery. He was eventually barred from the literary association, and spent thirty days in jail. When released, he joined the United States Air Force as a provision of his parole. He was honourably discharged in 1958 and began writing for any small newspaper that would take him. 1964 would be turning point for the young Thompson. During that year the California attorney general issued a report on a dangerous new motorcycle gang known as the Hell’s Angels, and the national media picked up the story.

Thompson was hired by The Nation magazine to write a brief article about the gang. A book followed: “For fifteen hundred dollars I would have done the definitive text on hammerhead sharks and stayed in the water with them for three months!”. With the advance Thompson bought a motorcycle and began his investigative journey; for several months he followed Hell’s Angels gangs across the States, until five Hell’s Angels suddenly turned on him and beat him senseless. In 1967, he published his book, Hell’s Angels. The first edition sold out immediately and broke onto the New York Times bestseller list. Thompson had a few problems with the sudden fame and the ensuing book tour; he showed up drunk for most of his interviews. By 1969 Thompson was one of the most prominent journalists of his generation. Writing for Playboy magazine, Thompson developed his first true piece of Gonzo literature, The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy. Playboy turned it down because the editors felt that it was too meanspirited. In reality, Thompson had stepped beyond the who, what, where, when, and why of mainstream journalism and delivered something quite different: a piece where the writer was not objective but subjective, allowing his own personality and impressions of his subject to emerge. Thompson had created and coined the phrase: Gonzo Journalism.

In 1971, Thompson published his most famous book, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, later made into a film by Terry Gilliam. Now firmly immersed in writing the life he lived, Thompson would become embroiled in the drug culture: “I haven’t found a drug yet that can get you anywhere near as high as a sitting at a desk writing, trying to imagine a story no matter how bizarre it is, [or] going out and getting into the weirdness of reality and doing a little time on the Proud Highway.” This sense of ‘fleeting’ would always be part of Thompson’s psyche, to him politics, history, countries and journalism would come and go, but the ride was worth grabbing hold of.

Thompson once wrote to his friend Susan Haselden: “In brief, I find that I’ve never channeled my energy long enough to send it in any one direction. I’m all but completely devoid of a sense of values: psychologically unable to base my actions on any firm beliefs. I seem to be unable to act consistently or effectively, because I have no values on hich to base my decisions. As I look back, I find that I’ve been taught to believe in nothing. I have no god and I find it impossible to believe in man. On every side of me, I see thousands engaged in the worship of money, security, prestige symbols, and even snakes”.

Hunter S. Thompson was found dead on Sunday the 20th February 2005 in his Aspen-area home. He died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 67.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Ian D. Smith says:

    From the same era, JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition influenced my story the Abu Ghraib Torture Photos Seen as a Fashion Shoot: “Into the second bend, and the only flex in sight is the short flex of torture lite. Sabrina cuts loose. That’s the advantage of hanging open hems. She isn’t going to spare anyone those crocodile clips.” Not surprisingly, this ‘story’ remains unpublished. Hunter S Thompson described a “high water mark” in American culture, and it’s a hard act to follow. Yet writers are advised to rise above current events. It’s not a form of persecution to tell writers that they’re not supposed to change the world, it IS persecution. Hunter S Thompson had the best response to the persecution of writers ever.

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