Once in awhile, someone comes along who is such a colossus in his field that he single-handedly dismantles and reinvents all previous standards of excellence. Because of his originality -- because he stretched his craft and caused it to evolve -- Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was that kind of person.
He was able to accomplish this feat not because he was uninterested in embracing the fundamentals of writing, but because he had mastered them. In the tradition of 20th-century visionaries like Miles Davis and Bruce Lee, Thompson's ability to put a permanent stamp on his craft came from his lifelong dedication to respecting it. His writing has always shown both reverence for the written word and an especially keen attentiveness to word choice.
Thompson's originality permeates his contribution -- "gonzo journalism" -- to the literary world. The style of first-person reporting breaks Journalism 101's first rule -- which is to be objective in your reporting of the news. Instead, Thompson believed that he could get closest to the truth by throwing himself into the middle of the action of what he was reporting. It was by rubbing elbows among politicians, athletes, gamblers, cops, coaches, lawyers and hustlers that Thompson began to unveil truths about America.
His reinvention of conventional styles of writing was of course risky, and you can bet that Thompson's editors possessed an extra-large helping of anxiety when he first introduced his writing to the American public. Before long, however, he would have editors eating out of the palm of his hand; he became notorious for his lavish and extravagant expense accounts while on assignment.
His first book, Hell's Angels, was published in 1967. It chronicled the more than a year Thompson spent living with the infamous motorcycle gang. This book exposed Thompson's affinity for over-indulgence in all things fast and dangerous, and spawned his reputation as an outlaw journalist.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, published in 1972, introduced another important element to gonzo writing. In addition to his first-hand reporting style, Thompson began using heavy doses of embellishment and small doses of fiction within his nonfiction reporting. In doing so, he didn't disguise his central point -- that was always brazenly clear. It was his accounts of all the bizarre antics and situations that he involved himself with during his journalistic investigations that give librarians a headache over how to classify his books.
It was this part of gonzo that exposed Thompson's sense of humor. During his many years of being a published journalist, Thompson wrote consistently about the plight of America and the search or death of the American dream. During this time, he came up against such ugly characters (i.e., Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, George W. Bush) that use of humor was essential just to keep himself and his readers from crying. His humor was more than just a pacifier, though -- it was also his weapon. He was a political cartoonist of the written word who, despite his rough outward image, was someone who deeply cared for America.
And that's why it is so tough to see him go. America has lost a true patriot. By "patriot," I mean someone whose life was testament that freedom of speech should always remain one of our most coveted values. His spirit and writing were so irrevocably connected that his readers were allowed to see him in his entirety, for good or ill. It is through this looking glass that his best quality is revealed. He was the genuine article.
Speculating about why the good doctor took his own life would be a mistake. It is certain, however, that during these times of war and hypocrisy, America will miss his voice.
Publication date: 2/24/04