February 21, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson--Dead


I just found out that Hunter S. Thompson died this evening of a self-inflicted gun shot wound. Probably not a huge surprise to many of us. I know that it's hard to like Hunter S. Thompson. He's no saint. In fact, he was a pretty disgusting person all around. But I also feel like giving credit where credit is due. Thompson, along with Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion changed the way we look at journalism. Each of them have styles as distinct as fingerprints. But style is just the beginning of Thompson's contribution. Like Wolfe and Didion, his articles were written against the backdrop of a bleak time in the history of our country. His 1970 article "The Kentuck Derby is Decadent and Depraved" is a masterful in its ability to capture the political tension of the late sixties. While purporting to write a profile of one of America's cultural mainstays, he juxtaposes the back slapping, glad handing good old boy syndicate of Colonels and belles against the threat of massive protests by the Black Panthers, campus unrest and white supremacists.

And while Thompson devotees are the last people I want to rub elbows with, I do think the man is equal to the myth. His style of "Gonzo Journalism", a term he coined, is in the OED.

Gonzo: "a type of committed, subjective journalism characterized by factual distortion and exaggerated rhetorical style." - Oxford English Dictionary

Thompson described it this way:

'Gonzo journalism is a style of reporting based on William Faulkner's idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism - and the best journalists have always known this. Which is not to say that fiction is necessarily 'more true' than journalism - or vice versa - but that both 'fiction' and 'journalism' are artificial categories; and that both forms, at their best, are only two different means to the same end.'

Like Faulkner, Thompson understood that humans are flawed creatures prone to violence and vanity. His work was grotesque and full of excesses. But his work was a means to an end: to report on and expose the darkness so that we may never forget that these tendencies are at our core. Here's a quote from "The Kentuck Derby is Decadent and Depraved":

At the airport newsstand I picked up a Courier-Journal and scanned the front page headlines: "Nixon Sends GI's into Cambodia to Hit Reds"... "B-52's Raid, then 20,000 GI's Advance 20 Miles"..."4,000 U.S. Troops Deployed Near Yale as Tension Grows Over Panther Protest." At the bottom of the page was a photo of Diane Crump, soon to become the first woman jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby. The photographer had snapped her "stopping in the barn area to fondle her mount, Fathom." The rest of the paper was spotted with ugly war news and stories of "student unrest." There was no mention of any trouble brewing at a university in Ohio called Kent State.



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