On the Legacy of Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo Journalism
Peter Richardson Considers the Impact of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Gonzo journalism was an attitude, an experiment, and a withering critique of hypocrisy and mendacity. It began as an accident, peaked with several works of startling power and originality, and eventually consumed its creator. By that time, however, Gonzo was shorthand for Hunter S. Thompson’s work, signature style, and the most distinctive American voice in the second half of the 20th century. Now, five decades after Rolling Stone published “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Gonzo journalism is due for a fresh review.
Gonzo’s basic story is quick to tell. In 1970, Thompson queried Warren Hinckle at Scanlan’s Monthly: would he be interested in a piece about the Kentucky Derby? Hinckle paired Thompson with Ralph Steadman, whose grotesque illustrations complemented Thompson’s scathing portrait of Louisville society. “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” was heralded as a journalistic breakthrough, and Thompson’s friend at the Boston Globe, Bill Cardoso, first applied the term Gonzo to it.
The following year, Thompson spent a riotous weekend in Las Vegas with Chicano attorney Oscar Acosta. Thompson recounted that adventure in a piece he sent to Rolling Stone, the upstart rock magazine cofounded by Jann Wenner. One editor suggested that Thompson and Acosta return to Las Vegas to cover a drug enforcement conference. Those two weekends became the basis for “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which Rolling Stone ran in November 1971. What Thompson later called “a nonfiction novel” became a bestselling book for Random House that crystallized Gonzo journalism in the public imagination.
Fresh off that triumph, Thompson covered the 1972 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone. Blending keen insights with invective, satire, and wild hallucinations, Thompson’s coverage was called the least factual and most accurate description of the campaign. After Richard Nixon was reelected in a landslide, Thompson converted his “jangled campaign diary” into Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, another successful book that was later described as a classic of American political journalism.
As the Watergate scandal destroyed Nixon’s presidency, Gonzo thrived at Rolling Stone, but Thompson wrote more sparingly for the magazine after that. His vices were already gaining on him, and for the next three decades, he traded on his Gonzo persona by turning out books of diminishing importance. The film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas boosted his celebrity in 1998, but by then his writing had lost its trademark vitality. His health continued to decline, and in 2005, he died by suicide at age 67.
The problem with capsule histories of Gonzo journalism, including this one, is their implication that it was the predictable outcome of a conscious project. In fact, Gonzo developed unevenly, almost haphazardly, and there was nothing inevitable about its success. From the beginning, that strain of Thompson’s work was a series of improvisations that responded to setbacks, chance meetings, unforeseen events, and fleeting opportunities. Given the role of sheer fortune in its history, we need new ways to understand Gonzo journalism and its success. Here are some points of departure for that richer understanding:
Gonzo as happy accident.
In 1970, Thompson was struggling with his magazine work and second book. At an Aspen dinner party, novelist James Salter suggested that he write about the Kentucky Derby. Thompson pitched the idea to Hinckle, who had run one of Thompson’s stories in Scanlan’s after Playboy magazine rejected it. For illustrations, Hinckle contacted political cartoonist Pat Oliphant, who declined the assignment. Only then did Hinckle consider Steadman, who lived abroad but was visiting friends on Long Island. That bit of serendipity was the major turning point in Steadman’s career.
Thompson and Steadman attended the race, but neither of them was remotely interested in the outcome. The drunken revelry at Churchill Downs was far more interesting, and Steadman’s sketches featured its depravity. But Thompson thought his own contribution was a brutal failure. “This whole thing will probably finish me as a writer,” he told Steadman. “I have no story.” Surprised by the article’s success, he compared its reception to “falling down an elevator shaft into a pool full of mermaids.”
Thompson immediately tried to capitalize on his good fortune. Writing to Hinckle, he proposed a series of articles in the style of the Kentucky Derby piece. He and Steadman would cover the Super Bowl, America’s Cup, and other spectacles. The idea, he told Hinckle, was to turn out articles “so weird & frightful as to stagger every mind in journalism.” But that plan went awry when Scanlan’s tanked after eight issues.
Gonzo as revenge.
With Hinckle out of the picture, Thompson sought a new outlet for his work. His first piece for Rolling Stone, “The Battle of Aspen,” recounted his own campaign for sheriff in Colorado and a similar bid by Oscar Acosta in Los Angeles. During that time, Acosta also lured Thompson to East Los Angeles to cover the controversial death of Latino journalist Ruben Salazar. That piece, which began as a Scanlan’s assignment, became Thompson’s second contribution to Rolling Stone.
Neither article was written in the Gonzo style, but Thompson wasn’t finished with that mode. During his stay in Los Angeles, Sports Illustrated asked him to cover a motorcycle race outside Las Vegas. Fueled by speed and alcohol, Thompson and Acosta barreled across the desert and raged through the casinos. Sports Illustrated rejected his article, which was ten times longer than it should have been, and Thompson flew into a rage. Rather than accept defeat, he expanded the piece and sent it unsolicited to Rolling Stone. Accompanied by Steadman’s illustrations, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” clicked with younger audiences, but the entire episode could have turned out otherwise. Had Thompson written something more suitable for Sports Illustrated, we probably wouldn’t have his second Gonzo masterpiece.
Given the role of sheer fortune in its history, we need new ways to understand Gonzo journalism and its success.
Gonzo as undervalued asset.
Even after the Las Vegas story made its mark, Thompson wasn’t sure how it should appear in book form. He owed Random House a nonfiction title about the death of the American Dream, and his agent and editor thought the Las Vegas material should be included in that book. Thompson disagreed. In his view, that material would undermine his credibility as a journalist. He intended to satisfy his contractual obligations, he assured his editor, but he was “a bit leery of making a Public Fool of myself, just to get a book out.” The next year, Random House published Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a work of nonfiction, even though its two main characters were not real persons. That book changed Thompson’s life, but his initial concerns reveal an important point: well after he had invented Gonzo, he still didn’t realize that his new persona was his most valuable literary asset.
Gonzo as collaboration.
At every turn, Thompson relied on skilled colleagues to produce his best work. Hinckle helped birth Gonzo journalism by pairing Thompson with Steadman, whose illustrations were an indispensable part of Gonzo’s success. Moreover, the Las Vegas story never would have happened without Acosta, the activist attorney and crazed wingman. Indeed, Acosta felt that his contribution entitled him to a portion of the book’s royalties.
Once Gonzo journalism achieved liftoff, another cast of characters became central to its success. After Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson never produced a second draft of any manuscript. Instead, a host of editors assembled and polished his works, which he submitted in disjointed fragments. Over time, the Gonzo franchise depended entirely on his ability to martial their editorial talents. Even with that support, he often failed to deliver copy that could be lashed into publishable form. Yet without Thompson, all the editors in the world couldn’t create a Gonzo masterpiece.
Thompson was exceedingly fortunate with his publishers as well. Rolling Stone was the ideal vehicle for his strange creations, but that match wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The magazine’s cofounders had worked for Hinckle at Ramparts magazine, the legendary San Francisco muckraker, but Thompson didn’t fit the Rolling Stone profile. Wenner recruited fellow Berkeley students, mostly baby boomers who were shaped by their campus activism and the San Francisco counterculture. Thompson was older than his colleagues, an Air Force veteran who never finished college and lived in the Rocky Mountains. Nor was Thompson sure that a rock magazine was a suitable home for him. Even after becoming its star contributor, he told Wenner that Rolling Stone had yet to reach a large potential readership that “doesn’t give a flying fuck what the Jackson Five eats for breakfast.” In the end, however, no one did more than Wenner to make Thompson a cultural celebrity, and no writer did more than Thompson to make Rolling Stone the voice of its generation.
Gonzo as judo.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas changed Thompson’s life, but his decision to cover the 1972 presidential campaign was risky. Full-time campaign coverage was arduous, and Thompson was surrounded by seasoned reporters from major news organizations. If candidates complained about those outlets, they also cared how they were covered there. A fledgling rock magazine was another matter. Few reporters, and none of the candidates, read Rolling Stone. Thompson knew that he lacked the experience, access, resources, leverage, and status that his colleagues enjoyed.
Amazingly, Thompson turned those liabilities into assets, mostly by ignoring journalistic norms and telling the unvarnished truth as he understood it. His take-no-prisoners approach combined with Rolling Stone’s marginal status to create a unique opportunity. Thompson had no plans to return to the campaign trail, so there was no need to play it safe. His Gonzo style made it easy to dismiss him as a party animal and put-down artist, but when Nixon’s presidency went down in flames shortly after the election, Thompson’s ferocious attacks on a sitting president proved prophetic.
Gonzo as roundelay.
Finally, Gonzo journalism was what novelist William Kennedy called a spectacular roundelay. “The more [Thompson] behaved in a radical way,” Kennedy said, “the more radical his writing could be, and the more he had to write about. Nobody could imitate Hunter, because nobody had his personality or stamina.” As Gonzo developed, Thompson’s lifestyle, model of authorship, and persona recombined in a way that was both generative and degenerate. Kennedy’s point explains why Gonzo journalism was specific to Thompson, but it requires a slight modification: nobody imitated Thompson successfully, but as his prodigious stamina waned, much of his later work slipped into self-imitation.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, Thompson found it increasingly difficult to reach what he called the high white note. He had always relied on alcohol and Dexedrine, but the addition of cocaine to his drug diet sapped his output. Hyperbole, his foundational trope, also produced diminishing literary returns; having compared Nixon to a werewolf, what could he say about Reagan? Finally, Thompson refused to shed the Gonzo persona that made him a cultural celebrity. His work continued to find large audiences, but as biographer William McKeen noted, Thompson became the favorite author of many people who didn’t read.
If Gonzo journalism was sui generis, not everything about it was unprecedented. Thompson’s heroes also struggled with their vices, and their public images certainly shaped the reception of their fiction. Yet Thompson’s persona virtually eclipsed the work that made him famous in the first place. As New York Times writer David Streitfeld observed recently, Thompson “stands in front of his work, often obscuring it.” Five decades after he created Gonzo, it’s still difficult to see that work steadily and whole.
Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo is available from University of California Press. Copyright © 2022 by Peter Richardson.