, Research Paper
In the late sixties a young journalist and free-lance novelist named Hunter S. Thompson (HST) emerged with a new, crazed and exaggerated brand of reporting. It was sooner or later referred to as ?Gonzo?. HST?s own definition of gonzo has varied over the years, but he still maintains that a good gonzo journalist ?needs the talent of a master journalist, the eye of an artist/photographer and the heavy balls of an actor? and that gonzo is a ?style of reporting based on William Faulkner?s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism?(Carroll, page 192). Gonzo journalism has also been referred to as outlaw journalism, new journalism, alternative journalism, literary cubism, and other words better not repeated here. With such high profile stages for his writings in Rolling Stone Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, Esquire and Vanity Fair, HST has proven that his exaggerated gonzo journalism is as relevant (or even more so) than that of conventional journalists. In this essay, the concept and development of gonzo journalism and its relevance to media and reporting will be thoroughly explored.
Dr Hunter S. Thompson is a man of great wit and charisma. He is 6?2? tall, and, due to the fact that one leg is longer than the other, he tends to bob back and forth. He is apparently always thirsty, and his favorite drinks are known to be Wild Turkey and Chivas Regal. Besides being a writer and failed politician, HST is also a collector of peacocks and guns. HST is also happily divorced with one son, Juan. Dr Thompson?s journalism career began in the daily columns of small town newspapers, but because of differences in personality, opinion and style, he did not last long at any of them. HST?s first piece of writing to be labeled gonzo was The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved written for Scanlan?s magazine along with illustrations by the well known cartoonist Ralph Steadman (a sample of Mr. Steadman?s work will be found on the title page to this essay). As the deadline for the article approached, and with the article still incomplete, HST resorted to ripping out pages of his notebook and sending them to the editors. What resulted was the beginning of gonzo journalism.
Many see gonzo journalism to be a variation of a theme, which began with new journalism in the 60?s, led primarily by author Tom Wolfe. (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, etc.) New Journalism was said to have broken all the rules of traditional journalism. The old style journalists were supposed to take an objective point of view in their articles. The new journalists were far more subjective, getting personally involved in the stories they were reporting.
New journalism really isn?t new at all. Objectivity has been the great myth of journalism. As hard as media sources try to be objective, they can never truly achieve it. Everything from space limitations (a journalist must decide what is and what is not important enough to fit into a column) to illustrations (this gives readers a non-objective picture in their head about the issue) infringe on objectivity. New journalism and gonzo journalism alike pay no regard to the objectivity laws of journalism and instead focus their works very little on the facts but on the ?facts?, as they perceive them. One difference between gonzo journalist Thompson and new journalist Tom Wolfe is that while Wolfe tries to become the fly on the wall, Thompson is very much the fly in the ointment.
HST?s writings cannot be taken 100% seriously, as even he admits. ?Basically it?s all true. I warped a few things, but basically that?s the way it was? Thompson said describing his second book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the heart of the American Dream (quotation found on book cover). ?If everyone took everything I said seriously they would be missing the whole point of gonzo journalism? Thompson explains.
Journalist John Sack illustrates a common journalistic dilemma in this quotation:
I wrote my story for Stars and Stripes: ?Seoul, Korea. Gen. Maxwell Taylor said today that there is no ammunition shortage in Korea.? But I also know what he said was a lie. But under the rules of journalism, there is no way I can say so.
(Wolfe, page 8)
HST never hesitated in calling a spade a spade and a liar a liar. Gonzo journalism could then be called true freedom of the press. Everyone knows and expects that politicians and media sources are not always truthful, nor intend to be. Gonzo journalism is more honest about its untruthfulness. In this quotation Thompson states his opinion on Richard Nixon:
For years I?ve regarded his very existence as a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. (The Great Shark Hunt, page 213)
Writers, realizing that objectivity in news was more or less a myth, tried to write about things as they saw them. These things usually tended to be counterculture activities of the times, such as peace demonstrations, drugs, flower children and music, subjects which were either passed over or apparently misrepresented in the mainstream press. HST was able to say and write what other journalists could not. He was one of the few writers who would write openly about drugs, sex, and people like hippies and freaks who were ignored by the normal press. HST found that one could learn just as much about a place by interviewing its drunks and addicts than by talking to high standing citizens. For instance Thompson and his attorney are searching for the American Dream (one of many recurring topics of Thompson?s writings) and decide to ask one of the local waitresses:
Attorney: Let me explain it to you, let me run it down just briefly if I can. We?re looking for the American Dream, and we were told it was somewhere in this area? Well were here looking for it, ?cause they sent us out from San Francisco to look for it. That?s why they gave us this white Cadillac, they figure that we could catch up with it with that?
Waitress: Hey Lou (the chef in the diner), you know where the American Dream is?
(Fear and Loathing, page 164)
Thompson also tends to write about things he is personally involved in. His own hobbies tend to such subjects as drugs, sex, violence and sports, or all subjects which also seems to be the obsession of North America. HST is not only writing about himself, but also a large part of the population. Thompson illustrates his lust for drugs in this quotation:
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, laughers, screamers? and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
(Fear and Loathing, page 4)
As the world?s only working gonzo journalist, the only writing to compare HST?s writing with is his own. There are five main characteristics that appear in his writings. They are:
- Overlapping themes of sex, violence, drugs, sports and politics (as mentioned above).
- References to public figures such as newspeople, actors, musicians and
Politicians (as mentioned above)
- A tendency to move away from the topic subject he started out with; for example, in Fear and Loathing Thompson?s original assignment of reporting on the Mint 400 race ends up as just a sub-plot in a search for the American Dream.
- Use of sarcasm as humour:
?Dean is clearly a shrewd executive. He will have no trouble getting a job when he gets out of prison.? (The Great Shark Hunt, page 305)
- Extreme scrutiny of situations
This last point is the one I find most relevant to Thompson?s writing. HST seems to be very observant, noticing tiny details that most people might miss. This attribute applies to Thompson?s writing in two ways. The first is in description. Usually he can describe a person or an object in under two or three sentences and manage to create a crystal clear picture of what is being described. For example, in the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson?s car isn?t just a convertible but a ?Great Red Shark?. The second is in how he analyses a situation. He can observe for a few minutes and then sum up the behavior of the people and describe the surroundings perfectly. This quotation is just one of many descriptive examples throughout HST?s writings:
His remarks reached us by way of a big, low-fidelity speaker mounted on a steel pole in our corner. Perhaps a dozen others were spotted around the room, all facing the rear and looming over the crowd? so that no matter where you sat or even tried to hide, you were always looking down the muzzle of a big speaker.
This produced an odd effect. People in each section of the ballroom tended to stare at the nearest voice-box, instead of watching the distant figure of whomever was actually talking far up front, on the podium. This 1935 style of speaker placement totally depersonalized the room. There was something ominous and authoritarian about it. Whoever set up that sound system was probably some kind of Sheriff?s auxiliary technician on leave from a drive-in theater in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where the management couldn?t afford individual car speakers and relied on ten huge horns, mounted on telephone poles in the parking area.
(Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, page 137)
Gonzo journalism can and should be a valued addition to society?s daily media intake by providing a refreshing, off-center and humorous point of view. While Thompson bases his style on William Faulkner?s idea that ?the fiction is often the best fact? sarcasm, humour, exaggeration, and profanity makes HST?s work unique and serve to create a style which is both informative and entertaining. He forces his readers to see different truths of a matter, and his strong opinions are always incorporated in, if not the focus of, his writings. This is no less valid than any other form of journalism, which stands behind the belief that it, is pure and untarnished by objectivity and presents the facts as they are without directing public opinion. Many journalists now know that pure objectivity is unattainable and that the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson is as relevant as any other anchorman?s daily news report.
Carrol, Jean E. Hunter: The Strange and Savage life of Hunter S. Thompson.
New York: Plume, 1993
Thompson, Hunter S. The Great Shark Hunt.
New York: Fawcett Popular Library, 1980
Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. New York: Vintage Books, July 1989
Thompson, Hunter S. Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream. New York: Summit, 1990
Thompson, Hunter S. Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie.
New York: Ballantine, 1994
Thompson, Hunter S. Generation Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ?80?s.
New York: Summit, 1988
Thompson, Hunter S. The Curse of Lono.
New York: Bantam, 1983
Wolfe, Tom: The New Journalism.
New York: Harper & Row, 1973