Wednesday, March 18, 2015

This is Bat Country: The Breeding Grounds of Gonzo Journalism

Hunter S. Thompson was a writer, journalist, activist, and loyal drug user. He created what is known as Gonzo Journalism, and it all began when he decided to never stop writing. There are few people who can match Thompson’s intrinsic motivation and total disregard of extrinsic “guidelines” such as important deadlines, job retention, and his reputation. Perhaps, that is what made him so amazingly creative. (1) 


In his youth, Thompson would spend weeks at his typewriter, rewriting The Great Gatsby and other classics. In an interview he stated that this practice helped him learn to write from the greats.

He wrote throughout high school, then during his stint with the Air Force, and continued on to pursue journalism as a carrier. It was during one of his first assignments in the field for a small publication called Scanlan’s Monthly, that he came into his own. He was to write a sports piece on the Kentucky Derby. In Louisville, Kentucky he met cartoonist Ralph Steadman, who would continue on to collaborate with him on numerous pieces. Thompson and Steadman never actually watched the race, as from their viewpoint, it was impossible to see. After days of intense alcohol consumption, the deadline to turn in his article was up. Thompson sent in numbered pages of his journal, with his half-crazed observations of the attendees at the horse race. The article spoke little of the actual race, but it was more a first-person commentary on the drunkenness and depravity of the crowd watching. It is impossible to distinguish fact from fiction, which broke every rule of journalism. This was later to be described as the first piece of Gonzo Journalism ever written. The article ends with an anagnorisis, in which Thompson realizes he is just as much to blame as the people he is describing.  


Thompson then rode with the Hells Angels, an infamous motorcycle gang, for over a year and wrote about them from an inside perspective that no one had been privy to before him. He was even asked to join the gang, but he declined. His observations were pieced together into a book, which received critical acclaim and personal fame for Thompson.

It was, however, his Fear and Loathing books that gained him the most notoriety. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas semi-autobiographically chronicles Thompson’s trip to Las Vegas, and references the uprooting of the 1960’s counter-cultural movement happening in the 1970’s. The book has no definite plot and seems surreal, as Thompson was high and drunk almost for the entirety of the trip, on everything he could get his hands on. Yet, never once, does Thompson completely lose his insight as a journalist. He seems so acutely aware of his surroundings, even if when believes he is surrounded by monstrous dinosaur-like people. Much of the hallucinations are in fact satirical of American society in the 70's. One of Thompson’s more intellectual books was Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, where he spent 12 months in Washington DC detailing the democratic primaries, the party's candidates and the absurdity of the race. Rolling Stone, the magazine he wrote the series of articles for, bought a fax machine just so he could constantly send them his notes. Often he would fax them last minute additions just hours before the magazine was sent to the press. Not only did Thompson use this series to publicize his hatred of Nixon, but he also attacked the mainstream media, by exposing their fallacious and tabloid reporting.

Due to his expensive parties fueled by illicit substances, as well as his inability to turn in his articles on time, Thompson always seemed to be looking for jobs, yet, that did not stop him from writing. Many attempt to copy Gonzo Journalism, but they do so unsuccessfully for the most part. He was the true creator of the style, and will forever remain the master of it.

(1) Collins, M. A., & Amabile, T. M. (1999). Motivation and creativity. In Robert J. Sternberg (Ed.) Handbook of Creativity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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