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Monday, February 21, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson said harsh things about journalism, but he kept doing journalism -- or something like it.

"I have spent half my life trying to get away from journalism, but I am still mired in it - a low trade and a habit worse than heroin, a strange seedy world full of misfits and drunkards and failures."

I found that sentence Monday in an online collection of quotes, near an even more colorful (or offensive) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas line that I recall punching across a news bureau teletype to the Hartford Courant state desk 30 years ago. Perhaps it had been an especially bad night of the usual frustrations -- an overdose of deadlines and reality. Thompson's hyperbole and hallucinations made me laugh so much I didn't need my own.

Low trade or high calling, I'm glad Hunter Thompson was addicted to his particular form of journalism. He reflected the world in a personal fun-house mirror -- warped, scary and often hilarious -- Muskie on ibogaine; Nixon as a werewolf.

The New York Times obituary online Monday does call him a journalist, adding the adjectives "maverick" and -- the one he invented -- "gonzo."

"... a counter cultural hero with books and articles that skewered America's hypocrisy. 'He wrote to provoke, shock, protest and annoy,' Timothy Crouse wrote in his book 'The Boys on the Bus,' about the 1972 presidential campaign. Mr. Thompson's pioneering first-person, at times over-the-top, writing style influenced a generation of writers."

John Leonard captured some of that "generational" reaction in this book review from 1979:

"He became, in the late 1960's, our point guard, our official crazy, patrolling the edge. He reported back that the paranoids were right, and they were...
"He is also, as if this needs to be said, hilarious. It is nice to think of him naked on his porch in Colorado, drinking Wild Turkey and shooting at rocks. Somewhere, beyond John Denver, he smells injustice. Scales grow on his torso; wings sprout on his feet. Up, up and away. . . it's Captain Paranoid! The Duke of Gonzo! Super Geek!"

The Leonard piece and more are collected on an author retrospective page at the Times, which was updated Tuesday including an appreciation by David Carr and an obituary by Michael Slackman.  Two clips from those articles capture something I was trying to get to on Monday:

Carr says:

"For a generation of American students, Mr. Thompson made journalism seem like a dangerous, fantastic occupation, in the process transforming an avocation that was mostly populated by doughy white men in short-sleeve white button-downs and bad ties into something fit for those who smoked Dunhills at the end of cigarette holders and wore sunglasses regardless of the time of day...

"For all of the pharmacological foundations of his stories, Mr. Thompson was a reporter, taking to the task of finding out what other people knew with an avidity that earned the respect of even those who found his personal hobbies reprehensible. Hunter S. Thompson knew stuff and wrote about it in a way that could leave his colleagues breathless and vowing to do better."

Slackman says:

"Mr. Thompson's approach in many ways mirrors the style of modern-day bloggers, those self-styled social commentators who blend news, opinion and personal experience on Internet postings. Like bloggers, Mr. Thompson built his case for the state of America around the framework of his personal views and opinions."

(Speaking of bloggers, Slackman parenthetically mentions that someone at The Times quoted Thompson's Rolling Stone coverage of Hubert Humphrey campaigning "like a rat in heat." If I remember The Boys on the Bus correctly, the young Times reporter doing that cultural-breakthrough quoting was sometime-blogger Christopher Lydon.)

My point from Monday, especially for journalism students: Objectivity may be impossible or flawed, but subjective insight (with or without hallucinations) isn't enough. Thompson's best writing pushed sharp peaks of reality through the haze.

Read his Hell's Angels book (review) to see what he was willing to do to report a story. Get beyond the quotable soundbites to his descriptive writing. The Denver Post has a piece on his earlier work, before the gonzo set in, along with a story about his death. (Also see the Aspen Times News)

Washington Post blogger Joel Achenbach has a personal-visit reminiscence, full of gonzo lifestyle, but also including fine descriptive quotes to counter "any suspicion that Thompson just knocked this stuff out in a first draft."
...updated Tuesday, Feb. 22

3:07:31 PM    

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