by Rory Feehan
“He who makes a beast of
himself gets rid of the pain of
being a man”
– Dr. Johnson (epigraph to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
Early spring 1971 and the first rays of the rising sun creep into a room at the Ramada Inn just outside Pasadena California, where one Hunter S. Thompson is holed up, crouched over his IBM Selectric, hands flashing back and forth over the keys, as though directing a kind of demented orchestra. The words flow faster and faster, a chaotic hell broth of paranoia and insanity that would culminate in one of the most original, hilarious and celebrated statements on the sixties drug culture – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson’s dissection of the dark side of the American Dream would catapult him to rock star status overnight and confirm his status as the infant terrible of the literary world. Through the pages of Rolling Stone he unleashed upon an unsuspecting American public what is undoubtedly his greatest artistic creation, not Gonzo Journalism as many would have you believe, but rather his compelling and brilliantly subversive literary persona – the Hunterfigure – as best exemplified through the guise of Raoul Duke.
What followed for Thompson was an almost Jekyll and Hyde relationship with his literary alter ego, a continuous symbiotic state of co-existence with the monstrous and unruly Duke, for good or ill. Such was the enduring power of the character, heightened by Ralph Steadman’s darkly captivating illustrations, that the public perception of Thompson became truly distorted, unable to distinguish between the serious author and the myth of the drug crazed Gonzo Journalist. Of course, Thompson deliberately contributed to this confusion, blurring the boundary between author and character to such an extent that the ensuing confusion was inevitable. Such was his method actor-like approach to the persona, spanning almost his entire literary oeuvre, that one can be forgiven for being unable to identify the thin line of differentiation between his public image and private self.
In many ways it is this aspect of the Raoul Duke phenomena that has come to define Thompson’s career – with a distinct marker separating the period prior to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, from that which subsequently followed, wherein the myth superseded the man. Of course Thompson was acutely aware of the dilemma that the Duke persona presented for him following the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and its immediate follow-up, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. As his output as a writer slowed, his critics accused him of becoming enslaved by the Duke persona, not to mention being creatively burnt out. Thompson himself broached the issue in the author’s note of The Great Shark Hunt, in which he confessed that the anthology marked a milestone in his career:
I feel like I might as well be sitting here carving the words to my own tombstone…and when I finish, the only fitting exit will be right straight off this fucking terrace and into the fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yards out in the air and across Fifth Avenue. Nobody could follow that act. Not even me…H.S.T. #1, R.I.P. 12/23/77
Thompson’s frustration as a writer was also evident during this same period in the hour long BBC documentary Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision, as part of which he returned to Las Vegas, accompanied by Ralph Steadman. Though Thompson wilfully participated in the film, he was not entirely comfortable with the idea, aware that there was an underlying presumption that he was somehow going to deliver a sequel to the events described in his classic work, once more running amok in a drug-crazed frenzy on the Las Vegas strip, only this time in front of a film crew. Yet again the misconception surrounding his literary persona had come to dominate proceedings, an issue that Thompson attempted to clarify somewhat when asked as to whether there was any pressure on him to live up to the image he had created:
Well there certainly has, I mean you have been putting it on me all week…I’m not sure at all what you think you are shooting…I have no idea whether you think you are making a film about Duke or Thompson. That’s a serious point, I’m never sure which one people expect me to be and very often they conflict, most often as a matter of fact with people I don’t know, I’m expected to be Duke more than Thompson…I’ve been using Duke for 10 years, maybe more, I began to use him originally as a vehicle for quotations that nobody else would say, that was me really talking, those were my quotes…I’m really in the way as a person, the myth has taken over…I’m no longer necessary, I’m in the way. It would be much better if I die. Then people could take the myth and make films.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and yet the discourse surrounding Thompson’s seminal work has changed little – largely still centred upon Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s astronomical drug consumption and withered analysis of the American Dream. Duke, of course, looms larger than ever, aided in no small part by the tour de force that is Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the character in Terry Gilliam’s cinematic adaptation, which in itself has attracted a sizeable cult of worship. Just as in Thompson’s own lifetime, the drug crazed Raoul Duke persona overshadows the brilliance behind its very creation. In retrospect, Thompson’s remarks to the BBC now appear to be particularly salient.
That Thompson is still largely misunderstood as a writer is unsurprising though, as there is a long standing pattern of ignoring the thought process behind his greatest work. More often than not, the trajectory of critical analysis has focused on the cult of personality surrounding Thompson and that of his legendary drug consumption, coupled with the subsequent effect of these influences on his writing. Rarely does it pause to reflect on just how and why Thompson came to that point in the first place. There is a wealth of material that pinpoints The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved as marking the birth of Gonzo Journalism, but there is a dearth of analysis on the seeds that were planted along the way. The same goes for Duke, with little discussion of the various incarnations of the Hunterfigure prior to his most infamous outing in the pages of Rolling Stone. Yet it is an essential task and one that does not lead to an undermining of Thompson’s as a writer. In particular by investigating the narrative genealogy of the Hunterfigure we can discover new layers of meaning to every facet of his writing and thus extend the discourse far beyond the current narrow parameters.
Ironically it is the very topic that has overshadowed the genius in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that offers the first clue as to why Thompson felt compelled to create the Hunterfigure and make him a paragon of gross excess. The infamous epigraph at the start of this article returns us to familiar territory – that of the role of drugs in the Gonzo narrative. The quote from Dr. Johnson has now become synonymous with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the rampant consumption of drugs by Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo as they travel across the desert to the very bowels of Las Vegas in search of the American Dream. To date, the significance of the quote has largely been confined to the relationship with the central thematic message of the story. However its deeper meaning in relation to Thompson’s life and work has been all but ignored, which is surprising given that the sentiment behind it, particularly in relation to the latter half of the quote, is tied so closely to understanding his need to create a fictive persona. In order to illustrate this, it is necessary to first take a step backwards and examine Thompson’s early life in Louisville, Kentucky, before subsequently discussing key aspects in the evolution of the Hunterfigure.
The Dark and Bloody Ground
For any discussion that involves deciphering the walking contradiction that was Hunter S. Thompson there is really only one place where you can begin and that is his birthplace of Louisville, Kentucky. Renowned for its bourbon whiskey and horse racing, the Bluegrass State is commonly referred by the natives as the “dark and bloody ground” in reference to the tumultuous and violent history of the region, from its use as a hunting ground by the Cherokee and Shawnee tribes to later bearing witness to the Battle of Blue Licks, one of the final clashes in the War of Independence. Kentucky was also home to some of the earliest devotees of the American Dream, being the first area west of the Appalachians to be settled by frontiersmen. The opportunity to start a new life free from the constraints of the law governed east coast proved irresistible, with many of this motley crew harbouring a memory filled with contempt for the society they had left behind, where more often than not they had been treated as social pariahs. In many ways the spirit carried by these people became the spirit of the land itself – fiercely independent with a healthy appetite for rebellion and it was this same spirit that flowed in the blood of Hunter Stockton Thompson when he entered the world on July 18th 1937, the eldest son of Virginia Ray and Jack Robert Thompson. He was later described as having – “shot out of the womb angry”.
Thompson enjoyed a somewhat idyllic life growing up in the peaceful middle-class neighbourhood of Cherokee Triangle, a suburb of Louisville. Jack Thompson, an insurance agent who had previously been married, was forty-two when Hunter was born and his relationship with his son was always somewhat distant, perhaps due to Jack’s strict disciplinary role in Hunter’s life. He had a much closer bond with his mother Virginia, who introduced him to tales such as Jack London’s White Fang and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was also particularly fond of reading about heroes and outlaws of the Wild West, an early influence that was hugely significant according to historian Douglas Brinkley:
…when he was growing up in Kentucky, he was obsessed with tall tales. He would read about Mike Fink and Paul Bunyan and Daniel Boone, Davy Crocket, Jesse James, Annie Oakley, Billy the Kid. He didn’t care whether these stories were true or not – those personas became larger than life. (Stop Smiling Magazine Issue 22)
Indeed, in both his neighbourhood and in school, the young Thompson seemed to be hell-bent on creating his own unique brand of infamy, with his pranks and mischief resulting in a visit to his home by the FBI when he was just nine years old. Accused of having orchestrated the tipping of a Federal Mailbox into the path of a bus, leading to a collision that caused considerable damage, the Agents tried to pressure Hunter into a confession by informing him that they had witnesses. Unconvinced by their story, Hunter called their bluff and enquired as to the identity of these witnesses – the ensuing awkward silence signalled that the game was up. Pressed further by Jack Thompson and having no evidence to substantiate their claim, they swiftly made an exit and were never seen again.
Of course, Thompson was the ringleader of the entire incident and his reasons for doing so reveal an important side to his character. In his opinion, the bus driver needed to be taught a lesson, having become known for pulling away just as the schoolchildren arrived at the bus stop on their way to school. It was a somewhat cruel abuse of the little power he held and it was not going to be tolerated by Hunter and his gang – the Hawks A.C. – with the same spirit of lashing out at those who used their power for nefarious reasons later becoming a cornerstone of Gonzo Journalism. Hunter learned a powerful lesson from the experience and that was to never blindly trust anyone who represented the system, no matter what badge of office they held.
There are two major incidents that occurred in Louisville however, that altered the course of Thompson’s life forever. The first of these was the death of Jack Thompson. His passing had a profound affect on Hunter, coming shortly before his fifteenth birthday. Jack had always maintained a strict guiding influence in Hunter’s life, encouraging his interest in sports and ensuring that he didn’t get too out of hand. After his death, Thompson’s behaviour went unchecked and he quickly spiralled out of control. Virginia Thompson went to work at the Louisville Free Public Library in order to provide for her family, leaving Hunter with plenty of free time to indulge his newfound passion – alcohol. Despite Thompson’s reputation over the years as a notorious chemical abuser, it was a legal drug that first made him a slave to dependency, perhaps more so than any other substance, with the possible exception of cocaine.
In Louisville, it was Thompson’s thirst for alcohol that fuelled his descent into juvenile delinquency. Despite being underage it was never too difficult to gain access to alcohol – after all it was very much part of the social fabric and when the use of fake IDs failed to work for Hunter and his friends, there was always the option of raiding the household liquor cabinet. What followed was usually a bout of running amok and sometimes mindless vandalism, which inevitably brought Thompson into conflict with the law, leading to a stint at the Louisville Children’s Centre. In his inimitable memoir, Kingdom of Fear, Thompson acknowledged his tearaway behaviour as a teenager, likening his antics to that of his childhood hero:
I was a juvenile delinquent. I was Billy the Kid of Louisville. I was a “criminal”: I stole things, destroyed things, drank. That’s all you have to do if you’re a criminal.
Coupled with this reckless behaviour there was also something of a distinct split in Thompson’s identity during this period. At school, despite frequently skipping class to nurse a hangover, he displayed such a talent for writing that his English teacher Harold Teague recommended him to the exclusive Louisville Literary Athenaeum, where he won awards for his satirical essays. Yet the conflicting forces in Thompson’s psyche were never far from the surface, dragging him in opposing directions to such an extent that he was equally comfortable discussing the parable of Plato’s cave, as he was standing in front of judge following his latest bout of drunken revelry. Thompson was adept at compartmentalising different aspects of his life and this extended to his friends, of whom the social range stretched from the underclass to the very top of Louisville’s elite. While Hunter was comfortable moving in both worlds, the more he became exposed to the wealth of a certain circle of friends, the more painfully aware he became of his own social standing. Though Virginia Thompson did her best to raise three sons, it was not easy on her salary as a librarian. While Hunter’s friends talked of going to Ivy League Universities following their high school graduation, he knew this was not a financially viable option. While this situation created a certain resentment for Thompson, it paled into insignificance next to the rage that boiled over within him following an event that marked the end of his youth in Louisville.
Given his love affair with alcohol, it was only a matter of time before Thompson ended up in serious trouble. Yet for once, he was entirely innocent. His only crime was that of being in the company of a friend who had robbed a young couple in the park. Thompson was not even aware of what had actually happened, having been seated in a car during the incident, until he was charged by the police. Nevertheless it was Thompson who bore the brunt of the law, with the sitting judge being more than aware of his previous history as a young offender. This time he was determined that Thompson would not escape unpunished, handing down a six week prison sentence, forcing Hunter to miss two of the most important milestones in any teenager’s life – his eighteenth birthday and graduation from high school. The real injustice of the affair, however, was that the actual perpetrator walked free, courtesy of his influential family connections, leaving Thompson to sit in his cell cursing the injustice of the system and vowing to never again become ensnared in its net.
The social stigma attached to his incarceration was humiliating for Thompson and this was further compounded by his expulsion from the Louisville Literary Athenaeum, whose members had convened a special meeting to decide his status as a member of the association. The entire incident represented an overwhelming rejection by his hometown, but rather than try to atone for his past indiscretions and repair his standing in the community, Thompson instead vowed revenge upon the Louisville establishment. He viewed his treatment as a conspiracy by the authorities and the privileged elite, who had abused their power in order to make an example of him, the easy target with no father to fight his corner.
The fallout from this incident was so emotionally damaging for Thompson that it cannot be underestimated in relation to his direction as a writer. The pain of this incident was a constant driving force that was never far from the surface, strengthening his identification with “outsider” figures and heightening his visceral distrust of authority in all of its representations. Ironically it is also inherently linked to the creation of Gonzo Journalism through The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved. In the lead up to his hometown return it was obvious that the opportunity for revenge was on his mind. To Warren Hinckle, editor of Scanlan’s Monthly, he confessed – ‘And that’s it for now, I have to get some sleep before rushing off to confront my festered childhood. God’s mercy on us all.’ In a letter to Pat Oliphant, the first illustrator to be approached for the article, he wrote – ‘Ok for now. I have to get upstairs and call Hinckle. And get my plane ticket – and call my poor mother to warn her that I’m coming back, once again, to whip the shit out of everything I was raised and brought up to hold dear. Selah.’ When Oliphant was unable to accompany Thompson to the Derby, Scanlan’s Monthly made an inspired decision to send Ralph Steadman in his place. What followed was a pure exercise in avenger’s rhetoric by Thompson, with the mint julep-soaked prose eviscerating the Louisville elite in spectacular fashion, particularly when it came to his description of the ‘special kind of face’ that he wanted Ralph Steadman’s illustrations to capture:
It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry – a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture.
Of course the journey for Thompson as a writer was a long and convoluted one between his exile from Louisville as a youth and his triumphant return at the Kentucky Derby. The intervening period not only covers the birth of Hunter S. Thompson as a writer but also that of The Hunterfigure – and it is this construct that in many ways proved to be the single most important factor for Thompson in his determination to succeed as a writer, as it afforded him the irresistible opportunity to create a fictionalised portrait of his own life, a second opportunity where the cards of fate were not stacked against him as they had been in Louisville.
A Monster Reincarnation of Horatio Alger
The Hunterfigure was first mentioned by Thompson in correspondence whilst living in upstate New York in 1959. Having fled to New York in search of work as a journalist following his honourable discharge from the military, he struggled to make any discernable impact in the profession, habitually managing to get fired for insubordination or destroying office vending machines. Relying on friends and family to stave off hunger and the ever present threat of eviction, he increasingly began to question the merit of pursuing journalism as a career, particularly in light of his obvious disdain for the hierarchical structure of the typical newsroom, coupled with what he perceived as the shocking ignorance by an assortment of editors to his obvious talent. Thoroughly disillusioned with this state of affairs, Thompson composed a lengthy letter to a former girlfriend in which he revealed the predicament of the “Hunterfigure”:
I’m convinced, of course, that to play a role or adjust to fraud is wrong, and I damn well intend to keep right on living the way I think I should…I know I’m right, but I sometimes wonder how important it is to be right – instead of comfortable…The Hunterfigure has come to another fork in the road and the question once again is “where do we go from here?”
What appears to be an otherwise innocuous statement in fact is a highly literary persona that would eventually be fully realised through the filter of Gonzo Journalism. Unsurprisingly, it also signals his move towards finding solace through fiction, with his first novel, Prince Jellyfish, once again illustrating the distinct sides to his psyche and the desire to make sense of this internal conflict through the cathartic power of writing:
It will be the story of Hunter and Hunter, the way he went and the way he could have gone. And, incidentally, why. I’m using the narrator-participant technique – a la Gatsby – and shooting for a short (300 pages or so) account of three people living a year in New York City that will decide the courses of their lives.
Drawing upon a multitude of experiences between his life in Louisville and his attempt to forge a new beginning in New York, Thompson inserts autobiographical details into a fictional framework to present the story of Welburn Kemp, the first thinly disguised Hunterfigure, who manages to succeed where Thompson himself had failed. Though Kemp experiences the same difficulty in finding work in New York, as a college graduate he is more confident in his dealings with editors, walking out of an interview upon discovering that he is expected to start out as a copyboy. In reality, Thompson could ill-afford to do likewise, accepting the same position with Time magazine, despite considering it as being beneath his talent. Through Kemp, Thompson attempts to exorcise many of his personal demons, creating an idealised world where the rules favour the underdog. The novel also displays the contradictory dichotomy between Thompson’s desire to be accepted by society and that of his embracing of the outsider mantle.
Another important aspect in relation to Kemp is that of the literary blueprint from which he is derived. According to William McKeen, Thompson turned to one of his heroes for inspiration:
The strongest literary influence was J.P. Donleavy’s Ginger Man. Like that novel’s Sebastian Dangerfield, Kemp is selfish and arrogant and yet too charming to be firmly repellent.
Donleavy’s protagonist is also the forefather of Thompson’s Raoul Duke and significantly shares not just the same attitude, but also a similar dispensation for substance abuse. Sebastian Dangerfield drunkenly rampages through the streets of Dublin, clashing with the authorities along the way and leaving a trail of chaos and destruction in his wake. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson amplifies this behaviour in Raoul Duke tenfold, upping the ante to such an extent as to make his drug use redundant. Of course, Duke is far more than a mere exaggeration of Sebastian Dangerfield and while he shares the same literary DNA with Welburn Kemp, there is equally a gulf of difference between Thompson’s respective charges. What ultimately separates the pair is Thompson’s incorporation of Duke into a larger narrative, that upon which America itself stands – the American Dream. Yet this aspect in the evolution of the Hunterfigure did not occur overnight, it was a long process, of which a crucial element is often overlooked – that of Thompson’s time in Big Sur and the influence of Henry Miller.
Thompson had long been an admirer of Miller’s writing and the prospect of living in the vicinity of one his literary heroes proved irresistible when he settled there in 1961. Unbeknownst to Thompson, Miller had earlier departed Big Sur for Europe and as a result their paths never crossed. It is Miller though who, in a way, was responsible for Thompson’s first big break as a writer, inspiring him to write an article, entitled “Big Sur: The Tropic of Henry Miller”, which subsequently appeared in Rogue magazine, marking his first national publication. The heart of the article consisted of a detailed analysis of the dichotomy between Miller’s public persona and his private self, a facet of his life in Big Sur that more than piqued Thompson’s interest:
Miller did his best to stem the tide, but it was no use. As his fame spread, his volume of visitors mounted steadily. Many of them had not even read his books. They weren’t interested in literature, they wanted orgies. And they were shocked to find him a quiet, fastidious and very moral man – instead of the raving sexual beast they’d heard stories about.
The observations made here by Thompson clearly illustrate the understanding that he had of the mechanics involved in the cult of celebrity that had enveloped Miller. He identifies the public appetite for controversy and scandal, the potential manner through which literature can create a persona in the public sphere and the ease at which this persona can develop beyond the boundaries of the written word. It was not lost on Thompson that Miller, who had written prolifically of the serenity of life in Big Sur, struggled to cope with the burden of fame that had besieged his once idyllic existence, despite his best efforts to discourage the flood of pilgrims that were now destroying that which he so valued.
He posted a large, insulting sign at the head of his driveway, cultivating a rude manner to make visitors ill at ease, and devised elaborate schemes to keep them from discovering where he lived. But nothing worked. They finally overwhelmed him, and in the process they put Big Sur squarely on the map of national curiosities.
In detailing the rise of Miller’s profile and the subsequent siege of visitors to pay homage to their literary idol, Thompson creates a portrait that is astonishingly prophetic of his own eventual profile. The essential difference however, which was already clearly evident in Big Sur, is that unlike Miller, Thompson not only enjoyed the glare of publicity, but actively craved it.
In Big Sur, Thompson began to realise the power of self-mythologizing as a gateway towards a higher goal. Through Henry Miller he witnessed the manner in which an author’s persona could becoming synonymous with nonconformist revolt in the public lexicon, which in turn fuelled the propagation of a discourse that elevated him to a status of near mythic proportions. In this sense, Thompson’s experience in Big Sur proved to be a watershed moment, for it marks the turning point in his development of the Hunterfigure – from being that of a basic autobiographical tool to that of a mythmaking persona.
That this would appeal to Thompson is unsurprising in light of his early childhood fascination with myths and legends. It is this same larger than life trait that Thompson invoked in his later portrayal of sports stars and politicians as the modern day heroes and villains within the new pantheon of American mythology. The common denominator here is the enduring power associated with these figures, the special quality that burns into the collective consciousness of man and survives there for generations.
Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that they tyranny of “the rat race” is not yet final.
It is his creation of the Raoul Duke persona that is Thompson’s ultimate attempt to fashion a figure, a myth, that connects with a whole new generation in America – a generation that he believed witnessed the death of the American Dream through the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson even goes so far as to describe Duke as being ‘a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger’ to illustrate his sentiment towards this development, with Horatio Alger having represented the traditional rags to riches story of the American Dream, that with hard work and virtuous living any man could reach the top in life. For Thompson this was a con and in Las Vegas he had found the ultimate proof, a city built on corruption and sleaze that hawked the American Dream to gullible fools who parted with their money in the hope of hitting the big one and striking it rich. Of course, the house always wins, and it is this same false promise that Thompson associates with the blind optimism of the sixties, which was ultimately crushed by the cold hard reality of life under Richard Nixon’s reign.
In this sense, Thompson’s choice of epigraph – ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man’ – can now be considered in a new light. For Thompson the beast is of course Raoul Duke and the pain of being a man harkens back to Thompson’s youth in Louisville where he was ostracised as a “criminal”. Duke is his ultimate revenge on the establishment, his outlaw hero who embraces his status on the edge of society and uses his position to lambaste and ridicule the establishment and their hypocrisy. In a broader context he speaks to the pain of an entire section of American society, from those who are criminalised by the War on Drugs to the many who bought into the sixties dream and were burned in the process.
In closing, I leave you with one final piece of wisdom from Raoul Duke – ‘Learn to enjoy losing.’