Note: This essay was hugely expanded in 2020. The new version is found here.
Hunter S. Thompson was no Beatnik. For one thing, he was too late. By the time he was knocking out Gonzo journalism, Kerouac had died, the hippies had come to power, and Ginsberg had moved from Beat guru to counterculture superhero.
But Thompson frequently finds himself a place in the hearts of Beat readers, for he embodied a similar, although in some ways wildly different, ethos. Thompson was a rebel hero for a generation. His books shocked readers, appalled critics, and inspired millions. He didn’t seek to change the world in any grand way, but like the Beats, Thompson sought to point out its flaws, while working to create his own little place, a place where he could be free.
Thompson wasn’t a particularly great reader of Beat literature, either. He admired Kerouac’s discovery of Neal Cassady as a literary device, but disliked his style of writing. In Wenner & Seymour’s Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, Paul Semonin, a childhood friend of Thompson’s, claimed Thompson became interested in ‘beat culture’ in Puerto Rico, during the period Thompson later ficitonalised in The Rum Diary.
A letter to Jim Silberman (his editor at Random House) gives evidence of Thompson’s awareness of Beat literature, and some connection to it in his own work, as he talks about the Beats setting down a path that he could follow. It seems that he is suggesting that Kerouac and Ginsberg allowed him to write the way he did. In a 1965 letter to Carey McWilliams of The Nation, Thompson talks about his times around Columbia in ’58 to ’59, and says ‘I believe we were called “bums,” although “beatnik” quickly became popular.’ So at one stage Thompson did honestly consider himself a ‘beatnik’.
Yet, though one must look closely for these links, there are a few stories and connections that are less subtle. Thompson was a literary man, after all, and he had an opinion on his predecessors. He also got to meet many of them, albeit briefly, at various stages in his life.
The most obvious link Thompson had with the Beat generation was his connection to Allen Ginsberg. Although the two were hardly kindred spirits, they had a respect for one another, and came to half-befriend one another over many years. In a letter to William J. Kennedy, in 1968, Thompson described Ginsberg as “One of the few honest people I’ve ever met, for good or ill.”
In his The Book Report interview, Thompson said:
Yeah. Allen was a particular friend, one of my heroes, really. I knew him almost as long as I’ve been writing… I was once arrested with Ginsberg. He was a big help to me. He was one of the few people who read unknown writer’s work. Maybe he was just hustling me. He liked to flirt, Allen. They called him a monster but he was only falling in love.
In Douglas Brinkley’s The Art of Journalism: An Interview with Hunter S. Thompson, Thompson tells of his first encounter with Ginsberg. They met in San Fransisco, through a mutual weed dealer. Over several months, Ginsberg helped Thompson to edit a book he was working on at the time, Hell’s Angels.
Later, during Ken Kesey’s legendary party for the unification of the Merry Pranksters and the Hell’s Angels, Thompson met Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. This is the night of Thompson’s ‘arrest’ with Ginsberg, as the two drove to buy booze for the party, and were stopped by the police. Apparently, all Ginsberg could say to the police was, “I’m a poet… I’m a poet!”
In a 1965 letter to Murray Fisher at Playboy, Thompson explains that:
My tail-light lenses were cracked, so they cited me, and would have taken me and Allen Ginsberg to jail, I think, if I hadn’t been sporting a tape recorder. Ginsberg was so enraged by the harassment that he might want to write an ode about it. If it interests you, I’ll ask him. Anyway, neither my woody gard nor Ginsberg’s foot-long beard made the right sort of impression…
In a 1966 letter to Ginsberg, Thompson asks permission to use the whole of the poem, ‘To the Angels’ in Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Thompson explains to Ginsberg how much he loves the poem, and how much it means to his book, and then promises that although he has no money, to give Ginsberg a percentage of the royalties of the book.
However, according to Michael Soheim, in Gonzo, Thompson and Ginsberg seemed to have fallen out sometime around 1970. He tells the story of when Thompson was drinking in the famous Jerome Bar in Aspen, and deliberately avoided meeting Ginsberg. Apparently Thompson owed Ginsberg “some time together.”
Corey Seymour tells a story that perhaps elaborates upon this. In 1994, at a Beat Generation Conference in New York, Thompson told Seymour several stories about Ginsberg, and finished by saying that he needed to get in touch, as they hadn’t seen one another in a long time. Hours later, Seymour met Ginsberg and told him how to contact Thompson. Thompson then briefly explained to Seymour that Ginsberg had been too embarrassed to speak to him since a “lost weekend” in the late sixties. “It’s a little-known fact, Corey, that Ginsberg was a horrible drunkard.” Thompson and Ginsberg met later that day.
Johnny Depp tells the story of Ginsberg’s memorial service in Los Angeles. Thompson was unable to attend, but agreed to write something if Depp would read it at the service. However, Thompson delayed and cancelled, until a minute before Depp was about to leave, expecting to go onstage with nothing to say, and Thompson faxed him a eulogy that described Ginsberg as “a dangerous bull-fruit with the brain of an open sore and the conscience of a virus… crazy, queer, and small…” and that he was looking forward to meeting the Grim Reaper “because he knew he could get into his pants.”
To Susan Haselden, Thompson wrote:
Certainly I’ve read The Subterranean: all his crap for that matter. The man is an ass, a mystic boob with intellectual myopia. The Dharma thing was not quite as bad as The Subterraneans and they’re both withered appendages to On the Road – which isn’t even a novel in the first place.
Doug Brinkley, the editor of Thompsons letters and his literary executor, knew better than anyone what Thompson thought of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Hunter never really liked Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – he thought the writing was kind of sloppy and romantic and oversentimental – but he told me he thought Kerouac was a genius for two things: discovering Neal Cassady, whom Hunter thought was flat-out amazing, and using the literary construct of ‘looking for the lost dad I never had.’ Neal was never properly raised by a father. He didn’t even know whether his dad was alive or dead, and the notion of a young son who never had a dad, looking for his biological father, appealed to Hunter a great deal.
In Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson, William McKeen says that Thompson admired Kerouac’s On the Road, but only in the political sense. He disliked Kerouac’s other books, and wasn’t enthusiastic about the Beats as a movement. In a 1962 letter to Paul Semonin, Thompson wrote ‘I have tonight begun reading a shitty, shitty book by Kerouac called Big Sur.’ But there are many references to his having read, and been influenced to some small degree, by On the Road. Granted, millions of people Thompson’s age at the time were influenced by the book, but nonetheless it seems to creep up when people talk about the young Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson took a cross-country roadtrip that was allegedly inspired by Kerouac, and arrived in San Francisco to visit the areas made famous by the Beats. Semonin eluded to an influence Kerouac held over Thompson whilst in Puerto Rico, as the two young men read Beat literature and came to adopt Beat ‘personas.’
As much as anything, it seems Thompson was drawn to the same kind of thing as Kerouac. Thompson was intrigued by the bright lights and temptations of the city, but he was also drawn to wilderness. Both loved to get away from people. At different times, they ended up in Big Sur, a rugged wilderness that drew many Beat and counterculture artists to its magnificent crashing shoreline. When living in Big Sur and struggling badly for money, he submitted writing to Sterling Lord, Kerouac’s agent, and was rejected. This prompted one of Thompson’s many nasty letters in reply.
If we look at the authors’ two most famous works, we can see similarities. Both claim their works as both truth and fiction; both wrote travelling buddy stories; both detailed outrageous fun and drug use and youthful exuberance. In Thompson and Kerouac, the words just fly off the page at speed, as natural as thought. Their most famous novels were popular and critical successes, particularly long after the fact.
Kerouac and Thompson sought critical success as serious writers, but lamented the fact that their fame largely extended to frat boys and wild youngsters with a rebellious streak. Both died feeling that they lacked recognition for their work and that their lives had spiraled into decline with the burden of fame.
In 1995, Thompson was on the panel at the Jack Kerouac Conference in New York
We know that Thompson read William Burroughs and respected him, but not much else is clear. He certainly wished to be uttered in the same breath as Burroughs, and not because they both wrote explicitly about drugs or that they loved guns.
In 1997, after Burroughs’ death, Thompson wrote an obituary that was essentially the story of when the two writers met and fired guns together. At this time, Burroughs was an old and frail man, but he managed to make a huge impression upon Thompson by firing a powerful handgun with some accuracy. Twice during the article, he manages to make a joke about Burroughs killing Joan Vollmer.
William had a fine taste for handguns, and later in life he became very good with them. I remember shooting with him one afternoon at his range on the outskirts of Lawerence. He had five or six well oiled old revolvers laid out on a wooden table, covered with a white linen cloth, and he used whichever one he was in the mood for at the moment. The S&W .45 was his favorite. “This is my finisher” he said lovingly and then he went into a crouch and then put five out of six shots through the chest of a human-silhouette target about 25 yards away.
Later, in Hey Rube, Thompson refers to Burroughs as his friend, and says that the author was ‘robbed and badly beaten, many years ago, by a gang of paramilitary dope addicts who had never even heard of him’ in New York.
Early in his life, Thompson was apparently fascinated by Neal Cassady. According to Dou Brinkley, he thought the star of On the Road ‘was flat-out amazing.’
In 1966, Thompson decided he wanted to write a story about Cassady and Ken Kesey after the Merry Pranksters were arrested for marijuana possession. Thompson had become friends with Allen Ginsberg and was riding with the Hell’s Angels when the meeting between the Pranksters and the Angels occurred. There was a famous party that was written about by both Thompson and Tom Wolfe, and Neal Cassady was there. Sandy Thompson recalled that the party was wild, with everyone just ‘being high and silly.’
The connection between Corso and Thompson is neither obvious, nor easy to find. I only added it here because it stuck strangely in my mind and I spent a great deal of time, calling in many favours, to get the right reference.
In Paul Perry’s Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson, there is a short story about when Thompson and Gene McGarr went to the Living Theatre on San Fransisco’s 14th Street to watch Kerouac read from Satori in Paris. Kerouac was naturally drunk and slurred through the performance. When Gregory Corso stepped on stage to read his poetry, Thompson and McGarr were enraged by his shortness and femininity, and proceeded to kick beer bottles, ending the performance and getting themselves thrown out.