This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #20.

Hunter S. Thompson was never part of the Beat Generation, no matter how hard people try to make him one. He was an outsider and changed literature with his experimental prose, but that is not enough to make him Beat. For one thing, he was much younger than the Beats. For another, he moved in different circles. He also shied away from such categorization and ultimately made his own one-man genre, Gonzo, which was stylistically quite different from anything published by any of the Beat writers.

Yet there is no denying that these people rubbed shoulders in the hallways of American literature and there is good reason for bookshelves around the world containing Thompson’s books alongside those of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, or the likes of Charles Bukowski, who decried any attempt to lump him in with the Beats, whom he loathed.

Perhaps it is understandable that readers would attempt to categorize them together: These writers were renegades and, to some extent, poetic, heroic losers. They shared many ideals and a few elements of style, and they held some of the same sorts of attitudes. Yet many have tried and failed to tie Thompson with the Beats, including myself in an old essay for Beatdom.[1] I tried to trace his interests and influences and run-ins with the men and women of the Beat Generation and found that there just wasn’t a huge amount to go on.

Some said that Thompson was inspired by Kerouac and Burroughs (and he did meet the latter when both were getting to be old men), and that Thompson was somehow a friend of Allen Ginsberg, though neither wrote much about the other. So what is there to write about except that they were popular counterculture figures?

In researching a forthcoming book, I stumbled upon some more information that shed light on Thompson’s views about the Beats. It made me realize that not enough had been written and that what had been written before may have been inaccurate as well as insubstantial. As such, I have tried to bring together those disparate sources to bring you the following.

Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, and the Wider Beat/Beatnik Movements

Hunter S. Thompson was about a decade younger than most of the Beat writers and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, far from the Beat crowds (though not that far from William S. Burroughs, who had grown up in St. Louis). When the Beats were in New York, exploring Times Square and being kicked out of Columbia University, Thompson was still in elementary school. Despite being only ten years old when Neal Cassady burst onto the scene and took Kerouac off on the road, Thompson was not vastly different in attitude. He was a young hell-raiser, constantly in trouble with teachers, his parents, the police, and the community at large. Like Kerouac, he was a well-read rebel and like Neal Cassady he was a charmer but an abuser, someone to whom others gravitated.

While most of the main Beat figures joined the Merchant Marine in the forties, Thompson took off for the Air Force in the fifties, and it was there that he got into writing. After blagging his way into the role of sports editor on the base newspaper, he continued his fledgling career as a journalist, hopping from newspaper to newspaper in search of the respect he felt he deserved. Alas, his short-temper, pranks, and alcoholism caused him to be fired nearly everywhere he went, and often evicted from the places he rented. His propensity for rebellion made him, in his own words, “utterly unemployable.”[2]

After bouncing around the US in search of small-town newspapers willing to believe his largely falsified résumé, Thompson landed in New York City in 1957, the year that Kerouac’s magnus opus, On the Road, was published. Had he been born a little earlier, he might have crossed paths with Ginsberg and Kerouac at Columbia, where Thompson attended literature classes two and a half days each week. Unable to sit still (another Neal Cassady-like trait), he didn’t last long and thus ended his spotty academic career. Like the Beats before him, Thompson, too, was a Subterranean, inhabiting a virtual dungeon in Greenwich Village, where he had the walls painted jet-black. He also frequented some of the same bars that the Beats had a decade earlier, like the White Horse Tavern.

According to Thompson’s friend, Paul Semonin, it was in early 1958 that Thompson began reading Kerouac.[3] At this point, Kerouac’s only published books were On the Road (1957), The Subterraneans (1958), and the much earlier The Town and the City (1950), and it is not clear whether he had read the latter. He was introduced to Kerouac’s work by Semonin’s girlfriend, who also turned him on to marijuana, jazz, and – another Beat-related curiosity – orgone accumulators. Although Thompson played it cool, one of his friends remarked that, “I am pretty sure [these things] were new to Hunter.”[4]

Over the following year or two, Thompson lived out his version of the Beat life. Although he was powerfully averse to any sort of clique or movement, and openly scoffed at the beatniks with their berets and bongos, his life in New York was, according to Semonin, quite heavily influenced by the real Beats. Thompson and his buddies tried to “drink like the Beats” and he began an autobiographical novel, Prince Jellyfish, that was supposedly inspired by Kerouac.[5] Although it has never been published, part of this work was printed in his 1990 collection, Songs of the Doomed. The prose is weak and highly derivative of Fitzgerald, and one would hardly guess it was written by the man who later invented Gonzo journalism. Yet Thompson did admit in one letter that it was at least partly inspired by Kerouac. He told a friend that it was “something of a cross between Gatsby and On the Road.” [6] The first pages alone are littered with references to “Columbia” and “girls,” and revolve around a party in a hip apartment on Morningside Drive, one of Kerouac’s haunts. Like Kerouac, Thompson wrote about himself and his friends (although he was always more interested in participating than observing) with just a thin veil of fiction obscuring the absolute reality.

There is little in those pages to suggest that Kerouac was particularly influential on Thompson’s developing literary style, and few have ever tried to make that claim. Douglas Brinkley, his literary executor, commented that “Kerouac’s confessional prose made quite an impact on Thompson’s philosophy for living, if not on his writing style,”[7] and elsewhere explained that Thompson thought On the Road was “sloppy and romantic and oversentimental.”[8] Perhaps Thompson’s kindest words for Kerouac attest to this. In the second edition of his Aspen Wallposter series, when he recounted seeing Kerouac on TV in a New York bar, he said, “I decided to quit my job and go into full-time craziness.”[9] Given the importance of “craziness” to Thompson’s life and work, that is surprisingly high praise.

But looking deeper, there is some evidence that Kerouac did helped shape Thompson’s writing, at least in terms of content. While Thompson was more interested in Hemingway and Fitzgerald, as well as J.P. Donleavy and George Orwell, and his writing largely aped theirs during the years when he was finding his own voice, he told the Paris Review:

Jack Kerouac influenced me quite a bit as a writer . . . in the Arab sense that the enemy of my enemy was my friend. Kerouac taught me that you could get away with writing about drugs and get published […] I wasn’t trying to write like him, but I could see that I could get published like him and make the breakthrough, break through the Eastern establishment ice.[10]

In his letters, there are also fleeting positive comments. In early 1958, he wrote that Kerouac “is more of a ‘spokesman’ than most people think… and he speaks for more than thieves, hopheads, and whores.”[11] In 1971, after achieving some measure of fame for his Gonzo fusion of fictional and non-fictional writing, Thompson explained to his publisher the debt he owed to Kerouac:

There was simply no room, no way to make a living, in that twilight of the Eisenhower Era, for anybody who might want to bring a writer’s fine eye & perspective to the mundane “realities” of journalism.

Probably the first big breakthrough on this front was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—a long rambling piece of personal journalism that the publisher (Viking) called “fiction” because if they’d said it was “journalism” no Literary Critic would touch it.[12]

It is important to note the odd phrase, “personal journalism,” in that last quote. This is precisely what Thompson considered his own writing style at that time. In the late sixties and early seventies, whilst developing his own inimitable style of prose, he was attempting to incorporate literary techniques into journalism… and by journalism, he often meant rambling accounts of his own adventures. It is highly likely that this is what initially drew him to On the Road, and what he borrowed from it for his own emergent style.

Back in New York in the late fifties, Thompson asked his friend, Gene McGarr, a fellow copyboy at Time magazine, “Do you remember Gregory Corso, the fucking guy who wrote ‘Boom’? Well, he’s reading tonight at the Living Theater. Let’s go.”[13] The performers were Corso and Frank O’Hara, but Kerouac was sitting in the front row, and at the end of the night, he got up to read from Doctor Sax. The two men heckled Corso, whose reading disappointed them, and they kicked a beer can up and down the center aisle, trying to annoy him. It worked and he walked off, deeply insulted, shouting, “You’re all a bunch of baaaystuds!” He then pointed at Thompson and said, “And you are a cweep!”[14] They thought Kerouac’s reading was poor, too, but they respected him enough to stay quiet for the duration.[15]

When it was time for Thompson to leave New York City, he was inspired by On the Road to take a cross-country road trip with Semonin. They drove all the way to Seattle, and from there Thompson hitchhiked alone to San Francisco. “This makes Kerouac look like a piker,”[16] he boasted. Despite his apparent distaste for Corso’s poetry and the wider beatnik fad, Thompson headed straight for City Lights Bookstore, where he would hang out and listen to poetry.[17] Years later, he told an interviewer, “Lawrence Ferlinghetti influenced me—both his wonderful poetry and the earnestness of his City Lights bookstore in North Beach.”[18]

From San Francisco, Thompson made his way south to Big Sur. Kerouac had stayed at Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Bixby Creek Canyon during August and September of 1960 but Thompson arrived a few months later, just missing him. Although he may have had Kerouac on his mind, he was primarily interested in two local authors – Dennis Murphy and Henry Miller (although Miller had departed in April and they never met, either). From Big Sur, Thompson occasionally ventured back into San Francisco to, according to one of his biographers, “drink wine with Richard Brautigan, Jack Thibeau, and Gary Snyder.”[19] Thompson evidently stayed in touch with the latter two poets, interviewing them for an article on hippies in 1964.[20]

It may seem as though I have been pushing the Kerouac connection a little further than necessary until now. After all, Thompson disparaged the beatnik fad and wrote a very different sort of prose to Kerouac. He acknowledged Kerouac at times for his breakthroughs with On the Road, and occasionally seemed to admit to being part of the wider Beat movement, once or twice using “we” to talk about the beatnik hangers-on in New York in the late fifties, but he often seemed keen to distance himself from Kerouac and the Beats. In one interview, he reluctantly acknowledges this connection:

Legere: Were you reading Kerouac?

HST: I was.

Legere: Were you into the Beat thing? Ginsberg?

HST: Yes.[21]

Those short answers suggest an unwillingness to get into the topic any further than necessary. Indeed, by the mid-sixties, Kerouac had moved on from his interest in Kerouac:

…in a symbolic way I expected Kerouac to turn up in Haight Ashbury for the cause. Ginsberg was there, so it was kind of natural to expect that Kerouac would show up too. But no. That’s when Kerouac went back to his mother and voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964. That’s when my break with him happened.[22]

Perhaps Thompson did move away from Kerouac’s influence in the mid-sixties, but it is likely that it had begun long before then. Even by the end of 1958, Thompson’s interest in Kerouac and Beat literature was waning. Although he had appeared enthralled early in the year, in November he wrote:

I’ve read The Subterraneans: all of 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.[23]

He goes on to suggest that Kerouac’s readers were “lemmings” and suggested that they should be killed for the betterment of his generation. In 1962, he wrote that, “I have tonight begun reading a stupid, shitty book by Kerouac called Big Sur…” and explained that he would like to open fire on a “herd of grazing beatniks.”[24] Clearly, the honeymoon period was over.

While Kerouac turned away from the countercultural movement of the sixties, Thompson ventured further into it. Although neither particularly liked the hippies, Thompson certainly mingled with them, supporting their anti-War efforts, enjoying the acid culture and its associated musical movement, and befriending Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, whom Kerouac outright rejected. By the time Kerouac was washed up and drinking himself to death beside his mother, it was Thompson who was hanging out with and writing about Neal Cassady.

In one of his better articles of the mid-sixties, when he was finding his voice for the first time and beginning to be widely published outside of local sports news, Thompson wrote:

Today’s activist student or nonstudent talks about Kerouac as the hipsters of the ’50s talked about Hemingway. He was a quitter, they say; he had good instincts and a good ear for the sadness of his time, but his talent soured instead of growing.[25]

Given Thompson’s habit for taking his own ideas and putting them into the mouths of his “sources,” it is quite possible that this was his view in 1965. However, it pleasing to note that by 1998, Thompson looked back fondly and even wrote a poem about Kerouac. He said that Kerouac “remains one of my heroes,” and acknowledged that “he was a great influence on me […] Jack was an artist in every way.”[26]

In his final years, Thompson wrote a short column for ESPN, and in one of his articles he talked to Jim Irsay, who owns Kerouac’s On the Road scroll. Thompson proudly declared, “He was a football star, in his youth, just like me,”[27] which grossly overstates Thompson’s athletic abilities but highlights how eager he was to be seen as a peer. They had never met despite treading the same grounds, but it is not hard to see them as brothers in literature.

Thompson & Ginsberg: An Unlikely Alliance

Although his interest in Kerouac waned, Thompson befriended another Beat writer in the sixties – Allen Ginsberg. There could hardly be a more unlikely pair, and yet they remained friends on and off for nearly four decades. Thompson had a tremendous respect for the poet, referring to him often as both a close friend and “one of my heroes.”[28]

Fittingly, Ginsberg and Thompson first met at the apartment of their mutual drug dealer. Thompson recalled:

I met Allen in San Francisco when I went to see a marijuana dealer who sold by the lid. I remember it was ten dollars when I started going to that apartment and then it was up to fifteen. I ended up going there pretty often, and Ginsberg—this was in Haight Ashbury—was always there looking for weed too. I went over and introduced myself and we ended up talking a lot. I told him about the book I was writing and asked if he would help with it. He helped me with it for several months; that’s how he got to know the Hell’s Angels.[29]

Indeed, the relationship between Thompson and Ginsberg is largely known due to his book on the Hell’s Angels (which includes Ginsberg’s poem on the biker gang) and the events that transpired. Thompson had been working on his book for some time and, when he met the author Ken Kesey, he agreed to introduce them. Kesey and the Angels got along well, and so Thompson then introduced them to Ginsberg. They all ended up at a huge party at Kesey’s house, with acid handed out and Bob Dylan songs playing from speakers in the trees. Neal Cassady was running around naked, while his ex-wife was having sex with dozens of bikers.[30]

Outside the compound, the police were arresting people indiscriminately when they tried to enter or leave. Ginsberg was appalled and insisted that they go and confront the cops.[31] Thompson agreed, and the two of them drove out in Thompson’s car, with infant son in the back seat:

Allen at the very sight of the cops went into his hum, his om, trying to hum them off. I was talking to them like a journalist would: “What’s going on here, Officer?” Allen’s humming was supposed to be a Buddhist barrier against the bad vibes the cops were producing and he was doing it very loudly, refusing to speak to them, just “Om! Om! Om!” I had to explain to the cops who he was and why he was doing this. The cops looked into the backseat and said, “What is that back there? A child?” And I said, “Oh yeah, yeah. That’s my son.” With Allen still going, “Om,” we were let go. He was a reasonable cop, I guess, checking out a poet, a journalist, and a child. Never did figure Ginsberg out, though. It was like the humming of a bee. It was one of the weirdest scenes I’ve ever been through, but almost every scene with Allen was weird in some way or another.[32]

Thompson recounted this story in Hell’s Angels and elsewhere, once remarking: “Ginsberg was so enraged by the harassment that he might want to write an ode about it.”[33] In fact, Ginsberg appears often in his writing. He is mentioned twice in Thompson’s most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and also in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972. These are just fleeting references, though, to the poet’s signature “Om” and famous lines of his poetry. He appears often in Thompson’s articles throughout the sixties, again just flash images that show Ginsberg’s role as a cultural touchstone more than they illuminate the relationship between the writers. In one of the author’s most important articles, “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy,” Thompson mentions a rumor that Ginsberg was going to sign up as a spokesman for General Motors. It is a textbook example of the sort of weird humor Thompson used throughout his writing. He would insert these blatantly false statements into his work because, to him, they seemed ridiculous and impossible to believe, therefore hilarious. Yet, of course, a few decades later Ginsberg was advertising for GAP…

A few weeks later, Thompson and Ginsberg met again to attempt to resolve a problem between the Hell’s Angels and the anti-war movement. The Angels planned to crash a peaceful process and so there was a gathering of minds to avert it. The leader of the biker gang, Sonny Barger, hosted Hunter Thompson, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and Ken Kesey and they all dropped acid, smoked pot, and listened to Bob Dylan records. Thompson quoted one of the Angels as saying, “That goddamned Ginsberg is gonna fuck us all up. For a guy that ain’t straight at all, he’s about the straightest son of a bitch I ever met.”[34] However, he later admitted to a friend that he had made up the quote entirely, and then added, “He’s one of the few honest people I’ve ever met, for good or ill.”[35]

Thompson was not entirely happy with Ginsberg’s plan to bring peace:

Allen is a good-hearted fucker, but here is Ginsberg setting up all these rendezvous with the Angels, and I was the organizer, the point man. For Allen it was a weird time, and people asked me to do all kinds of weird things. But Allen had a good time because Barger was in a good mood and he humoured Ginsberg with his ‘We’re all in this together.’ Barger never believed a fucking word! That is what I tried to tell Ginsberg. They are mean fuckers![36]

In the seventies, Ginsberg visited Aspen but, according to people who were there, Thompson attempted to avoid him.[37] It appears that Ginsberg had wanted to spend some time together and, for reasons that remain unclear, the Aspen native was eager to ditch his poet friend. In 1994, however, when Thompson was on a panel of a Beat Generation event in New York, he was keen to get back in touch with his old friend. Thompson claimed that Ginsberg had been avoiding him for several decades after getting embarrassingly drunk: “It’s a little-known fact […] that Ginsberg was a horrible drunkard,” he said. The pair managed to meet up and had dinner that night.[38]

In Better than Sex, Thompson’s dismal 1994 collection of politic writing, the author briefly reflected upon a drunken evening with Ginsberg, during which Thompson jokingly confessed to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He claims that they stayed up all night and “both slid into the abyss of whiskey madness and full-bore substance abuse,” and this appears to be a reference to their post-Beat Generation event dinner.[39]

When Ginsberg died in 1997, Thompson wrote a bizarre epitaph, which he gave to Johnny Depp to read at the memorial service. Written like a news report, the unconventional eulogy refers to Ginsberg as “a dangerous bull-fruit with the brain of an open sore and the conscience of a virus.”[40] He goes on:

He was a monster. He was crazy and queer and small. He was born wrong and he knew it. He was smart but utterly unemployable. The first time I met him in New York he told me that even people who loved him believed he should commit suicide because things would never get better for him. And his poetry professor at Columbia was advising him to get a pre-frontal lobotomy because his brain was getting in his way. “Don’t worry,” I said, “so is mine. I’m getting the same advice. Maybe we should join forces. Hell, if we’re this crazy and dangerous, I think we might have some fun . . .” I spoke to Allen two days before he died. He was gracious as ever. He said he’d welcome the Grim Reaper because he knew he could get into his pants.[41]

Coming from Hunter S. Thompson, these otherwise harsh words meant love and respect, particularly as they were tempered by a few very rare words of kindness:

He could talk with the voice of an angel and dance in your eyes like a fawn. I knew him for thirty years and every time I saw him it was like hearing the music again.[42]

Those familiar with Thompson’s work know that such generous praise is extraordinarily rare. Even harsh words were used as a sort of bizarre kindness, but sentimental ones like this are few and far between in his writing, so it is evident just how fond he was of his Beat friend. It is also interesting to note the use of “utterly unemployable” in the first long quote. This was a phrase that Thompson applied to himself as a young man, particularly referring to his brief period of Beat infatuation.

The apparent friendship of Allen Ginsberg and Hunter S. Thompson seems entirely improbable. It was an odd relationship, and there is not much to indicate that they stayed in close contact throughout the years.[43] Although they were iconic figures of their era, the two men were completely different in character and literary style. Yet it is clear that Thompson respected Ginsberg, which is quite rare, given his attitude towards most of his fellow writers. Thompson could also be quite homophobic, too, which makes this all the more surprising. The fact that he often referred to Ginsberg as a friend and hero is high praise indeed.

Literary Outlaws: Thompson and Burroughs

Although Thompson was somewhat influenced by Jack Kerouac’s writing, thought Neal Cassady was a pretty amazing character, and was friends with Allen Ginsberg over a period of several decades, it was perhaps William S. Burroughs that is the most obvious of the Beat-Gonzo links. Thompson didn’t talk about him much, but it’s not hard to see the influence of Naked Lunch on his own hilarious, violent, and grotesque writing, and whenever he did mention Burroughs, he spoke with admiration. In Kingdom of Fear, he wrote:

William was the Man […] William didn’t fuck around. He was serious about everything. When the Deal went down William was There, with a gun. Whacko! BOOM. Stand back. I am the Law. He was my hero a long time before I ever heard of him […] Yessir, that was my boy. Between Mitchum and Burroughs & Marlon Brando & James Dean & Jack Kerouac, I got myself a serious running start before I was 20 years old, and there was no turning back. Buy the ticket, take the ride.[44]

Elsewhere, he even compared himself to el hombre invisible:

Obviously, my drug use is exaggerated or I would be long since dead. I’ve already outlived the most brutal abuser of our time—Neal Cassady. Me and William Burroughs are the only other ones left. We’re the last unrepentant public dope fiends, and he’s seventy years old and claiming to be clean. But he hasn’t turned on drugs, like that lying, treacherous, sold-out punk Timothy Leary.[45]

As with Allen Ginsberg, there are a quite a few references to Burroughs throughout Thompson’s writing, but these show little more than an awareness of Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine. Still, it seems that Burroughs’ 1959 novel had quite an impact on Thompson. Having read it soon after it was published, Thompson began to incorporate Burroughs’ disturbing imagery and jump cuts into his own writing. In his book, Gonzo Republic, Neal Stephenson notes how Burroughs “had strikingly conflated politics, sex and drug addiction,” something that Thompson used to great effect a little over a decade later in his Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.[46] He goes further, claiming that “Thompson’s Gonzo writing has much the same political impact as William S. Burroughs’s cut-ups.”[47] Stephenson believes that Thompson’s violent prose, savagely taking apart political figures, mixed with bizarre, grotesque flights of fantasy, owes a debt of gratitude to Burroughs.[48] Thompson’s work was filled with these weird tangents, which Stephenson rightly likens to Burroughs’ “routines.”

Thompson’s friend and neighbor, Jay Cowan, also believed that Burroughs also had a hand in shaping Thompson’s perverse prose. Regarding his short story, “Screwjack,” in which Thompson vividly describes having sex with a cat, Cowan says, “The influences for such a piece are many, ranging from the ever-pressing need to be original and build to his on-going fascination with the life and work of William S. Burroughs.”[49] One hopes that he meant Burroughs’ bizarre fantasies rather than his real-life interest in cats.

In the 1990s, when William Burroughs was an old man living in Lawrence, Kansas, a phone call came in from Hunter Thompson, asking if he could visit. There are not many details available for this particular trip, but a long, rambling essay by Jim McCrary recounts the events in manic detail and, in 1997, after Burroughs’ death, Thompson wrote a very short account of his visit as a sort of obituary. Apparently, Thompson decided to drive from Colorado to Kansas because he had too many guns (and, obviously, drugs) to fly with. He got blind drunk and nearly did not make it, but eventually reached Lawrence and visited Burroughs’ home. En route, Thompson was his usual self – angry, wild, obnoxious, difficult. However, when he got to Burroughs’ house, “something amazing happened,” McCrary wrote.

Dr. Thompson switched gears. The minute he walked into the house his demeanor, his energy, his self became as quiet and attentive as a student before the master.[50]

They chatted amiably and Burroughs retired for an early bed – something the nocturnal Thompson would never do. The next day, they met at Burroughs’ house again for a spot of shooting. Thompson had brought a gift – a .454 Casull Magnum, “the most powerful handgun in the world,” according to Thompson.[51] After someone went out to buy the right kind of bullets (which Thompson had forgotten or lost), they took turns firing the beastly weapon. Burroughs loved it, even though it kicked back enough to make him bleed. McCrary reckons that the recoil sent him five feet back and Thompson reckons it lifted him several inches off the ground, but they both acknowledged that he was a great shot with it.

McCrary is unsure of whether or not Burroughs and Thompson met anywhere else, but it seems highly unlikely. It appears that the meeting in Lawrence was their first, and although McCrary cannot remember the year it occurred, it was in the mid-90s, meaning that Burroughs died not too long after that. In September, 1997, Thompson wrote “The Shootist: A Short Tale of Extreme Precision and No Fear,” a sort of obituary for Burroughs that echoed the one he’d written for Ginsberg a few months earlier. Just as he had mixed dark humor with a rare warmth for Ginsberg, so he did for Burroughs, twice joking about the death of Joan Vollmer: “William had a fine taste for handguns, and later in life he became very good with them,” he quipped.[52] It finishes:

William was a Shootist. He shot like he wrote—with extreme precision and no fear. He would have fired an M-60 from the hip that day if I’d brought one with me. He would shoot anything, and he feared nothing.[53]

Several years later, he wrote in his ESPN blog that Burroughs was his friend and that they had “swapped gruesome tales over whiskey,” no doubt referring to that Lawrence visit.[54] It is fitting that they shared those gruesome tales as it was probably Burroughs’ disturbing and hilarious anecdotes that amused and inspired Thompson. There can be little doubt of the respect Thompson had for Burroughs, and this should be no great surprise to the legions of fans who admire both of these great twentieth century authors.

A Conclusion of Sorts

Hunter S. Thompson was not a part of the Beat Generation and it is not particularly useful to apply the word “Beat” to his writing, even if one takes a liberal view of the meaning of the word. Yet it is possible to view Thompson as a descendent of the Beats, a beneficiary of their literary breakthroughs and their fight against censorship. As we have seen, Thompson took Kerouac’s idea of “personal journalism” and made it his own by fusing it with the shock humor and conflation of politics and sex as advanced by William S. Burroughs in Naked Lunch, among other works. From the Beats, Thompson learned that one can break the rules, push the boundaries, and write for a subsection of the population that is receptive to ground-breaking, controversial literature whose surface may at times appear adolescent, yet hides a subtext of social critique and literary allusion.

Indeed, as we have seen, Thompson held all three of these Beat giants in high regard. He may have said a few derogatory things about Kerouac as a hot-headed young man, but he acknowledged a major debt to him. Later in life, it seems, Thompson was willing to admit that all of these writers had done something for him. They were all, at one point or another, mentioned as his heroes and he clearly wished to be viewed as their peer.

As such, although we can still say for sure that Thompson was not a Beat, he was certainly post-Beat in the sense that he inherited much from them and did, in at least a few instances, socialize with them. It is, then, very understandable why so many people find themselves huge fans of both Gonzo and Beat literature and eager to seek connections. They are there, but you have to search hard to find them.

Works Cited

Carroll, E. Jean, Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson (Dutton: New York, 1993)

Cowan, Jay, Hunter S. Thompson: An Insider’s View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out Brilliance (The Lyon’s Press: Connecticut, 2009)

McKeen, William, Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson (W.W. Norton: New York, 2008)

Perry, Paul, Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson (Plexus: London, 2009)

Stephenson, William, Gonzo Republic: Hunter S. Thompson’s America (Continuum Books: New York, 2012)

Thompson, Anita (ed), Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson (Da Capo Press: Boston, 2009)

Thompson, Hunter S., Better than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie (Ballantine: New York, 1995)

Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist (Bloomsbury: New York, 2014)

Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (Ballantine: New York, 1996)

Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child In the Final Days of the American Century (Simon & Schuster: New York, 2003)

— The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (Simon & Schuster: New York, 2003)

— The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman (Ballantine: New York, 1998)

Torrey, Beef and Smithson (eds), Keven, Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson (The University Press of Mississippi: 2008)

Watkins, DJ, Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff (Meat Possum Press: Aspen, 2015)

Wenner, Jann S. (ed), Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone (Simon & Schuster: New York, 2011)

Wenner, Jann and Seymour (eds), Corey, Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson (Little, Brown & Co.: New York, 2007)

Whitmer, Peter O., When the Going Gets Weird: The Twister Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson (Hyperion: New York, 1993)


[1] “Hunter S. Thompson & the Beats” in Beatdom #4 (2009)

[2] Proud Highway, p.xxxii

[3] Gonzo, p.32

[4] When the Going Gets Weird, p.94

[5] Fear and Loathing, p.39

[6] Proud Highway, p.166

[7] Proud Highway, p.110

[8] Gonzo, p.11

[9] Freak Power, p.46

[10] Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, p.265

[11] Proud Highway, p.110

[12] Fear and Loathing in America, n/a (Kindle)

[13] Hunter, p.75

[14] ibid

[15] Fear and Loathing, p.43

[16] Proud Highway, p.244

[17] Fear and Loathing, p.57

[18] Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, p.266

[19] When the Going Gets Weird, p.136

[20] The article is called “The ‘Hashbury’ is the Capital of the Hippies,” from The Great Shark Hunt.

[21] Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, p.249

[22] Kingdom of Fear, p.51

[23] Proud Highway, p.140

[24] Proud Highway, p.387

[25] The Great Shark Hunt, p.401

[26] This is taken from an apparent home video of Thompson, uploaded to YouTube here: https://youtu.be/9Jl4J8vrt4Q

[27] “Jack Kerouac and the Football Hall of Fame,” uploaded to ESPN’s Page 2 blog here: https://proxy.espn.com/espn/page2/story?id=1209358

[28] Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, p.217

[29] Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, p.361

[30] Thompson makes this claim in Hell’s Angels but Zane Kesey believes it was an ex-girlfriend rather than ex-wife. Kevin T. McEneaney erroneously claims, in Hunter S. Thompson: Fear, Loathing, and the Birth of Gonzo, that it was Carolyn Cassady, but Zane says: “Mountain Girl says this was Cassady’s girlfriend. She was jealous that Ginsburg (sic) was there and was hooking up with Neal. Yes, this was revenge on Neal. She kept saying look, look what you make me do. Neal watched and started sucking a tailpipe of a motorcycle, saying do you want me to suck this? Ask MG, ask the Pranksters…it was VERY voluntary!” This is online here: https://electrickoolaidblogtest.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/hells-angels-merry-pranksters-party-at-ken-keseys-1965/

[31] As with almost any story about Hunter Thompson, this one changes a lot depending on the source. Sometimes he said they went to confront the cops; other times they just tried to leave. Occasionally, he claimed that they were arrested together and in a letter dated a few days after, he tells someone that he was cited for a cracked tail-light. In any case, they ended up speaking with a cop and Ginsberg “Om’d” through the whole experience. It left quite an impression on the journalist. Although Thompson never once mentioned his wife being in the car, she later claimed to be there and that they were going to pick up more drink. She recalls Ginsberg repeated “I’m a poet… I’m a poet…” which everyone thought was hysterical. Thompson never mentioned this and claimed Ginsberg’s only word was a repeated “Om.”

[32] Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, p.264-5

[33] Proud Highway, p.536

[34] Hell’s Angels, p.246

[35] Fear and Loathing in America, p.149

[36] When the Going Gets Weird, p.160

[37] Gonzo, p.116-7

[38] Gonzo, p.316-7

[39] Better than Sex, p.4

[40] Conversations with Hunter, p.157

[41] ibid

[42] ibid

[43] They both attended the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, along with William Burroughs. You can read about this in Leon Horton’s essay.

[44] Kingdom of Fear, p.341; Thompson turned twenty in 1957, so it’s unlikely that these people were his heroes at that point. He may well have read Burroughs before then but, given that he only got into Beat literature in 1958, that is somewhat unlikely.

[45] Kingdom of Fear, p. 187; Thompson later reconciled with Leary and wrote a touching eulogy for him.

[46] Gonzo Republic, n/a (Kindle)

[47] ibid

[48] Stephenson also claims that On the Road was a “template” for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which is a harder idea to accept.

[49] Hunter S. Thompson, p.37

[50] “When Hunter S Thompson visited William S Burroughs” uploaded here: http://www.williamsburroughs.org/features/category/kansas

[51] Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone, p.550

[52] ibid

[53] Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone, p.551

[54] “XFL, RIP” on ESPN’s Page 2 blog, uploaded here: https://proxy.espn.com/espn/page2/story?id=1996511