Jack Kerouac & Hunter S. Thompson

by David S. Wills

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. – Doug Brinkley in Jann Wenner’s Gonzo.

There are a great many similarities between the two legendary outlaw writers. For a start, both approached writing with firm literary influences, yet managed to create entirely unique styles of their own, almost unrecognisable from those authors they first wished to emulate. Hunter typed out whole novels by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and ended up tearing pages from his notebooks and submitting them as professional journalism to internationally renowned publications. Jack was driven by the desire to be a proper novelist with proper respect and to be the darling of the literary world, yet wrote the novel that sent millions on the road, inspired drink and drug culture for decades to come, and died with the respect only of those whose respect he didn’t want.

They both wrote wild tales of excess and burned out American Dreams, celebrating that which the establishment would condemn as the dark side of life, and not giving a fuck. Well, not quite. Hunter often said he felt forced to live up to the image of himself that he’d created in his books, which blended reality and fiction so chaotically that it’s hard to tell what happened and what didn’t. Nonetheless, most of his fans tended to be young and reckless and seeing nothing more in their idol than a crazed dope fiend. Jack, too, was plagued by the brutal life wrought by celebrity. He had written most of his novels by the time he had published On the Road, and simply sat and slipped slowly towards death as he tried drunkenly to cope with the torment of unwanted attention. His books were largely condemned by the critics until after his death from alcoholism at the age of forty-seven.

In style, we can see sharp differences between them. Jack was of the Beat philosophy that avoided political solutions, and instead focussed on carving out one’s own little space in the world. Consequently, Jack celebrated in grand romantic sentiment the things in life he thought were worth living for. Hunter, on the other hand, was an angry and energetic force of nature, who tried to fight anything he didn’t like. If he saw a system of power, he’d destroy it. His writing was characterised by vitriol, taking whatever it was that he loathed and saying everything he could think of to persuade the reader of his point of view. In the end, both writers embraced a spirit and a feeling and stated it better than any of their contemporaries, but lacked any hard truth or adherence to a traditional literary style.

Hunter thought of his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as essentially a road novel, comparing it to On the Road. He felt that his book was like Kerouac’s in politics: In the pessimistic certainty of the death of the American Dream. Both books have protagonists against the prevailing ideology of their times, immersed in destructive lifestyles and ruing an oppressive world.

**This article was drastically updated in Beatdom #20. You can read the newer version here.

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the Weird Cult, World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller, and High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism.

View Comments

  • Kerouac, Thompson, and Ken Kesey, among others seemed to find that when they searched for the American Dream, they killed it for themselves.

    Aside from great writing, what I got from these men is that I don't need to go on drug addled journeys across the country. They already did that for me and they all seemed to come to the same conclusion: The American Dream was not a myth, but it is dead.

    I'm not sure what "The American Dream" even is. I was taught that it was the belief that if you worked hard and obeyed the laws, you could have a nice house and be relatively free from want. None of them seemed to think work had anything to do with the American Dream.

    I think the American Dream is in reality something like "if you work hard and obey most laws and get lucky you MAY be able EVENTUALLY to live a pretty comfortable life".

    Although I love these men deeply, especially Thompson, I feel like their road trips were a selfish excuse to be reckless while claiming to be searching for "truth". I feel like the learned this in the end. I feel like they saw the truths they learned as hard truths.

    • The point you are missing is the hypocrisy of America, thats what they saw and wrote about. Busting your ass for the white picket fence is as old as Twain...

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