This Day In Literary History
On July 18th, 1937, the legendary American writer and journalist Hunter S. Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky. The eldest of three sons, Thompson's father was an insurance adjuster, his mother a librarian.
When Hunter was fourteen, his father died of a degenerative disease called myasthenia gravis. His mother was left to raise her sons alone, a burden that would drive her to drink heavily.
From a young age, Hunter displayed a natural talent for athletics. While he attended middle school, he joined an athletic club that served to prepare boys his age to play sports on high school teams.
Although he excelled at baseball, Hunter didn't play any sports in high school, as he was considered a troublemaker and not a team player. So, he joined the school's literary club instead.
There, he became enamored with classic, controversial novels such as J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man (1955) and Jack Kerouac's On The Road (1957), attracted to their subversive nature.
When he was seventeen, Thompson happened to be riding in a car with a robber when the police pulled them over. Although he had no connection to the crime, Thompson was arrested and charged with being an accessory. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail, but only served half that time.
While Hunter was in jail, the school superintendent refused to allow him to take his final exams, so he never graduated. After his release, he joined the Air Force.
Stationed at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida, Hunter took night classes at Florida State University. He also landed his first professional writing job for the local Command Courier newspaper. He got the job by lying about his work experience.
Nevertheless, Hunter excelled as a sports writer and editor, covering the local football team, the Elgin Eagles, whom future pro football stars Bart Starr, Max McGee, and Zeke Bratkowski would play for.
After being honorably discharged by the Air Force, Hunter continued his journalism career, which took him East to New York City. There, while working as a copy boy for Time magazine, he typed out copies of novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway as a means of studying fiction.
Fired by Time for insubordination, Hunter moved upstate to Middletown, where he worked as a reporter for the Middletown Record. He was fired from that job for telling off a local restaurant owner who was one of the paper's advertisers.
In 1961, Hunter, following in the footsteps of his literary idol Jack Kerouac, hitchhiked across the country. While living in Big Sur, California, he published his first magazine article, a piece on the Beat literary and artistic scene in Big Sur.
At this time, Thompson began writing fiction. He wrote two novels, Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary, which wouldn't be published until the late 1990s. He also wrote many short stories, but found little success as a fiction writer.
In November of 1963, Hunter first coined his famous phrase "fear and loathing" in a letter to his old friend, legendary novelist William Kennedy, expressing his feelings about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (No relation.)
Two years later, Hunter S. Thompson took an assignment that would make his name as both a maverick journalist and as a writer. The editor of The Nation, a prominent liberal news magazine, asked him to write about the notorious Hell's Angels motorcycle gang.
So, Hunter spent a year riding with the gang, which was the most feared motorcycle club in the country, accused of crimes such as drug trafficking and gunrunning. The Hell's Angels hated reporters, but they came to like Hunter S. Thompson.
The relationship ended at a party held to celebrate the publication of Hunter's book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. The Hell's Angels demanded a cut of the royalties, but Hunter refused.
When Thompson learned that one gang member called Junkie George was a wife-beater, he told the biker off in front of the rest of the gang, saying that "Only a punk beats his wife." The gang beat Thompson severely.
His Hell's Angels book received rave reviews. The New York Times said that it was an "angry, knowledgeable, fascinating and excitedly written book," and that its author was a "spirited, witty, observant and original writer; his prose crackles like motorcycle exhaust."
In the late 1960s, Hunter wrote many articles for national magazines. One of them, titled The Hashbury is the Capital of the Hippies criticized the hippie generation for lacking the political convictions of the New Left and the artistic fire of the Beat generation and for only being interested in drugs and free love.
Possessing strong political convictions, Hunter became an activist for the New Left. He signed the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest, a pledge to refuse to pay taxes to support the Vietnam War.
One of his heroes was the legendary Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Though he would rarely label his political beliefs, he would retain his strong anti-capitalist convictions throughout his life.
In the 1970s, Hunter developed his trademark style of "gonzo journalism," which began with his article The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. He accepted an assignment from Sports Illustrated to cover a motorcycle race in Las Vegas, and ended up writing his most famous book in the process.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) was an autobiographical novel based on Hunter's coverage of both the race and a narcotics officers' convention in Sin City. His alter ego, journalist Raoul Duke, covers the convention along with his "300-pound Samoan attorney" Oscar "Dr. Gonzo" Zeta Acosta.
The two men traveled together in a car loaded with an ample supply of drugs of all sorts, and were frequently stoned. A major theme of the novel was the ultimate failure of the late 1960s American counterculture, which would vanish by the mid 1970s.
In 1972, Thompson covered the presidential election in a series of articles for Rolling Stone that would be published in book form as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. He loathed then President Richard Nixon.
He described Nixon as a man who "could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time... an evil man — evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it."
Thompson later accepted an assignment from Rolling Stone to cover the last days of the Vietnam War. He traveled to Saigon and found the country in chaos. When publisher Jann Wenner canceled the assignment without notice, Thompson found himself trapped in Vietnam without an expense account or health insurance.
In the 1980s, Hunter covered such famous events as the U.S. invasion of Grenada and the scandalous Roxanne Pulitzer divorce. In the 1990s, he wrote two noted fictional pieces. One was based on his interview with Bill Clinton, the other a protest against Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court.
By then, he had become a something of a recluse. His popularity soared again with the release of the acclaimed 1998 feature film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, starring Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke and Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo.
Hunter's long lost novel The Rum Diary was published, along with two collections of letters. In 2003, a new book, Kingdom of Fear, was published, which contained new writings and classic pieces, serving primarily as an angry attack on post 9/11 America.
After suffering from numerous medical problems, including illnesses and a hip replacement, Hunter S. Thompson was left in poor health and chronic, often severe pain. Unable to stand it any longer, he committed suicide in February of 2005 at the age of 67.
At the private funeral ceremony attended by nearly 300 people and paid for by Johnny Depp, Thompson's ashes were shot out of a cannon to the tune of Norman Greenbaum's Spirit in the Sky and Bob Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man.
Quote Of The Day
"Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism, to rain on the roof and instant coffee, to unemployment insurance and library cards, to absinthe and good-hearted landlords, to music and warm bodies and contraceptives... and to the good life, whatever it is and wherever it happens to be." - Hunter S. Thompson
Today's video features a 1978 BBC documentary on Hunter S. Thompson. Enjoy!