Fear and Loathing and Journalism

The other day, I brought home an anthology of Hunter S. Thompson‘s work  called “The Great Shark Hunt” from the library. This was my first time really digging into the writer’s work.

Oh I heard about him. I saw the trailer for the movie adaption of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and I read his piece “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Thompson, he was a journalist during the 60s and 70s known for exaggeration, fictionalization of facts, and a writing style that started with a bang and grew louder from there. I was introduced to him in Journalism 101 and was told to learn from but never, ever write like him.

Reading Thompson, I find that his character drives the writing forward. He’s the cowboy-journalist, a hard-drinking, dope-using rebel who wiggles into political campaigns and horse derbys to tell his readers his view of the situation.

His writing advice is … unique. I’ve quoted some sections where he talks about reporting and writing. I wanted to share them because He has a slightly different view.

In the Author’s Note from “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail,” Thompson’s book published in 1973, Hunter S. Thompson describes political journalism. He talks about how there are things the press won’t say about candidates and politicians because if they did, the reporters would be shut down, never able to closely report on that politician again.

It’s just a fact: political journalists have to play a bit of politics to get stories. But Thompson was going to write on everything — even the politician’s drinking problem.

“Unlike most other correspondents, I could afford to burn all my bridges behind me — because I was only there for a year, and the last thing I cared about was establishing long-term connections on Capitol Hill. I went there for two reasons: (1) to learn as much as possible about the mechanics and realities of a presidential campaign, and (2) to write about it the same way I’d write about anything else — as close to the bone as I could get, and to hell with the consequences. “

Hunter S. Thompson’s writing process was as strange as the rest of his life. In the same book, he described fighting writer’s block by using a tape recorder. And if the writing block got really bad, there was always self-medication. This is something they don’t teach, or recommend, anywhere.

“Meanwhile, my room at the Seal Rock Inn is filling up with people who seem on the verge of hysteria as the sight of me still sitting here wasting time on a rambling introduction, with the final chapter still unwritten and the presses scheduled to start rolling in twenty-four hours … but unless somebody shows up pretty soon with extremely powerful speed, there might not be any Final Chapter. About four fingers of king-hell Crank would do the trick, but I am not optimistic.”

As I paged through the anthology, I realized the allure to Hunter S. Thompson was in his independence, his persona as a motorcycle-riding, hard-drinking free spirit so often connected to mountain men, cowboys, and the scores of people who responded for the call of gold in California .


In his piece, “The Ultimate Free Lancer,” Thompson reflects on the freelance life as seen lived out through one of his colleagues, Lionel Olay. This is why gonzo journalism is so alluring. In the end, Thompson answered only to himself. He was the american writer, master of his fate, captain of his destiny.

“Lionel was the ultimate free lancer. In the nearly ten years I knew him, the only steady work he did was as a columnist for the Monterery Herald … and even then he wrote on his own terms on his own subjects, and was inevitably fired. Less than a year before he died his willful ignorance of literary politics led him to blow a very rich assignment from Life magazine, which asked him for a profile on Marty Ransahoff, a big name Hollywood producer then fresh from a gold-plated bomb called “The Sandpiper.” Lionel went to London with Ransahoff (“first-cabin all the way,” as he wrote me from the S.S. United States) and after two months in the great man’s company he went back to Topanga and wrote a piece that resembled nothing so much as Mencken’s brutal obituary on William Jennings Bryan. Ransahoff was described as a “pompous toad” — which was not exactly what Life was looking for.”