It’s that screwy time again, that peyote-inspired moment to consider Hunter S. Thompson and his contribution to our writing DNA. For many writers and most citizen journalists, the father of gonzo lurks somewhere behind our words. He has slithered his way into how we feel about our art and how we present it to our readers. Thompson has infused himself into our writing-soul and we may not even recognize him stirring.
As the anointed father of gonzo journalism, Thompson secured his place among the important stylists of writers as far back as 1970. He took traditional journalism and turned it inside-out. He thew away the concept of objectivity, inserted himself into the center of his story lines, thrived on first-person narrative, and had no trouble with raw and sometimes painful messages. Sarcasm reigned and invention was his prime directive. Nothing seemed to be off the radar for the king of gonzo. Love him or hate him, you couldn’t ignore Thompson’s impact on journalists and, ultimately, an entire generation of writers. For decades, he seemed omnipresent.
Today, there is gonzo-this and gonzo-that across many forms of communication. The Thompson-esque flavor and style thrives. More than 40 years after its birth, gonzo journalism is deeply embedded in our DNA. It’s message and style are expected, emulated and pervasive.
Thompson will forever be linked to an era when experimentation was the central concept in life. That included drugs of any shape and form. He wasn’t shy about the role that drugs played in his art. In fact, he was pretty outspoken on the subject, saying, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” But this was only a part of the story, just a vehicle for the journey. Thompson lived to experiment, to experience, to throw himself into his life without fear and with complete abandon. Sometimes, this worked for him, sometimes not. Either way, it made Thompson an icon.
When asked about this risky, unbridled approach to life, Thompson quipped, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” No compromises for the gonzo king, regardless of the experience.
This approach to Thompson’s gonzo world was never the only path, and he knew that. His plan of attack was an unabashed “take it to the edge” formula. But, in his writing, he took us to the edge with him. Thompson was a storyteller at his core, a man who thrived on his talent to carry us along for his personal ride no matter how bizarre, uncomfortable or confusing the trip. He was also on a mission to overthrow all we knew about traditional journalism, and he did a masterful job of rewriting its aging and boring rules. His view was simple, “I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours.”
So, the next time you dip your toe into journalism, and use the pronoun “I,” remember your gonzo daddy. He’s sitting on your shoulder, probably stoned.
Let’s give Thompson the final word, which was always his first imperative:
“Like most others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell-raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top. At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles – a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going.” (Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary)