July 18 is Hunter S. Thompson's birthday.  It seemed like it would be easy to write about Thompson when I first volunteered for this blog entry.  His writing is so abrasive and so human that it's hard to ignore, easy to consume, and, ultimately, difficult to digest.  Understanding the "why" of Hunter S. Thompson is much harder than simply observing the spectacle he created.  Many of us know what he did.  Several documentaries, op ed pieces, biographies written by friends, and a certain movie have rendered Thompson into a consumable public figure.

Hunter S. Thompson was born July 18th, 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky.  He was the first of three sons of Jack Robert Thompson, a public insurance adjuster, and Virginia Ray Davison, head librarian at the Louisville Public Library.  He was 14 years old when his father died of a neuromuscular disease known as myasthenia gravis.  After his father's death, Thompson and his two brothers, Davison Wheeler and James Garnet, were raised by their mother, who began drinking heavily.  While attending Louisville Male High School, he was accepted as a member of the Athenaeum Literary Association.  While a member, he contributed articles to the club's yearbook, The Spectator.  However, he was ejected from the club in 1955 after being charged with being an accessory to robbery (he was in the car with the perpetrator).  He was sentenced to 60 days in Jefferson County Jail and served thirty-one.  As a result, he was not allowed to take final exams and did not graduate high school.

Thompson first came to prominence with his book, Hell's Angels (1966).  He had spent a year observing and living with the infamous motorcycle gang.  His writing was completely different than anything else written about the Hell's Angels, deciding to humanize the gang and give insight into their rituals and philosophy rather than simply reporting on their exploits.  He paid a price for embedding himself in the group.  He was assaulted by a member of the gang after expressing his dissatisfaction with the gang member's treatment of a woman at the scene.  Pictures of his bruised face accompany the book towards the end.

Hunter's face after an altercation with a Hell's Angel

When Thompson wrote "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," he changed journalism.  After being asked to cover the Kentucky Derby by Scanlan's Monthly, Thompson and his friend, illustrator and collaborator Ralph Steadman, attended the event but could not cover it since they couldn't see the race from their seats.  Having to adhere to a deadline, Thompson tore pages out of his notebook, numbered them, and sent them in to the publisher.  Instead of talking about the race, he decided to focus on the behavior of the crowd and the general atmosphere of the venue.  A sports article turned social commentary, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" was where the term "Gonzo journalism" was coined. In response to the article, Bill Cardoso, editor of the Boston Globe, wrote to Thompson saying, "This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling." Gonzo is slang for bizarre or crazy.

Ralph Steadman's illustration of the Kentucky Derby, 1970

 

From that point on, Hunter S. Thompson spearheaded the Gonzo journalism movement.  Writing from a subjective perspective, involving himself in the story to a large degree, and mixing together elements of fiction and non-fiction, he wrote many great sports articles, political pieces and books, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear And Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, and The Rum Diary.

After a few decades of erratic behavior and a less-than-stellar output of material, Thompson committed suicide in his Woody Creek, Colorado, home.  He was 67 years old.

Plenty of terms can be used to describe Hunter S. Thompson:  Drug addict, gun-nut, psychotic, genius.  I know that my first impression of him came from the Terry Gilliam adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Johnny Depp's portrayal of Thompson was endlessly entertaining and brilliant, but I didn't realize until after seeing documentary footage just how accurate Depp's performance was.  Thompson was a human cartoon, and matching up his personality on camera to his writing gives tremendous insight into his writing style.  He was a man who believed that the truth was dead in front of you, even if all the facts weren't.

Happy birthday, Hunter.  Here's hoping there's endless football in heaven.

So, what do you think?