Hunter S. Thompson, 67, ‘gonzo journalist’ (Obituary)

Jordan Weissmann

Hunter S. Thompson, the counter-cultural icon who pioneered the intensely personal style of “gonzo journalism,” died at his home in Colorado Sunday from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was 67.

Thompson authored myriad newspaper and magazine articles as well as almost a dozen books, including his best-known work “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” His caustic, stream-of-conscious, and almost entirely subjective style of writing and reporting aligned him with the ranks of other “new journalists” that include Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe.

A constant critic of political hypocrisy, the intensity of his commentary might only have been rivaled by the intensity of his drug use.

According to journalism Prof. David Abrahamson, who uses Thompson in his literary journalism course, Thompson was in many ways a perfect representation of the late 1960s and early 1970s ethos of distrust for authority, self-defined values and “colossal self indulgences.”

“I think 50 years from now, if anyone wants to understand that moment, they could do a lot worse than to read Hunter Thompson,” he said.

In his work, “there was a lot of anger and at the same time a sense of the absurd,” Abrahamson said. “Not a passive sense of the absurd, but an angry sense of the absurd. Not passive like some Parisian left existentialist. At the time it seemed like a perfect response. He spoke for a lot of people that felt that way.”

Born in Louisville, Ky. in 1937, Hunter Stockton Thompson began his career in journalism while in the Air Force, doing sports coverage at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida. After being discharged, he worked as a reporter for several local papers.

The seachange in his career came while he was covering the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly, a sports magazine. Frustrated and burnt out, he began tearing pages from his notebook and numbering them, and sent them to his editor as an article, planning never to write again.

Instead, the article was a hit, and the improbable style of “gonzo journalism” was born.

Thompson’s book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which was published in 1971, began as an assignment from a sports magazine to cover a biker race through the Nevada desert.

Thompson never finished the article, producing instead more than 200 pages of drug-fueled reflections on the elusiveness of the American Dream. The article debuted in Rolling Stone and the book was turned into a movie starring Johnny Depp in 1998.

Thompson proceeded through a distinguished career, writing a defining statement of the 1972 presidential campaign, “Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail ’72” and publishing articles up through this decade.

Weinberg sophomore Jared Davidson recalled his first his encounter with Thompson’s writing, which came during his first visit to NU. The experience made him think journalism could be his career.

While visiting Medill, Davidson sat in on a History and Issues of Journalism class where they were discussing Thompson’s article on the Kentucky Derby.

“I’d never really read anything by him before,” Davidson said. “It was so witty and wonderful and the story behind it was so incredible.”

Davidson, a self-described creative writer, was on the fence about journalism school, but Thompson’s example showed him that “journalism could be rewarding and fulfilling.”

Alhough he is currently transferring out of Medill, Davidson said Thompson remains one of his favorite authors.

“I think his passion for what he wrote about, especially politically, was definitely in sync with college students today, ” he said.

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