Thompson was a complicated person who doesn’t reduce well to a type.
By Aaron J. Leonard
Writer and Historian
Peter Richardson has written critically acclaimed books about the Grateful Dead, the iconic rock band; Ramparts magazine, the legendary San Francisco muckraker; and Carey McWilliams, the radical author, journalist, and editor of The Nation magazine. His latest book is Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo, published by University of California Press. Aaron J Leonard corresponded with him recently about that book and his work as a whole.
At the risk of understatement, Hunter Thompson is a very contradictory character. Could you talk about what you see as his strengths and about his problematic characteristics and why he is an important historic figure?
Yes, Thompson was a complicated person who doesn’t reduce well to a type. He described himself in 1975 as “one of the best writers currently using the English language as both a musical instrument and a political weapon.” He wasn’t a great novelist, which he wanted to be, or a reporter, which he didn’t care so much about. But he had many strengths as a writer—a distinctive voice, a rich imagination, a gift for satire and invective, and tremendous comic precision. He was also an astute media critic. Part of what he offered readers was his version of the unvarnished truth—not only about politics and politicians, but also about other media outlets and their blind spots. Hari Kunzru called him a machine for exposing hypocrisy and mendacity.
Anyone reading Thompson for the first time will be struck by his sharp edges. He seemed to outgrow the Jim Crow attitudes of his native Kentucky, but for the rest of his life, he included racial epithets and ethnic slurs in his work and personal communications. Rape was also a recurring theme in his work, as was violence. Some of that material was problematic even by the standards of his time. But Thompson’s stuff wasn’t written, or meant to be read, in a moral vacuum. In fact, it’s dripping with moral judgments, many of which hold up well. I’ve tried to read his body of work and make my own judgments as carefully as I can. That’s all a writer can ask for.
His historical significance, I think, lies in his willingness to challenge the nation’s political class, including the leaders of both major parties. He didn’t do that in established journals of opinion. His most famous stuff ran in a fledgling San Francisco rock magazine. He didn’t argue for this or that policy, or support his analysis with evidence. Instead, he lampooned the establishment and exposed America’s true weirdness—not just at the Kentucky Derby or in Las Vegas, but also in the White House and on the campaign trail. Lunacy was an important theme. When the mainstream media looked at the hippies, that’s what they saw. But when Nixon went down in flames, his taped conversations showed that HE was crazy, not the kids who were smoking pot and reading Rolling Stone.
In retrospect, we can see that Thompson peaked after Vietnam and Watergate. It was a good time for the country to reflect and grow up, but Thompson wasn’t much help in that department. Growing up wasn’t really his thing. But in addition to being funny, he was prophetic. Trump and his supporters wouldn’t have surprised him at all. He saw that side of America and tried to warn us about it, but after a while the hyperbole wore thin. Once you compare Nixon to a werewolf, what do you say about Reagan and Bush?
What was “New Journalism” and how did it contribute to the Sixties counterculture?
That was a growing trend among magazine writers, including Thompson, who imported the techniques of fiction into their reporting. That meant dialogue, first-person narration, and other formal devices that weren’t part of traditional journalism. But mostly New Journalism was a reminder that the world doesn’t present itself to us as a list of facts assembled by an objective reporter. The world was more likely to reveal its meaning through a skilled writer’s sensibility. In New Journalism, the writer became an indispensable part of the story. Thompson went all in after reading Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965). That same year, Thompson wrote an article for The Nation, narrated in the first-person, about the Hell’s Angels. He converted that article into his first book, which became a bestseller.
Wolfe wrote for eastern elites, but he mined West Coast popular culture for his stories. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his book about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, focused on the emerging Bay Area counterculture. Thompson had already befriended Kesey and introduced him to the Hell’s Angels. In fact, Thompson was one of Wolfe’s sources for the Kesey book. Like Wolfe, Thompson reported on exotic provincial subcultures, mostly on the West Coast. He didn’t really turn to politics until after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Taken as a whole, New Journalism was a creature of the 1960s but didn’t celebrate the counterculture. Wolfe certainly raised Kesey’s profile, but Joan Didion described Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love as a collection of lost children. Thompson also wrote critically about the Haight that year, but he identified strongly with that scene. After leaving the Bay Area in 1966, he continued to work with San Francisco editors, especially Warren Hinckle and Jann Wenner. His primary outlet, Rolling Stone, was founded in 1967 and rose along with the counterculture that it championed. By the time Thompson began contributing there, he had created Gonzo journalism, which isn’t a genre so much as a label for his later and more spectacular work. Rolling Stone became its key purveyor, and that work helped Wenner distinguish his magazine from its competitors.
As Thompson shifted from New Journalism to Gonzo journalism, he was clearly blurring the lines between fiction and journalism. He thought some truths were accessible only through fiction, so blending those modes was fine, perhaps even necessary. Many journalists rejected that approach and continued to patrol the border between fiction and journalism. It’s a sensible position, but nineteenth-century writers, including Mark Twain, crossed those borders without apology. I’m more impatient with critics who judge a work by standards that aren’t implied by the work itself. Critics have wasted a lot of time railing against Gonzo journalism’s exaggerations and fantastical aspects. As Thompson told Jann Wenner, that’s like fact-checking a Bob Dylan song. It’s not very hard to see what Thompson was doing and to judge his work accordingly, but some of the generic confusion is understandable. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is still classified as nonfiction, even though the two main characters weren’t real people.
There is a through line in your work; Carey McWilliams, Ramparts magazine, the Grateful Dead, and now Hunter Thompson. Could you tell us a little about the connections and reinforcing relationships of this cohort?
Yes, quite right about the connections. The McWilliams biography really came out of nowhere. I had been teaching medieval literature in Texas, but accepted an editorial position at a California policy institute located in San Francisco. When I asked for reading suggestions, several senior people mentioned Carey McWilliams, whom I’d never heard of. I decided to write his biography in my spare time, and I was amazed by his accomplishments. In a review essay for The Nation, Mike Davis called him the California left’s one-man think tank. That’s a perfectly good description, but I think McWilliams’s achievement was more than a regional affair, and not only because he edited The Nation for two decades. Actually, he gave Thompson the Hell’s Angels story and was the only editor that Thompson really admired.
So the McWilliams biography was a huge learning experience. On the strength of that book, I began teaching courses on California culture at San Francisco State University. The research also introduced me to many younger writers who worked with McWilliams. That’s how I found out about Ramparts magazine, which I also knew nothing about. There wasn’t much out there about the San Francisco muckraker and its influence, despite the fact that it made a big splash and spawned Rolling Stone and Mother Jones. The Ramparts story gave me a chance to think about the Bay Area’s niche in the national media ecology. I’m an East Bay native, born in 1959, so I was writing about the world I was born into but never really studied. It was relatively easy to interview the key players at Ramparts because they wanted that story told, and many still lived in California. I was delighted when the New York Times Book Review said the book satisfied on every level.
The Grateful Dead was another product of that time and place. The idea for that book came to me serendipitously. I met some people connected to the Dead and decided to include the band’s story in my classes. It was a great example of the themes we were exploring. But I quickly saw that the Dead, though famous, weren’t well understood. The public image was grizzled hippie stoners and their diehard followers, but the Dead had a serious project, one that was grounded in the Bay Area’s mid-century bohemian scene. The Dead’s music, organization, and lineup changed over the years, but their underlying values were remarkably stable. You can’t survive, much less prosper, in that world for three decades without a clear idea of what you’re doing. In many ways, their story was lost on those who knew the Dead only through their studio recordings or their media coverage.
The Dead’s story intersected with Rolling Stone magazine, and when I finished that book, I was planning to write about the magazine. But Joe Hagan’s biography of Jann Wenner had just been put under contract, and Jann was obviously putting his energy into that. I noodled out some articles about Rolling Stone but eventually decided to write a book about Thompson. He appeared in my three previous books, and I loved his edited letters, so I felt like I had a running start.
So an obvious thread through my work is left-of-center political journalism based in California. But when you add the Dead book, there’s also an informal trilogy about the San Francisco counterculture.
Your work focuses on California, northern California in particular. Why did the Bay Area and its environs contribute so much to defining the Sixties?
I think part of the answer lies in the region’s bohemian tradition, which began with young, iconoclastic writers and a burgeoning newspaper culture right after the Gold Rush. San Francisco became a node in the global economy, but it was culturally isolated, at least from other American capitals. There was no official culture, no one to sell out to, and bohemianism played a more important role here than it did elsewhere. The arrival of the Beats in the 1950s was a benchmark, as was the Howl obscenity trial. That verdict signaled that San Francisco was a haven for those seeking political, artistic, and sexual freedom. The city’s bohemian community was small, but vital. It was collaborative, do-it-yourself, and nobody was getting rich. It helped that San Francisco was a relatively easy place to get over. After the war, rent was cheap because of suburbanization and white flight.
The Bay Area was known for its jazz, blues, and folk music, but when young musicians turned to rock music, San Francisco became a global rock capital. That happened very quickly, and you can’t tell that story without mentioning psychedelic drugs. The arrival of LSD changed everything: the music, concerts, posters, album art, and so on. Before that, a rock-and-roll show was four guys in identical suits singing three-minute songs over teenybopper screeching. After the hippies got their hands on it, the rock concert was about long jams, light shows, freestyle dancing, and drugs. Music was the key. Nobody in San Francisco was writing the great American novel. Weirdly, Thompson and Didion said almost nothing about the music in their contemporary coverage, even though Thompson dug the music. Their articles focused on drugs, politics, and general weirdness.
East Bay activism also helped define the 1960s. Ralph Gleason, who co-founded Rolling Stone, used to talk about the three Bs: the Beats, Berkeley, and [Harry] Bridges, the radical labor leader. Gleason thought that combination gave the region its distinctive character. Rolling Stone was part of that trajectory. It grew out of Ramparts magazine —Gleason and Wenner both worked there— and covered the San Francisco counterculture, but it also had deep connections with Berkeley campus activism. Jann Wenner, Greil Marcus, and several other key figures at Rolling Stone were shaped by the Free Speech Movement there. Gleason, who lived in Berkeley, also wrote sympathetically about campus activism. At the same time, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was formed in Oakland. Eldridge Cleaver, who wrote for Ramparts magazine before joining the Panthers, helped make them famous.
So between the Berkeley campus activists, the San Francisco hippies, and the Black Panthers in Oakland, a lot was going on. Those were three relatively distinct groups, but as the 1960s wore on, they began to influence each other. Two other movements were also taking shape. The Bay Area was already famous for conservation and such, but there was a growing concern within the counterculture about the environment. Also, hippies like Steve Jobs were bringing their countercultural values into the digital world. Those two movements took on more momentum in subsequent decades, so you might say they were part of the Long 60s.
Leaving aside the conservative backlash for the moment, I don’t know of too many people under 55 who fully understand the degree that the counterculture made possible so much we now take for granted — from sexual mores, to dress, to musical experimentation. How do you see its lasting impact?
Yes, the counterculture’s influence was profound, and it wasn’t limited to a single decade. It sprawled out over the second half of the twentieth century. In fact, I don’t think you can understand America during that period without considering the counterculture. We’re not so focused on it now. The counterculture mostly reflected a fracture in the white middle class, and our collective attention has moved on to other groups and challenges. But that rupture, which was also geographical and intergenerational, is still important.
I like Jerry Garcia’s way of describing the counterculture. He compared it to dropping a pebble in a pond and watching the ripples radiate out from the point of origin. Once you drop the pebble, the ripples are unstoppable. He didn’t mean that political victory was inevitable, though he probably thought that, too. Like a lot of hippies, he wasn’t that interested in politics, but you can’t really understand the impact of the counterculture without looking at the social and political energies that were swirling around it.
As your question suggests, most of that influence was cultural rather than political. Peter Coyote claimed that the hippies lost all the political battles and won all the cultural ones. If you look around in American cities today, you’ll see yoga studios, farmers’ markets, recycling centers, dispensaries, and so on. All of that can be traced back to the counterculture. The mainstream culture absorbed all of it without breaking a sweat. At the same time, it turned hippies into a cartoon. I don’t give the hippies a pass, and there was plenty to make fun of. But as always, the relevant question is: compared to whom? To the people who supported racial segregation, the war in Vietnam, or the war on drugs? If so, I’ll take the hippies any day. Thompson was no flower child, but he valued the utopian impulse he saw in the counterculture. It fed into his Jeffersonian version of the American Dream. Plus, the music was really good.