Chris Mitchell on why Hunter S. Thompson was one of the most important figures in American letters
I love my friends. Away from email for a few days, log in this morning to 5 different people telling me Hunter S. Thompson is dead.
Distraught isn’t the word.
Thompson was forever sidelined as a caricature in the last couple of decades, a victim of his own mythmaking, the crazy old bastard on the hill permanently altered, packing guns and delivering apocalyptic pronouncements on the rare occasions he could bring himself to look at a typewriter. Loaded magazine got to the point where they were interviewing him every six months, just so another bunch of wannabe fanboy journalists could make the pilgrimage to Woody Creek in Aspen, Colorado and meet the man.
I periodically had a silly little fantasy of making that pilgrimage myself one day and spending some time shooting guns with the good Doctor. Yes, it’s embarrassing to admit and possibly even more so to read, but the point is, Hunter S. Thompson was one of those writers who changed your perception of the world. Irrevocably. So much so that you’d want to meet him just to check he was real and shake his hand.
Because Hunter S. Thompson Got It.
He saw the world as it truly is, and the drugs and guns and women were just a way to temporarily escape that. (Hence the famous Samuel Johnson quotation that prefaces Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas – “he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man”). Similarly, they are incidental to his work, not the core of it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas may be a depiction of a drug-crazed doomed sojourn in Sin City, but it is also what it says on the cover: “A savage journey into the heart of the American Dream”.
That was what Thompson chronicled for four decades. He was first and foremost a political journalist of the highest calibre. Read the first journalism collection The Great Shark Hunt or his penultimate, Kingdom Of Fear – Thompson sees America through unmasked eyes, and as a true American patriot, he despairs of what he sees. And he has the guts to say so. Calling President Bush a “whorebeast” in print was funny, but Thompson meant it with deadly sincerity. He considered Bush worse that Nixon. There was no worse accolade he could award. There’s no irony involved with Thompson – there’s buckets loads of bleak and twisted humour which certainly makes him the funniest writer of the 20th century in my opinion, but Thompson meant all of it.
And this is what it comes down to. Hunter S. Thompson was a consumate hellraiser and we loved him for it. But that’s not what made him such an enduring, important figure in American letters. His perception of the collapse of America’s moral values both at home and in its projection into the world through foreign policy and intervention – or the lack of it – is what fuelled all of his work throughout his writing career. He wanted to be proud of America and for America to truly live up to the ideals it has ascribed itself. For all the perception of Thompson’s “outlaw” status and frequent brushes with the law, Thompson was a deeply moral man, concerned only with the destruction of his own country by greed and avarice.
Farewell then, HST. Your passing means one less strong voice of sanity in these Satanic times.