Home»Quora»Why was Hunter S Thompson seen as such a ground breaking writer?

How could I resist a question about the creator of gonzo journalism?

Paul Bush
Paul Bush, Assistant Professor, Journalism and Digital Media

I was caught by your your reference to “street view” journalism, which is a great term, and I want to frame my answer in terms of journalism.  Unfortunately for you, it’s going to take several paragraphs before I actually get to Thompson.

“Street view” suggests journalists who focus on what’s happening with life at the street level – as opposed to journalists who report on what’s happening at the upper levels of government, the economy, etc.  Street view journalism, then, would be about the life of average folk, which I’d argue is just as compelling and fraught with perilous decision-making, etc. as that of the people and institutions that journalists most frequently report on.

You’re correct that street view journalism has long been practiced.  One of the  wonderful examples of this is the forgotten reporter (and later Hollywood script writer) Ben Hecht.  Check out his “Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago,” which is available free on Kindle: fantastic stories that he wrote in the 1920’s and ’30’s while a newspaperman in that city.  Despite being nearly a century old, they’re still great reading today.

Having said all that: Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t a street view journalist.

Hunter S. Thompson was ground breaking because he broke the rules of journalism.  He covered the presidential primary – a standard topic every four years for American journalists – in a totally outrageous way in what would become Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.  For one thing, he described his own drug use and wild behavior as though it was a perfectly natural part of the story. If he was a reporter, it wasn’t for your middle and working class readers.  He was reporting for the counter-culture youth of the ’60’s and early ’70’s.  In fact, his style was labeled “gonzo journalism.”

But I doubt that anyone read Thompson for journalistic information: they read him for entertainment.  Though he was purportedly on the Rolling Stone magazine’s “national desk” – the standard name for the reporters charged with covering national political issues – he was a writer who gained notice for his wholly new approach to storytelling.  Where you could read Ben Hecht for his descriptions of what everyday people were going through in Chicago, you read Hunter S. Thompson not for the factual story, but for the way he processed the story through the prism of his crazy behavior and outlook.

As a consequence, gonzo journalism has never been successfully duplicated.  Trying to write like Thompson is like trying to copy Tom Wolfe’s pieces from Esquire magazine from the same period.  The resulting works always sound like bad imitations of unique voices.

But again, while journalism provides a useful way of explaining what made him ground breaking, Thompson was never really about journalism, although he covered everything from the Kentucky Derby to a police chiefs convention in Las Vegas.  He broke ground as a writer because no one had ever used a drug-infused wit to describe and interpret what was going on.

Unfortunately, whether because of declining ability resulting from his drug use or because of changing tastes as society left the Sixties behind, his gonzo style faded (in my opinion) well before his death by suicide.

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