The news hit me pretty hard, harder than I’d have expected. And while it’s a futile exercise to write about a writer as self-possessed as Hunter S. Thompson, I’ll say a few things, because he had a big impact on me.
One can’t help but draw a parallel to Hemmingway, who also left on his own terms. In Hunter’s own words:
“Perhaps he found what he came for, but the odds are huge that he didn’t. He was an old, sick, and very troubled man, and the illusion of peace and contentment was not enough for him – not even when his friends came up from Cuba and played bullfight with him in the Tram. So finally, and for what he must have thought the best of reasons, he ended it with a shotgun.”
Hunter’s older works seem as fresh today as then. He reinvented journalism, no small feat. But it was his Cassandra-like understanding of American culture that is most relevant today. He made bold predictions, and it’s hard to look around today and argue that he was wrong.
Hunter also had a huge sense of generosity that was surprising, and then wasn’t when you thought about it. His ‘letters’ books show him to be a prolific and thoughtful letter writer, both to friends or enemies, and he put as much thought into his letters as his books.
He was also a great writer in a strictly formal sense. And it pained him to not be taken as seriously as he took his own craft.
I’m reminded of a piece in the Great Shark Hunt (and also might have been in …Campaign Trail, I forget), but it comes back to me now. I’ll type it out – perhaps I’ll learn something. Hunter used to type out pages of the Great Gatsby to get a feel for Fitzgerald’s rhythm.
In the context of journalism, here, we are dealing with a new kind of “lead” – the Symbiotic Trapazoid Quote. The Columbia Journalism Review will never sanction it; at least not until the current editor dies of brain syphillis, and probably not even then.
Do we have a libel suit on our hands?
Probably not, I think, because of nobody in his right mind would take a thing like that seriously – and especially not that gang of senile hags who run the Columbia Journalism Review, who have gone to great lengths in every issue during the past year or so to stress, very heavily, that nothing I say should be taken seriously.
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” George Bernard Shaw sais that, for good or ill, and I only mention it here because I’m pretty goddamn tired of being screeched at by waterheads. Professors are a sour lot, in general, but professors of journalism are especially rancid in their outlook because they have to wake up every morning and be reminded once again of a world they’ll never know.
THUMP! Against the door. Another goddamn newspaper, another cruel accusation. THUMP! Day after day, it never ends. … Hiss at the alarm clock, suck up the headlines along with a beaker of warm Drano then off to the morning class. … To teach Journalism: Circulation, Distribution, Headline Counting and the classical Pyramid Lead.
Jesus, let’s not forget that last one. Mastery of the Pyramid Lead has sustained more lame yoyos than either Congress or the Peacetime Army. Five generations of American journalists have clung to that petrified tit and when the deal went down in 1972 their ranks were so solid that 71% of the newspapers in this country endorsed Richard Nixon for a second term in the white house.
It’s hard not to smile at his prescient recognition of the dangers of hackery. The stench from the Armstrong Williams / JimmyJeff Gannon / Etc. cloud must’ve been unbearable to him. Yesterday’s waterheads are now on the government payroll.
Hunter mused on mortality often, so there will be no lack of prophetic quotes will surface in the coming days. And many colorful eulogies.
In his own eulogy of Lionel Olay, whom he christened “The Ultimate Freelancer,” Hunter (a title which might more accurately describe himself) wrote:
“I don’t even know where he’s buried, but what the hell? The important thing was where he lived.”
Hunter lived in America and we’re all much better for it.