May 2, 2010 ... Finally, I am infinitely obliged to the late great HST. ...... Great Shark Hunt18 to “
Richard Milhaus Nixon, who never let [him] down,” however, he.
Ghent University Faculty of Arts and Philosophy 2009-2010
Hunter S. Thompson and the Sixties Fear and Loathing in Retrospect
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Ilka Saal
Paper submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of “Master in de Vergelijkende Moderne Letterkunde” By Catherine Kosters
There are many people I would to thank for their help in the realization of this dissertation. First and foremost, I am thankful to my supervisor, Prof. Dr. Ilka Saal, without whom I never would have succeeded. Her confidence, support, academic guidance, and useful commentary and suggestions have contributed greatly to my work. Furthermore, special thanks to her are in order for tending a light in the occasional darkness of Jamesonian thought. I am extremely grateful to Dries De Herdt, for his loving encouragement, structural remarks and knowledge of politics. My mother, Rose-Marie Vleugels, I would like to thank for her interest and revisions. I further appreciate the support I received from all my friends and family. I am thankful in particular to Nele Augustyns, Inneke Baatsen, and Lien Smets for the efforts they put in borrowing books for me from various libraries; and to Kerry Oxlade, who introduced me to the author who has become the main subject of my thesis. Finally, I am infinitely obliged to the late great HST. “No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
Table of Contents Foreword................................................................................................................3 Table of Contents....................................................................................................4 1. Introduction ........................................................................................................6 2. The Sixties: A Time of Revolution .....................................................................12 2.1. Chapter Outline....................................................................................................12 2.2. Winds of Change...................................................................................................13 2.2.1. A symbol of meteoric proportions.............................................................................13 2.2.2. Politics in the sixties: The times they were a-changing.............................................14 220.127.116.11. The rise and fall of activism..............................................................................................15 18.104.22.168. Presidents of the United States of Love...........................................................................20 a. JFK’s Camelot presidency....................................................................................................20 b. “LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”..............................................................................23 c. Tricky Dick and the silent majority.........................................................................................25
2.2.3. Sixties counterculture: The Children of the Revolution.............................................29 22.214.171.124. A multitude of movements................................................................................................31 126.96.36.199. From the Summer of Love to the Days of Rage...............................................................35
3. HST: The Man and the Myth...............................................................................40 3.1. Chapter Outline....................................................................................................40 3.2. A Portrait of the Gonzo Journalist as a Young Man............................................42 3.3. A New Journalism.................................................................................................45 3.4. When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro ..............................................47 3.5. The Birth of Gonzo Journalism............................................................................49 3.6. The Era of Fear and Loathing...............................................................................52
5 3.7. The Freak Kingdom..............................................................................................57 3.8. The weird never die ..........................................................................................62
4. Hunter S. Thompson and the 1960s...............................................................65 4.1. Chapter Outline....................................................................................................65 4.2. Periodizing the Sixties..........................................................................................66 4.2.1. Demarcating a decade.............................................................................................66 4.2.2. To periodize or not to periodize................................................................................67 4.2.3. New beginnings and ends........................................................................................69 4.2.4. Fear and loathing in periodization............................................................................73 4.2.5. The 60s periodized...................................................................................................77 4.3. The Sixties in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: The Wave...................................78 4.3.1. The corruption of the American Dream ....................................................................79 4.3.2. A transformation of the American Jeremiad .............................................................84 4.4. The Sixties in Gonzo Journalism .........................................................................87 4.4.1. “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”...................................................88 4.4.2. “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker”............................................................................91 4.4.3. “I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll”...............................................94
5. Conclusion........................................................................................................97 Bibliography.......................................................................................................101
In 1969, the decade known as the sixties ended. This historical assertion does not only derive its legitimacy from the numerological change from 6 to 7 that occurred at the turning of the year. More important was a series of significant events that stood in such contrast with the so-called spirit of the 1960s that they are said to have marked the decay of the era and the demise of its generation. The inauguration of right-wing president Richard Milhaus Nixon; the struggle between neighborhood activists and the authorities over the communal area of People’s Park; and the death of an eighteenyear-old student during the Altamont Speedway Free Festival; all headlined the front pages of American newspapers during the eventful year. Although incidents such as these were not connected in any direct way, they seemed to form a destructive chain that smothered the aura of hope that had enveloped America for nearly ten years. One “academic” who has subscribed to such a fatalistic view of the years surrounding the turn of the decade is “Doctor of Journalism” Hunter Stockton Thompson. The Good Doctor, as he preferred to be called, linked certain unfortunate events as if they were a dividing line between the glorious sixties and the dark times that were to follow. In his most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he describes the brusque and chilling change as follows: “KILL THE BODY AND THE HEAD WILL DIE” This line appears in my notebook, for some reason. Perhaps some connection with Joe Frazier. Is he still alive? Still able to talk? I watched that fight in Seattle—horribly twisted about four seats down the aisle from
7 the Governor. A very painful experience in every way, a proper end to the sixties: Tim Leary a prisoner of Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria, Bob Dylan clipping coupons in Greenwich Village, both Kennedys murdered by mutants, Owsley folding napkins on Terminal Island, and finally Cassius/Ali belted incredibly off his pedestal by a human hamburger, a man on the verge of death. Joe Frazier, like Nixon, had finally prevailed for reasons that people like me refused to understand – at least not out loud. (Thompson, Fear and Loathing 22-23) Dr. Thompson’s self-appointed academic title is telling as he belonged to the first wave of the so-called New Journalism, a journalistic style developed by reporters who sought to elevate their trade to a higher status, preferably one equal to that of the novel. In order to succeed, the New Journalists adopted the subjectivity of fiction writers, amongst other techniques. Thompson, however, preferred the term “Gonzo journalist” to “New Journalist” and, in appropriating the former epitaph, cradled the often imitated, but seldom equaled literary style that is Gonzo journalism. Thompson gradually developed this legendary blend of fact and fiction throughout the 1960s. Early traces of it can be found in the 1966 bestseller Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs and the 1970 article on the Kentucky Derby entitled The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, which reads more like a short story than a sports report. With Gonzo, a genre inextricably connected to the sixties in terms of themes and style, the decade enabled Thompson to find his true voice and led him to critical acclaim as well as cult status. It is thus no wonder that the writer felt disappointed and bitter even as he acutely
8 realized that the positive influence the sixties had spread in America was beginning to wane. Sharp observations on the demise of the decade, such as the one cited above, became legion in Thompson’s work. His entire writing career would in fact resemble a never-ending search for whatever was left of the spirit of the era, symbolized in the desperate quest for the American Dream. The obstinacy to bury the past may have been a result of the success the bygone era had brought him, but perhaps more so of his personal involvement in the hippie counterculture. With legendary figures such as Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg among his friends, the Gonzo journalist was entranced right from the outset by this exciting alternative to main-stream society. Although Thompson, an avid gun collector and self-proclaimed bigot, was by no means as tolerant as the average stereotypical hippie, he did sympathize with the cause of the new movement and genuinely believed that by their combined efforts, an improved world of hope and ideals would be brought to fruition. On the personal, professional and political level, the sixties would come to represent a utopian past. The Gonzo masterpiece, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, provided the starting shot for the author’s obsession with the decade. Written in 1971, this manifesto on irresponsible journalistic practice can be seen as a post mortem tribute to the sixties and an attack on Richard Nixon’s America. The sense of doom that came over the journalist at the thought of ten eventful, but glorious years gone to waste seemed to ignite a holy fire within his chest that would rage until the author’s death in 2005. His strong emotions with regard to the end of the sixties are already present in the book’s title. The popularity of Fear and Loathing and its 1998 film adaptation is one of the main reasons
9 Thompson is still widely read and has ensured that he will be permanently considered one of the quintessential authors on the sixties. In this dissertation, I will study Thompson’s appraisal of the watershed moment in American history called the sixties. The alternation between bitterness and regret expressed in the excerpt cited above provides the starting point. The fragment showcases an intriguing combination of criticism and nostalgia with regard to the sixties. This ambivalence pervades Fear and Loathing, the author’s most famous work, but may be present in the rest of Thompson’s oeuvre as well. The phrase “fear and loathing,” for example, would resurface again and again in his work to refer to the grim slide of society from the sixties to the present. To determine whether a nostalgic retrospect also reappears, I will examine several exemplary works of Gonzo. First, however, an outline of the sixties and of Thompson’s life is needed. Such information is necessary to grasp the context in which he wrote and will facilitate an understanding of his ambivalent historical attitude. In chapter one, I will provide a background to my thesis by discussing sixties politics and the emergence of the counterculture. These two angles are essential as they form significant aspects of Thompson’s work. The second chapter then is devoted to the man himself or, more specifically, to the man and the myth since the writer's flamboyant personality as well as his innovative and controversial way of writing have raised him to star status. In the third part of my thesis, I will at last examine the Gonzo appraisal of the sixties. First, I will ruminate the possibility of characterizing a decade by discussing the concept of periodization and the difficulties it entails. Then the ambivalent attitude towards the sixties in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas will be studied
10 in order to discover whether a comparable duality can be traced in work that preceded and followed the Gonzo masterpiece. I will approach his view via the techniques Thompson uses to shape them and the themes he resorts to in order to get his point across. After all, we must not forget that Thompson is a journalist and will use various rhetorical means to communicate his ideas on the 1960s, whether they come in the form of a defense, a critique or both. Yet another work of research on the topic of the sixties in America may seem redundant, but the debate over the importance of this decade has in effect not yet been closed. On the contrary, opinions voiced publicly about the era differ as greatly as ever. Appraisal degenerates easily into either nostalgic glorification or downright condemnation – as will become apparent when we discuss sixties politics and counterculture. In part due to the popular tendency to adopt any of these extreme views, the sixties remain unceasingly relevant. They serve as a timeless reference point in defining our current position and it is their enduring importance which makes it all the more vital to keep examining and questioning these years. Thompson, who manages to amalgamate glorification and condemnation, is an appealing, albeit unreliable guide. Since his viewpoints on the sixties have not been the focus of elaborate study, they may add to a twenty-first-century reappraisal of the decade. In spite of his personal bond to the era, Thompson manages to avoid certain pitfalls of the melancholic. Like a modern-day Shakespearean fool, he remains aloof and, shrouded in wit, reveals the starkest truths. Akin to those who describe the inauguration of Nixon and the Battle of People’s Park as writings on the wall for the demise of the sixties1, Thompson is sorry the era had to end, but all the same does not 1
Rob Kirkpatrick, M.J. Heale.
11 hesitate to trace the origins of the decade’s failure back to its own inner qualities. The combination of indisputable love and crude scrutiny may be present in the journalist’s entire oeuvre. Throughout this dissertation, I will frame Thompson’s dualistic evaluation of the sixties in wider criticism and try to prove that the ambiguity is vintage Gonzo. Past and present, nostalgia and criticism, the personal and the political, fact and fiction, all are expressly fused like fear and loathing in the work of one of America’s most mythologized journalists ever and all contribute to his extremely personal and yet universally insightful appraisal of one of America’s most mythologized decades.
2. The Sixties: A Time of Revolution 2.1. Chapter Outline
In this first chapter, I will discuss the period known as the 1960s. Given the importance of this decade in the development of Western and, arguably, global culture, an impressive amount of research has been carried out. I will specifically discuss existing work on two subtopics: contemporary politics and the history of the counterculture. These topics are interconnected as the government and new hippie and protest movements came to face each other throughout the decade. While there is a large body of research, the field of study is marked by a general lack of consensus. Points on which scholars disagree are diverse and inevitably include politics and the significance of the counterculture. I will attempt to include a variety of stances and interpretations. By emphasizing that there are multiple readings of history, we may better understand Thompson’s ambivalent view. Furthermore, an inclusion of the political and socio-cultural is indispensible to appreciate his vision of the sixties, in which references to society’s gyrations are abundant. These two specific subjects will thus help us to substantiate the hypothesis of ambivalence and to comprehend the contextual references in Thompson’s work.
2.2. Winds of Change 2.2.1. A symbol of meteoric proportions
The ‘winds of change’ are a constant in revolutionary discourse, so popular a symbol that it has even been taken over by mainstream pop music. Although its origins may probably be traced back to ancient folklore, the instance of meteorological symbolism is bound more tightly to the sixties than to any other decade. Many of the numerous rock bands that sprung up during the period made use of the phrase. Eric Burdon & The Animals, risen from the ashes of the original The Animals, used it as a telltale image for America’s transition from blues to psychedelic music in their song “Winds of Change,” released on the eponymic album in 1967. The last lines of the song make reference to one of Thompson’s favorite musicians, a folk singer who has come to embody the move into psychedelica as he traded in his acoustic guitar for an electric exemplar: Bob Dylan sang about the winds of change Blowing, it's all blowing, the winds of change2 (Eric Burdon & The Animals) The most illustrious use of the phrase ‘wind of change’ must, however, be sought outside of popular culture. In 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resorted to the image in the Wind of Change speeches he held in the British colony of the Gold Coast and in South Africa. The two almost identical addresses foreshadowed the impending independence of various African nations and marked a change in the policy 2
The song to which The Animals allude is the opening track of Dylan’s – still acoustic – 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” in which he calls for social change.
14 of the British government on colonialism as well as an increasing disapproval of apartheid. Macmillan famously said: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” He also spoke of “the political destinies of free men” (Macmillan). Examples of references to the ‘winds of change’ in the sixties are manifold. The connection between this political and countercultural image, which formed part of a larger symbolism of change, and the decade under discussion is provided by historical reality. The reason why revolution has rarely been glorified as extensively in song, in speech, in literature and film, as it has during this era, is found in the groundbreaking political and socio-cultural shifts that occurred. However, it would be inaccurate to consider the sixties as synonymous with change or, more specifically, leftist progressivism3; and to evaluate those years purely positively would hint at a biased point of view, which it is not my ambition to represent. Like Thompson, one must consider various evaluations. Moreover, I will attempt to present a balanced spectrum by considering what remained unchanged in American society and politics as well as by studying the evolutions, gradual and sudden, which took place. In cultural critic Fredric Jameson’s phrasing, “only against a certain conception of what is historically dominant or hegemonic [can] the full value of the exceptional … be assessed” (“Periodizing” 178).
2.2.2. Politics in the sixties: The times they were a-changing4
George F. Will points out that “it was not a decade of the left ascendant. Rampant, perhaps, but not ascendant.” (3) 4 Reference to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are a-Changing,” title song of his eponymic third studio album, released in 1964.
15 The following sections are devoted to American politics. It can be argued that the political atmosphere of the 1960s was above all typified by activism. I will first use this defining feature as a guideline to sketch that atmosphere in its historical context, particularly paying attention to the decades that preceded and followed the sixties. Part of the exceptionality of this period will thus become apparent. Thompson for one saw the increased personal involvement in politics as the greatest legacy of the sixties. He did not only actively support various politicians, among whom his acquaintance Joe Edwards in the Aspen mayoral election in 1969 and George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election, but also ran for sheriff of Pitkin County himself in 1970 under the rallying cry “Freak Power.” After a general contextualization, I will zoom in on the developments that occurred under the reign of the three Presidents of the United States that held office in the sixties. They are, of course, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Milhaus Nixon. Because politics is not the main topic of my dissertation, this chapter will not be as extensive as it could be. Largely based on M.J. Heale’s insightful work The Sixties in America: History, Politics and Protest, it will concentrate on characterizing main trends and cataloging major events. I nonetheless hope to establish a certain degree of familiarity with the contemporary affairs of state. A basic knowledge of sixties politics is indispensable to an adequate understanding of the era and to a study of Thompson, to whom the label ‘political journalist’ could easily be applied. 188.8.131.52. The rise and fall of activism
Thompson did not stand alone in his apprehension that the sixties seemed to
16 inspire individual action more than any preceding decade. From the streets to the Oval Office, there seemed to be a universal perception that change was possible if only people would take action. As Sally Banes claims in the introduction to Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body: It was not only the policymakers in Washington who were shaping American postwar (sic) culture, but also, importantly, groups of individuals setting forth models of daily life for a generation. (1-2) The activist aspect of the politics of the era has been the subject of much debate over the last few decades. On the one hand, there has been a tendency to look back nostalgically onto a time in which people strove together for a better world, when change actually seemed possible. On the other, severe cynicism has been triggered by the failures of the decade, especially by the realization that the combined efforts of so many protesters and believers were not sufficient to accomplish the desired societal transformation. Both viewpoints may lay claim to some validity, as the sixties were undoubtedly a time of exhilarating revolution, but also one of naivety and indolence. Sally Banes chooses to emphasize the former aspect since her book highlights 1963, a year in which nothing seemed impossible as activism was still deemed effective. The spirit of positivism that pervaded the nation at that time develops into a significant thread throughout her work. Already in Banes’ introduction, the pivotal year and optimism are linked: In 1963 the American Dream5 of freedom, equality, and abundance seemed as if it could come true. Not that it had – but that it was just about to. Expectations were rising after the economically and culturally stagnant 5
This symbol will be discussed extensively in chapter 4.
17 decade of the Fifties … Although the country had its problems at home and abroad, the official mood was optimistic. (3) M.J. Heale also makes the comparison to the “dreary fifties6” in his introduction. Heale contrasts the political activism of the sixties to the “apparent placidity of the Eisenhower era” (Heale 11). However, the fragment from Sally Banes’ book cited above portrays the early sixties in an equally placid way, and logic states that in a hopeful climate, there should be little cause for complaint. Perhaps the dissent and protest for which the sixties are remembered were thus exclusively characteristic of the later part of the era. Then again, Banes herself contradicts this assertion. Although the general air was tranquil in 1963, the activist drive of certain groups in society already seemed to manifest itself. In the following fragment, the author lucidly outlines the evolutions that contributed to the early optimism and simultaneously locates the seeds of revolution that had yet to ripen: The increasing postwar affluence of the Fifties seemed by the early sixties to be spiraling boundlessly (if at times somewhat unevenly), and in 1963 the economy was boosted by a new spurt, with even further gains promised by Kennedy’s proposed tax cut (finally passed in 1964). The cold war began to thaw, first with the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and then with the signing of the nuclear test ban treaty, which passed the Senate in September 1963. Even our increasing military involvement in Vietnam still seemed, in he liberal view, to be part of a Pax Americana. By 1963-64 there were, to be sure, a vocal antinuclear movement and 6
The phrase is used by Todd Gitlin: “On New Year’s Eve, as 1958 slipped into 1959, I wasn’t especially aware that I was living in the dead, dreary Fifties” (1).
18 nascent anti-Vietnam war and student movements, but these, like the civil rights movement, operated in an arena of hope that was leavened by an increasing sense of entitlement. (4) Even if the call for revolution grew louder as the decade progressed, protest movements were already present in the political landscape of the early sixties. In general, “an old American trait was asserting itself, the desire to be master of one’s own fate; … people were seeking empowerment – the power of the individual, the group, the government” (Heale 13). What happened at the end of the decade, when the erosion of what Banes describes as ‘Pax Americana’ began to be felt, is also alluded to by Heale. He describes a historical evolution in which America awakened to the momentariness of general economic prosperity and the utopian ideals accompanying it: The optimism and idealism which inspired so much of the activity of the decade [the sixties] rested in no small part on a buoyant economy, just as the darker and more introspective mood of the Seventies was related to the widespread realisation (sic) that a besieged economy could no longer perform miracles. Much the same could be said of the political system, which in the early Sixties offered itself as a vehicle of progress, but which in the aftermath of the decade has seemed incapable of supplying coherent and constructive government, at least at a national level. (Heale 6) By the early seventies, historical reality dawned on many aficionados of political activism. Sycophants turned into cynics as liberalism failed, the war in Vietnam raged
19 on and the economic system came under strain. Soon enough, “the Sixties’ belief in action was in retreat” (Heale 26). The disillusionment that ensued found a source in the conviction that in spite of all efforts, little had changed during the last ten years. To many, the sixties suddenly seemed the era of missed opportunities. Regardless of the fact that the structure of American society may not have been radically altered and that the traditional hegemony was never fully ruptured, the sixties were a defining and unique moment in history. In between the rise and fall of activism or the docile fifties and the dark seventies, those who had never before been heard spoke out. Either they invested their hope in politicians or they attempted to seize power themselves. Whichever way, politics became increasingly important in every aspect of American life. In this sense and others, the sixties were of tremendous significance. As Heale argues: The Sixties formed a watershed … It separated one kind of America from the other. Of course, since no society is ever held in suspended animation every period is an ‘era of transition’, but even so the 1960s stand out as one when seismic shifts took place. (7) I will now try to discover what exactly were these “seismic shifts,” as I discuss the presidencies of JFK, LBJ and Tricky Dick alongside the actual political events of the decade. Special attention will go to the individuals, groups and governments that were involved, all those who stirred up, drifted on or fought against the winds of change.
20 184.108.40.206. Presidents of the United States of Love7 a. JFK’s Camelot presidency8
In the course of the sixties, political authority was increasingly questioned and literal interpretations of the democratic institution demanded a redistribution of power. It is thus important to acknowledge the new energies that interacted with the older ones. However, traditional politics remained the principal mode for governance throughout the decade. Heale can claim with reason that “the actions taken by governments are crucial to an understanding of the 1960s” (49). Much of the optimism that is associated with the early sixties and has been discussed above can, for example, be traced back to the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The vigorous Democrat’s political rise roused Thompson to return from South America. Thompson intuited that a new era was dawning in his homeland. Kennedy held office from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. In contrast to his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower, the new president stood for youth, energy and above all, hope. Naturally, this view has been influenced in part by the brevity of Kennedy’s career and by its dramatic conclusion, but JFK’s dynamic personality and penchant for undertaking action also contributed to the positive portrayal. Because of the hope it spawned, the Kennedy administration has, however, been charged with the accusation of raising unrealistic expectations. M.J. Heale subtly refutes this allegation: There is little doubt that the rhetoric of the New Frontier did lift hopes and 7
“President of the United States of Love” is a line of lyrics from “I’m Black/Colored Spade,” a song from the 1968 Broadway musical Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. 8 Reference to Kennedy’s well-known nickname and allusion to his association with the mythical realm of King Arthur, which will be explained infra.
21 inspire an idealism among many Americans that could not survive a brutal reality, but the Kennedy message was also that there were no easy solutions. Kennedy was throwing down a challenge, not promising a utopia. (52) Of course, not all criticism can be countered by this last argument and I will explore the more negative realms of Kennedy’s rule as well, but the bright aura surrounding his figure remains powerful. The two years he resided in the Oval Office have after all been dubbed the ‘Camelot presidency9’ and such symbolism is impossible to eradicate. A second cluster of imagery is tied to a term mentioned in the quote above. ‘New Frontier’ is a phrase used by Kennedy in the acceptance speech that concluded the 1960 presidential campaign. With it, he referred to “uncharted areas of science and space, unresolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus” (Kennedy qtd. in Heale 52). In other words, the New Frontier consisted of all the challenges the new president together with the American people would have to face. The term became a label for Kennedy’s foreign and domestic plans of action. Although his agenda would never be completed, Kennedy managed to make considerable progress in various domains. His administration was not committed to reform in the first place, but to action10. Then again the new government did not act rashly or ill-advisedly. Kennedy’s call for action was matched by his appreciation of
Kennedy’s favorite musical composition was the soundtrack to the 1960 Broadway musical Camelot. This resulted in the portrayal of the murdered president as a modern-day king Arthur. 10 The distinction between reform and action is seen here as one between a preference for either legislative or executive measures.
22 prudence. To explain what this meant, I refer to the stance on civil rights favored by the president and his fellow Democrats: A Massachusetts Democrat more attuned to labour than to race issues, Kennedy had never been a spokesman for civil rights, although he had signaled his sympathy for the cause in the 1960 campaign. For many northern politicians at this time civil rights was a matter for the South. … The Democratic party nationally depended on the votes of both northern blacks and southern whites and its leaders had no wish to offend either constituency. (Heale 57-58) It must be said, however, that Kennedy’s commitment to the civil rights cause increased as he became more aware of the urgency of the matter. As upsurges of racial violence became more common and resistance against emancipatory policies grew in the South, the president realized that federal legislation was needed. In a televised address five months before he would be assassinated, Kennedy famously said: We preach freedom around the world…, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say … that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes? (qtd. in Heale 61) Kennedy would not live to witness the passing of his civil rights bill, but he could truthfully claim that his administration had booked significant progress in advancing the interests of African Americans. Although some of the more radical civil rights activists were disappointed in him because they had expected faster and more sweeping changes, many felt they had found an ally. The former group would of course demand
23 most attention, as they would be at the base of the Black Power movement. The paradoxical combination of action and prudence typical of the Kennedy administration could also be noticed in the economic strategy. Although there was no recession, the president proposed a tax cut to boost the economy. The reasoning behind this unexpected measure was that an increase in personal capital would lead to greater expenditure and thus an augmentation of the government revenues that were needed to carry out domestic and foreign programs. This plan may seem daringly progressive, but was in fact a precursor for today’s conservative economic politics (Heale 55). When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, a shock wave was sent through the entire nation. As Heale puts it, “the hope that this young leader had personified, both for his country and the wider world, was momentarily shaken” (62). It is, however, important to note the word “momentarily” since the death of the king of Camelot did not obliterate America’s early sixties optimism. As maintained by Banes, “Kennedy’s assassination threw the nation into shock, but it did not stop the momentum” (4).
b. “LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”11
The man following in Kennedy’s footsteps was Lyndon Baines Johnson, a liberal Democrat who after twenty-three years in Congress had become one of the most 11
Reference to Johnson’s nickname and to a provocative slogan popular among protesters against the Vietnam War during his presidency.
24 powerful figures in Washington. Although he differed from his predecessor in many ways, Johnson “committed himself to delivering the promises of the slain leader” (Heale 62). He safeguarded the two most important bills bequeathed onto him by the previous administration: the tax cut proposal and the new federal civil rights legislation. Johnson saw both bills through Congress in the course of 1964. Although the new president thus paid respect to the Camelot legacy and divulged an even greater resolve to reform, Johnson was by no means as well loved as Kennedy. In the introduction to an essay included in Alexander Bloom’s Long Time Gone: Sixties America Then and Now, Tom Wicker remembers noting the following in a discussion with former members of Johnson’s cabinet on the subject of LBJ’s unpopularity: “It’s the war. They hate him because of the war.” … American participation in the war in Vietnam actually had begun, with national approval – or indifference, interpreted in Washington as approval – during the Kennedy administration. But few, then or now, blamed JFK, while many hated Lyndon Johnson. (Wicker 99) Although he is indeed remembered largely as the president who pushed the war America was losing, Vietnam was not Johnson’s main concern at the start of his first term. As a self-declared heir to Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, which was a series of reform programs to counter the Great Depression of the thirties, Johnson advocated the ‘Great Society.’ He meant to increase the level of wealth and decrease the amount of injustice in the United States by respectively combating poverty12 and improving the conditions of African Americans13 (Wicker 101). Somehow, the war 12 13
For the War on Poverty, see Heale, p. 64 and further, and Wicker, p. 101 and further. By implementing Kennedy’s civil rights bill, including the Voting Rights Act. See Wicker, p. 101.
25 managed to gradually capture the president’s attention in spite of his reformatory resolutions. In February 1965, he ordered the bombing of North Vietnam and during the next couple of months the number of American troops in the region rose dramatically. Polls14 taken that same year reveal the start of a drastic drop in popularity, which in the course of 1966 was accelerated as the “white backlash” to the new civil rights legislation transpired (Wicker 106). Johnson’s obstinate determination to win the war as well as realize his Great Society added to a negative image. He persisted in the belief that a poor country like Vietnam “would … buckle under American bombs” (Appy and Bloom 51), but would not give up his domestic programs to procure larger resources. As a result, the deep-rooted social reform he endorsed would never be realized and the securing of the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam would be left to his successor, the Republican Richard Nixon.
c. Tricky Dick15 and the silent majority
The last years of Johnson’s presidency had been marked by an increasing number of fatalities. Race riots16 in the ghettos brought a wave of violence to the streets and several leading figures in protest and politics were assassinated. African American radical Malcolm X was gunned down in 1965, Martin Luther King in ’68 and later that year, Democratic presidential candidate and brother to JFK, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy. The spiraling number of foreign casualties incited unparalleled protest, and not just 14
Surveys taken in 1966, but not the well-known Gallup polls. See Wicker, p. 106. Reference to the nickname given to Nixon by in an ad for the Democratic Party. 16 Among which the Watts riots in 1965 and the Newark and Detroit riots in ‘67. See Heale, p. 94. 15
26 among the hippies, who in 1967 were celebrating the Summer of Love. At the end of the year, less than one third of the American population approved of Johnson’s war policy (Heale 97). In 1960, Richard Nixon had lost to John Kennedy in the presidential elections. The youthfulness and handsome features of the latter obviously appealed more to the public than the sternness and receding hairline of the former. When Nixon did win in 1968, the victory “owed more to disenchantment with the Johnson administration than it did to his own personal appeal” (Heale 100). Be that as it may, the presidential candidate managed to convey his competence and intelligence throughout both campaigns and only lost by a hairbreadth in the first one. A first sign of Nixon’s cleverness was his outspoken appeal to the great ‘silent majority.’ His triumph was the triumph of “the unyoung, the unblack, and the unpoor” (Heale 101). Although he can be seen as a moderate conservative, the new president’s politics clearly represented a move away from the New Left forged by students, protesters, rioters and hippies and thus a turning point in the course of the sixties. Nixon’s aversion to the previous government and to the various protest movements is the reason why “Nixon’s Coming” is the first chapter in Rob Kirkpatrick’s 1969: The Year Everything Changed. In this book, Kirkpatrick charts the events that shaped the pivotal year 1969, among which the Battle of People’s Park and the fight at Altamont mentioned in the introduction. Highs and lows would swiftly succeed each other in ’69 and lead to the demise of the counterculture and the end of the sixties. For all of this, the election of Richard Nixon can be seen as an omen. It is, however, all too easy to demonize ‘Tricky Dick’ while he was left to find solutions for the problems that
27 had already faced his predecessors and when the countercultural movement had fallen victim to its own internal shortcomings. I will therefore attempt to present a balanced view of Nixon’s politics, which will nevertheless be toppled again later by Thompson’s merciless portrayal of the man he perceived as the ultimate crook. The central issue of the 1968 campaign had been the question who would be “best able to free the United States from Vietnam” (Heale 99). For the newly elected president, the war was thus America’s greatest priority. Nixon was resolutely antiCommunist. When the North Vietnamese army violated the truce that Johnson had negotiated by launching an offensive against South Vietnam from Cambodia, ‘Operation Menu’ was devised and carried out covertly. This bombing of Cambodia was hushed up for several years because the president’s cabinet realized that a prolongation of hostilities would reflect poorly on them (Kirkpatrick 7-8). The secret series of missions in Cambodia were the starting point of “a balancing act for Nixon, one in which he would begin to bring troops back home while at the same time escalating the war in Southeast Asia” (Kirkpatrick 8). Such seeming inconsistencies would give the impression that Nixon was untrustworthy, a scheming villain in Thompson’s unsubtle portrayal. In fact, Nixon was just highly pragmatic. Herein he resembled his old enemy John Kennedy, who displayed unparalleled pragmatism in his early civil rights policy. During his first year in office, Nixon divulged a governmental strategy meant to reduce bureaucracy in Washington and expand local management. This program was called the ‘New Federalism.’ In some areas, however, decentralization would be unwise, in the recently booming domain of environmentalism, for example. To secure power
28 over ecological matters from Congress, Nixon therefore brought them under executive direction. Some may have seen this as another example of Tricky Dick’s deviousness, but the approach proved rather effective in enlarging authority and thus the amount of federal refunds at state level (Heale 101-102). In spite of the similarity to Kennedy noted above, Nixon was obviously less progressive. The differences between the two previous Democratic presidents and the new Republican leader were perhaps clearest in the welfare sphere. Nixon’s will to combat poverty was accompanied by a conservative endorsement of the work ethic. The ‘Family Assistance Plan’ would provide every American family with a minimum income. Surprisingly, this included the ones with a steady income. The goal was that “those who work would be no longer discriminated against” (Nixon qtd. in Heale 102). Conservative beliefs were also reflected in the claim that employment would lead to racial equality. Apart from some issues that improved work conditions for members of minorities, however, the strategy on race issues was “benign neglect” (Pat Moynihan qtd. in Heale 103). Desegregation of the South was carried out further, but civil rights advocates could no longer count on much support from the government, or even tolerance. The radical African American faction Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was targeted most of all by the secret services. The Panther headquarters were frequently raided and many members were arrested, sometimes on little legal ground. Furthermore, the police often brutally squelched protests, which resulted in the deaths of several students. The most famous case is the Battle for People’s Park, a riot over a communal park at Berkeley University in which one student was fatally wounded and numerous other protesters were injured, but there were other incidents as well. In April
29 1970, for example, four students were killed during a demonstration at Kent State University against the Cambodian attacks that had gradually been revealed. Nixon’s reelection in 1972 proved that there was still a silent majority backing him on his severe actions toward radicals and protesters, and that the continuing war in Asia proved less of a stumbling block than it had been for Johnson, now that the number of troops had been reduced. Democratic candidate George McGovern, whose campaign is vividly portrayed in Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ’72, did not stand a chance, as he was associated with a counterculture that had outlived its heyday. I end this subchapter with a quote by M.J. Heale that stresses the significance of Nixon’s presidency in the whole of sixties politics: The Nixon administration marked the ending of the Sixties. “Above all,” Arthur Schlesinger17 had written at the outset of the decade, “there will be a sense of motion, of leadership, and of hope.” Those characteristics did seem to be present for a time, but hope had eventually given way to cynicism. Richard Nixon’s election was made possible by the crumbling of the New Deal Order, by disillusionment with New Frontier and Great Society liberalism, and by the sorry Johnson record in Vietnam. His reelection represented a repudiation of street politics. (Heale 107)
2.2.3. Sixties counterculture: The Children of the Revolution
The status of the sixties as one of the most mythologized decades of the 17
Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
30 twentieth century owes in large part to the countercultural movement it saw emerge. Beins, Woodstock, acid tests, anti-Vietnam marches and the Summer of Love still excite the imagination of many in the noughties and early tens. In this chapter, I will discuss the character and role of the new movements and outline their most important manifestations. First of all, it is necessary to situate the sixties counterculture in a broader context. In the fifties, the Beat subculture already paved the way for the hippies and in the sixties, a host of movements intersected. A working definition of the hippie movement in its historical context will lead to a focused history of the sixties. Whereas the previous section examined governmental action, this subchapter provides a countercultural perspective. Several significant events in which students and hippies engaged have already been referred to since the counterculture and the political establishment are inseparable. Their antagonistic roles created a mutual dependence. The hippie movement would never have gained such momentum if there had been no common enemy to revolt against. Conversely, a president like Richard Nixon would perhaps never have been elected if no “long-haired, good-for-nothing” hippies had called the silent majority to action. In other words, the counterculture and the government unwittingly cooperated to fashion the watershed moment known as the sixties. Such codependence is argued by M.J. Heale as well, whose book continued to act as my guide in writing this chapter. When Thompson sarcastically dedicated The Great Shark Hunt18 to “Richard Milhaus Nixon, who never let [him] down,” however, he probably was not thinking about the president’s defining influence. The intention behind 18
In The Gonzo Papers Anthology, which includes The Great Shark Hunt, Generation of Swine, and Songs of the Doomed.
31 this dedication will be revealed later, but first, we must turn our attention to the children of the revolution whom Thompson regarded with equally ambiguous feelings.
220.127.116.11. A multitude of movements
The hippie movement is arguably the biggest and most influential youth movement the twentieth-century West has known. Its rise was, however, not unannounced. The fifties had already been witness to one of America’s first subcultures. More literary than political, the Beat Generation voiced the concerns of disaffected adolescents and presented an alternative to mainstream society by advocating an adventurous and spontaneous life filled with free love, drugs and bebop. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the Beat Bible, tells the autobiographical tale of a young writer who traverses the great American continent in search of kicks, stories and a meaning to his own life. Allen Ginsberg, author of the poem “Howl,” was the most politically inspired author of all Beats and sought to turn the literary circle of friends into a true counterculture. Under the lead of authors like Ginsberg, the Beats anticipated many of the interests of the hippie movement. Defenses of civil rights, homosexuality and women’s rights were often present in their work, although not always explicitly. The Beats furthermore believed in consciousness expansion through drug use, meditation and music, and they led the way towards the sexual revolution. The main difference between the Beat Generation and its natural successor thus did not lie in the issues it tackled, but in its scope. The former was for the most part a literary movement with some influence in other arts. The critiques of the establishment it
32 offered therefore carried little political weight. As the hippie movement spoke to the mass of American youth and not just to an elite group of Greenwich Village artists with a curiosity for the marginal side of life, it gained much more force and was able to pressure the establishment into actual changes. Todd Gitlin, however, notes that the protest movements of the sixties were still rather undemocratic as they were generationally defined and class-bound (xii). Notwithstanding this remark, the evolution from a subculture in the fifties to a counterculture in the sixties marked the dawning of a more egalitarian America. The increase in support and thus vigor was also a dream come true for Ginsberg, who became one of the new movement’s main spokesmen. Kerouac, on the other hand, who had always shunned political statements, saw the call for change as a waste of time. Although Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was greatly influenced by On the Road and the Gonzo journalist took Ginsberg’s side on political issues, neither Beats were spared any criticism. Thompson both reprimanded Kerouac for his apolitical reclusion and ridiculed Ginsberg for his esoteric spiritualism, as befitted his role of merciless commentator of the counterculture. Apart from realizing that others paved the way for the hippie movement, it is important that the hippie movement did not exist in a historical vacuum. The counterculture of the sixties was a complex accordance of different social forces. In the conclusion of his article “Periodizing the 60s,” Fredric Jameson fully explicates the singularity of the sixties in terms of new powers disrupting the traditional capitalist model of society: We have described the 60s as a moment in which the enlargement of capitalism on a global scale simultaneously produced an immense freeing
33 or unbinding of social energies, a prodigious release of untheorized new forces: the ethnic forces of black and “minority” or third world movements everywhere, regionalisms, the development of new and militant bearers of “surplus consciousness” in the student and women’s movements, as well as in a host of struggles of other kinds. (“Periodizing” 208) This kind of thinking is in line with the general stance adopted in The 60s Without Apology, a collection of sixties criticism. The editors, among whom Jameson himself, define the sixties as a “disruption of late-capitalist ideological and political hegemony” (Sayres et al. 2). This disruption was caused by the new historical subjects that emerged as people were able to free themselves from the dominant social institutions and the subordination to capital production. Of course civil rights, women’s and student movements had existed before, but during the sixties, the booming economy triggered such a mass release of social energy that for the first time, these movements became actual forces able to upset the traditional order of American society. Whereas the concerns of civil rights activists, defenders of gay rights and feminists may be delineated more of less easily, it is rather difficult to pinpoint the main interest of the hippie movement. The reason for its vague character is the extent of overlap with the aforementioned groups. Barry Melton’s essay about the San Franciscan counterculture in Bloom’s Long Time Gone illustrates this: There was actually a range of causes to become aligned with in Berkeley during that period . While the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the free speech movement each had its own focus, demonstrations, and leadership, there was a good deal of overlap. (150-
34 151) A defining feature for the hippie movement may be its origins as a youth movement. It needs to be noted, however, that the hippie culture is not identical to the student movement since many hippies refused to take part in the American educational system, which they saw as inadequate. Protest against the war in Vietnam is often regarded as the essential political trait, but Heale differentiates between the youth movement and peace movement (132). Later on, however, he mixes up the two as he speaks of both free speech and pacifist protests initiated by students (137-138). The hippie movement thus seems to defy definition. Most scholars, like Heale, simply ignore the term and employ vague intersecting categories. For the purpose of this thesis, I have devised a characterization that incorporates elements from the various authors19 already referred to. A workable definition might be that the hippies were a group, mainly consisting of American youths, which adopted concerns from various factions with political goals and added to these a newly conceived lifestyle. Their way of life stressed tolerance, spirituality, sexual freedom and consciousness expansion. The primary issues they embraced were civil rights, gay and women’s rights, environmentalism, freedom of speech and pacifism. Although the term ‘hippie’ perhaps primarily denotes a lifestyle in the popular mind, the movement undeniably influenced the political landscape of America in the sixties as much as it did the cultural and social domains. Its impact can be felt, for example, in popular music and contemporary sexual morals, but also in the sexual and racial equality we take for granted, but which has in fact not yet been realized. Gitlin describes the development towards egalitarianism, inspired by hippies and other 19
Charters, Gitlin, Heale, Melton, Sayres et al.
35 countercultural movements, more positively. He wrote the following in 1988, but his argument is still valid: The ghettoes are intractable, feminists embattled. There are a million obstacles. But the fact remains that the Sixties relaunched the long, long trek toward equality. (xi) Most importantly, the hippie movement has helped increase awareness of the democratic potential of the Western world by establishing the right to be heard regardless of age, sex or ethnicity.
18.104.22.168. From the Summer of Love to the Days of Rage
Of the various other protest movements listed above, the student movement probably exhibits the greatest degree of overlap with the hippie counterculture. In 1960, Students for a Democratic Society or the SDS was founded at the University of Michigan. Impressed by the actions of civil rights activists and rooted in industrial democracy, the main goal of the SDS was to revitalize American politics through democratic participation. Politically, the organization was closely linked to the New Left, a group of progressive radicals that was “egalitarian, communitarian and suspicious of hierarchy and established institutions” (Heale 136). Distancing itself from the old Marxism, the New Left sought to free the individual rather than the class. Another anti-establishment student group emerged at the Berkeley campus of the University of California. When educational authorities, under pressure from the state government, prohibited the use of a certain campus area known as the Berkeley Strip
36 for the recruitment for political activities in 1964, students united in the Free Speech Movement. After the occupation of a university building and hundreds of subsequent arrests, the College Board finally forfeited by declaring that there ought to be no more restrictions on speech. The Berkeley students, however, were not satisfied so easily. In the eyes of many of them, the university had revealed itself as a government ally (Heale 138-139). In 1969, the conflict would reemerge as governor Ronald Reagan ordered the California Highway Patrol and police force to secure People’s Park, a community patch seen as a haven for “beatniks, radicals and filthy speech advocates20.” The incident corroborated the dichotomy between students and the establishment. By the mid-sixties, Berkeley students, the SDS and other organizations started rallying against the war in Vietnam. The outrage at the bombing of North Vietnam even set in motion the first noteworthy student protests against American foreign policy. Teach-ins, mass university gatherings with pacifist aims, spread from Michigan to campuses across the country; and the march on the White House organized by the SDS in April 1965 remains the largest anti-war demonstration in the history of the United States21. The Vietnam War can ironically be seen as one of the greatest unifying forces of the sixties counterculture. It provided one of the rare causes shared by white and black protest groups apart from the civil rights struggle itself. One organization that temporarily joined forces with the likes of the SDS was the Black Panther Party, founded in 1966 in Oakland, California. Their goal was a “revolutionary reconstruction of American society” (Heale 125). Although other African-American radicals advocated 20 21
Ronald Reagan quoted in Rosenfeld Attended by some 20000 people (Heale 137).
37 violence more overtly than the Panthers did, they nonetheless became the FBI’s primary target under the Nixon administration (supra). In Thompson’s article on the Kentucky Derby, the notoriety of the faction is demonstrated as the author describes the fear roused by rumors of possible Panther attacks on the Derby and on Yale University. The counterculture was, however, also marked by disagreement. Even the war itself at times divided the once united protesters. A growing opposition could, for example, be noted between civil rights activists who kept criticizing America’s foreign policy and those who began to display more prudency when they realized that their protest might bereave them of the support of a government who defended their emancipatory cause as well as the war in Asia. Within the white New Left, some political radicals wished to dissociate themselves from the hippies who had joined in the anti-war demonstrations. Reason for the discord was the psychedelic lifestyle of the latter. In spite of the tensions, the New Left remained relatively unified during the second half of the sixties. Anti-authoritarianism brought left-wingers, students, African-Americans and hippies with a craving for revolution together. In the hippies’ case, this ‘bringing together’ can be interpreted literally since the mid-sixties were witness to a proliferation of bohemian communities. In the early days of the hippie movement, the core of creative innovation had been Greenwich Village. Gradually, however, more and more young people, political dissenters, social deviants and artists spread to that other Beat stronghold, the HaightAshbury district in San Francisco. Several developments accompanying this geographical move form the source of the hippie stereotype still in fashion today. Musically, rock replaced folk. Already referred to is Bob Dylan’s groundbreaking switch
38 from acoustic to electric instruments in 1965. The psychedelic music that soon became popular appeared to be the perfect soundtrack to an era in which drugs circulated freely. LSD was not yet illegal and was used widely in communes, at festivals and ‘happenings’ such as the Acid Tests. These were parties organized by Ken Kesey, leader of the band of hippies known as the Merry Pranksters and author of the bestseller One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The gatherings always circled around the drug, popularly called acid, and often included a performance by Jerry Garcia’s legendary rock band Grateful Dead. Another famous countercultural manifestation was the 1967 Be-In during which psychologist and LSD guru Timothy Leary coined the phrase: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” With this sentence he expressed the hippies’ interests in music and drugs and their dislike for mainstream society. Leary’s words became a slogan that would ring throughout the subsequent San Franciscan Summer of Love. In 1969, the atmosphere of ’67 was successfully reinvigorated at the Woodstock festival, but extinguished only a few months later. The Altamont Speedway Free Festival, though devised as a Woodstock out West, resulted in the death of eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter, who got involved in a skirmish with some Hell’s Angels during the Rolling Stones’ performance. The incident brutally put a stop to hippie naivety and earned Altamont the label of end of an era. The hippie lifestyle outlasted the counterculture’s utopian political ideals. Radicalization of the New Left led to fragmentation in the last years of the decade. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Youth International Party or Yippies, who politicized hippie ideology, SDS and other protest groups rioted in the streets of Chicago as a sign of protest against the war in Vietnam that had escalated
39 during the presidency of Democrat Johnson. The protesters’ main intent was to get as much media attention as possible. In the aftermath of the events, eight protest leaders, among whom Tom Hayden of the SDS and Yippies co-founder Abbie Hoffman, were charged for conspiracy and incitement. They became notoriously known as the Chicago Eight. Surrounding the days of their trials, another radical faction called the Weathermen22 staged their Days of Rage23. The objective was to “bring the war home,” as the slogan devised by former SDS member John Jacobs declared (Gitlin 392). The outbursts of violence that typified both the riots during the Democratic Convention and the Days of Rage alienated the New Left from its original pacifist stance and isolated radical agitators from the majority of more moderate activists. The anti-war movement, which brought together the majority of countercultural protest movements, would continue to exist in the late sixties. The largest peace demonstrations took place in 1967, which was in many ways the height of the sixties, but persisted under Nixon’s rule. This illustrates the movement’s “detachment from the New Left” (Heale 144), which by the end of 1968 had lost its luster and largely collapsed. What remained were thus occasional protests, but there was also a growing tendency to resign from activism all together. The hippie movement, for one, increasingly offered an escape from society rather than a way to change it. Greenwich Village and the Haight-Ashbury housed great numbers of hippies living communal lives away from street action. Woodstock symbolized a final resurgence of America’s most famous youth movement, but afterwards, the famed counterculture was left to wither away into marginality and the world of stereotypes. 22 23
Also known as the Weather Underground Organization. This series of events inspired Todd Gitlin to name his book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.
40 In spite of its fleetingness, the hippie and other protest movements had an enduring influence on America and in fact the entire world. Many of the ideals they endorsed have entered mainstream culture. According to Gitlin, the sixties counterculture accomplished “the irreversible entry of blacks [and] women … into American politics and professional life,” a lasting anti-war ethic, increased environmental awareness, the end of the Cold War, sexual liberation, accountability for corporations and government institutions, esteem for idealism and in general, a more progressive climate (xi-xii). Both Gitlin and Heale agree that perhaps the greatest victory of the sixties is the triumph of diversity, the understanding that a mosaic of identities is more powerful than the old Anglo-Saxon melting pot. In the final chapter of this dissertation, we will reexamine the evolutions that led to this presumed insight from one man’s highly conspicuous viewpoint, but first he needs a proper introduction. We thus return to a time in which the sixties tidal wave could not yet be fathomed, 1937, the birth year of Hunter Thompson.
3. HST: The Man and the Myth 3.1. Chapter Outline
In this chapter, I will provide a biography of Hunter Thompson. The main focal point will be the development of Gonzo journalism since the last chapter will deal specifically with this genre. Gonzo is often seen as a reaction to the end of the sixties and as an attempt to reinvigorate countercultural rebellion. Therefore Thompson’s work
41 from 1970 onwards, when the new style was invented, is the proper choice for an investigation into the author’s sixties appraisal. An outline of where this genre originated and how it developed is thus necessary. A second emphasis in this chapter will lie on the blurring dichotomy between Thompson and his image. Numerous readers have deduced an impression of the writer from the first lines of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which often form the first encounter with the man’s work. The legendary book begins as follows: We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit light-headed; maybe you should drive …” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?” (3) Although drugs play an important role in Thompson’s life and work, the image of Hunter Thompson the reckless, raving mad drug omnivore is incorrect. Many of the chemically enhanced antics described in works such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are fictional exaggerations of the author’s experiences with narcotics. Cult status, however, brought with it the downside that these wild exploits began to dominate Thompson’s biography. Ironically, the deliberate blurring of fact and fiction in Gonzo journalism seems to have spread to the writer’s own life. Although it can be regarded as testament to the force of Thompson’s writing, this bizarre twist was not completely
42 intended. A troubled mind, HST on one hand promoted his own outrageous image, but on the other suffered from it since he knew he was becoming a caricature. The title of the biography that forms the basis of this chapter divulges a related duality: Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson. Author and personal acquaintance of Thompson William McKeen implicitly acknowledges the Gonzo journalist’s nonconformist position in contemporary journalism as well as the cartoonish misrepresentation that followed from it. In the next few sections, I will provide a discussion of the writer’s life and work that challenges the stereotype McKeen refers to and considers the development of his journalism. The blurring of the distinction between his person and persona is particularly connected to Thompson’s bond with the sixties. In the era that commenced when Nixon was elected, odd behavior and excessive substance abuse became Thompson’s tactic to extend the revolt of the period gone by.
3.2. A Portrait of the Gonzo Journalist as a Young Man24
Hunter Stockton Thompson’s life began in an era that contrasts greatly with the positivity and exuberance of the early and mid-sixties. He was born in the aftermath of the Great Depression, on July 18, 1937, as the son of Jack Thompson and Virginia Ray in Louisville, Kentucky. Young Hunter grew up a popular boy who did not only engage in increasingly less innocent shenanigans with his comrades, but also read voraciously and wrote articles for a neighborhood newspaper edited by one of his friends while they were in fourth grade. After an early encounter with the FBI on account of a destroyed 24
Reference to James Joyce’s well-known novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
43 mailbox, Thompson slowly showed more and more signs of criminal behavior. His juvenile delinquency reached its peak when he was arrested for robbing and threatening to rape a girl and sentenced to sixty days in jail. The period in prison and the feat that caused it were a source of shame to Hunter, who saw his friends graduating and making plans, but had no prospects of going to college himself. His hopelessness ultimately drove him to enlist in the Air Force, in spite of severe authority issues. Although the main reason behind the unusual choice was the lack of other options, Thompson’s time in the army proved rather valuable in retrospect. After an attempt at working as an electronics technician, he landed a job at the base’s newspaper, the Command Courier, where he became a sports writer. Whereas his stories were steeped in clichés at first, they steadily exhibited more originality and permitted Thompson to develop the hyperbolical style for which he would become famous years later. His newly discovered love for the trade of reporter did not stop him from flaunting traits of military disobedience. Heavy drinking and an obvious disliking for the army’s hierarchical system resulted in an honorary discharge, exactly the ticket out of the armed forces Thompson was waiting for. After a short-lived career as journalist for a Pennsylvania newspaper, Thompson decided it was time to try his luck in New York. He combined work as a copyboy for Time magazine with classes at Columbia University. During this period in his life, the would-be writer famously retyped The Great Gatsby to get a sense of the book’s cadence. Thompson also formed the centre of a small party scene but after a while, he felt “he was imprisoned by his guests and his compulsion to socialize” (McKeen 44). He consequently quit the job at Time and left the city. In upstate New York, Thompson was
44 hired by the Middletown Daily Record after lying about his education and work experience. In spite of his promising writing, editor Al Romm soon fired the noncompliant new journalist by saying: “At this point in your career, your idiosyncrasies outweigh your talents” (qtd. in McKeen 47). During the following stretch of unemployment, Thompson worked on a novel entitled Prince Jellyfish and on several short stories. Continuous rejection by publishers and financial difficulties, however, impelled him to search for a new job. He had considered applying for one in exotic Puerto Rico and eventually moved to the island, where he was hired by Sportivo. He persuaded Sandy Conklin, a girl he had met in New York, to come to Puerto Rico and together they traveled around the Caribbean islands. Meanwhile, Thompson had started writing a second novel, The Rum Diary, which was loosely based on his Puerto Rican experience, and had managed to sell several articles to American newspapers as a free-lancer. Of the novels, neither was accepted for publication. It was the beginning of the sixties and Thompson’s interest in politics grew considerably as he realized that John Kennedy might win the presidential elections. McKeen quotes him on the subject: “That was when I first understood that the world of Ike and Nixon was vulnerable … and that Nixon, along with all the rotting bullshit he stood for, might conceivably be beaten” (60). With Sandy, he moved to the writer’s colony of Big Sur, popular among Beats and members of the emerging counterculture. The two were deeply in love, but outsiders saw the relationship as demanding too much of Sandy, who worked several jobs and took care of the household and Thompson’s every need so that he could devote his time to writing. His first publication in a national
45 magazine could have been the first step on the road towards success had it not been in Rogue, a more pornographic and less literary version of Playboy. Soon, however, Thompson was able to add publications in more respectable periodicals to his résumé as well and he began planning his next career move.
3.3. A New Journalism
According to McKeen, Thompson “felt that South America was underreported (or ineptly reported) in the North American press, and he likewise felt that he was the man to rectify the situation” (68). In 1962, he would journey through Puerto Rica, Aruba, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay and Brazil, where he would stay until May 1963. During this adventurous period of traveling, Thompson sold free-lance articles to various U.S. newspapers. The most important of these was the National Observer, a weekly sister publication of the Wall Street Journal that offered the journalist a lucrative contract. The Observer was a newly conceived periodical that had yet to develop a particular style. As a result, Thompson was given free rein in his writing and gradually, his voice grew stronger. Some Gonzo aspects could already be identified in the South American articles. The main character in most of these stories, for example, is the writer himself. Secondly, the articles usually revolve around the reporter’s attempts to cover a story instead of around the events themselves. As McKeen argues: “getting the story became the story” (73). The corruption the journalist encountered in the unknown continent also inspired him to write his first pieces of political analysis, a genre in which he would come to excel.
46 The South American installment in Thompson’s life thus proved extremely important in his development as a writer. He nevertheless believed “Rio was the end of the foreign correspondent’s road” and life in the United States gripped him more now he was so far removed from it (Thompson qtd. in McKeen 81). Kennedy’s election had made him realize that change was possible in conservative America. Times were exciting and Thompson felt they had to be documented properly, so he decided to go back home, lay aside fiction and concentrate on journalism. Apart from political developments, a considerable revolution was sweeping the field of journalism as well. Reporters like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin were producing innovative work for Esquire, The New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune. A new genre in journalism seemed to emerge and Wolfe proclaimed himself its theorist and official promoter. By employing techniques from fiction writing such as scene construction, the recording of full dialogue, adoption of third-person point of view and the depiction of everyday actions and situations, New Journalism aspired to topple the novel and rise as the era’s leading literary mode (Wolfe 36). As Wolfe acknowledges, one could hardly speak of a movement in 1963 (37). When Thompson returned to the United States, however, he noticed the change that had taken place in the journalistic domain and was encouraged to further develop the personal style he had begun to create whilst in South America. After getting married to Sandy and spending part of their honeymoon in Aspen, Colorado, where they would later settle, the newlyweds moved to San Francisco. Thompson needed to be closer to work and the blossoming counterculture. It was around this time that his son Juan was born. He wrote an article about the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley that was
47 rejected by the Observer and for reasons that remain unclear, left his former employer. The piece, which emphasized the significance of the student movement, would later be published by The Nation25. Carey McWilliams, editor of this liberal journal, admired Thompson’s work and pitched him an idea that would lead to national fame and provided the incentive to the creation of Gonzo journalism. Thompson instantly loved McWilliams’ proposal. He would write about the notorious motor gang that was stirring up trouble across the country, the Hell’s Angels.
3.4. “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”26
By 1965, the Hell’s Angels had become America’s scarecrow. While little was actually known about the organization, they were a cause of fear and the subject of heightened police investigation. When Thompson accepted the proposal to write about the gang led by Sonny Barger, it was immediately clear to him that he would include their side of the story as well, something no reporter before him had endeavored. The courage Thompson displayed in setting up a meeting surprised the Angels and earned the journalist some respect although he looked “every inch the geek” to the aggressive bikers (Weingarten 132). By now, he had also adopted the title of doctor, a right supposedly granted to him by a mail-order ‘doctor of divinity’ degree. All of his life, Thompson would play around with the epithet and enjoy being referred to as ‘the Good 25 26
The article was entitled “The Nonstudent Left.” One of Thompson’s famous slogans; also the motto of The Great Shark Hunt.
48 Doctor,’ but in his dealings with the Angels, he put aside his jocular arrogance. Instead, he tried to impress his interviewees by firing his gun out of the window of his San Franciscan apartment and drinking excessively. After a while, the bikers and the reporter got along seemingly well for, in Thompson’s own phrasing, “crazies always recognize each other” (qtd. in McKeen 98). After publication of the article “The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders” in The Nation, offers to write a book on the Angels started pouring in. Since the bikers approved of the published piece, which was well written and refuted some charges held against them, they did not mind Thompson hanging around some more. This time, however, the journalist did not just tag along, but proved an important catalyst in the story. He introduced Barger and his gang to the San Franciscan party scene, which in the mid-sixties revolved in large part around Ken Kesey and his Pranksters. What followed was an unstable alliance between the violent bikers and peace-loving hippies. When Kesey invited the Angels to a party at his compound in La Honda, LSD was distributed freely among the guests, who were unfamiliar with the drug. For Thompson, it would be the beginning of “his love affair with acid” (McKeen 107). The low point of the night occurred when several Angels, who were high on LSD, gang-raped a young woman. The scene is described in Thompson’s book as well as in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which charts the life of the Pranksters. Wolfe actually was not present at the party, but borrowed Thompson’s material, including tape recordings, to write about the infamous rape. Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs was published by Jim Silberman, Thompson’s editor at Random House, and became
49 somewhat of a bestseller. Its first part can be seen as an example of old-fashioned reporting, more objective than many of the South American articles for instance, but in the latter half, the writer himself occupies the center stage. The “crusty observer” turns into the “in-your-face participant” (McKeen 109). This personal participation formed an abode for the imminent dawn of Gonzo journalism. The book’s postscript, in which Thompson describes how he got beat up by one of the Angels after interfering in a dispute, provides the perfect example of the journalist’s interference in the events. Furthermore, it added to the writer’s reputation as a daredevil. Barger, however, claims that Thompson deliberately provoked a fight because he needed a shocking ending. Whatever the truth may be, Thompson was finally on his way to fame although fortune was still lacking. The question now was how to top riding with the Angels.
3.5. The Birth of Gonzo Journalism
Although both the series of South American articles and the Hell’s Angels book had displayed innovative qualities, Thompson still had one foot in traditional journalism. The work that followed his Random House publication would show how he struggled to create his new style and especially to see it in print. In 1969, Playboy solicited Thompson to write a profile piece on former Olympic skier Jean-Claude Killy. The retired French athlete had sold himself to the automobile industry as a “celebrity huckster” (McKeen 136). Instead of portraying Killy as the slick and sexy sportsman the public was interested in, Thompson focuses on the dullness, phoniness and frustration of a man “trapped in an image he could not tolerate” (McKeen 136). When Playboy rejected
50 the article, Warren Hinckle offered to print it in the first issue of his new magazine, Scanlan’s Monthly. “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy” contains all the elements of Gonzo journalism, albeit in slightly subdued form. The writer and his attempts at covering the events are central to the story; the factual account is at times infused with fancy; and Thompson makes increased use of invective. The article confirmed his rightful position among the innovating New Journalists as many characteristics of this genre, such as scene-by-scene construction and a focus on everyday situations, surfaced as well. Thompson’s next major assignment would establish him as the creator of his very own brand of journalism, although the revolutionary act of inventing a new genre was not exactly intended. When Scanlan’s approved of the idea to cover the 1970 Kentucky Derby, Hinckle decided that British illustrator Ralph Steadman was to accompany Thompson. The latter regarded the resulting article, a “classic of irresponsible journalism,” as a failure and believed it would certainly lead to unemployment (Thompson qtd. in McKeen 149). “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” indeed differed from anything else written at the time. Filled with highly abusive language and gross diatribes aimed at the whiskey gentry of Kentucky, the piece principally ignores the race itself and instead zooms in on the aggressive crowd and the deterioration of Thompson and Steadman into raving drunks. As the protagonist himself admits: Unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform. (Thompson, “Derby” 202)
51 On the last day of their trip, Thompson and Steadman realize that they “both look worse than anything [Steadman has] drawn” (Thompson, “Derby” 211). Much to the author’s surprise, the report of their “journey into the innermost circle of southern hell” was soon called a breakthrough in contemporary journalism (Weingarten 233). Wolfe applauded its “manic, highly adrenal first-person style” and the Céline-like fantastic quality, while Bill Cardoso of The Boston Globe called it “totally gonzo” (qtd. in McKeen 149). Finally, the long anticipated style had a name. The origins of the word are uncertain and its meaning contested. Some see it as a derivation of the supposedly French Canadian ‘gonzeaux,’ which denotes a ‘shining path27.’ Although this etymology complies with Thompson’s Faulknerian drive to reveal the truth by mixing fact and fiction (infra), it is more likely that Cardoso used the word in its “Boston-bar derivation, referring to the last man standing after a night of drinking” (McKeen 150). As soon as it was applied to Thompson’s writing, ‘gonzo’ took on a set of new meanings that linked it to chemical intoxication, brashness, importunity and flamboyance. In general, the term’s connotation evolved in the direction of ‘nonconformist’ (Tamony 73-74). Thompson himself liked to think of Gonzo28 journalism as reportage without editing while John Bruce-Novoa defines the style in more rebellious terms, as “a literary Molotov cocktail,” an attempt to outrage the reader stemming from the author’s own outrage at what has happened to the American Dream (40). The significance of the symbol of the American Dream in Thompson’s writing will be expounded in the last chapter, but it is important to note that Fear and Loathing in 27 28
Postscript to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, p. 15. When the term refers to Thompson’s writing, it is written with a capital.
52 Las Vegas was conceived as an obituary for this Dream. Two articles for Jann Wenner’s hip new magazine Rolling Stone formed the preliminary to the legendary Vegas trip and the Gonzo masterpiece it resulted in. One deals with Thompson’s illustrious Freak Power campaign to become sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, and the other investigates the death of Chicano reporter Ruben Salazar. “The Battle of Aspen”29 would help Thompson realize that the American Dream was as much political as it was individual and that its death owed to the many illusions of the sixties and their debunking, while “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan” provided the occasion to invite Oscar Zeta Acosta, later immortalized as Dr. Gonzo, to Las Vegas.
3.6. The Era of Fear and Loathing
Right after the publication of Hell’s Angels, Thompson had agreed with Jim Silberman that he would write a book on the death of the American Dream. Over the next few years, the promise lurked in the dark corners of Thompson’s mind and caused him great distress since he had no idea how to begin such an epic undertaking. The atmosphere of violence Thompson experienced during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the sense of doom he felt when Nixon was elected in that same year hinted at a connection between the American Dream, the counterculture and politics, but Thompson still was not able to put the pieces together. Only when he became involved in local politics did he see the bigger picture. By registering the ‘freak vote,’ which consisted of normally politically apathetic misfits, hippies and heads30, Thompson 29 30
Also known as “Freak Power in the Rockies.” Drug users.
53 managed to gather an unexpected amount of support for his political cause. Although he lost eventually, he now realized that the American Dream lay in the possibility to change the system and that this possibility had all but vanished by the end of the decade. Soon the opportunity would present itself to write the book that had been torturing him for so long, but as always in Thompson’s career, this happened unexpectedly. The idea for the Ruben Salazar piece had come from Oscar Zeta Acosta, a Chicano activist, lawyer and writer whom Thompson had befriended. When the article was almost finished, Sports Illustrated offered Thompson a chance to travel to Las Vegas to report the Mint 400 motorcycle race. The journalist decided to bring Acosta along in order to discuss the final details of the Salazar story. Legend has it, since so it is told in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that Thompson and Acosta received the deciding call from Sports Illustrated over a pink telephone handed to them by a dwarf waiter in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. They immediately rented a car and drove to Las Vegas, but once arrived, soon lost interest in the race and spent their time in the many bars and casinos of the Neon City, gorging large amounts of alcohol and drugs. The long weekend proved rather fruitful as it enabled Thompson to finish his Salazar article as well as turn in a 25,000-word manuscript on the trip to Vegas. Although he had left out his chemically enhanced adventures with Acosta and written a semi-informed report on the race, framed in a history of Sin City and its gambling industry, Sports Illustrated rejected the piece. It was too long and not at all what the magazine had requested. Thompson was furious and refused to let the case rest. To amuse himself back in Colorado, he rewrote the rejected article and
54 incorporated the antics of excess he and Acosta had indulged in. Their names were changed to Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, a Samoan instead of Mexican attorney, and facts were occasionally enhanced. When Thompson presented the manuscript to his editors at Rolling Stone, they were lyrical and urged him to continue. To extend the narrative, the journalist and his sidekick revisited Las Vegas during the National District Attorneys Convention on Drug Abuse. The contrast between those attending the conference to be warned about the dangers of narcotics and the hallucinating duo could not have been greater. The two-part text Thompson finally handed in was a “twisted buddy saga” (McKeen 164) starting with an epic road trip that could rival Kerouac’s in On the Road and interwoven throughout with elegiac memories of the sixties. Drugs are abundant, from Duke’s entrance in the hotel, when LSD twists the images of people at the bar into copulating dinosaurs, to his drunk driving in the middle of the book and the ultimate departure by plane, when he says goodbye to Vegas by snorting an amyl. However, the book also contains some of the sharpest observations on the demise of the counterculture and the rise of Richard Nixon. Both the social satire and over-the-top inebriation will be discussed in detail in the next chapter, since they are part of Thompson’s ambivalent vision of the sixties. When Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream was printed in Rolling Stone, Thompson was catapulted to nation-wide fame and the popularity of Gonzo journalism was corroborated. Some stumbled over Thompson’s “heightened version of reality,” but most critics heralded the distortion of reality as a revolutionary invention (McKeen 164). The book rights were sold to Random
55 House. This did not free Thompson from the vow he had made to Silberman years earlier. The definitive book on the death of the American Dream would never be written, but the search for it would continue, as the investigation into America’s marrow, which he had begun in Vegas, became an obsession that occupied him until his death. The success of Fear and Loathing had turned Thompson into Jann Wenner’s prize reporter. At Rolling Stone, he could now write whatever he wanted and “what Hunter wanted was one of the things Wenner had tried to avoid: politics” (McKeen 178). Thompson had followed the 1968 presidential campaign from up close and would not let the opportunity pass to do so again in 1972. Together with Timothy Crouse, he would cover the entire campaign, from the primaries to the final battle. Thompson saw George McGovern as the only respectable Democratic candidate, but acknowledged that he seemed to stand no chance running against the likes of Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. Of all of the candidates, Thompson loathed Muskie most. In order to explain the man’s occasional temperamental upsurges on national television, the Gonzo journalist spread the rumor that Muskie was addicted to a dangerous Brazilian hallucinogenic called Ibogaine. An obvious joke to Thompson, the gossip took on a life of its own when it was printed in Rolling Stone and did not do Muskie’s campaign any good. When McGovern ultimately won the primary election and became the official Democratic candidate, Thompson’s was initially ecstatic. His familiarity and friendship with McGovern and his staff, however, had as a result that he came to expect too much from them. Nixon’s opponent lost some of his credibility when it was revealed that his running mate Thomas Eagleton had an unknown history of mental illness and shock
56 treatment. McGovern expended Thompson’s approval by conspiring with the old party regulars, many of whom had been responsible for the police violence in Chicago in 1968. Although McGovern was no longer faultless in the journalist’s eyes, his defeat to Nixon still tasted bitter: The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern … is really one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States in this century who really understands (sic) what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon. (Thompson qtd. in McKeen 199) Thompson saw the campaign he had covered as a testament to the impossibility of “true political reform” (McKeen 197). Professionally, however, the period proved productive. The Gonzo style was developed further as Thompson cultivated a way with words that would come to typify him. Deadlines were henceforth “brutal” and editors “savage and obscene” (McKeen 188). Furthermore, the campaign articles displayed heightened degrees of insult. Calling Nixon a “greedy little hustler,” as in the excerpt cited above, was not exceptional for Thompson. According to political reporter Curtis Wilkie, his caricatures of politicians were exaggerated, but surprisingly truthful, and McGovern’s adviser Frank Mankiewicz described Thompson’s reporting as “the most accurate and the least factual” (qtd. in McKeen 191 & 194). More than anything, Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ’72 raised Thompson’s status as a journalist. He was still a rogue reporter, but now he was read and respected beyond the Rolling Stone audience. Paradoxically, his venture into the
57 serious world of political journalism was accompanied by the propagation of his alter ego Raoul Duke. As interest in both Thompson the journalist and Duke the crazed junkie increased, separating the two became harder. Before long, Thompson would start to feel trapped in the image he helped to create.
3.7. The Freak Kingdom31
In the seventies and eighties, Thompson lived the life of a rock star. He wrote less and partied more, developing a drug habit and engaging in numerous sexual affairs. While the Watergate scandal infuriated him so that he had to unleash his wrath in reportage, he only published an article or gave an occasional college lecture in order to sustain himself financially during the remainder of the decade. His involvement in the organization of an “all-powers conference of Democratic Party heavyweights” ended in disappointment because no one seemed to have the key to filling the vacuum that would be left by Nixon (McKeen 212). Furthermore, the absence of an entertaining “bad guy” like Tricky Dick crippled Thompson’s talent for political vitriol32. The number of fans grew steadily as new generations read the Fear and Loathing saga, but “many merely responded to the outrageousness in his writing” (McKeen 221). The creation of the character Uncle Duke, an irresponsible and unpredictable drug-using journalist clearly based on Thompson, in Gary Trudeau’s comic Doonesbury worsened matters. 31
“Just another freak in the Freak Kingdom” (Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 83). Thompson liked Nixon, in a way, or at least liked writing about him. This is why Thompson dedicated The Great Shark Hunt to him. 32
58 Thompson felt his celebrity status had mushroomed to nightmarish proportions. Several of the writing assignments he did accept in the seventies took him years to finish. There was the report on a fishing tournament for Playboy; covering the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire with Steadman; and a tribute to Acosta33, who had been missing for several months after boarding a smugglers’ boat and was later reported dead. Thompson also traveled to Saigon to witness the final stage of a conflict that had spanned much of his adult life. Inexperienced as a war correspondent and unaccustomed to life-threatening danger, he was extremely ill qualified. Although he missed the actual evacuation of the city, he nonetheless managed to capture the mixed feelings of triumph and despair that reigned at the front in those final days34. While the war in Vietnam ended, his family life burst at the seams. The loss of two newborn infants over the years had traumatized Sandy and she had taken to drinking. Once she became aware of her husband’s infidelity, it was only a matter of time before she filed for divorce. Thompson was devastated as he saw his only security disappear. With the help of new girlfriend Laila Nabulsi, however, he gradually managed to get his life back on track. In 1979, the couple moved to Key West. Although Thompson disliked leaving his beloved Owl Farm in Woody Creek, Colorado, the change of scene was just what he needed. His newfound sense of invigoration along with a cash shortage inspired him to comply to the offer to publish an anthology of his Gonzo work from the late fifties up till then. The result displayed Thompson’s knack for catchy titles as it was called The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time. Included 33 34
The article was entitled “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat.” In “Dance of the Doomed.”
59 were all of his hard-to-find articles for Scanlan’s, his pieces for Rolling Stone and The Nation, and his more recent work, some of which had not yet been published separately. Reviewers who managed to move beyond the messy editing agreed that the anthology demonstrated Thompson’s unique voice and fans were thrilled that new Gonzo material was finally available. During the next decades, the anthology would remain Thompson’s preferred modus operandi35. Apart from the unsuccessful The Curse of Lono, which describes the adventures of the author and Steadman in Hawaii infused with obscure references to island folklore, he would not publish anything else. In 1988, Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s appeared, a collection of his much admired columns in the San Francisco Examiner. These essays, in which eighties politics and culture are ruthlessly analyzed with a Gonzo eye for the absurd, show a journalist who is back on top of his game. The drugs and obscenity for which Thompson was known are largely absent and the columns were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, a sign of recognition the author found highly gratifying. Only two years later, his third anthology of collected work was published. For Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream, the journalist and his posse, invariably consisting of two assistants and usually an intern as well, collected relevant articles from five decades and conceived of the death of the American Dream as a thread throughout the book. This assembly process was, however, interrupted by a three-month trial, in which Thompson had to defend himself against sexual assault charges. The supposed victim was a crazed fan who had refused to 35
Each of Thompson’s anthologies (there would be four in total) was conceived as one volume of The Gonzo Papers. Later they were published together in an anthology of anthologies.
60 leave the writer’s house. The court hearings generated a flood of media attention that Thompson was able to use to his advantage by turning the case into an indictment of increased police power and a defense of the Fourth Amendment. He certainly had not lost the Gonzo penchant for theatrics over the years. The final anthology was called Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie. The 1994 book deals with the Bush-Clinton campaign, recollects memories of Thompson’s illustrious run for sheriff of Pitkin County and includes letters and faxes sent to friends and celebrities. McKeen calls it “the least substantial work he produced,” but nevertheless regards the obituary for Richard Nixon at the end of the volume as one of the best things Thompson ever wrote (231). In spite of popular claims that his journalistic genius was faltering, Thompson was still able to raise hell in his vicious ontrend political reporting or produce fireworks by letting his Gonzo side out, in real life or in print. As Peter Whitmer argues, he remained “a literary bull in the China shop of Western civilization” (84). His fan base kept increasing and a second movie adaptation of his work was made. After Art Linson’s failed Where the Buffalo Roam, Terry Gilliam managed to portray the drug-fueled dynamics between Thompson and Acosta befittingly in the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Extremely popular, reasonably respected and occasionally feared, Thompson had become a literary icon. The incorporation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the esteemed Modern Library collection was a new cause of joy to the author, who had devoured Modern Library editions as a child. Together with the aforementioned movie adaptation, the event also marked the start of a true Thompson revival. Thompson’s private correspondence was published to raving reviews in The Fear and Loathing Letters, Vol.
61 1: The Proud Highway: The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman 1955-1967 and Vol. 2: Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 19681976 and he came to be regarded as one of the best writers of his generation. Assisting him during the collecting and editing of the second volume of letters was Anita Bejmuk. Thompson had engaged in short-lived affairs with many of his interns and assistants, but the relationship with Anita lasted and the couple would get married in 2003. In 2000, Thompson started an online column for ESPN called “Hey Rube.” Although he loved returning to the domain of sports writing, his essays acted often as a platform for his anti-Bush criticism, especially after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. As a political analyst, he was becoming increasingly cynical of the American state of affairs. This cynicism did not benefit from his dwindling health. McKeen writes the following about the last years of Thompson’s life: There had always been that joke – the one about how he should really be dead, that his existence was an affront to all modern medical knowledge, that he was an anomaly, a genetic miracle. The joke was over. (347) Considering the extreme substance abuse and deliberate search for danger he had partaken in for almost fifty years, Thompson’s still being alive was indeed nothing short of a miracle. By the middle of the new decade, his age and bad health finally began to catch up with him. With his 2003 collection of stories Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child In the Final Days of the American Century, Thompson perpetuated his image as an outlaw journalist for the last time. He gradually began to say goodbye to his friends and family in letters or telephone messages.
62 Having vowed in his youth not to live a day past 27, he felt he was overstaying his welcome, getting too “greedy” as he wrote in a note to Anita on February 16, 2005 (qtd. in McKeen 351). Four days later, Hunter Stockton Thompson was found dead by his wife in their home in Woody Creek. He had shot himself.
3.8. “The weird never die”36
After the cremation and an intimate memorial, the festivities were not over. During his life, Thompson had been very specific about his funeral. Johnny Depp, who had become one of the author’s closest friends while preparing for his role as Raoul Duke in Gilliam’s movie, offered to take care of the expenses. On August 20, 2005, Thompson’s ashes were shot out of a canon shaped like the symbol of his Freak Power campaign, a double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button. Surrounded by fireworks, smoke and colored lights, his family, friends, colleagues and admirers bade Hunter Thompson farewell to the sounds of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The ceremony formed a suitably dramatic end to the life of America’s jester, but also a sincere final tribute to one of its great writers. In the years following his death, Thompson’s son Juan, wife Anita and literary executor Douglas Brinkley devised a strategy to ensure that Thompson would never become a “dismissed figure” (McKeen 359). The plan is to bring out unpublished work gradually. A third volume of letters is scheduled for publication this year and Thompson’s early novel Prince Jellyfish and a movie adaptation of The Rum Diary can also be expected to appear soon. Outside the realm of his own writing, various 36
Another one of Thompson’s slogans
63 bibliographies and documentaries have paid tribute to Thompson. Of the latter, the most recent is Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson directed in 2008 by Alex Gibney. Thompson’s influence in the modern media is also considerable as journalists increasingly occupy center stage in reportage. We may presume that Thompson also would have been pleased to know that he has become the subject of academic debate. There is as yet a limited amount of research on Gonzo journalism, but this may be expected to increase. Furthermore, use of the term “gonzo” and the phrase “fear and loathing” reach far beyond discussions of Thompson writing. In academia, “gonzo” refers to a do-it-yourself mentality. This denotation obviously stems from Thompson’s participatory journalistic attitude. An illustration hereof is found in the work of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. In his book Violence, Žižek discusses the rise of what has been called “gonzo pornography,” a trend in which all narrative is omitted and the participants in the sexual act film the events as well. The viewer is thus placed in the middle of the scene. The phrase “fear and loathing,” on the other hand, is used by Fredric Jameson in his article “Fear and Loathing in Globalization” to refer to cyberpunk37 author William Gibson’s portrayal of the world in his novel Pattern Recognition. Whereas Thompson regarded earlyseventies Las Vegas with fear and loathing because the city stood as a metaphor for the corruption of the American Dream, Gibson depicts the contemporary corporate climate equally ruthlessly because it breeds obsession and alienation. Jameson describes Gibson’s scene setting as “Hunter-Thompsonian global tourism” (“Fear”). Allusion to “gonzo” and “fear and loathing” is, however, not restricted to the 37
A science-fiction genre combining technology and marginal characters. The latter allows for comparison to Thompson’s writing, in which the protagonists are often described as losers and misfits.
64 academic world. The words are heard in popular usage as well. According to Tom Wolfe, Thompson’s exceptional literary status lay in its democratic nature. Philip Roth, John Updike and Norman Mailer are perhaps better-known twentieth-century American writers, “but outside of the ‘litt-tree’ world, these are non-people, whereas Hunter Thompson is all over the place” (qtd. in McKeen 361). Thompson was a phenomenon, a literary celebrity. Those who read him appreciated him for his humor and unparalleled political commentary, those who did not enjoyed his anti-authoritarian rebellion and drug-addled adventures. As his friend Tim Ferris prophesied after his death, “Hunter will become to journalism what Che was to revolution” (qtd. in Hinckle 26). Thompson did, as he put the grit back in journalism. In spite of his occasional seriousness, his ambition to become a great writer and the substantial influence he had in journalism and fiction, he remains a rebel to the masses and Gonzo will always have that revolutionary ring.
4. Hunter S. Thompson and the 1960s 4.1. Chapter Outline
In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson offers the reader a crazy road trip, a nightmarish vision of the Neon City, a buddy saga filled with absurd humor, and a metaphoric tale that investigates the end of the sixties. This last point is lost on many readers, but provided the incentive for the story’s publication. It is also the starting point for my study of the sixties in Thompson’s work. Before turning to his writing, it is essential to ascertain how the author defines the decade. This preliminary step implies an examination of the concept of periodization, one that will facilitate typifying Thompson’s sense of history and ambivalent attitude. Then I will discuss the typical rhetoric the Gonzo journalist employs in Fear and Loathing to realize his view. Finally, I will attempt to expose the same rhetorical measures in other texts as well in order to assess whether the duality is a constant in the Gonzo portrayal of the sixties. The texts I have chosen are all representative of a particular period in Thompson’s development as a writer. The view of the sixties presented in the respective works may thus evolve along with the author’s own person and personae. The historical and biographical outlines divulged in the two previous chapters underlie the following discussion of my research question. Both sixties politics and the counterculture are dominant topics in Thompson’s work and knowledge about his life and career is needed to understand the conditions under which he wrote and the evolution his appraisal of the sixties may undergo. Furthermore, the socio-political conditions of the time and the
66 genre of Gonzo journalism can be said to have inspired the writer’s ambivalent view. They respectively instigate or reflect a myriad of emotions in Thompson’s work, most importantly fear and loathing.
4.2. Periodizing the Sixties38 4.2.1. Demarcating a decade
An inquiry into Thompson’s characterization of the sixties requires a discussion of periodization. One must ask oneself whether it is possible to delineate a decade and what kind of insights may be attained by this technique. The seeming self-evidence of the claim that the sixties are a period of time in the twentieth century generates concord among scholars. This agreement does not mean, however, that all of them endeavor to periodize the era or even deem periodization possible or useful in any way. How long academics that do periodize believe the time frame lasted and what they think it encompassed further depends on their personal backgrounds and professional paradigms. In what follows, I will discuss various attempts to delineate the sixties, including Thompson’s, and gradually unfold the unexpected difficulties that arise when demarcating a decade.
“Periodizing the 60s” is an article by Fredric Jameson that appeared in The 60s Without Apology, an anthology of sixties criticism.
4.2.2. To periodize or not to periodize
The first scholar to which to refer vis-à-vis periodization is the author of this subchapter’s title phrase, Fredric Jameson. As one of the editors of The 60s Without Apology, a seminal work on the sixties published in the eighties, he contributed to the debate over the significance of the decade and he also wrote an insightful article that is published it in this particular volume. Under the title “Periodizing the 60s,” the cultural philosopher and political theorist turns his attention to the dynamics of history and provides us with an interesting definition and justification of periodization. Objectively, periodization is defined as the division of a portion of time into periods. Jameson’s use of the word, however, is more specific as it stems from a Marxist understanding of history. In the first paragraph of his article, he explicates his stance: The following sketch starts from the position that History is necessity, that the 60s had to happen the way it [sic] did, and that its opportunities and failures were inextricably intertwined, marked by the objective constraints and openings of a determinate historical situation, of which I thus wish to offer a tentative and provisional model. (“Periodizing” 178) To Jameson, periodization can thus be circumscribed not only as the delineation of a definite period in time, but also as the depiction of a “determinate historical situation.” Surprisingly, this definition allows for an assured range of variety. Jameson discusses the seemingly paradoxical combination of diversity and uniformity in a nuanced plea for periodization:
68 Now, this is not the place for a theoretical justification of periodization in the writing of history, but to those who think that cultural periodization implies some massive kinship and homogeneity or identity within a given period, it may quickly be replied that it is surely only against a certain conception of what is historically dominant or hegemonic that the full value of the exceptional … can be assessed. Here, in any case, the “period” in question is understood not as some omnipresent and uniform way of thinking and acting, but rather as the sharing of a common objective situation, to which a whole range of varied responses and creative innovations is then possible, but always within the situations structural limits. (178) After this justification of periodization, Jameson starts paying heed to its flaws as well by mentioning a critique of the academic custom, namely that “the possibilities of diachrony” may be questioned (179). By this, he means that one may have reservations about the academic value of dividing time into segments. Jameson adds another point of criticism when he says that “synchrony and in particular … the relationship to be established between the various ‘levels’ of historical change singled out for attention” neither is unproblematic (idem). In short, periodization brings with it profound issues that arise from the conflict between various time conceptions, whether successive or simultaneous.
4.2.3. New beginnings and ends
In spite of the difficulties that may arise when one attempts to periodize the sixties, or any other decade for that matter, many scholars resort to the technique. This does not entail that periodization is treated naively in academic discourse. Although scholars occasionally forget to mention it explicitly in their methodology, possible problems are as a rule considered. A practice that demonstrates both the problematic nature of periodizing and a way to approach it is the use of a timeline. As periodizations on display, timelines or chronologies, which form popular additions to many a reference work on the sixties, allow us to study how the decade is variously demarcated. A comparison of the events included and excluded illustrates the potential for equivocation inherent in attempts to define an era and the necessity of motivating one’s choices. The first reference work to be examined is The 60s Without Apology, the collection of essays that contains Fredric Jameson’s aforementioned article, edited by him, Sohnya Sayres, Anders Stephanson and Stanley Aronowitz. Jameson, Stephanson and Cornel West compiled the chronology favored in this anthology. Their timeline effectively tackles the problem of synchronous and diachronous inclusion. The title “Very Partial Chronology” acknowledges the subjectivity of periodization and a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan emphasizes the relativity of all historical claims: The million-year period to which the burned junk from the museums and archives related would be summed up in the history books in one sentence: … Following the death of Jesus Christ there was a period of
70 readjustment that lasted for approximately one million years. (“Very Partial Chronology” 210) The editors of The 60s Without Apology further emphasize the idiosyncrasy of periodizations by not adhering to a restrictive ten-year conception of a decade. They commence their timeline in 1957, with the Battle of Algiers, a guerrilla campaign against the French colonizers; the independence of Ghana, which had been known as Gold Coast under British rule and was the first sub-Saharan African nation to achieve sovereignty; and the launching of the Sputnik, the first human-made object to orbit the Earth. The remainder of the chronology lists political events alongside countercultural manifestations and influential music, films and literature. In 1976, finally, the sixties are said to end as the world is witness to the Soweto Rebellion, a series of uprisings against the South African apartheid regime; the first victory of the Partie Quebecois in the Canadian provincial elections; and the death of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. The periodization expressed here is similar to the one bolstered in Jameson’s article. In both cases, the scope of the sixties is seen as wide. In “Periodizing the 60s,” a discussion of politics includes Third World revolutions and Maoism, and contemporary thought is framed in an extensive history of philosophy. The timeline referred to above likewise widens the range of the sixties temporally and geographically. Alexander Bloom presents a rather different timeline in Long Time Gone: Sixties America Then and Now. This anthology of essays was published in 2001 as part of the “Viewpoints on American Culture” series and discusses the legacy of the sixties. The appended chronology starts rather predictably in 1960 and registers events most of which are indicated in The 60s Without Apology as well. For the opening year, the
71 election of Kennedy is included together with the first sit-ins and the foundation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the SDS. The era’s outer limit is drawn in 1975, one year before the sixties would end according to the previously discussed anthology. Bloom’s periodization, however, arguably makes more sense since ’75 was marked by the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam after the defeat of the South Vietnamese government. The year thus bore witness to the disbandment of one of the counterculture’s primary concerns and unifying forces. The difference between Bloom’s chronology and the time sequence presented by Jameson and his fellow compilers does not only lie in its temporal limits, though. Its scope is different as well. Bloom mostly addresses North American issues whereas Jameson, Stephanson and West also examine what happened in the rest of the world during the sixties. Since we have adopted Jameson’s definition of periodization, expressed in “Periodizing the 60s” as the demarcation of a definite period in time and the discussion of the respective historical situation, it is fair to say that our two temporally and spatially distinct timelines are the expression of two different periodizations. This means that the two chronologies communicate a varied conception of what constitutes the decade. To Jameson and his colleagues, the sixties were a global phenomenon with far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. Bloom, on the contrary, locates the core changes that took place in this period on the American continent and curbs the reach of their influence in time and space. Although the anthologies that incorporate a chronology and that I could thus discuss in order to test the reliability of periodizations are numerous, I will only examine one more. The Portable Sixties Reader is a collection of essays, poetry and fiction
72 edited by Ann Charters, who also edited The Portable Beat Reader and The Portable Jack Kerouac for the “Penguin Classics” series and has published various other works on the Beat Generation and the counterculture that succeeded it. Her beliefs considering periodization can be compared to Jameson’s since she regards the sixties as “a self-contained period” within which various forces were active (Arthur Marwick qtd. in Charters, Reader xiii). Charters’s timeline spans the traditional ten-year period of the sixties, plus some later developments under the heading “1970 and beyond.” Although the number of years she discusses is thus smaller than that treated in The 60s Without Apology or Long Time Gone, her chronology is perhaps more extensive as each time, she provides a comprehensive general section on the annual historical evolutions, but also two or three smaller paragraphs on deaths of famous and influential figures, art and optionally new technology. For the opening year, 1960, Civil Rights actions, sit-ins and student protests are included, events which are incorporated in both aforementioned chronologies as well. Furthermore, Charters, in line with the international interests of Jameson, Stephanson and West, devotes attention to American-Cuban relations and the independence of the Republic of the Congo under Patrice Lumumba. There are, however, a number of supplemental issues she addresses that are not mentioned by the other editors, for example, the establishment of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and the development of new weaponry. Among the phenomena listed under “1970 and beyond” are the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison of drug overdoses, the clearing of Vietnam and the first celebration of Earth Day. By looking at these instances and the distinction Charters makes between a general
73 overview of each year and a summary of deaths, publications and technologies, one notices that she chooses to widen the range of topics important to a history of the sixties. More specifically, she adds economic, artistic, ecological and technological matters to a program otherwise dominated by the political and socio-cultural. Thus it becomes clear that the decade known as the sixties can be filled out in varying ways according to the author’s own interests, but that certain domains are always included. Fields on which all scholars agree that they are crucial to an understanding of the sixties are politics and the history of the counterculture, the topics that I have focused on in the chapter “The Sixties: A Time of Revolution.”
4.2.4. Fear and loathing in periodization
Politics and the counterculture are also crucial to Thompson’s understanding of the sixties. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he provides a very subjective periodization of the decade. Thompson’s biography has taught us that he started to believe in the possibility of political change in the United States as early as 1960, when Kennedy declared his intent to run for president. Of even more significance proved the year in which he moved to San Francisco and became aware of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley University. To Thompson, the rise of the student movement was like the onset of a great storm that would uproot American society: “I saw it coming. There was a great rumbling – you could feel it everywhere. It was wild.” (Thompson qtd. in McKeen 92). However, he would only be able to grasp the full extent of the power of activism by engaging in local politics himself. When he did so, the sixties were already
74 over. It was 1970 and the failure of Freak Power had proven a testament to the missed opportunities of the previous decade. If an understanding of the era’s radical potential occurred after the decade had ended, then the essence of the sixties must have lain outside the sphere of politics to Thompson. An excerpt from Fear and Loathing may provide the missing piece of the puzzle. After a description of his encounter with drug authority Timothy Leary, Thompson takes us to the Fillmore Auditorium in the mid-sixties where he ingested LSD for the first time. The scene is followed by commentary from the narrator: Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era – the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run … but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant … (66-67) Thompson traces the core of the sixties back to that other topic discussed in chapter two, the counterculture. The middle sixties in San Francisco were the glory days of the hippie movement and it is precisely this golden era that Thompson singles out as “a very special time and place.” His ambivalent attitude towards the sixties is already apparent in the doubt about the decade’s significance. The periodization implicit in the retrospective fragment, and noticeable throughout Fear and Loathing, is more restrictive than those discussed above and also much more personal as Thompson focuses on his own experiences in a short timeframe and specific locality. This does not mean that the
75 writer avoids assessments about the rest of the decade and country, but when he ventures into these domains, he mainly generalizes on the basis of his own past. The insistence on participation included in the Gonzo manifesto thus seems to be reflected in Thompson’s periodization. The limited scope differentiates the periodization in Fear and Loathing from those devised by Jameson, Stephanson and West; Bloom; and Charters. To Thompson, the sixties did not begin in 1960, or even in 1957, but in 1964, when he moved to California and became involved in the emerging counterculture. The Gonzo journalist accordingly associates the end of the decade with the decline of anti-mainstream forces. In the passage that is cited in the introduction to this dissertation (Fear and Loathing 22-23), he lists the countercultural icons that bit the dust of the seventies. Thompson’s sixties ended when his heroes were imprisoned, living reclusively, murdered or defeated. Leary fled to Algeria after his escape from prison in 1970, but was subsequently held hostage there by Black Panther Party member Eldridge Cleaver, who objected to Leary’s promotion of drug use. Bob Dylan was touring less and the quality of his recordings varied greatly. LSD cook and Grateful Dead soundman Owsley Stanley lived an ascetic life on the artificial island before the coast of Los Angeles. Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in 1968, in succession of his brother, and finally, Muhammad Ali went down in “The Fight of the Century,” his first fight after losing his boxing license over refusal to enlist in the Vietnam War, to Joe Frazier, in 1971. All of these people represented change, hope or rebellion and all of them had been subdued by the closing of the decade. Their subjugation is a source of regret for Thompson, who remembers their glory, but the thought of their weakness and failure also incites contempt. The
76 duality is duly distilled in the title of the book: Fear and Loathing. Thompson is able to express such a layered opinion because he creates distance by adopting a semihistorical approach. He writes about the sixties in retrospect, as if they are a remote past: That was some other era, burned out and long gone from the brutish realities of this foul year of Our Lord, 1971. (Fear and Loathing 23) The attempt at periodization is thus straightforward. The sixties are characterized as a particular “corner of time and the world” (Fear and Loathing 67), distant from the present, with a more or less set beginning and end, lasting approximately from 1964 to 1971. Synchronously, the period includes the rise of student protest and the civil rights movement, the San Francisco Acid Wave, anti-war action, the Summer of Love, Woodstock and a general belief in political reform that was gradually stifled when Johnson began to favor Vietnam over his Great Society. Like Jameson, Thompson seemingly believes in the existence of a determinate historical situation within which heterogeneity can be expressed. His periodization is more restricted than Bloom’s and more personal than Charters’s. The focus on the counterculture is idiosyncratic and yet highly informative. Although Thompson says himself that “no mix of words” can equal the experience of having been there in San Francisco in the mid-sixties, Fear and Loathing nonetheless comes close to capturing the spirit of the time, in all its splendor and shortcomings.
4.2.5. The 60s periodized
A study of chronologies of the sixties has proven a practical approach to comparing periodizations of the era. By contrasting three anthologies and their respective timelines with one another and with Thompson’s periodization, two of the claims touched upon by Jameson in “Periodizing the 60s” are corroborated. First of all, the problematic nature of periodizations appears to have been verified. The compiler of a chronology, and by extension any writer who attempts to periodize, has to make choices regarding the diachronous demarcation of the time frame and the synchronous inclusion of events. A periodization is thus always subjective and dependent on the aim of the larger work in which it is integrated. Thompson’s turns this problem into his strength by adopting the extremely personal stance the participatory Gonzo genre requires. Secondly, the usefulness of periodizing has been confirmed. Periodizations ostensibly stimulate debate because they offer conflicting perspectives on an era. However, they also demonstrate that it is possible to agree on the historical relevance and impact of certain events and thus help establish a shared view of history, which incorporates the incidence of singular disagreements as a constitutive feature. Thompson’s appraisal of the sixties can be framed in larger cultural criticism as well, but even so the personal nature of his account and the uniqueness of his voice stand out.
4.3. The Sixties in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: The Wave
In this subchapter, I will study the ambivalence in Thompson’s view of the sixties, as expressed in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As a journalist, Thompson employed various techniques to shape his prose. Typical for Gonzo journalism are a subjective approach, inclusion of the author in the events described, stream-of-consciousness, narrative digressions, “suspended coherence,” hyperbole, and “the juxtaposition of disparate levels of diction” (Bruce-Novoa 41-42). These stylistic practices stem from the conception that Gonzo should be “a camera-eye technique of reporting in which the writer's notes are published supposedly without editing” (Bruce-Novoa 41). Thompson wishes to offer his perspective on the world, rather than trying to convey an objective reality. As a reader, one has to accept that this perspective may be distorted. In fact, the distortion is the core of Thompson’s writing. His credo, derived from William Faulkner, is that “the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism” (Thompson, Great Shark Hunt qtd. in Bruce-Novoa 41). Subjectivity is key to Thompson’s appraisal of the sixties, as has already been argued while discussing his concept of periodization. To sculpt his personal view, however, Thompson also resorts to classic American rhetoric. In this way, he inscribes himself in a longstanding tradition of historical evaluation, but at the same time alters its conventions. I will investigate two instances of transformed rhetoric, the theme of the American Dream and the genre of the American Jeremiad. Both are crucial elements in Thompson’s depiction of the sixties, constitutive of the ambivalent attitude he espouses.
4.3.1. The corruption of the American Dream
As has been mentioned before, a central theme in Fear and Loathing is the American Dream. This Dream can be regarded as the national philosophy of the United States, although many Americans have expressed a loss of faith in it in recent years. The fundamental idea, originating from the equality of all mankind formulated in the Declaration of Independence, is that each person may rise to his or her full potential, without being hindered on the basis of class, race, ethnicity, religion of sex. In The Epic of America, published in 1931, James Truslow Adams writes about “that American dream (sic) of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank” (qtd. in Cullen 4). Although we cannot ascertain that Adams coined the term, he was the first to write about it extensively. In the course of the twentieth century, the concept has been largely reformulated in capitalist terms. Jim Cullen stresses the contemporary connection to affluence, but points out other examples as well: Sometimes [the American Dream] is defined in terms of money – in the contemporary United States, one could almost believe this is the only definition – but there are others. Religious transformation, political reform, educational attainment, sexual expression: the list is endless. (7) A definition of the Dream as the ability to rise “from rags to riches” was already prevalent in nineteenth-century America. The stories of novelist Horatio Alger, the first of which, Ragged Dick, was published in 1867, depicted poor boys who managed to overcome all adversity and rise to wealth and prominence through hard work. Alger’s popularity hailed from a general belief in the possibility of upward mobility. Another
80 nineteenth-century writer, Henry David Thoreau, also connected the Dream with mobility as he identified it as one’s capacity to “advance confidently in the direction of one’s dreams to live out an imagined life” (paraphrased in Cullen 10). Of the varieties of the American Dream included in Cullen’s book, only the dream of rising from rags to riches seems explicitly present in Fear and Loathing at first. Thompson fashions Raoul Duke as a “Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas” (Fear and Loathing 12). Together with his attorney Dr. Gonzo, Duke will attempt to find the American Dream while covering the Mint 400 race or visiting the numerous bars and casinos. His attitude is deliriously positive: Our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country. (Fear and Loathing 18) Soon, however, Duke’s confidence in the existence of the American Dream begins to waver and he begins to feel contempt for those who attempt to attain it. The term has changed into an empty sound. Vegas is filled with high rollers and big winners, but somehow these people appear to represent the corruption of the Dream rather than personifications of it. He describes the gamblers as people “still humping the American Dream, that vision of the Big Winner somehow emerging from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino” (Thompson, Fear and Loathing 57). Thompson’s modern-day interpretation of the Horatio Alger myth results in a cynical reflection on early-seventies America. His protagonist finds that the Dream has been corrupted since it is solely connected to greedy possession and depraved egotism. During his stay Vegas, Duke gloats in the depravity and tests the limits of Sin
81 City’s hospitality. He amasses a huge debt in his hotel, flees, and checks into another hotel, after trading in his hired red convertible for a white one. He attends the National District Attorneys’ Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, thinking: “if the Pigs [are] gathering in Vegas for a top-level Drug Conference, … the drug culture should be represented” (Thompson, Fear and Loathing 110). When Duke is ready to leave, he has “abused every rule Vegas lived by – burning the locals, abusing the tourists, terrifying the help” (173). The Dream he has ultimately found is an exaggerated corruption of the one he was looking for: the manager of the Circus-Circus casino always dreamed of joining the circus a little boy; “now the bastard has his own circus, and a license to steal, too” (191). The new American Dream is individual and arbitrary. While looking for it, Duke has become a “monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger,” generally pessimistic about the state of his country, only hopeful when he is on drugs (204). The American Dream of individual upward mobility, whether the semi-admirable original described by Alger or its corrupted counterpart, was not the one Duke wanted to find. A second interpretation of the Dream that stimulated his trip means more to him. According to Bruce-Novoa, this other variety is linked to the sixties: Between 1962, when [Thompson] began to publish, and the first Gonzo pieces in 1970, came the rise and collapse of the sixties coalitions. For a time there was the slim hope that somehow the old liberals and the young rebels might work out an answer for America. The coalitions of individualism and communal spirit, of Third-world solidarity and the survival of particular ethnic groups, of "lower/working class biker/dropout types and the upper/middle, Berkeley student activists," (F&LLV, p. 179), these were the American
82 Dreams of the sixties that had been dashed by 1970. (39-40) This second American Dream is connected to Thompson’s belief in sixties ideals. It is the desire that society will reach a utopian condition through social and political change, by the combined efforts of the counterculture and the government, earlier described by Sally Banes as “the American Dream of freedom, equality, and abundance” or the “Pax Americana” (3). The hope of achieving such a state had been shattered by the end of the sixties39, but with Fear and Loathing, Thompson wants to investigate whether there is any seed of optimism left among the ruins. Secretly yearning to find some remnants of the Dream, his alter ego Duke is quickly disappointed. The book abounds in proof of the dissolution of the counterculture and the power of the Conservative Right, often in the form of news fragments, for example about severe anti-drug measures and the ensuing war in Vietnam. Thompson’s investigation into the American Dream causes loathing for the present, in which the Dream is no longer attainable. However, the distance the journalist creates between himself and the sixties (supra) allows him to assess this past decade critically as well. The cause for the corruption of the American Dream is not just found in the rise of Nixon’s silent majority, but also in the inadequacies of the counterculture itself. In a passage referred to in the quote from Bruce-Novoa, Thompson crudely lists the shortcomings of the hippie movement. Timothy Leary’s appeal for consciousness expansion through LSD use is said to have disconnected him and his followers from a reality with which they could no longer cope – Leary’s commune is slanderously depicted as a group of “pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit” (178); belief in some higher principle, 39
Banes speaks of the erosion of the ‘Pax Americana.’
83 whether God, Buddha or LSD, crippled a generation of activists, who moved their struggle to the spiritual realm and left the real world to wither away; and the Hell’s Angels caused “an historic schism in the then Rising Tide of the Youth Movement of the Sixties” by charging the front ranks of an anti-war demonstration (179). This final incident was a sign for the imminent demise of the counterculture: It was the first open break between the Greasers and the Longhairs, and the importance of the break can be read in the history of SDS, which eventually destroyed itself … Nobody involved in that scene, at the time, could possibly have foreseen the Implications of the Ginsberg/Kesey failure to persuade the Hell’s Angels to join forces with the radical Left from Berkeley. The final split came at Altamont … [but] the orgy of violence at Altamont merely dramatized the problem. (179-180) Thompson’s search for the American Dream in Fear and Loathing leads him first to an expression of contempt for Nixon’s America, but then to a critical examination of the past. His initial aloofness makes way for the fear and loathing he feels when he realizes that the sixties are over and that the wonderful counterculture is to blame for its own demise. Others have expressed a similar view regarding the failure of the counterculture. Barry Melton saw “what began as unbridled idealism being swallowed up by an uncontrolled hedonism in just a few short years” (156) and M.J. Heale talks about radicalization leading to fragmentation among the New Left. Thompson’s originality lies in his use of the symbol of the American Dream and its corruption to express both the possibilities of the sixties and the decade’s missed opportunities. The image, borrowed from traditional rhetoric and transformed into a symbol suiting
84 Thompson’s aims, is thus crucial in his ambivalent retrospect. Moreover, it forms an indispensible aspect of Gonzo journalism. In Bruce-Novoa’s phrasing: “When Thompson is forced to the extreme of Gonzo, it is a desperate effort to achieve the American Dream on his own ground, since it has failed everywhere else” (43).
4.3.2. A transformation of the American Jeremiad
A second example of conventional American rhetoric converted in Fear and Loathing to mirror Thompson’s ambivalent attitude is the genre of the American Jeremiad. According to Sacvan Bercovitch, the Jeremiad, a specific sort of religious lamentation, became ‘American’ when the first generation of colonizers in New England changed its purpose. In Europe, the genre was used predominantly to stress the superior morality of the past and demand increased piousness in the present. In the phrasing of Frank Shuffelton, who reviews Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad, the New England Puritans “turned threat into celebration” (233). They referred to the glory of the past as a moral example, not to intimidate people into stricter abidance of religious rule. The intent was “to discover a source of strength in crisis” (Shuffelton 233). While the American Jeremiad thus seems more positive about the present than its European counterpart, Bercovitch nevertheless emphasizes that there is an underlying sense of anxiety and even despair (xiv). Besides being a reflection of theological concerns, the Jeremiad also functioned as a mode to express political criticism. In a way that would become typical for the United States, it linked “social criticism to spiritual renewal, public to private identity” and like the American Dream, it has thus “played a
85 major role in fashioning the myth of America” (Bercovitch xi). When Thompson bewails the demise of the sixties and spits bile at the newly emerged society, he seems to adhere to a conventional usage of the American Jeremiad. The only difference is that he does not see any silver lining. Cynicism dominates his worldview. His former hopefulness only returns when he is inebriated. Drug use is Duke and Gonzo’s strategy to return to the sixties, or even better, to extend the decade’s positivism into the new era. Furthermore, in a world where hallucinogens are no longer stylish, tripping on LSD is an act of faith, a feat of rebellion against a society in which Duke no longer feels at home: Most volume dealers no longer even handle quality acid or mescaline except as a favor to special customers: Mainly jaded, over-thirty drug dilettantes – like me, and my attorney … “Consciousness expansion” went out with LBJ … and it is worth noting, historically, that downers came in with Nixon. (201-202) When the effects of drugs begin to wane, Duke’s cynicism returns and prompts these contemplations. His jeremiads are often aimed at the contemporary government and authorities. Nixon and his vice-president Spiro Agnew appear as atavistic crooks while the police are undiplomatically portrayed as belligerent and retarded. Such political criticism combined with a secularized veneration of the past illustrates that the Jeremiad is still a vital genre in the twentieth century. The seemingly increased pessimism may, however, not be the only change the American Jeremiad has undergone. Thompson’s gradual progression in his investigation of the American Dream leads to a critique of the past as well as of the
86 present, as has already been explained in the previous section. Finding fault with the sixties may even be the source of Duke’s desperation, since nothing is worse than realizing that you helped destroy the thing you loved most. In one of the fragments about Leary’s hail-seeking in LSD, the protagonist notes that “their loss and failure [of Leary and co.] is ours, too” (178). The most famous passage from Fear and Loathing looks back on the sixties with a pensiveness that can only have been inspired by such disenchantment: You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning … And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave … So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eye you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. (68) In Fear and Loathing, the genre of the Jeremiad is transformed to reflect a critical view of present and past. Its encouragement of a dual appraisal of the sixties links it to the symbol of the American Dream, which inspired contempt for the present as well as a reexamination of times gone by. By employing this technique and imagery, Thompson joins in a tradition of historical evaluation. The innovations he adds, however, allow him
87 to question the myth of America on which a large part of that tradition is based. He was among the first journalists to stress the importance of reassessing the sixties and does so in inimitable fashion. His retrospect filled with fear and loathing on the one hand results in controversially bold statements, but on the other generates some of the most engaging insights into the sixties and its counterculture the early seventies have produced.
4.4. The Sixties in Gonzo Journalism
The sixties are not only an important part of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson wrote about the significance of the decade long before and after he fathered the drug epic for which he is best known. In the mid-sixties, he charted the Free Speech Movement, the hippie invasion in the Haight-Ashbury40 and the unstable alliance between the Hell’s Angels and hippies. As years went by, he registered the growing tensions that would lead to the collapse of the New Left and suspiciously kept an eye on the rising power of Richard Nixon. The American Dream had been on his mind since the agreement with Silberman to produce a book about it, but what the death of this ideal entailed was only gradually revealed. Thompson’s engagement with this theme and the decade for which it stands did not culminate in Fear and Loathing. The book rather provided the inception of an ongoing concern with the sixties and, although there would be ups and downs, the onset of a fruitful career. During the seventies, the journalist seemed to slacken, but the 40
In “The ‘Hashbury’ is the Capital of the Hippies.”
88 few articles he did turn out abound with retrospection. Whether on the campaign trail, in Saigon or in a tribute to Acosta or Ali41, the sixties are an inseparable part of Thompson’s present. Later articles for the San Francisco Examiner likewise turn to the past to explore, or often deplore, contemporary society. In what follows, I will scrutinize Thompson’s appraisal of the sixties in three Gonzo articles to discover whether ambivalent views are present throughout the journalist’s oeuvre. I will once again do so by discussing the theme of the American Dream and the genre of the Jeremiad. The articles are “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” (1970), “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker” (1974), and “I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll” (1989). “The Kentucky Derby” is the earliest Gonzo piece, the second article exemplifies the sharp political observation Thompson still occasionally produced during the seventies and the third is a column for the Examiner illustrative of his later writing. All relate to the end of the sixties and the death of the American Dream and together they evoke a sense of development in Thompson’s ambivalence.
4.4.1. “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”
In 1970, Thompson visited the Kentucky Derby with Ralph Steadman, wrote an article about it that disregards every rule ever devised in the field of journalism and became founder of his own literary genre. Stylistically, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” thus marked a new era in Thompson’s career. Since form and
In “Last Tango in Vegas: Fear and Loathing in the Near Room” and “Last Tango in Vegas: Fear and Loathing in the Far Room,” Thompson interviews Ali and discusses his career.
89 content are inextricably linked in Gonzo42, themes that would come to constitute the genre may be present as well. According to Bruce-Novoa, “Thompson developed the Gonzo style at the beginning of the 1970s as a response to the fear and loathing he felt for what was happening to the American Dream” (39). If the corruption of the Dream is indeed the starting point for Thompson’s new style, then this symbol must already be present in the earliest Gonzo article, along with the ambivalence it generates. Oddly, the American Dream is not mentioned once in the entire piece. BruceNovoa’s point about the pervasiveness of the symbolism is, however, easily understood. First of all, the financial interpretation of the Dream, which incited Duke’s scorn in Fear and Loathing, can be observed here too. As a major betting event, the race inspires hope of Horatio Algerian twists of fate. Of course, the betting only makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. Furthermore, the winner of the Derby is a ridiculously wealthy man “who said he had just flown into Louisville that morning from Nepal, where he’d ‘bagged a record tiger’” (Thompson, “Derby” 209). Secondly, the societal version of the American Dream is present as well, but it remains implicit. Unlike in Fear and Loathing, there is no attempt at periodization In “The Kentucky Derby.” Rather, a sense of immediacy characterizes the story. Instead of looking back at wonderful times and missed opportunities, Thompson reveals what is happening around him. This lack of historical distance engenders urgency for the author to express his outrage: As an image, the Derby is a metaphor for the country … Society is at war. This is America at its myopic worst, and Thompson will not stand for it. He is outraged; but more importantly, he wants to outrage his readers and 42
Bruce-Novoa argues throughout his article that Thompson rebels against a society in which the American Dram of the sixties has failed by means of defiant style and content.
90 commit mayhem on the event. (Bruce-Novoa 40) The American Dream is not referred to explicitly, but the concept underlies Thompson’s depiction of contemporary society. Like in Fear and Loathing, Thompson conveys bitterness regarding the collapse of the counterculture. He refers to student unrest, police violence and the war in Vietnam. The radicalization of the Left is a cause of growing concern for the journalist. The Derby seems completely at odds with and ignorant of this political reality: New Haven is under siege. Yale is swarming with Black Panthers … I tell you, Colonel, the world has gone mad, stone mad. Why they tell me a goddam (sic) woman jockey might ride in the Derby today? (207) By criticizing and parodying true Derby aficionados and prejudiced Southerners, who seek refuge in the traditional and nonpolitical sports event to ignore contemporary issues, Thompson makes clear that the American Dream of the sixties is dying. In 1970, the hippies were becoming irrelevant, the leftist radicals divided, and the great bulk of American society just buried their heads in the sand. Such a critical portrait of the events surrounding the Derby hints at influence of the American Jeremiad on top of that of the American Dream. The difference with Fear and Loathing is that the dichotomy between a glorious past and contemptuous present is not fully realized. Thompson expresses loathing for the failing sixties and for the society succeeding it, but does not yet contrast either situation to a more blissful state of affairs. The focus lies fully on the dismal contemporary climate, for which an untrustworthy liar like Nixon is perfectly suited: Money is a good thing to have in these twisted times. Even Richard Nixon is
91 hungry for it. Only a few days before the Derby he said, “If I had any money I’d invest it in the stock market.” And the stock market, meanwhile, continued its grim slide. (198) When compared to Fear and Loathing, “The Kentucky Derby” thus seems to represent an earlier stage in the development of Thompson’s ambiguous sixties appraisal. Criticism presides over nostalgia since the collapse of the counterculture and the demise of the decade had only begun to materialize. At the moment of writing, Thompson seemed to hope his anger might turn things around. One year later, he would begin to feel wistful at the thought of the past as well. Although clearly written in an earlier phase of his career, the seeds of his later combination of nostalgia and criticism already started ripening in the hot and riotous Southern climate Thompson described in 1970.
4.4.2. “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker”
In “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker,” Thompson describes the last stage of Nixon’s presidency. The piece was published on the first of January 1974 in the New York Times as a recap of the previous year and a look ahead at things to come. After the revelation of the Watergate scandal, impeachment loomed large and the journalist wonders what the president will do next. Nixon’s failure brings Thompson vengeful satisfaction, but instead of just exulting over the imminent doom of Tricky Dick’s reign, the author also worries about the country’s bleak prospects. In doing so, he refers to the American Dream:
92 One of the strangest things about these five downhill years of the Nixon presidency is that despite all the savage excesses committed by the people he chose to run the country, no real opposition or realistic alternative to Richard Nixon’s cheap and mean-hearted view of the American Dream has even developed. (22) Thompson does not expound what the new American Dream entails, but it is clear that he regards it as an irrevocable corruption of former ideals. The 1968 elections put an end to the Left’s ascendancy and ever since, no valid substitute to counter the Right has been devised. The traditional American Dream of sixties coalitions and its individualistic contemporary contrary are contrasted, but the opposition is not as clearcut. Thompson’s investigation of the American Dream once again leads to criticism of present and past. In the passage immediately preceding the fragment cited above, Nixon’s presidency is seen as an inevitable result of the counterculture’s failure: Looking back on the sixties, and even back to the fifties, the facts of President Nixon and everything that has happened to him – and to us – seems so queerly fated and inevitable that it is hard to reflect on those years and see them unfolding in any other way. (21) Whereas Thompson adopted a close perspective in “The Kentucky Derby,” he historicizes here like he did in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The sixties are presented as a remote past that incites nostalgia, but the detachment from this decade also facilitates a critique. Moreover, the increased temporal distance to the sixties, in combination with a lack of alternatives to Nixon’s government, seems to heighten Thompson’s cynicism. The sixties do not earn special treatment anymore. Both the
93 previous decade and the early seventies are seen as limited periods with set endings, almost predestined to self-destruct. The sixties ended because the American Dream of utopian change was no longer tenable in a fragmented political landscape; Nixon’s “cheap and mean-hearted” Dream backfired on him when the corruption of his government was exposed43. The only nostalgic retrospection is provided by the acknowledgement that the original American Dream once existed. A discussion of the American Jeremiad in “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker” uncovers the same evolution towards pessimism. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Jeremiad was transformed in that the past was only occasionally referred to as a shining beacon for the future. Duke deliberately holds on to the sixties in his personal beliefs and lifestyle, but also emphasizes the decade’s weaknesses. In this 1974 article, Thompson’s love for the sixties is further subdued. No “wave speech” points to the feeling of triumph and unity that used to characterize the counterculture. The sixties were morally superior, as they are connected to the American Dream for Thompson, but the reader is seldom reminded of this. Thompson’s jeremiad normally consists of three elements: a condemnation of the present, a nostalgic view of the past, and a critical analysis of this earlier time. In “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker,” however, balance between the three parts is missing and disapproval dominates over glorification44. The general mood can be described as glum, but in his last words Thompson nonetheless offers one hopeful possibility, which restores the ambivalence regarding the sixties: Is this really a new year? Are we bottoming out? Or are we into the Age of 43
Apart from the Watergate scandal, “the fact of a millionaire President paying less income tax than most construction workers while gasoline costs a dollar in Brooklyn and the threat of mass unemployment” contributed to Nixon’s downfall (Thompson, “Bunker” 20). 44 Predominance of criticism has been ascertained in “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” as well (supra).
94 Fear? (24) In spite of his cynical view of the future, a slight chance remains that Nixon’s presidency was a six-year slump out of which America may rise. In this scenario, the American Dream would be scathed, but still alive and a return to the glorious past possible. This gleam of hope can, however, not eradicate the impression that Thompson’s reaction to the end of the sixties has evolved from anger in “The Kentucky Derby” to nostalgia and criticism in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and finally cynicism in “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker.” What the next phase will be shall become clear as we examine a fourth text.
4.4.3. “I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll”
“I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll” is one of Thompson’s Examiner columns that was not included in Generation of Swine45, but was subsequently published in Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream. In a way, this column is more suited to be part of the latter anthology, since it deals explicitly with the end of the sixties. Published in 1989, the piece discusses the decadence of the eighties as an attempt to reinvigorate the sixties. On the one hand, Thompson defends the new hedonism by raging against the Purity League and the “body nazis,” who adopt a “Boy in the Bubble zeal” with regard to drugs (1189). On the other, he confesses that no amount of drugs or parties can bring the sixties back. His own lifestyle, like the lifestyles of so many others who indulge in substance 45
The column was written a year after publication of Thompson’s second Gonzo Papers volume.
95 abuse and wild adventures, is just another testament to the wrong choices of the past. Ambivalence towards the sixties clearly pervades this column, which means the American Dream and Jeremiad may be defined and transformed in the same way as they were in Fear and Loathing. The article sets off with an enigmatic passage, in which Thompson conjures the image of a drowner in the sea who starts to believe he/she can actually breathe in the salt water. The fragment immediately reminds one of the wave speech in Fear and Loathing. The wave still symbolizes the high-water mark reached in the mid-sixties, but now the observer is submerged. The endeavor to extend the sixties in one’s own life is consuming. The tone for the column has been set and is corroborated by a set of aphorisms ascribed to the unknown “prophet” Booar, an invention of the author: “There are many coons in the wilderness,” … “And coons feed like vultures and cannibals on failure and broken dreams.” (1189) Thompson is one of those “vultures and cannibals” that feed on the carcass of the sixties. The American Dream has died and is starting to decompose. Before the journalist investigates the flaws of the past, he turns first to the depraved present. The eighties are portrayed as a hypocritical decade. Excesses in society incite extremely rigid religious and conservative criticism, but the severest critics are often the greatest wrongdoers, as “even the preachers in prison for compound sodomy and child rape are compiling lists of names” (1189). Thompson rebels against such duplicity. He generously quotes political journalist Ed Quillen who points out that many musicians, artists, scientists and even politicians have made their greatest contributions to Western
96 civilization while using drugs. He mentions Ray Charles; Keith Richards; William Halsted, who developed sterile operating rooms among other inventions; Thomas Edison and Franklin Roosevelt. In essence, Quillen and Thompson refuse to throw out the baby with the bath water when it comes to narcotics. The corrective pretense of former addicts infuriates Thompson. He viciously describes them as “vengeful golems from some lost and broken Peter Pan world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll” (1190). The author sees himself as a descendant of this lost world, one who still adheres to the old consciousness expansion. However, he must admit that the overindulgence that reigned among the countercultural ranks in the sixties was part of a larger naivety that caused blindness to the dangers of drugs. By aligning himself with “dead monsters” like Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison (idem), Thompson reveals that he still lives according to the sixties lifestyle, but also acknowledges that much greatness has been lost because of this way of life. The dynamic is similar to that in Fear and Loathing, in which Duke expresses his loathing for contemporary society by means of chemically enhanced nonconformist behavior, but meanwhile ponders the errors of the bygone decade that inspires him. Thompson’s defense and critical analysis of adherence to the “failure and broken dreams” of the sixties is accompanied again by a discussion of past and present in jeremiad-like form. Most of the column discusses the hypocrisy of the present and endorses sixties ideals, which suggests traditional use of the genre of the Jeremiad. Like in Fear and Loathing, however, some passages contradict this conventionality. The mysterious opening paragraph, for instance, hints at a comment on the past as well. A full-on critique is realized at the end of the piece:
97 Indeed, we were all snapped like matchsticks in that terrible conflagration [refers to the sixties] – and the unexplainable few who survived, somehow, are now like the victims of some drunken golfing foursome … Their flesh and their brains and their precious bodily organs were burned to cinders and black-chalk skeletons that will never again have real strength. They will walk in the world forever like some strung-out collection of Ming vases that might crack any time they are touched. (1190) The requiem for the American Dream and the Jeremiad for present and past, they are beginning to sound like clichés in my discussion of Gonzo journalism. In fact, the rhetoric is transformed differently each time and new emphases are added. In this column, Thompson returns to the attitude adopted in Fear and Loathing, but the cynicism we ascertained in “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker” has not vanished. There is thus clearly a development in Thompson’s appraisal of the sixties: from anger to ambivalence, cynicism, and finally a combination of the latter two. Perhaps it is thus more appropriate to speak of multivalence with regard to the sixties in Gonzo journalism. Although certain instances of rhetoric are invariably present in some form or other, Thompson constantly redefines his relationship to the decade he loved most. As such, he can be seen as one of the forerunners in the extremely valuable historical practice of reassessing the sixties.
98 The importance of the sixties to contemporary society is demonstrated by the vigor with which opposing stances on this decade are defended. In the eighties, “trashing the sixties” was common practice amongst both Left and Right46 and the nineties have even been called the anti-sixties. Although the celebration of forty years Woodstock in 2009 seems to have heralded an era in which the sixties are appreciated in more positive ways, the decade may still spark controversy. In my discussion of sixties politics and counterculture, it became clear that these aspects are open to various interpretations. John Kennedy’s Camelot presidency instigated the Vietnam War and JFK was less of a liberal reformer than is often believed. Lyndon Johnson, however, did devote himself fully to the formation of a Great Society, but was gradually entangled in a war he did not start. It is commonly agreed that Richard Nixon brought about the end of the sixties. Symbolically speaking this may be so, but in reality Nixon only tried to meet the general demands of the famed silent majority. The counterculture has many merits, the empowerment of the individual and the defense of diversity to name a few, but was marked by radicalization on the one hand and by political apathy on the other as the decade drew to a close. Valid arguments can be found to bolster virtually any claim. One may wonder what the use is, then, of discussing the sixties in this new millennium. The answer has already been alluded to in the introduction: a reexamination of the sixties helps us to understand our twenty-first-century selves and define our position in the contemporary world. For Hunter Thompson, there was an additional personal reason for his interest in the sixties. He had been involved in the counterculture and politics of the time. When he realized that America was drifting away from the maxims by which it had sworn to abide, 46
A phrase coined in the introduction to The 60s Without Apology.
99 he declared that the decade had failed. The journalist suffered greatly from this newly gained understanding. In his writing, he would begin investigating what went wrong. Gonzo journalism in essence became a reaction to the end of the sixties. The Gonzo magnum opus Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the epitome of a zealous retrospect. By sending his alter ego Raoul Duke on a quest for the American Dream, the author deals with his ambiguous feelings towards the sixties. The decade’s flaws are scrutinized, but Thompson’s scrutiny cannot conceal his intense affection. Besides the American Dream, the new genre incorporated another existing feature of rhetoric. The Jeremiad proved a suitable form for Thompson’s comparison of past and present. Both the Dream and the Jeremiad, however, received an interpretation that differed from their original meaning. Instead of substantiating the myth of America’s endless possibilities, they are used to challenge this ideal. Protagonist Duke gradually discovers how the Dream has been corrupted and does not limit himself to the present to find fault for this. The new Jeremiad devised by Thompson consists of contemporary and historical criticism, as well as nostalgic retrospection. This tripartite definition was a first indicator of the complexity of Thompson’s sixties appraisal. In “The Kentucky Derby,” the criticism is clearly present, although not in such a dual manner. There was as yet no clear distinction between the sixties and seventies in 1970. Nostalgia would only follow as the author claimed more distance from the previous decade. It would accompany a periodization of the past ten years. Nevertheless, the outrage and drunken despair Thompson displays at the Derby, as he bears witness to the chaotic state the nation has entered, already hint at a personal connection to the sixties. In “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker,” the anger has waned
100 and a highly cynical attitude taken its place. The joyful retrospection from Fear and Loathing is now restrained, as Thompson realizes that reminiscing will not bring the halcyon days back. The country’s current misery, brought about by the inadequacy of its government, is a lasting testament to the failure of the sixties. Although Thompson’s attitude can be described as ambivalent, this column exhibits a penchant for derision. In the fourth Gonzo exemplar, the dichotomy between nostalgia and criticism is reestablished in a more modern context. Assaults on personal freedom regarding drug use by a moralizing majority incite Thompson’s contempt and cause him to radically align himself with what is left of the sixties counterculture. The choice is resolute, but bitter since the journalist is reminded of the role narcotics have played in weakening the political force of the hippie movement, not to mention in the destruction of so many lives. Each new decade seems to inspire Thompson to reappraise the sixties and to redefine his own position. Paradoxically, ‘ambivalence’ is too ‘monovalent’ a term to describe his ever-changing attitude, which consists of more than just the fear and loathing he is known for. While nostalgia and criticism are often the main ingredients, they are usually complemented by anger, despair, disappointment and cynicism. Furthermore, Thompson adds new concerns to his writing as time passes. A discussion of the sixties is often part of an analysis of contemporary socio-political affairs. This mechanism of broadening his scope prevents Thompson, the sixties rebel, from becoming irrelevant or outdated. The Gonzo journalist also manages not to degrade into an angry old man with an exclusive liking for how things used to be. Neither past nor present are spared in his work, and criticism is escorted by humor without being
101 tempered. Thompson’s appraisal of the 1960s can best be described as multivalent, as he combines all the attitudes listed above. Alternation between fear, loathing and a myriad of other emotions is his way of dealing with the personal loss he felt after the decade had ended; and a way of guaranteeing a readership. Thompson was never afraid to market himself and often espoused conflicting opinions to construct a hype. The best example is provided by the creation of his own image, which he encouraged and reproached. At times, he was not sure himself who he was expected to be, Hunter Thompson or Raoul Duke. This brings us to what is perhaps the most important cause for his multivalent view of the sixties. Thompson frequently displays feelings of great doubt in his work. He could not be certain of the significance of the sixties, nor of the future. His personal quest for the truth in the larger-than-life genre that is Gonzo journalism was therefore never-ending, and in its endurance produced some of the most insightful discussions of the sixties in twentieth-century American literature. In the famous wave speech in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Duke says that up on a steep hill in Las Vegas, those with the right kind of eye can look West and almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back47. Hunter Thompson truly had that right kind of eye.
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