Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman (3 page)

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That Hunter has continued to be called a journalist is one of the great underrated bunco exploits of our age. He himself made a half-hearted effort
to confess the ruse when he published in
The Great Shark Hunt
his notes on the origin of the Las Vegas book Gonzo, he wrote, “is a style of ‘reporting' based on William Faulkner's idea that the best fiction is far more
true
than any kind of journalism—and the best journalists have always known this.” He went on to say that
Las Vegas
was failed Gonzo, “so
complex
in its failure that I feel I can take the risk of defending it as a first, gimped effort in a direction that what Tom Wolfe calls ‘The New Journalism' has been flirting with for almost a decade.”

Hunter's explanation of why the Las Vegas book was a failure isn't relevant here and he dodges the issue anyway. He gets to the truth when he says of the book. “As true Gonzo Journalism, this doesn't work at all—and even if it did, I couldn't possibly admit it. Only a goddamn lunatic would write a thing like this and then claim it was true.”

It was not lunacy defined but lunacy imagined in short, a novel.

But who believed him?

Journals and book publishers have ever since been foisting his work on the gullible public as journalism, when in truth it is
nothing but a pack of lies,
which, of course, is a classic definition of fiction.

I hope this is a lesson to us all.

When last we talked at the Tosca Bar in San Francisco, Hunter was dodging pursuit, registered at a hotel under the name of Ben Franklin. I immediately noticed that he was smoking and drinking heavily. I advised him to curb these vices and proceed into his sixtieth year with moderation, the only course to take if he was going to get on with his work.

“I myself now drink only the occasional glass of red wine,” I told him.

He acknowledged I was probably right, and stubbed out his cigarette.

“God will be good to us,” he said, ingesting some peculiar substance through a tube.

“The work is the only thing that matters,” I said.

“I know that,” he said “That's why I'm writing a novel. Perhaps two novels.”

“Oh yes, two novels,” I said. “I heard that story in San Juan.”

Averill Park, New York
October 23, 1996

1
William J. Dorvillier who won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for the
Star
's editorials on a church-state controversy.

EDITOR'S NOTE
BY DOUGLAS BRINKLEY

Don't loaf and invite inspiration
Light out after it with a club.

—Jack London

At noon on November 22, 1963, Hunter S. Thompson heard the news of President John F. Kennedy's assassination and reacted by sitting down at his typewriter. In a letter to his friend William Kennedy (who twenty years later would win the Pulitzer Prize for his novel
Ironweed
), he vented his anger. “There is no human being within 500 miles to whom I can communicate anything—much less the fear and loathing that is on me after today's murder,” Thompson wrote from his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. “… From now on it is dirty pool and judo in the clinches. The savage nuts have shattered the great myth of American decency.”

“Fear and loathing”—without apologies to Søren Kierkegaard—soon became Thompson's trademark phrase, his shorthand for justified contempt toward an overindulgent and dysfunctional consumer culture. Whether it was used in connection with the Hell's Angels, Richard Nixon, or Southeast Asia, “fear and loathing” served as Thompson's all-purpose epithet, encapsulating the death of the American Dream. In 1996, Thompson's comic masterpiece
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
(1971), long a cult favorite, was selected by the Modern Library for inclusion in its renowned list of affordable editions of world classics, catalogued between Thackeray and Tolstoy. Thompson's other popular title featuring the trademark phrase—
Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72
(1973), which
The New York Times
deemed the “best account yet published of what it feels like to be out there in the middle of the American political process”—is likewise scheduled to join the distinguished Modern Library ranks. And now, in 1997, here is
The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman,
1955–1967, the first installment of a projected three-volume “Fear and Loathing Letters” collection. It includes, along with more than two hundred others, that historic 1963 letter to William Kennedy.

The letters within these pages are only a fraction of the approximately twenty thousand Thompson has composed since he was a young boy. Whether at his childhood home on Ransdall Avenue in Louisville, in a Greenwich Village garret, or on a beer barge going down the Magdalena River in Colombia, Thompson corresponded ferociously, always making carbon copies, hoping they would be published someday as a testament to his life and times. “These were the pre-Xerox days,” Thompson has commerited
about his surprising pack-rat nature. “And I was anal retentive in my desire to save
everything.”

The earliest letters archived at Thompson's Owl Farm ranch are dated 1947, when, as a precocious ten-year-old, Thompson began covering neighborhood sports and soliciting subscribers for his own four-cent, two-page mimeographed newspaper,
The Southern Star.
At age twelve he was firing off missives to the editor of the Louisville
Courier-Journal,
complaining about the way the newspaper covered everything from race relations to Civil War history. Thompson also saved most of his school papers and even an irregularly kept journal filled with innocent adolescent reflections and self-improvement promises. On New Year's Day, 1951, for example, Thompson scrawled the top ten resolutions he hoped to keep in the year ahead, with number one on the list being to “Calm Down,” number two to “Find a Good Woman by March,” and number three to “Always Dress Spiffy.”

The largest category of early Thompson correspondence—none of which, due to its youthful and personal nature, has been included in this volume—contains the letters he wrote to his mother, Virginia, a Louisville librarian, each day of his incarceration from May 1955 to July 1955 at the Jefferson County Jail for a robbery he didn't commit. “The police lie,” Thompson wrote from his cell. “Injustice is rampant.” Upon being released on probation, Thompson walked into an Air Force recruiting office and enlisted. After a couple of months of basic training in San Antonio, he was assigned to Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois, where he studied radio electronics. But it wasn't until September 1956, when he left Scott and became the sports editor of the Eglin Air Force Base (Pensacola, Florida) newspaper, the
Command Courier,
that Thompson began composing thoughtful letters on a regular basis, usually aimed at old school chums from Louisville's prestigious Athenaeum Literary Association. While turning his sports section into one of the best in northern Florida, Thompson became familiar with all facets of layout, camerawork, newswriting, headlines, and typing. Using his trusty Underwood to write stories, conduct business, and stay in touch with a wide circle of friends, Thompson developed a ritual of typing letters at night, a habit that continues today “I can stir up more controversy with one small portable typewriter than most people can with an entire wire service,” Thompson wrote his Louisville friend David Ethridge in 1958. “And man, I love a good controversy.”

The persona that emerges from the early letters collected in
The Proud Highway
is that of a gifted and self-assured maverick with an outlaw bent searching for the unvarnished truth in a fast-paced, irrational Cold War world. “Just as some people turn to religion to find meaning, the writer
turns to his craft and tries to impose meaning, or to lift the meaning out of chaos and put it in order,” Thompson wrote a friend in 1958 Letter writing was Thompson's way of imposing order on perhaps the most itinerant literary lifestyle since poet Vachel Lindsay criss-crossed America composing verse for a penny. “I think that the very fact that I wrote this letter and that I feel a need to write it shows the value of putting words in order on a piece of paper,” Thompson wrote to a girlfriend while in the Air Force. “I guess that is why I write as many letters as I do, because it's the only way—outside of actually getting to work and writing fiction—I can look at life objectively. Otherwise, I'm so involved in it that I forget that the rest of the world is merely a stage setting for my life.”

Sometimes, though, particularly after receiving his honorable discharge from the Air Force in October 1958, Thompson corresponded for his own word-intoxicated pleasure, just to stay loose with language and avoid writer's block. Desperate to become a first-rate novelist, to make his Underwood perform like a Steinway, Thompson would type out pages from
The Great Gatsby
and
The Sun Also Rises
in an attempt to capture the musical prose of the novelists he revered. And some of the early letters in
The Proud Highway
are clearly studious exercises in mimicking styles of writers from John Dos Passos to Lord Buckley to William Styron. Convinced by age twenty that he would become the F. Scott Fitzgerald of his generation, Thompson lugged his bulging correspondence around with him in trunks, believing that someday it would be his nest egg. “I've just been reading over two letters I sent you in Iceland,” Thompson wrote his Air Force buddy Larry Callen in 1959. “Perhaps I'll try to publish my collected letters before, instead of after, I make history.”

Taken as a whole, the early letters reveal a brilliant craftsman who, as a teenage hoodlum, developed a nonconformist philosophy like that of his favorite heroes in Ayn Rand's
The Fountainhead
, J. D. Salinger's
Catcher in the Rye,
Herman Hesse's
Siddhartha,
or Somerset Maugham's
The Razor's Edge,
always marching to the beat of his own drum, a voice without restraint. “I'm afraid of nothing and want nothing,” he wrote a girlfriend in 1958. “I wait like a psychopath in a game of dodge-ball, breathing quickly while the fools decide which one will throw at me next, and jumping aside for no reason except that I like being in the middle.” It is clear from the letters that Thompson deliberately cultivated himself as the American Adam, a figure defined by critic R.W.B. Lewis as “an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.”
1
The
writers Thompson most admired in his twenties—Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Henry Miller—were not part of a literary movement or elite club but were their own traveling salons. “A good writer stands above movements,” Thompson wrote, “neither a leader or a follower, but a bright white golfball in a fairway of windblown daisies.” It was no accident that Thompson moved to Big Sur in 1960—he wanted to be near Miller, whose iconoclastic forthrightness he admired above all others.

One constant theme of
The Proud Highway
is Thompson's contempt for the mainstream press, he saw its members as sycophantic mouthpieces for the Rotary Club, the U. S. government, and the Eastern establishment. He preferred the subjective journalism of H. L. Mencken, Ambrose Bierce, John Reed, and I. F. Stone over all
The New York Times
's supposedly objective journalists combined. After being fired from the Middletown (New York)
Daily Record
in 1959 for kicking a candy machine, Thompson wrote what might be considered his all-purpose motto. “I damn well intend to keep on living the way I think I should.” And in that same note he also expressed two cardinal rules for aspiring writers. “First, never hesitate to use force, and second, abuse your credit for all its worth. If you remember these, and if you can keep your wits about you, there's a chance you'll make it.”

It is difficult to know precisely when the so-called new journalism began Certainly the 1965–1966 period covered in
The Proud Highway
demonstrates that the new journalism was being promulgated by a number of bold writers and developing a large and appreciative audience. While Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Terry Southern—all prominent acquaintances of Thompson's—have pointed to
Esquire
and the New York
Herald Tribune
as the breeding ground for the new journalism, Thompson—who prefers the phrase “impressionistic journalism”—doesn't buy this parochial version of the phenomenon Long before George Plimpton picked up a football and wrote
The Paper Lion,
Thompson marveled at how Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain had combined the techniques of fiction and reportage while emphasizing the virtues of authorial involvement in describing newsworthy events.

As I read through Thompson's correspondence and notebooks from the early 1960s, it became clear that George Orwell's firsthand account of the Spanish Civil War in
Homage to Catalonia
and his slumming with disinherited vagabonds in
Down and Out in Paris and London
were perhaps the supreme influences on Thompson's technique and style. If Orwell could live in utter squalor with gutter winos and write about it, then Thompson would do likewise, infiltrating smugglers' dens in Aruba, whorehouses in
Brazil, and motorcycle gangs in California, even if it meant being beaten or jailed. For journalism to hold its own against fiction, Thompson believed, the story had to resonate for the ages. “Fiction is a bridge to the truth that journalism can't reach,” Thompson wrote the editor Angus Cameron in 1965. “Facts are lies when they're added up.” There were others who practiced impressionistic journalism in the 1950s and 1960s whom Thompson admired—A. J. Liebling on the press, Giantland Rice on sports, James Baldwin on race, and Norman Mailer on existential angst—but for Thompson, none captured the explosive sense of journalistic first-person adventure the way Orwell, Hemingway, and London did.

BOOK: Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
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