Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman (4 page)

BOOK: Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
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There was always an element of sardonic one-upmanship in the young Hunter S. Thompson inviting William Faulkner to his freezing Hudson River Valley cabin to “steal chickens”, denouncing Nelson Algren for being as vicious as Nixon, warning Norman Mailer to watch his backside because “HST” was in the middle of writing the “Great Puerto Rican Novel.” If Hemingway, rifle in hand, had hunted big game around Mt. Kilimanjaro, then Thompson would stalk wild boar with a Bowie knife in Big Sur If J P Donleavy's Ginger Man ordered five whiskeys to go, Thompson ordered five bottles. Thompson's goal was to come up with a wild-eyed tale so twisted as to make “Heart of Darkness” seem like a bedtime story—but always accomplished with humor, a nod, and a wink.

No recent American writer has been mired in as much controversy as Hunter S. Thompson. His mythological persona sometimes garners more attention than his eight published books. No less than four biographies
have been written about Thompson in the past six years. Garry Trudeau has made a living for the past twenty years from his character Uncle Duke, modeled after Thompson, in his “Doonesbury” comic strip. Motion pictures have been made about Thompson's life. Along with Batman and the Green Hornet, Thompson's likeness has been marketed, without his consent, as an action figure, while
T-shirts are sold on the corner of Haight and Ashbury, along with others bearing the images of Jerry Garcia, Mick Jagger, and Kurt Cobain. Described by William Zinsser in
On Writing Well
(1980) as America's “acid-headed Mencken” and by the late NBC news anchorman John Chancellor as “Billy the Kid on speed,” Thompson has proven popular with the tabloids as well as college audiences, both of which seem more interested in gossiping
about Thompson's alcohol and marijuana intake than in his collected works. But as these letters show—particularly when directed to female friends and his mother—the public persona is often at odds with a contemplative private self. “I haven't found a drug yet that can get you anywhere near as high as sitting at a desk writing,” Thompson asserted in 1989 while being interviewed for yet another book on his life.

As documented in
The Proud Highway,
Thompson watched traditional journalism fail to properly cover such landmark events as the Nixon-Kennedy debates, JFK's assassination, LBJ's Vietnam escalation, and Nixon's political comeback. “[The press] can't sell me Johnson,” he wrote a friend in February 1964. “He don't smell right.” As his hero Bob Dylan implied in his scornful refrain to “Ballad of a Thin Man” (“Something is happening here / But you don't know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?”), the establishment press of the 1960s didn't know how to cover Black Panther rallies or Grateful Dead concerts or LSD Kool-Aid bashes. Hunter S. Thompson did “My recent work here has dealt with topless dancers, garbage in the bay, marijuana, karate, and a generally non-publishable hellbroth of vagrant interests,” he wrote a friend in 1965. Thompson served as a cultural interpreter of the era, one foot embedded in mainstream journalistic writing for the Dow Jones Company, the other foot mired in the psychedelic underground. “I'm out here studying what appears to be an epidemic of arrested development in the American Dream,” he wrote to a New York editor.

The term most associated with Hunter S. Thompson, “gonzo journalism,” did not enter the American lexicon until 1970, when reporter Bill Cardoso of the Boston Sunday
after reading Thompson's “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” in
Scanlan's Monthly,
exclaimed, “That was pure gonzo!” While some claim that this word derives from an Italian word for simpleton, Cardoso insists that it is South Boston Irish in origin, used to describe the last man standing at the end of an all-night drinking marathon. As a pure literary art form, gonzo requires virtually no rewriting the reporter and the quest for information are central. Scribbled notes, transcribed interviews, article excerpts, stream-of-consciousness, verbatim telephone conversations, faxes—these are elements of a piece of aggressively subjective gonzo journalism. “[It] is a style of reporting based on William Faulkner's idea that the best fiction is far more
than any kind of journalism,” Thompson has noted.
New York Times
critic Herbert Mitgang best described gonzo as being whatever Hunter S. Thompson wrote. “Gonzo, his own brand of journalism, has even found its way into the new Random House dictionary, which uses such words as bizarre, crazy, and eccentric to define it. No one else gets credit for Gonzo journalism in the dictionary.”

Even though Thompson has developed a well-earned reputation for bullying editors and firing agents, whom he calls the “bloodsucking 10 percenters of American life,” a good portion of the correspondence in
The Proud Highway
is with bright editors who gave Thompson big breaks, particularly Clifford Ridley of the
National Observer
and Dwight Martin of
The Reporter.
Both editors wrote Thompson telling him that his letters were even better than his stories, that he was on the path to becoming the next Lincoln Steffens. But throughout his long literary career there was one editor whom Thompson unhesitatingly admired. Carey McWilliams of
The Nation.

Thompson first came to McWilliams's attention in August 1962, when the famed editor read the hard-drinking journalist's series of extraordinary Latin American dispatches in the
National Observer,
a just inaugurated newsweekly published by the Dow Jones Company McWilliams, who had a keen eye for talent, was impressed by Thompson's “gutsy ability” to get “deep inside the story” as he did in “A Footloose American in a Smugglers' Den.” A couple of years later, when Thompson left the
National Observer
because its editors refused to publish his glowing review of Tom Wolfe's
The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,
McWilliams asked him to write for
The Nation
on Mario Savio's Berkeley Free Speech Movement.

Thompson accepted the offer, initiating what would blossom into an extraordinary correspondence, much of which appears in these pages. Throughout the mid-1960s Thompson wrote McWilliams almost weekly letters about everything from Ken Kesey's marijuana bust to Malcolm X's assassination, Salinas Valley migrant camps to Jimi Hendrix's “liquid guitar,” Ronald Reagan's political rise to Lyndon Johnson's fall. “The destruction of California is a logical climax to the Westward Movement,” Thompson wrote McWilliams from his Haight-Ashbury apartment at 318 Parnassus Street. “The redwoods, the freeways, the dope laws, race riots, water pollution, smog, the Free Speech Movement, and now Governor Reagan—the whole thing is as logical as mathematics. California is the end, in every way, of Lincoln's idea that America was ‘the last best hope of man.' ”

It was McWilliams who commissioned Thompson to write on the Hell's Angels. The result was “Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders,” a May 17, 1965, cover story that brought the free-lance writer instant fame and a lucrative book contract. “More than any other person, Carey was responsible for the success of
Hell's Angels,”
Thompson recently noted. “He encouraged me around every bend.” Or, as he told a reporter friend in 1966, “Writing for Carey McWilliams is an honor.… So what if he doesn't pay much.… When your article appears in
The Nation
you feel clean.”

The first printing of
Hell's Angels
was sold out before publication, and when it hit the bestseller list in 1967, it stayed there for weeks on end all the
way through the Summer of Love. “Every biker in the country must have bought it,” Thompson surmised about his seemingly overnight success. The book received rave reviews in many leading periodicals. Richard Elman noted in
The New Republic
Hell's Angels
“asserts a kind of Rimbaud delirium of spirit … [to] which, of course, only the rarest geniuses can come close. I suspect that Hunter S. Thompson is a writer whose future career is worth watching.” Studs Terkel called the book “superb and terrifying” in the
Chicago Tribune,
and Eliot Fremont-Smith described Thompson as “a spirited, witty, observant and original writer” in
The New York Times.
Even Thompson's hometown newspaper, the Louisville
—which had in 1955 published an erroneous story about his police arrest—dished out unfettered praise. “It is good sociology written in a style that few sociologists ever master. An experienced, sophisticated writer for one so young, Thompson demonstrates a profound understanding of the drives, social and psychological, which motivate these mixed-up misfits.”

As these letters for
The Proud Highway
were assembled, what became apparent to me was that once Thompson's commotion and insolence are checked, he is in actuality a public moralist, rallying against puritanism in any manifestation, occasionally exhibiting flashes of genuine prophecy. Whether he is scolding Lyndon Johnson for the Vietnam War, predicting in 1965 that someday Ronald Reagan will be in the White House, or lampooning the Haight-Ashbury counterculture, Thompson's trenchant and sober-minded critiques mark him as one of the vital voices of his generation. “His style is mistaken for fantastic, drug-crazed exaggeration, but that was to be expected,” Edward Abbey wrote about Thompson. “As always in this country, they only laugh at you when you tell the truth.”

Selecting the correspondence to be included in
The Proud Highway
was a daunting task. For every letter included, fifteen were cut. One of Thompson's amazing qualities is the scholarly precision he applies to his work—and his early letters are no exception. He abhors the misuse of language and seldom misspells a word or mispunctuates a sentence. (On the few occasions Thompson did forget a comma or make a typographical error, I took the editorial liberty of correcting it in the published text).

The letters in
The Proud Highway
—with the exception of deletions made to spare the reader needless repetition or extraneous details (earmarked by a bracketed ellipsis)—are published as Thompson typed them, though I have deleted some addresses for the sake of brevity. The main objective was to avoid distracting the reader while preserving the rhythm, the vitriol, the flight of imagination, and the genuine warmth with which Thompson wrote Preceding most of the letters is a brief editor's note to provide a sense of historical context and narrative continuity. Footnotes
were added to assist the reader in identifying characters, events, and terms without providing too much commentary.

To inventory this vast treasure trove, the Hunter S. Thompson Letters Project was created at the University of New Orleans's Eisenhower Center for American Studies. The goal of the center's scholars is to study all facets of twentieth-century America, and after spending a week with Thompson at Owl Farm, I became convinced that his correspondence was of great importance to the history of postwar journalism, literature, politics, and popular culture. Since the Eisenhower Center alalready houses historian Stephen E. Ambrose's Richard Nixon Project Papers, it seemed appropriate that the center also sponsor a project devoted to our thirty-seventh president's arch nemesis.

Besides the letters, Thompson has also saved at Owl Farm hundreds of notebooks containing his handwritten journalistic jottings and two unpublished novels. “Prince Jellyfish” (1959–1960) and “The Rum Diary” (1961–1966), both containing some of his best early prose. The archive also contains a dozen unpublished Thompson short stories, including “Hit Him Again Jack,” “Whither Thou Goest,” and “The Cotton Candy Heart,” and a slew of fully realized but as yet unpublished “gonzo journalism” pieces on such disparate topics as Bill Monroe's bluegrass music, Jimmy Carter's White House triumph, and Ronald Reagan's invasion of Grenada in 1983. A respected photojournalist influenced by Robert Frank and Walker Evans, Thompson was compulsive about his craft in the early 1960s, his archive houses hundreds of his stark black-and-white images. But above and beyond all else there are the cardboard boxes of correspondence.

Taken together, the “fear and loathing” letters in
The Proud Highway
compose an informal and offbeat history of two decades in American life. The history is more intimate than anything in the score of sensationalized Hunter S. Thompson biographes, and it is in some ways more illuminating than the picture of the tumultuous times we find in his own published writing. But the letters do more than merely speak for their time. They also speak for their author, comprising a memor of both Hunter S. Thompson's formative years and the explosive birth of the Sixties counterculture he so brilliantly chronicled.

New Orleans, Louisiana
December 14, 1996

R.W.B. Lewis,
The American Adam Innocence Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century
(Chicago, 1955)

The books are Peter O. Whitmer,
When the Going Gets Weird: The Twisted Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson
(New York 1993), Paul Perry
Fear and Loathing. The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson
(New York, 1993), E. Jean Carroll,
Hunter The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson
(New York, 1993), and William McKeen,
Hunter S. Thompson
(Boston, 1991)


The second woe is past, and behold, the third woe cometh quickly.

—Revelation 11: 14

Today is Friday the thirteenth in Louisville. The sky is low and the view from the penthouse suite at the Brown Hotel is dense. There is only one window in the hotel that opens, and I have it right here in my room. My chief of security had it chiseled open yesterday, despite the whining of the manager, who said it was an invitation to suicide.

BOOK: Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
7.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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