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Life Arts    H2'ed 4/15/11

Celebrating Forty Years of Fear and Loathing on National Columnists' Day

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National Columnists' Day occurs annually on April 18 because it was on that date in 1945 that war correspondent/columnist Ernie Pyle was killed in action on the island of Ie Shima. In past years, my annual National Columnists' Day column has detailed Pyle's life and career, and in other years it was devoted to other memorable columnists such as Herb Caen and Walter Winchell.  

About two weeks ago, I took a break from the task of selecting a subject for this year's installment and went down to the local Half Price Bookstore in downtown Berkeley to score a bargain bin copy of Ammo Books' "Hunter S. Thompson," which is subtitled "Gonzo." 

Recently, I had caught a screening of the film "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," and followed it up with an immediate repeat viewing via a VHS tape, on the following day. The "Gonzo" book, edited by Steve Crist and Laila Nabulsi, includes photos and reproductions of memorabilia from Thompson's life. While perusing the new addition to the collection, because a friend is preparing to celebrate her 40th birthday, I noticed one particular illustration in the Ammo book -- a certificate of achievement from the National District Attorneys Association noting the fact that Thompson had covered the Third National Institute Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs convention which was held in Las Vegas on April 25-29 in 1971. I realized that the events described in Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" book were also celebrating their 40th birthday. 

After starting to re-read the book, I recalled reading columns by Hunter S. Thompson in the (now defunct) Los Angeles Herald Examiner and then later, in the computer age, online. Thompson has always been hard to categorize, and so it seemed that selecting him to be the peg for this year's installment of our annual National Columnists' Day column made the choice a "slam-dunk" because 40 years after Thompson blurred the lines between fiction and journalism, all American Journalism has become a credibility challenge for those who want to know if what the government is telling the people is fact or fable.  

"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is subtitled: "A Savage Journey into the Heart of the American Dream," and that may be a play on title of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Forty years ago, the concept of the "American Dream" evoked clichéd references to a home surrounded by a white picket fence. Today, the thought of a "home" conjures up images of thousands of families being thrown out of their homes by wealthy businessmen (who contribute generously to various political reelection funds?) who are just as savage and ruthless as any native warrior encountered by Marlow in the journey described in the Conrad novel.

Forty years after Thompson lampooned the American Dream, circa 1971, the USA is full of disillusioned families with broken dreams trying desperately to cope with homelessness and the darkness in their new depression era hearts. The country is going broke fighting three separate perpetual military adventures which are either just for the pure fun of it or are wars of imperialistic aggression. The American Dream has morphed into a nightmare while American Journalism stands by, obsessing over the latest celebrity gossip about Charlie Sheen and ignoring the Republican Party's coordinated efforts to vandalize and sabotage the Democratic process of holding honest elections.

Thompson helped popularize the term "Gonzo Journalism," which became a handy label for a Sixties journalism trend marked by the writer including himself in the events being described while simultaneously exaggerating some factual aspects of the story. (For a more scholarly approach to the wide open and vague bit of fact checking about the origin of the word "gonzo," refer to page 128 of Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour's oral biography of Thompson, titled "Gonzo," published in 2007 by Little Brown and Co.) 

In the early stages of Internets development, I belonged to an e-mail group (mostly scholars) who were focused on all things concerning Ernest Hemingway, and they accepted without challenge the idea that the degree of involvement of the writer in his own story, as far as both Hemingway and Thompson were concerned, was about equal. The term "gonzo" had not come into contemporary American Literary culture when Hemingway was writing (and producing) columns about WWII and the Spanish Civil War. Is it possible to make the case for asserting that Hemingway was the spiritual godfather of gonzo journalism?

While George W. Bush was President, columnists who furnished vitriolic criticism of the fellow, who Thompson called "the child-President," became wildly popular on liberal web sites and attracted an eager audience whose appetite for disparaging remarks about the occupant in the White House couldn't be satisfied by a relentless torrent of criticism.

In "Kingdom of Fear," the last of Thompson's books published while he was still alive, the pessimistic attitude regarding the future of America is epitomized by the phrase "Big Darkness Soon Come" and it doesn't take a scholar with impeccable academic credentials to say that if Thompson had lived, he would be very acerbic in his assessments of George W. Bush's successor who has rubber-stamped his approval ("imitation is the sincerest form of flattery") of almost every one of Bush's outrages against the Geneva Accords and the rules of engagement.  

Thompson was relentless in applying his philosophy regarding politicians ("Don't take any guff from these swine") to the Bush Administration. Anyone who wants to assume that Thompson would give President Obama a pass and, instead, provide partisan platitudes just because he wasn't a Republican is asking for a stretch in logic that betrays the foundations of rational thinking.

Thompson's righteous indignation, directed against George W. Bush, was a matter of principle not subject to change when a new President from the other major political party took the oath of office. Rather than being an example of partisanship (of the German salute level) which would defy credibility when it broke the WTF barrier of logic and did a complete 180-degree about-face to mollify the new warmonger (not that the new guy gives a farthing about what columnists or bloggers think of his ERA [or era?]), Thompson would have continued his acerbic snarky attitude with only the name of the President being criticized changed.

Philip K. Dick, in "Man in the High Tower," envisioned a cult hero writer adored by his fans who lived in isolation in Colorado. The World's Laziest Journalist is alone in his conviction that Dick had accurately forecast the cult of Thompson fans in his alternative history novel, which was written and published when Thompson was graduating from high school and serving a hitch in the Air Force. If I was younger and more ambitious, I might consider doing a doctoral thesis as the basis for a comparison of the real life writer to Dick's fictional character.

Thompson's biographers report that he was obsessive in his slavish attention to F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, "The Great Gatsby" and that Hunter may have either consciously or unconsciously patterned "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" on Fitzgerald's work of fiction. Ironically, the Fitzgerald novel has become an icon of life in the Twenties during prohibition and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" has become a symbol of the hippie life style. Each novel has come to epitomize an American generation. Perhaps some diligent liberal arts graduate student will do a doctoral thesis comparing and contrasting the two (related?) examples of classic contemporary American Literature?

While gathering information for this column I was informed that Cliff Notes does not have a detailed critical analysis of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" available. Perhaps some industrious literary critic will now send a query letter to the Cliff Notes commandant and perhaps that gap will be remedied?

The fact that the San Francisco Beat Museum has become the host site for two courses (for college credit?) in creative writing brought to mind the academic consternation caused when a pioneering effort to teach a course in Beat Literature was a controversial innovation and that, in turn, caused me to wonder if any college or university anywhere offers a course of study (Gonzo 101?) devoted to the works of Hunter S. Thompson or an overview of Gonzo journalism per se.

Ernie Pyle went to England to cover the Battle of Britain. Hunter S. Thompson covered the Viet Cong's arrival in Saigon after American troops were evacuated. Would it be too Philip K. Dick-ish to try to envision how an imaginary encounter between Pyle, if he had lived longer, and Thompson, during the evacuation of Saigon, would have played out?  

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BP graduated from college in the mid sixties (at the bottom of the class?) He told his draft board that Vietnam could be won without his participation. He is still appologizing for that mistake. He received his fist photo lesson from a future (more...)

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