THE BEGINNINGS AND CONCEPT OF GONZO JOURNALISM
by Christine Othitis
1994, revised Mar/1997
I still have to chase down a few references and citations forgotten long ago ;)
A general bibliography is now available
In the late sixties, a young journalist and free-lance novelist named Hunter S. Thompson emerged
with his bold and brazen style of writing in the U.S. The time was right for such a crazed and
exaggerated brand of reporting. In this essay, the concept and development of gonzo journalism
will be thoroughly explored.
During the late fifties and early sixties, Thompson became disillusioned with newspapers and his writing career.
Because of differences in personality, opinion
and style, he did not last long at many of the small town dailies he worked for.
In a recollection from Songs of the Doomed, "Fleeing New York", he tells of being
fired from the Middletown Daily Record for insulting a major advertiser by sending back a
plate of lasanga. He took to covering South America for the National Observer and eventually,
he drifted to Brazil, where he was picked up by a new magazine called Sportivo.
The lure for Hunter was that the editor promised that it would be the Sports Illustrated of the
Caribbean. However, it turned out that
"they were introducing bowling to Puerto Rico. I had to go out and cover bowling
every night in San Juan. Bowling was going big. Bowling alleys were popping up everywhere.
What could you say about bowling? Bowlers just wanted to see their names in the paper. That was
the essential thing....about half my work was making sure every bowler in San Juan got his name in the
magazine...And ever since I've hated the word bowling" (Thompson, 1990, p65).
He and his wife
Sandy returned to the US sometime before President Kennedy was assasinated. They bought property in
Woody Creek, Colorado, which would eventually become known as Owl Farm. His search for work
took him all over the Mid- and western states, writing about music festivals and the state of affairs
for the National Observer. He started out writing "good stories" but the more political
content he added to them the more nervous the Dow-Jones owned paper became. Eventually he was reassigned
to do book reviews, but he quit the paper when it refused to run an article about Tom Wolfe's novel,
The Kandy-Colored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. The review was the last in a series of
grudges Thompson had with the paper, stemming from an unpublished tribute to JFK. The death of the
charismatic president had a deep impact on Hunter. "I was feeling so good about the country...[b]ut all
of a sudden that day the country looked different to me, and I felt very bad about it," (Thompson,
1990, p106) he wrote almost thirty years after the event. Later, in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign
Trail '72 he would roast Hubert Humphrey for using the voices of John and Robert Kennedy
to promote his campaign (Thompson, 1973).
His first piece to be christened "gonzo" was his infamous account of Louisville's most famous
event, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved", which is more about white trash than horses.
It appeared in the June 1970 issue of the short-lived Scanlan's Monthly, a sporting magazine.
In fact, it was a close friend, Bill Cardoso (who would later meet with Thompson at the Rumble in the
Jungle fight) who coined the term "gonzo" in a letter regarding the article. "I don't know what
the f*** you're doing, but you've changed everything. It's totally gonzo" (Carroll, pxx). Cardoso,
himself a journalist, claims that "gonzo" is actually a corruption of a French Canadian word, "gonzeaux",
meaning "shining path". While to my knowledge no such word exists, modern slang dictionaries speculate it is
Spanish, perhaps after gonzagas, meaning "to fool". However, gonzo has made it into the 20+ volume set of the
Oxford English Dictionary.
In gonzo journalism, there are no set rules, though like most writers, Thompson follows a
successful style and framework, revolving loosely around the Kentucky piece. Thompson's own definition
of it has varied over the years, but he still maintains that a good gonzo journalist "needs
the talent of master journalist, the eye of an artist/photographer and the heavy balls of an actor"
and that gonzo is a "style of reporting based on William Faulkner's idea that the best fiction is far
more true than any kind of journalism" (Carroll, pxx).
Other names for gonzo are outlaw journalism, new journalism, alternative journalism and literary cubism.
This would be a good place to stop and talk about new journalism. Gonzo journalism is an offshoot of NJ.
Hell's Angels is probably the only book of Thompson's that could be called NJ. NJ was a journalistic
movement during the late fifties to the late seventies (whether it has all but disappeared I do not know). Writers,
realizing that objectivity in news reporting is more or less a myth, tried to write about things
as they saw them. The things they saw tended to be counterculture activities, such as peace demonstrations,
drugs, flower children and music. These subjects were either ignored or misrepresented by
the traditional mainstream press. The popularity of NJ was that it was a style that "put the pseudo-
objective soporifics of the broadsheets to shame by applying to journalism the techniques
of the realistic novel", however, "it required a romance with reality that undermined the ideologues'
lust for self-deceit" (Vigilante, 1988, p12). When done right, new journalism is usually more
true. Rock journalism is also a cousin of NJ - here is where the impact of magazines
such as Rolling Stone are felt. Gonzo neatly falls into place alongside the participatory
journalism of writers such as George Plimpton with his sporting books like Paper Lion and Shadow Box.
One striking difference between Thompson and the new journalist Tom Wolfe is that while Wolfe seeks
to be the fly on the wall, Thompson is literally the fly in the ointment.
As the world's only working gonzo jouranlist, there is not much to compare Thompson's writing to
except his own. There are seven main characteristics that appear in his writing. They are:
-overlapping themes of sex, violence, drugs, sports and politics.
-use of quotes by famous people and other writers or sometimes his own as an epigraph
-references to public figures such as newspeople, actors, musicians and politicians
-a tendency to move away from the topic subject or subject he started out with
-use of sarcasm and/or vulgarity as humour
-tendency for the words to flow and an extremely creative use of English
-extreme scrutiny of situations -
As discussed in the
previous essay, Thompson tends
to write about things he is personally involved in. He knows his own hobbies well and it seems
to be what his readers want. Subjects like drugs, sex, violence and sports also seem to be the obsession
of North America, so therefore Thompson is literally writing not only about himself but a large
part of the population.
Thompson has a "genuine talent for epigraphic material" (Johnson, p133)
and thus sets the tone for each chapter by usually starting it out with a famous quote, such as in chapter 23 of Hell's Angels which opens up
with "Lying! You're all lying against my boys!", which he attributes to Ma Barker. Then he digs right in to dispell popular
myths about the motorcycle gang, which is followed by a hilarious and slightly repulsive account of a Merry Pranksters party the
Angels attended. Generation of Swine is christened with "And I shall give them the morning star", a line from the King James Bible.
It is from Revelations and was very appropriate, because after rambling about hotels and idiots, he drifts off into his idea
of Hell. He will use quotes from anybody; Dr. Samuel Johnson, Bonnie Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Horatio Alger, movies, and songs to name a few sources.
He also uses his own snippets written under the pseudonyms Raoul Duke, F.X. Leach and Sebastian Owl. Somewhat ironic is that his trademark "fear and loathing"
has made it into Bartlett's Book of Modern Quotations.
Thompson feels a strong urge to change things and "desire to correct the reportage of the established media"
(Johnson, p131). Having no real political affiliations leaves
him to criticize any person in power without retribution. He tends to lean towards being a "hopeless Liberal" or Libertarian, there are few politicians who haven't been
at the wrong end of his poison pen.
George Plimpton describes Hunter's tendency to move away from one topic to another as an attempt to write about what he thinks
his readers want to read. According to Plimpton, Thompson is a "persona writer, and that's very rare," (Carroll, p147). This statement is very true, as Thompson
has an amazing ability to capture personality and feeling. "People" really is what he writes about the best; when you get past all the clutter in his writing (the guns, drugs, etc.) one
finds that he has written mostly about people's behavior. Some examples:
"The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Deparved" is not really about the horse race. In
fact, the actual race makes up about 1% of the article (the winner of the race is never mentioned either). The
story is devoted to Thompson's encounter with a buffoon in a bar, hill people in Kentucky, meeting the cartoonist Ralph
Steadman, and taking Ralph to dinner with his brother and his wife.
Las Vegas stemmed from a article about the Mint 400 (which was rejected - O'Rourke, 1996, pxx) by Sports Illustrated.
The race is quickly forgotten about as Hunter describes the junkies, cops, waitresses, hotel employees, tourists, cyclists, weirdos, and reporters in
In The Curse of Lono Thompson tries to understand what inspires so many people to run in the Honolulu Marathon. But even the
actual race, again, is left behind as he records tourist horror stories, delves into local folklore and his own attempts at catching a giant marlin.
Generation of Swine is a collection of choice columns from his days as a media critic for the San Francisco Examiner. Instead of really
evaluating media, he evaluated the behavior of some of the top personalities at the time - Reagan, Bush, the Bakers, Qhadaffi and other "scum".
Hunter credits his mother with developing his sense of humour, which is somewhat hard to define. Unlike most new journalists, and journalists
as a whole, few have the sharp vitriolic acidity of Thompson. This aspect makes him even more unique among most writers; P.J. O'Rourke can explain it
better than I:
seperate Hunter Thompson fromt he common herd of modern-lit angst peddlers. First, Thompson is a better writer...Second, Thompson makes us laugh. This is something we're unlikely to do during perfomrances of...
Waiting for Godot, even if we're as high as Raoul Duke. Hunter Thompson takes the darkest
questions of ontology, the grimmest epistemological queries, and by his manner of posing them, sends us doubled over in fits of risibility, our sides aching from armpit to pelvic girdle, the tops of our legs raw from knee-
slapping, beer spitting out of our noses. We laugh so hard that at any given moment, we're
almost as liekly to vomit as the 300-pound Samoan attorney" (O'Rourke, 1996, p66).
Thompson's hilarity stems from the impossible, absurd and dumb things that people say and the
situations he finds himself in. The only comparison I can come up with is Monty Python's Flying
Thompson's jokes and gags are as well planned and laid out as a TV sitcom, setting the
reader up for laugh after laugh. Most of it is unprintable, or too long winded
to be excerpted here.
One of the most unique aspects of his style is that is always seems so effortless. He uses long,
complex sentences that always makes sense, and uses a broad, aggressive vocabulary. His friend P.J.
O'Rourke says that Hunter is more of a poet than a journalist; his son Juan recognizes that few can
match his wordsmithing abilities ((AspenOnline went AspenOffline sometime ago) Thompson, 1997, Recent Work)
Thompson has been described as more than "someone who sees - a seer" (AspenOnline). He is a keen observer,
noticing tiny details that might miss the attention of most people, and applies it to his writing
in two ways. The first is in description. Usually he can get down all the pertinent details of an
object or person down in two or threes sentences, all the while managing to create a highly
visual picture of what he is describing. For example, in Las Vegas, the car is not just a
red Convertible, it is a fireapple red Great Red Shark. The second is in how he analyses a situation.
He can observe for a few minutes, then sum up the behavior and what's going on.
Because gonzo is so undefinable and attempted by so few, one can only look at Hunter's progress over 40 years
in journalism. It is interesting that the term has been applied to other people as well, such as the screenwriter
Joe Eszterhas and comedians Andy Kauffman and John Belushi. In comparing Thompson to Kurt
Vonnegut, literary critic Jerome Klinkowitz seems to capture the essence of gonzo reporting:
"The quick cut, the strategic use of digression, the ability to propel himself through a narrative like a stunt driver, steering
with the skids so that the most improbable intentions result in the smoothest maneuvers, the attitutde of having one's personal
craziness pale before contemporary American life - on all these count Thompson and Vonnegut share an affinity" (Carroll, p302).
Hell's Angels is about the first and last book in which Hunter maintains a controlled sort of writing, in the sense of
non-gonzo writing. Like his earlier newspaper articles (most of which are reprinted in The Great Shark Hunt), Angels
contains all six characteristics and the humour in it is very sharp and sardonic, such as:
"...no commerical shipper of marijuana or anything else illegal would make the mistake of
using Angels for runners. It would be like sending a car up to the border
with "Opium Express" painted in red letters on the side" (Thompson, 1966, p271).
This book arose from an article for the National Observer that Random House liked so much they wanted
a book. He was able to stay on task and dispels many myths about the motorcycle gang
as perpetuated in police reports and news stories. By a comprehensive comparison of differing articles about the Lacona riot, he
exposes the hypocrisy of time honoured and established magazines. Sometimes it is hard to believe that this book was written thirty years ago, as he gives some
startling predictions about the degradation of American society and alienation.
"Basically, it's all true. I warped a few things, but basically that's the way it was," Thompson said in describing his second book. Totally unrestrained
and uninhibited, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream was first published in
Rolling Stone in 1971 under the pseudonym Raoul Duke. It was perhaps the only magazine at the time where such a violent, savage and profane
story could be published without major changes. While it is one of his favourite books, and a cult classic,
he felt it was a "failed experiment in gonzo journalism. My aim was to buy a thick notebook and write everything down as it happened,
and then send it in, unedited" (jacket copy). Just like everything about him,
Las Vegas is hard to describe. On one hand, it is a study of the citizens, lifestyle and glamour of Las Vegas. On the other, it is the free-wheeling
saga of two friends to see how low they can sink.
The second Fear and Loathing book, On the Campaign Trail '72, is considered a high-flying achievement for new journalism. In it, he
expresses his distaste for the hypocrisy of politicians and regular news media, which was often less than non-[artisan. A staunch McGovern supporter, he was able to get to the heart
of the election, infiltrating a Nixon Youth rally (another reporter, Ron Rosenbaum, was at the same rally. Both recognized each other and tried not to give each other away), throwing Ed
Muskie off balance and all the while starting vicious rumours. A strange thing also happened with Trail, which is a collection of the dispatches Hunter wrote for RS. People started
to believe his gross exaggerations and swallowed up his sarcasm to the point of where his press passes were often revoked. "I assumed that other people were getting their information from
the same place like I was...to my knowledge, Richard Nixon does not sell cars with cracked blocks..." (Thompson, 1990, p143-144).
A complete record of that election year, Mcgovern aide Frank Mankiewicz has always maintained that Trail was "the least accurate and most factual book about the election," (Carroll, p153-154).
Trail was not the only innovative book that came out of the election. The Boys on the Bus by Tim Crouse, who travelled with and helped Thompson in
Trail is a major record of the behaviour of the political press. Crouse, like Thompson, showed that the regular political press were "an easily manipulated group that does
exactly what the candidates want. The reporters travel in packs, writing essentially the same story because writing anything different would raise questions," (McKeen, p63). At the time,
individualism and initiative in the press went unrewarded or unpublished. Crouse portrayed Thompson for what he seemed to be, the ideal reporter, an adversary on the outside "dedicated to watching the caretakers and committed
to the purity of society" (McKeen, p64).
The four volumes that have so far made up The Gonzo Papers are large chunks of Thompson's writing that was either previously unpublished or hard to come by,
such as in The Great Shark Hunt, Generation of Swine and Songs of the Doomed. In these books one may see how Thompson's style has remained consistent
over long periods of time and retains all the characteristics and symbols of early and recent writing. For example, in "Brazilshooting" (Shark), Thompson is roused out of bed by phone call from an
unnamed "friend". Similarly, Thompson seems to get a great deal of anonymous midnight phone calls in Swine, Doomed and the fourth book, Better Than Sex. Sex is a strange book,
a mish mash of "true gonzo", actual letters and faxes from politicos for the 1992 election. Many critics found Sex disappointing; others just find it hilariously funny.
Another oddity is The Curse of Lono. There is no doubt that it is gonzo; however, it is curiously un-Thompson like.
Knowing from various biographies that most of the events in Curse did not happen, this brings us full circle to another aspect of gonzo. Thompson does not distinguish between fact and fiction in most of his
writing. He leaves it up to the reader to decide which is which. There is a certain fantasy element to all Thompson's writing. The aforementioned dream of the reporter as white knight captivates most people, this person
with incredible power who is able to slay real demons and monsters. Thompson also pokes fun at his own trade, concocting here and there believable newswire reports. Beginning with Hell's Angels, where panicky police officers
try to track down the gang who have mysteriously turned into a gate labelled "Owl Farm" to hilarious "I can just see the headlines now" monologues.
Many critics feel that his writing deteriorated after his divorce, but most do not. It is not Hunter who has changed, but rather his audience. Others feel his subjective, and not objective, viewpoint is detrimental because
it is too negative and or too positive at times. While it is true that many a politician has fallen because of bad press, this goes to show the ignorance of voters to rely on one source for their information. What is supposed to make
democracy work is an informed electorate, yet the media constantly fail at this, as they vie for ratings and subscriptions.
What we come to realize, as David Felton, an editor for RS says:
"He is maybe the world's greatest political journalist, if you want to change
the definition of journalism. What Hunter did was to expose how unconsciously
wimply political journalism was, and still is," (Carroll, p156).
Indeed. At a time when the U.S. was in political turmoil over changing values, he was able to attract new interest in politics.
He was able to say and write what other journalists could not, and one of the few writers who would
write openly about drugs, sex, and people like
hippies and freaks who were ignored by the normal press. He found that one could learn jsut
as much about a place by interviewing its drunks and addicts as one would by talking to high standing citizens. He is most respected
for his integrity, or "sticking to his principles" as he puts it. Even though his
writing is distorted, he tries to endorse nothing, as he feels it is something good journalists
should not do [even in Trail, Thompson often turned around
and attacked McGovern].
There is a certain wisdom in his distortions and truth in his lies. Thirty or forty years ago, Americans liked to believe (and still do) that they lived a Norman Rockwell life
while young men were dying like flies. The horrible thing that they could not face up to was that all things changed; and so many people (as demonstrated in Hell's Angels and Las Vegas were unwilling to change.
Thompson proved that hippies and Hell's Angels were as American as Mom and applie pie, creations of a rigid society and rooted in American folk history.
While his writing cannot be taken 100% seriously, his falsehoods poke fun at other's untruthful statements. If one takes everything he says and writes seriously, then they have missed the whole point of
gonzo journalism. It is not anti-government, but sort of anti-journalism.
Perhaps journalist John Sack puts it best:
"I wrote my story for Stars and Stripes: 'Seoul, Korea. Gen. Maxwell Taylor said today that
there is no ammunition shortage in Korea.' But I also know what he said was a lie. But under the rules of journalism,
there is no way I can say so" (Carroll, p194).
Gonzo journalism, could be, then, called true freedom of the press. Everyone knows, or at least can expect, that politicians and media sources as well are not always, or intend to be truthful.
Politicians make a statement and then retract it; always there is the microphone or tape recorder jammed in their face. A media source must then edit and rearrange content to make the piece of news
fit within an allotted time. Thus, objectivity has, and most likely will always be the great myth of news reporting.
In the hands of a qualified person, gonzo journalism can be a valued addition to one's daily media intake by providing an off-center and humourous point of view. Hunter Thompson, its inventor and main practitioner, still provides
an insightful view of society for what it is, not what others would like it to be. His non-ficiton prose force his readers to see different truths of a matter, and he continually uncovers the hypocrisy in national news media. His opinions are strong
and his style even stronger in that it is highly memorable and has had an impressive impact on political jouranlism. Gonzo is like our notions of history - it is made up of truths and lies, can be sometimes inconsistant or constantly rewritten. What it comes down to is perception and personality -
both of the writer and the reader.
[FIRST ESSAY] * [SECOND ESSAY] * [THREE ESSAY]