Hunter S. Thompson: Biography & Books

Instructor: James Fleming
Hunter S. Thompson is considered by many literary critics and historians to be among the most important American writers of the late 20th century. Thompson is credited as the founder of 'gonzo journalism' and one of the icons of the counter-culture movements of the 1960s and 1970s.


Hunter S. (Stockton) Thompson was born in 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky to a working-class family. Thompson's early life was full of challenges. His father died when he was young and, as a teenager, Thompson spent a month in jail after assisting in a robbery, an event which left him unable to finish high school. However, he was a remarkably bright child and teenager, and he took an interest in sports and writing - interests that he would continue to pursue for the rest of his life.

Young Hunter Thompson

After being released from jail, Thompson joined the Air Force with the intention of becoming a pilot. After being rejected from the Air Force's aviation program, he was transferred to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida where he lied about his journalistic experience and became the sports editor of The Command Courier. Despite his success as a journalist and editor, Thompson was dismissed from the Air Force due to his rebellious nature and refusal to follow orders.

After leaving the Air Force, he drifted around the country working for newspapers and taking college writing classes. As he traveled around the country and had his writings published in different newspapers and magazines, Thompson began to gain acclaim for the quality of his writings. Thompson got married in 1963 to his first wife, Sandra Conklin, with whom he fathered his only child, Juan, in 1964.

Thompson's Works

Thompson first became well known with the publication of his 1966 book Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, a journalistic account of Thompson's time spent riding along with the infamous motorcycle gang. The book was a critical and popular success and lead to Thompson being commissioned to write for numerous nationally known magazines and newspapers. He soon became famous for his outrageous, and often cunning and humorous, political and social commentary pieces published in a variety of national magazines. Due to his leftist and downright radical political beliefs, he quickly became an icon to members of various American counter-culture movements of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the 'hippies.'

In 1970, Thompson ran for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado on the 'Freak Power' ticket. Thompson's platform included decriminalizing drugs, protecting the natural environment, and pushing out investors who threatened to corrupt the city of Aspen. Thompson, to the surprise of many, lost the election by only a few hundred votes.

Thompson is said by many literary critics and journalists to have invented the technique of gonzo journalism in 1970 with his article 'The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved' for the magazine Scanlan's Monthly. Though the article was not widely read at the time, Thompson would continue to use the manic, first-person, over-the-top style of the article in almost all of his future writing.

Thompson would become even more famous in 1971 with the publication of his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The book began as a series of articles for Rolling Stone Magazine and eventually developed into a full-length book. The book was a tremendous critical and popular success and made Thompson an international celebrity.

Thompson's next book was 1972's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. Written in the same gonzo style of his previous book, Thompson examined the presidential campaign of 1972. This book was also a tremendous critical and popular success.

Hunter S. Thompson

As Thompson became increasingly famous throughout the 1970s, he was able to travel the world covering a variety of landmark historical events, including the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon. However, as Thompson's fame increased, his personal life began falling apart. During the 1970s, Thompson developed a severe drinking and drug problem, faced financial ruin several times and endured the collapse of his marriage. According to many of Thompson's critics and biographers, his writing began to lose its earlier force and humor during this time.

Over the 1980s and 1990s, Thomas continued to write for magazines and publish books. Two film adaptations of his work appeared - 1980's Where the Buffalo Roam and 1998's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - though critics were divided as to the quality of both films. While Thompson remained a best-selling author, he became increasingly dependent upon drugs and liquor and had trouble finishing projects and meeting deadlines. He became more reclusive over the 1980s and 1990s and was attacked by many critics for repeating himself and relishing in his past glories instead of further developing his style or exploring new topics.

Thompson's fame did not abate during his life. His collected letters were bestsellers in the late 1990s, as was his 1998 novel The Rum Diary (a novel he had written in the 1960s which was considered to be 'lost' until it was rediscovered and published to great acclaim) and memoir, 2003's Kingdom of Fear.

By the beginning of the 21st century, literary scholars began to take a serious interest in Thompson's work, and now many of his books are taught in colleges throughout the world. Despite the accolades he received later in his life and his continued fame, Thompson's emotional stability and general health began to fade due to a broken hip and decades of drug and alcohol abuse. Thompson committed suicide in 2005 by shooting himself in the head. He left behind a note with only the date of his suicide and the word 'counselor' written on it.

Major Books

Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang (1967): Hell's Angels is Thompson's chronicle of his time spent riding along with members of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang. This is Thompson's first book and the piece of writing that made him famous. While it is written in first person voice, it is not written in Thompson's famous 'gonzo' style.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1972): Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is Thompson's most popular book and the first one in which he uses the 'gonzo' style of writing he would later became famous for. The book tells the story of Raoul Duke and his attorney Dr. Gonzo's journey to Las Vegas in 1971 to cover a desert race for a sports magazine, attend a narcotics officers' convention and figure out the meaning of the American Dream during a particularly dark time in American history. The book is considered by Thompson's critics and scholars to be his best and is widely taught in colleges all over the world. It was made into a film in 1998 by director Terry Gilliam that is considered to be a cult classic.

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973): Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 is Thompson's 'gonzo' chronicle of the 1972 presidential campaign. Though Thompson's narration focuses mostly on the Democrats who were running for office, he also offers a scathing and sometimes quite humorous critique of the social and political policies of President Richard Nixon, the war in Vietnam and the failure of the American counter-culture movements to establish themselves as viable political forces.

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