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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The genius of Hunter S. Thompson 

Hunter S. Thompson, who killed himself on Sunday, was -- notwithstanding his personal shortcomings, which were legion -- one of the few truly great American journalists. In his later years his star began to fade, but if you doubt that he was a genuis consider that he wrote this defense of the Hell's Angels in 1965, when he was 27 years old and the nation -- and The Nation -- was in many respects more open-minded than it is today.
Ever since World War II, California has been strangely plagued by wild men on motorcycles. They usually travel in groups of ten to thirty, booming along the highways and stopping here are there to get drunk and raise hell. In 1947, hundreds of them ran amok in the town of Hollister, an hour's fast drive south of San Francisco, and got enough press to inspire a film called The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando. The film had a massive effect on thousands of young California motorcycle buffs; in many ways, it was their version of The Sun Also Rises.

The California climate is perfect for motorcycles, as well as surfboards, swimming pools and convertibles. Most of the cyclists are harmless weekend types, members of the American Motorcycle Association, and no more dangerous than skiers or skin divers. But a few belong to what the others call "outlaw clubs," and these are the ones who--especially on weekends and holidays--are likely to turn up almost anywhere in the state, looking for action. Despite everything the psychiatrists and Freudian casuists have to say about them, they are tough, mean and potentially as dangerous as a pack of wild boar. When push comes to shove, any leather fetishes or inadequacy feelings that may be involved are entirely beside the point, as anyone who has ever tangled with these boys will sadly testify. When you get in an argument with a group of outlaw motorcyclists, you can generally count your chances of emerging unmaimed by the number of heavy-handed allies you can muster in the time it takes to smash a beer bottle. In this league, sportsmanship is for old liberals and young fools. "I smashed his face," one of them said to me of a man he'd never seen until the swinging started. "He got wise. He called me a punk. He must have been stupid."

Read the whole thing, and imagine the impact of such writing on a country that still cut its hair short and was only dimly aware of parts of its society that it still referred to as subcultures. Most journalists today go their whole lives without being half so evocative. Thompson wrote like this time and time again, and captured the attention of a country that had been depressed, militarized or just plain conforming since the Roaring Twenties crashed into the Great Depression.

I should add that if The Nation published such articles today I would happily renew my long-lapsed subscription.

2 Comments:

By Blogger Charlottesvillain, at Tue Feb 22, 10:52:00 PM:

Thompson really was a genius, as is evident by any objective reading of his work, particularly his pre Fear and Loathing journalism, particularly the collected essays found in The Great Shark Hunt, and the journalistic novel Hell's Angels. His collected letters are perhaps more indicative of his wonderful, evocative writing style. Of course Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is what he is best known for and it was a truly ground breaking piece of work, but it was also the beginning of the end for Hunter S. Thompson, as it seemed his ability to maintain focus sharply diminished as his drug use increased.

I was saddened to hear he had shot himself. Saddened, but not in any way surprised. Frankly, its amazing he lasted this long.  

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