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Proud Highway, Page 2

Hunter S. Thompson

  The tools Hunter would use in the years ahead—bizarre wit, mockery without end, redundant excess, supreme self-confidence, the narrative of the wounded meritorious ego, and the idiopathic anger of the righteous outlaw—were all there in his precocious imagination in San Juan. Throughout those days he was using these tools to become a novelist. His work-in-progress, when we first started talking about fiction, was “Prince Jellyfish,” and he was soon to start “The Rum Diary,” which would occupy his attention for years to come. Neither novel has been published, though excerpts from both appear in his Songs of the Doomed.

  “Prince Jellyfish bounced again, for the third and final time,” he wrote me from New York in August 1960. “… It’s not really a very good book.… I’ll just chalk that year up to experience and start on that ‘Great Puerto Rican Novel’ that I mentioned.… I’ve compromised myself so often that I can’t honestly see myself as a martyr anymore … I think I’m probably better off as an opportunist with a large and ill-formed talent.”

  He knew some of my writing had been rejected, and that bothered him more than his own rejection “You’re no martyr,” he observed accurately, “but I think you approach your writing more honestly than I do mine I’m too greedy to wish you much luck, but if you can break through without stepping on my head, I hope you make it.”

  That sounded unusually honest to me, but his talk of martyrdom and compromise were romantic ideas that had little value except as a writer convincing himself of his own seriousness. We recounted the examples of Faulkner’s neglect, Nathanael West’s bad luck, Fitzgerald’s sad fading away with his work out of print. But all Hunter had done in the way of compromise was to drink too much and write some low-level journalism to stay alive. The inadequacy of his fiction was his real problem, and it was mine as well. The years ahead would prove this to both of us.

  This collection of Hunter’s letters is a prime source for tracking that time in his life how he shaped himself into the peculiar fiction writer he became.

  1960: “If I weren’t so sure of my destiny, I might even say I was depressed. But I’m not, and there’s always tomorrow’s mail.” “My fiction still refuses to sell.… Have begun the Great Puerto Rican Novel (The Rum Diary) & expect it will do the trick.”

  1961: His book was going badly, he wrote me, and an agent refused to take it on. “And so we beat on, boats against the current,” he wrote, quoting Gatsby, the oriflamme of his ongoing martyrdom to the American Dream.

  1963: I react negatively to “The Rum Diary,” tell him to abandon it. “I have decided to rewrite it,” he writes.

  1964: Making money in journalism doesn’t give him joy. “With luck, I will be driven back to fiction.”

  1965: Broke and jobless, he’s “wrestling with a novel … fiction doesn’t depress me like journalism. It’s harder, but much more human work.”

  1965: His article on motorcycle gangs for The Nation draws six book offers from publishers. “I am hysterical at the prospect of money. The big apple at the moment seems to be The Rum Diary. If I had the novel in shape right now I could knock off a $1500 advance tomorrow. But, sadly, it is not good enough to send out.”

  1965: “I should have quit journalism … and hit the fiction for all I was worth. And if I’m eve to be worth anything I honestly think it will have to be in the realm of fiction [which is] the only way I can live with my imagination, point of view, instincts, and all those other intangibles that make people nervous in my journalism.”

  A case might be made for the previous paragraph being the turning point in Hunter’s awareness, or admission, that what he was vigorously trying to do wasn’t journalism. These letters take him only through 1967, and it wasn’t until 1970, when he published “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” in Scanlan’s Monthly, that his gonzo journalism came fully into existence. Was it journalism? Well, it had appeared in a journal But wasn’t it really fiction? It wasn’t Hemingway running the bulls in his favorite town, but it was Hunter running the horses in his favorite idiom. It was a short story, the best fiction he’d ever written.

  In all our early marathon conversations, a recurring subject was writers of originality how the power of language set them apart, how their story, not their ideas, was supreme, and for an idea to find houseroom it needed embodiment in the narrative or it was worthless. The notion of coming at the reader with fangs dripping wisdom was as laughable as it was useless.

  Such talk is part of the basic training for any fiction writer. The real problem comes in learning how to use these insights. Hunter identified with literary outsiders. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Donlea’s Ginger Man. He learned from Mencken how to be an attack dog, but he cheered for Algren and Fitzgerald and West, and he memorized Dylan Thomas and Faulkner. I remember him saying in the late 1960s that the main thing he wanted to do with his writing now was to create “new forms” of fiction.

  The Derby story had pointed the way toward that great mother lode. Playboy was next, then The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Esquire, etc. Hunter had discovered that confounding sums of money could be had by writing what seemed to be journalism, while actually you were developing your fictional oeuvre.

  By 1971 “The Rum Diary” was in the basement and Hunter was writing one of the funniest, most original books of the last three decades, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his paean to drug madness that consolidated his growing fame, turned him into the mad doper as comic icon, gonzo journalist with the public clout of a rock star.

  His 1972 presidential campaign book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, published serially in Rolling Stone, changed his image: now fang-dripping, malevolent wit as political sage. But that book was more than journalism it owed as much to the imagination as to political savvy. It fell, at least in part, into the same category as the Derby piece and the Las Vegas book fiction.

  That Hunter has continued to be called a journalist is one of the great underrated bunco exploits of our age. He himself made a half-hearted effort to confess the ruse when he published in The Great Shark Hunt his notes on the origin of the Las Vegas book Gonzo, he wrote, “is a style of ‘reporting’ based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism—and the best journalists have always known this.” He went on to say that Las Vegas was failed Gonzo, “so complex in its failure that I feel I can take the risk of defending it as a first, gimped effort in a direction that what Tom Wolfe calls ‘The New Journalism’ has been flirting with for almost a decade.”

  Hunter’s explanation of why the Las Vegas book was a failure isn’t relevant here and he dodges the issue anyway. He gets to the truth when he says of the book. “As true Gonzo Journalism, this doesn’t work at all—and even if it did, I couldn’t possibly admit it. Only a goddamn lunatic would write a thing like this and then claim it was true.”

  It was not lunacy defined but lunacy imagined in short, a novel.

  But who believed him?

  Journals and book publishers have ever since been foisting his work on the gullible public as journalism, when in truth it is nothing but a pack of lies, which, of course, is a classic definition of fiction.

  I hope this is a lesson to us all.

  When last we talked at the Tosca Bar in San Francisco, Hunter was dodging pursuit, registered at a hotel under the name of Ben Franklin. I immediately noticed that he was smoking and drinking heavily. I advised him to curb these vices and proceed into his sixtieth year with moderation, the only course to take if he was going to get on with his work.

  “I myself now drink only the occasional glass of red wine,” I told him.

  He acknowledged I was probably right, and stubbed out his cigarette.

  “God will be good to us,” he said, ingesting some peculiar substance through a tube.

  “The work is the only thing that matters,” I said.

  “I know that,” he said “That’s why I’m writing a novel. Perhaps two novels.”
  “Oh yes, two novels,” I said. “I heard that story in San Juan.”

  Averill Park, New York

  October 23, 1996

  1 William J. Dorvillier who won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for the Star’s editorials on a church-state controversy.



  Don’t loaf and invite inspiration

  Light out after it with a club.

  —Jack London

  At noon on November 22, 1963, Hunter S. Thompson heard the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and reacted by sitting down at his typewriter. In a letter to his friend William Kennedy (who twenty years later would win the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Ironweed), he vented his anger. “There is no human being within 500 miles to whom I can communicate anything—much less the fear and loathing that is on me after today’s murder,” Thompson wrote from his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. “… From now on it is dirty pool and judo in the clinches. The savage nuts have shattered the great myth of American decency.”

  “Fear and loathing”—without apologies to Søren Kierkegaard—soon became Thompson’s trademark phrase, his shorthand for justified contempt toward an overindulgent and dysfunctional consumer culture. Whether it was used in connection with the Hell’s Angels, Richard Nixon, or Southeast Asia, “fear and loathing” served as Thompson’s all-purpose epithet, encapsulating the death of the American Dream. In 1996, Thompson’s comic masterpiece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), long a cult favorite, was selected by the Modern Library for inclusion in its renowned list of affordable editions of world classics, catalogued between Thackeray and Tolstoy. Thompson’s other popular title featuring the trademark phrase—Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), which The New York Times deemed the “best account yet published of what it feels like to be out there in the middle of the American political process”—is likewise scheduled to join the distinguished Modern Library ranks. And now, in 1997, here is The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955–1967, the first installment of a projected three-volume “Fear and Loathing Letters” collection. It includes, along with more than two hundred others, that historic 1963 letter to William Kennedy.

  The letters within these pages are only a fraction of the approximately twenty thousand Thompson has composed since he was a young boy. Whether at his childhood home on Ransdall Avenue in Louisville, in a Greenwich Village garret, or on a beer barge going down the Magdalena River in Colombia, Thompson corresponded ferociously, always making carbon copies, hoping they would be published someday as a testament to his life and times. “These were the pre-Xerox days,” Thompson has commerited about his surprising pack-rat nature. “And I was anal retentive in my desire to save everything.”

  The earliest letters archived at Thompson’s Owl Farm ranch are dated 1947, when, as a precocious ten-year-old, Thompson began covering neighborhood sports and soliciting subscribers for his own four-cent, two-page mimeographed newspaper, The Southern Star. At age twelve he was firing off missives to the editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, complaining about the way the newspaper covered everything from race relations to Civil War history. Thompson also saved most of his school papers and even an irregularly kept journal filled with innocent adolescent reflections and self-improvement promises. On New Year’s Day, 1951, for example, Thompson scrawled the top ten resolutions he hoped to keep in the year ahead, with number one on the list being to “Calm Down,” number two to “Find a Good Woman by March,” and number three to “Always Dress Spiffy.”

  The largest category of early Thompson correspondence—none of which, due to its youthful and personal nature, has been included in this volume—contains the letters he wrote to his mother, Virginia, a Louisville librarian, each day of his incarceration from May 1955 to July 1955 at the Jefferson County Jail for a robbery he didn’t commit. “The police lie,” Thompson wrote from his cell. “Injustice is rampant.” Upon being released on probation, Thompson walked into an Air Force recruiting office and enlisted. After a couple of months of basic training in San Antonio, he was assigned to Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois, where he studied radio electronics. But it wasn’t until September 1956, when he left Scott and became the sports editor of the Eglin Air Force Base (Pensacola, Florida) newspaper, the Command Courier, that Thompson began composing thoughtful letters on a regular basis, usually aimed at old school chums from Louisville’s prestigious Athenaeum Literary Association. While turning his sports section into one of the best in northern Florida, Thompson became familiar with all facets of layout, camerawork, newswriting, headlines, and typing. Using his trusty Underwood to write stories, conduct business, and stay in touch with a wide circle of friends, Thompson developed a ritual of typing letters at night, a habit that continues today “I can stir up more controversy with one small portable typewriter than most people can with an entire wire service,” Thompson wrote his Louisville friend David Ethridge in 1958. “And man, I love a good controversy.”

  The persona that emerges from the early letters collected in The Proud Highway is that of a gifted and self-assured maverick with an outlaw bent searching for the unvarnished truth in a fast-paced, irrational Cold War world. “Just as some people turn to religion to find meaning, the writer turns to his craft and tries to impose meaning, or to lift the meaning out of chaos and put it in order,” Thompson wrote a friend in 1958 Letter writing was Thompson’s way of imposing order on perhaps the most itinerant literary lifestyle since poet Vachel Lindsay criss-crossed America composing verse for a penny. “I think that the very fact that I wrote this letter and that I feel a need to write it shows the value of putting words in order on a piece of paper,” Thompson wrote to a girlfriend while in the Air Force. “I guess that is why I write as many letters as I do, because it’s the only way—outside of actually getting to work and writing fiction—I can look at life objectively. Otherwise, I’m so involved in it that I forget that the rest of the world is merely a stage setting for my life.”

  Sometimes, though, particularly after receiving his honorable discharge from the Air Force in October 1958, Thompson corresponded for his own word-intoxicated pleasure, just to stay loose with language and avoid writer’s block. Desperate to become a first-rate novelist, to make his Underwood perform like a Steinway, Thompson would type out pages from The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises in an attempt to capture the musical prose of the novelists he revered. And some of the early letters in The Proud Highway are clearly studious exercises in mimicking styles of writers from John Dos Passos to Lord Buckley to William Styron. Convinced by age twenty that he would become the F. Scott Fitzgerald of his generation, Thompson lugged his bulging correspondence around with him in trunks, believing that someday it would be his nest egg. “I’ve just been reading over two letters I sent you in Iceland,” Thompson wrote his Air Force buddy Larry Callen in 1959. “Perhaps I’ll try to publish my collected letters before, instead of after, I make history.”

  Taken as a whole, the early letters reveal a brilliant craftsman who, as a teenage hoodlum, developed a nonconformist philosophy like that of his favorite heroes in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, or Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, always marching to the beat of his own drum, a voice without restraint. “I’m afraid of nothing and want nothing,” he wrote a girlfriend in 1958. “I wait like a psychopath in a game of dodge-ball, breathing quickly while the fools decide which one will throw at me next, and jumping aside for no reason except that I like being in the middle.” It is clear from the letters that Thompson deliberately cultivated himself as the American Adam, a figure defined by critic R.W.B. Lewis as “an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.”1 The writers Thompson most admired in his twenties—Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Henry Miller—were not part of a literary movement or
elite club but were their own traveling salons. “A good writer stands above movements,” Thompson wrote, “neither a leader or a follower, but a bright white golfball in a fairway of windblown daisies.” It was no accident that Thompson moved to Big Sur in 1960—he wanted to be near Miller, whose iconoclastic forthrightness he admired above all others.

  One constant theme of The Proud Highway is Thompson’s contempt for the mainstream press, he saw its members as sycophantic mouthpieces for the Rotary Club, the U. S. government, and the Eastern establishment. He preferred the subjective journalism of H. L. Mencken, Ambrose Bierce, John Reed, and I. F. Stone over all The New York Times’s supposedly objective journalists combined. After being fired from the Middletown (New York) Daily Record in 1959 for kicking a candy machine, Thompson wrote what might be considered his all-purpose motto. “I damn well intend to keep on living the way I think I should.” And in that same note he also expressed two cardinal rules for aspiring writers. “First, never hesitate to use force, and second, abuse your credit for all its worth. If you remember these, and if you can keep your wits about you, there’s a chance you’ll make it.”

  It is difficult to know precisely when the so-called new journalism began Certainly the 1965–1966 period covered in The Proud Highway demonstrates that the new journalism was being promulgated by a number of bold writers and developing a large and appreciative audience. While Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Terry Southern—all prominent acquaintances of Thompson’s—have pointed to Esquire and the New York Herald Tribune as the breeding ground for the new journalism, Thompson—who prefers the phrase “impressionistic journalism”—doesn’t buy this parochial version of the phenomenon Long before George Plimpton picked up a football and wrote The Paper Lion, Thompson marveled at how Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain had combined the techniques of fiction and reportage while emphasizing the virtues of authorial involvement in describing newsworthy events.