I will provide specific examples of various social and political commentaries from Hunter Thompson’s article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” I will examine Thompson’s place and importance within the culture he was critiquing as well as within the realm of journalism itself. Although he was most often under the influence of one or a variety of substances his words and insight have influenced many who knew or read him. He dedicated himself, compulsions and all, to the craft of journalism. He has personally been one of my favorite writers since I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas several summers ago. What drew me to Thompson was his ability to make the ordinary remarkable. I feel his style is reflective of the subjectivity that has seeped into our culture, beginning with the rise of New Journalism, a style that had many similarities to Gonzo Journalism.
Thompson’s article is immersive due to its exploration of the surroundings and the writer’s obsessive practice of the continual, unquestioned traditions and indulgences in question. Steadman calls this going “native,” which they do, becoming the “real beasts” they have come to see perform. Many of Thompson’s generation sought to expand their minds, they often achieved this by pushing their bodies to extremes while the upright citizens of the day deplored their degrading behaviors. Thompson was perhaps speaking out in opposition to some acts of depravity but lived his life according to his own moral code. I identify with his tactics and works because I too notice a trend of alienation, of increasing anti-social tendencies and isolation. Thompson spoke for his generation because while he felt his views were important he felt equally responsible to point out any biases he had as a journalist. Thompson achieved this with his over-the-top style.
Thompson’s judgments are meant to be humorous at first glance however; they contain relevant cultural critiques and provide readers insight of the times and of the widely different levels of experience that were available within a famous southern tradition. One of the most intriguing aspects of the article was the attempt of the journalist and illustrator to find a proper caricature, a representative face of the entire culture: “He had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn’t seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for a lead drawing. It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of whiskey gentry–a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture” (Thompson 5).
Thompson and Steadman were seeking more than just an illustration for the piece; Thompson wanted a symbol “of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is” (Thompson 5). In the end, journalist and illustrator hit the bottom of the barrel but somehow make it out alive. Thompson wakes after consuming mass amounts of alcohol, admirable by even Derby standards and doesn’t even recognize himself in the mirror at first, he has transformed into the caricature he was seeking.
The piece is also littered with Nixon references. Nixon, a caricature of everything Thompson stood against, seemed to serve as the reason and bane of his existence simultaneously. Even if the piece isn’t about Nixon or war or any of the freedoms Thompson cherished those themes would creep in, serving as a backdrop for whatever scene Thompson felt like making. Everyone has a streak of rebellion within and Thompson let his run its full course. He was always against the power, fighting even when losing is inevitable.
Thompson was always able to find something about any situation that held a special significance to him or to the culture at large. He focused on his own experience and interpretation of things, giving us not only a snap shot of the culture or the event itself but sharing himself as well. We get a whole new level with Thompson, a level that is intentionally missing from Capote and Hersey’s work, (each for different reasons) the element of psychology. Readers are fascinated with Thompson’s bizarre and demented psychology, especially when it starts making sense to them.
Critics of Thompson are quick to jump on this strong, subjective voice that seems harsh and judgmental at times as well as his lack of conventional research. Thompson does these things intentionally and I admire his sense of humor and honesty because in the end he is even willing to turn his words on himself: “For a confused instant I thought Ralph had brought somebody with him–a model for that one special face we’d been looking for. There he was, by God–a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature…like an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in come one-proud mother’s family photo album. It was the face we’d been looking for–and it was, of course, my own. Horrible, horrible…” (Thompson 9).
Thompson writes highly stylized prose that is funny at times while still managing to be poetic. I am a poet myself and I enjoy fiction that borrows from the poetic tradition. Similarly, I have been able to connect with nonfiction that borrows these techniques. Gonzo Journalism is highly idealistic, like its creator but there is something beautiful in its mission to tear down the artifice of government, uncover the deceit of war and end the suppression of freedoms in favor of false securities in a society of increasing unrest.