Hunter S. Thompson | Critical Review by Richard Bernstein

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Hunter S. Thompson.
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Critical Review by Richard Bernstein

SOURCE: "Letters of the Young Author (He Saved Them All)," in The New York Times Book Review, July 25, 1997.

In the following review, Bernstein discusses Thompson's need to record his life and share it with the public in The Proud Highway.

One thing that this collection of letters makes clear at the outset is that Hunter S. Thompson, he of the Fear and Loathing books, for whom the phrase "gonzo journalist" was invented, has always burned to carve his initials onto the collective awareness. What other kind of person would, beginning in his teen years, make carbon copies of every letter he wrote—to his mother, his Army friends and commanding officers, his girlfriends, his various agents and editors—specifically in the hope that they would be published?

Mr. Thompson, by dint of hard work and enormous talent, has gotten his wish. Edited by Douglas Brinkley and adorned with a sparkling essay by the novelist William J. Kennedy, The Proud Highway takes Mr. Thompson's caustic, furious, funny, look-at-me correspondence through 1967, when the author, having arrived on the scene with his book Hell's Angels, was 30. It is noteworthy that although just one in seven of the relevant cache of letters was included, this book, labeled The Fear and Loathing Letters, Volume I, weighs in at just under 700 pages—and there are still 30 more years to go. Even some of the photographs of Mr. Thompson were taken by the author himself, self-portraits of the writer at work and at play. Manifestly, this is a man who, while anti-snobbish to a fault, abusively contemptuous of self-promotion and pretension, had a powerful need to make a record of himself and to make that record public.

Fortunately, the maverick vibrancy and originality of the record's creator fully redeems what might otherwise have been an act of egomaniacal temerity. The Hunter S. Thompson that emerges in this collection of his letters, complemented by fragments of his other writings, is very much the unrestrained, strenuously nonconformist, Lone Ranger journalist who achieved cult status long ago.

One thinks of Mr. Thompson a bit as one thinks of the hero of George Macdonald Fraser's fictional Flashman books, Flashman rampaging like Don Quixote through the major events of the 19th century, making them his own. Mr. Hunter rampaged through the 60's and 70's of this century, not reporting on them in any conventional sense but using them as raw material for the text that was his own life.

Taken together, as Mr. Brinkley correctly points out in his editor's note, the Thompson correspondence is "an informal and offbeat history of two decades in American life," the two decades in question having produced the counterculture that Mr. Thompson both chronicled and helped produce. The overriding sensibility, inherited from H.L. Mencken, consists of an eloquent, hyperbolic impatience with the supposed mediocrity of American life, its Rotarian culture, its complacency and its pieties.

"Young people of America, awake from your slumber of indolence and harken the call of the future!" the 18-year-old Mr. Thompson wrote in the first piece reproduced in this book, taken from the yearbook of the Louisville Male High School in Kentucky. "I'm beginning to think you're a phony, Graham," Mr. Hunter writes eight years later in 1963, the Graham in question being Philip L. Graham, president of the Washington Post Company. Mr. Hunter, a freelancer writing articles from South America, was moved to a rage by an article in Newsweek, owned by The Washington Post, that was critical of The National Observer, which was publishing his work.

This, evidently, was a guy who took no guff, whose Ayn Rand-influenced determination to do things his way required not only that he make no compromises but that he be seen as making none. Graham invited Mr. Hunter to "write me a somewhat less breathless letter, in which you tell me about yourself," and Mr. Thompson did so. He compliments his correspondent on the "cavalier tone that in some circles would pass for a very high kind of elan" but warns him against interpreting his letter as "a devious means of applying for a job on the assembly line at Newsweek, or covering speeches for The Washington Post. I sign what I write, and I mean to keep on signing it."

By 1967, Mr. Thompson, who has risen in the world, is blasting others for nincompoopery and knavishness. "I have every honest and serious intention of wreaking a thoroughly personal and honest vengeance on Scott Meredith himself, in the form of cracking his teeth with a knotty stick and rupturing every other bone and organ I can make contact with in the short time I expect will be allotted to me," he writes in a letter to his editor at Random House, speaking of the literary agent whom he has just, in any case, dismissed. "I am probably worse than you think, as a person, but what the hell?" he wrote to Meredith. "When I get hungry for personal judgment on myself, I'll call for a priest."

Mr. Thompson is not always making symbolic threats. This volume shows him as a loyal and clever friend devoted to sporting, high-spirited repartee. It shows him also as a stingingly good stylist as well as a hard-drinking, gun-toting adventurer who never loses his sense of humor even when he is being bitten by South American beetles or stomped on by members of an American motorcycle gang. The letters and other fragments in this collection are invested with the same rugged, outspoken individualism as his more public writings, which make them just as difficult to put down.

What makes them ever more irresistible is that they lend substance to the legend of his life as an ultimate countercultural romance. If books like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas conveyed the image of a handsome young man riding his motorcycle at 100 miles an hour on the defiant highway of the untrammeled life, this collection of his private statements will show that the image was true.

"The most important thing a writer can have," he wrote to a friend when he was 21, is "the ability to live with constant loneliness and a strong sense of revulsion for the banalities of everyday socializing." Evidently, he meant what he said.

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This section contains 1,036 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Richard Bernstein
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