Hunter S. Thompson Typed Out The Great Gatsby & A Farewell to Arms Word for Word: A Method for Learning How to Write Like the Masters

Image  via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

The word quixot­ic derives, of course, from Miguel Cer­vantes’ irrev­er­ent ear­ly 17th cen­tu­ry satire, Don Quixote. From the novel’s epony­mous char­ac­ter it car­ries con­no­ta­tions of anti­quat­ed, extrav­a­gant chival­ry. But in mod­ern usage, quixot­ic usu­al­ly means “fool­ish­ly imprac­ti­cal, marked by rash lofty roman­tic ideas.” Such des­ig­na­tions apply in the case of Jorge Luis Borges’ sto­ry, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in which the tit­u­lar aca­d­e­m­ic writes his own Quixote by recre­at­ing Cer­vantes’ nov­el word-for-word.

Why does this fic­tion­al minor crit­ic do such a thing? Borges’ expla­na­tions are as cir­cuitous­ly mys­te­ri­ous as you might expect. But we can get a much more straight­for­ward answer from a mod­ern-day Quixote—an indi­vid­ual who has under­tak­en many a “fool­ish­ly imprac­ti­cal” quest: Hunter S. Thomp­son. Though he would nev­er be mis­tak­en for a knight-errant, Thomp­son did tilt at more than a few wind­mills, includ­ing Fitzgerald’s The Great Gats­by and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, from which he typed whole pages, word-for-word “just to get the feel­ing,” writes Louis Menand at The New York­er, “of what it was like to write that way.”

“You know Hunter typed The Great Gats­by,” an awestruck John­ny Depp told The Guardian in 2011, after he’d played Thomp­son him­self in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and a fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of him in an adap­ta­tion of Thompson’s lost nov­el The Rum Diaries. “He’d look at each page Fitzger­ald wrote, and he copied it. The entire book. And more than once. Because he want­ed to know what it felt like to write a mas­ter­piece.” This exer­cise pre­pared him to write one, or his cracked ver­sion of one, 1972’s gonzo account of a more-than-quixot­ic road trip, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Menand points out that Thomp­son first called the book The Death of the Amer­i­can Dream, like­ly inspired by Fitzgerald’s first Gats­by title, The Death of the Red White and Blue.

Thomp­son referred to Gats­by fre­quent­ly in books and let­ters. Just as often, he ref­er­enced anoth­er lit­er­ary hero—and pugna­cious Fitzger­ald com­peti­tor—Ernest Hem­ing­way. He first began typ­ing out Gats­by while employed at Time mag­a­zine as a copy boy in 1958, one of many mag­a­zine and news­pa­per jobs in a “pat­tern of dis­rup­tive employ­ment,” writes biog­ra­ph­er Kevin T. McE­neaney. “Thomp­son appro­pri­at­ed arm­loads of office sup­plies” for the task, and also typed out Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and “some of Faulkner’s stories—an unusu­al method for learn­ing prose rhythm.” He was fired the fol­low­ing year, not for mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion, but for “his unpar­don­able, insult­ing wit at a Christ­mas par­ty.”

In a 1958 let­ter to his home­town girl­friend Ann Frick, Thomp­son named the Fitzger­ald and Hem­ing­way nov­els as two espe­cial­ly influ­en­tial books, along with Brave New World, William Whyte’s The Orga­ni­za­tion Man, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Every­thing (or “Girls before Girls”), a nov­el that “hard­ly belongs in the above­men­tioned com­pa­ny,” he wrote, and which he did not, pre­sum­ably, copy out on his type­writer at work. Sure­ly, how­ev­er, many a Thomp­son close read­er has dis­cerned the traces of Fitzger­ald, Faulkn­er, and Hem­ing­way in his work, par­tic­u­lar­ly the lat­ter, whose macho escapades and epic drink­ing bouts sure­ly inspired more than just Thompson’s writ­ing.

In Borges’ “Pierre Menard,” the title char­ac­ter first sets out to “be Miguel de Cervantes”—to “Learn Span­ish, return to Catholi­cism, fight against the Moor or Turk, for­get the his­to­ry of Europe from 1602 to 1918….” He finds the under­tak­ing not only “impos­si­ble from the out­set,” but also “the least inter­est­ing” way to go about writ­ing his own Quixote. Thomp­son may have dis­cov­ered the same as he worked his way through his influ­ences. He could not become his heroes. He would have to take what he’d learned from inhab­it­ing their prose, and use it as fuel for his lit­er­ary firebombs–or, seen dif­fer­ent­ly, for his ide­al­is­tic, imprac­ti­cal, yet strange­ly noble (in their way) knight’s quests.

Not since Thomp­son’s Nixon­ian hey­day has there been such need for a fero­cious out­law voice like his. He may have become a stock char­ac­ter by the end of his life, car­i­ca­tured as Uncle Duke in Doones­bury, giv­en pop cul­ture saint­hood by Dep­p’s unhinged por­tray­al. But “at its best,” writes Menand, “Thomp­son’s anger, in writ­ing, was a beau­ti­ful thing, fear­less and fun­ny and, after all, not wrong about the shab­bi­ness and hypocrisy of Amer­i­can offi­cial­dom.” Per­haps even now, some hun­gry young intern is typ­ing out Fear and Loathing word-for-word, prepar­ing to absorb it into his or her own 21st cen­tu­ry reper­toire of barbed-wire truth-telling about “the death of the Amer­i­can dream.” The method, it seems, may work with any great writer, be it Cer­vantes, Fitzger­ald, or Hunter S. Thomp­son.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Hunter S. Thomp­son Gave Birth to Gonzo Jour­nal­ism: Short Film Revis­its Thompson’s Sem­i­nal 1970 Piece on the Ken­tucky Der­by

Read 18 Lost Sto­ries From Hunter S. Thompson’s For­got­ten Stint As a For­eign Cor­re­spon­dent

Hunter S. Thomp­son, Exis­ten­tial­ist Life Coach, Gives Tips for Find­ing Mean­ing in Life

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • mickeypamo says:

    Very cool and very true. To have anoth­er’s words run through your fin­gers and up the arms to one’s con­scious­ness (wher­ev­er that may be) … from my own expe­ri­ence, an excel­lent teach­ing expe­ri­ence: to embody anoth­er’s words vis­cer­al­ly. Close to real under­stand­ing.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.