Free: Read the Original 23,000-Word Essay That Became Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)

Because my sto­ry was true. I was cer­tain of that. And it was extreme­ly impor­tant, I felt, for the mean­ing of our jour­ney to be made absolute­ly clear. 

The pub­li­ca­tion his­to­ry of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the sto­ry of gonzo jour­nal­ism itself, a form depen­dent upon the unre­li­a­bil­i­ty of its nar­ra­tor, who becomes a cen­tral char­ac­ter in the osten­si­bly real-life dra­ma. In Thompson’s hal­lu­cino­genic tales of his trav­els to Las Vegas with attor­ney and Chi­cano activist Oscar Zeta Acos­ta, the reporter went so far as to become a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter.

The jour­ney began with a com­mis­sion from Rolling Stone to report on the death of reporter Ruben Salazar, killed by a Los Ange­les police tear gas grenade at an anti-Viet­nam War protest. This trip divert­ed, how­ev­er, to Las Vegas, where Thomp­son drove to report on the Mint 400 desert race for Sports Illus­trat­ed. Rather than sub­mit­ting the 250-word piece the mag­a­zine request­ed, he gave them a 2,500-word psy­che­del­ic fugue, the very begin­nings of Fear and Loathing. The piece, Thomp­son lat­er wrote, was “aggres­sive­ly reject­ed.”

Instead, Jann Wen­ner liked what he saw enough to even­tu­al­ly pub­lish it in the Novem­ber 1971 issue of Rolling Stone as a 23,000-word essay bear­ing the title of the nov­el it would become, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Sav­age Jour­ney to the Heart of the Amer­i­can Dream.” You can read that by-now famil­iar­ly wild account, here. In it, Thomp­son gave the magazine’s read­ers a suc­cinct def­i­n­i­tion of his report­ing style:

But what was the sto­ry? Nobody had both­ered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enter­prise. The Amer­i­can Dream. Hor­a­tio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo jour­nal­ism.

The term defines the form as the mir­ror obverse of the Amer­i­can Dream, Thompson’s excess­es no more than illic­it ver­sions of the cul­ture he picked apart, one that pro­duced an event like the Mint 400, “the rich­est off-the-road race for motor­cy­cles and dune-bug­gies in the his­to­ry of orga­nized sport,” he wrote, and “a fan­tas­tic spec­ta­cle….”

What were Thomp­son and Acos­ta (or Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo) doing if not hold­ing the main event of dis­or­ga­nized sport in their race across the desert against their own para­noid delu­sions? The truths Thomp­son told need nev­er have been factual—they were the out­ra­geous truths we find in any good sto­ry, well told: about the bats—as in the famous Goya etch­ing—swarm­ing around the passed-out head of Rea­son.

Read Thomp­son’s orig­i­nal, now icon­ic essay here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hunter Thomp­son Died 15 Years Ago: Hear Him Remem­bered by Tom Wolfe, John­ny Depp, Ralph Stead­man, and Oth­ers

Read 11 Free Arti­cles by Hunter S. Thomp­son That Span His Gonzo Jour­nal­ist Career (1965–2005)

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

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

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