Hunter Thompson Explains What Gonzo Journalism Is, and How He Writes It (1975)

There’ve been any num­ber of aspir­ing “gonzo jour­nal­ists” over the past half-cen­tu­ry, but there was only one Hunter S. Thomp­son. Hav­ing orig­i­nat­ed with his work in the ear­ly 1970s, this sense of gonzo made it into the Ran­dom House Dic­tio­nary with­in his life­time. “Filled with bizarre or sub­jec­tive ideas, com­men­tary, or the like,” says its first def­i­n­i­tions. And its sec­ond: “Crazy; eccen­tric.” Thomp­son seems to have approved, see­ing as he kept a copy of this very edi­tion, put on dis­play at the Owl Farm Pri­vate Muse­um (run by the Gonzo Foun­da­tion) after his death in 2005. Thir­ty years ear­li­er, he had the ques­tion put to him in the inter­view above: “What is gonzo jour­nal­ism?”

“That word has real­ly plagued me,” Thomp­son says. But he also cred­its it with putting dis­tance between him­self and the recent­ly ascen­dant “New Jour­nal­ists” like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Joan Did­ion: “I was­n’t sure I was doing that, but I was sure I was­n’t doing what we call straight jour­nal­ism.” Indeed, few pieces could have seemed less “straight” than “The Ken­tucky Der­by Is Deca­dent and Depraved,” first pub­lished in Scan­lan’s Month­ly in 1970. Assem­bled in des­per­a­tion out of pages pulled straight from Thomp­son’s note­book and illus­trat­ed by Ralph Stead­man (the begin­ning of a long and fruit­ful col­lab­o­ra­tion), the piece struck some read­ers as a rev­e­la­tion. A friend of Thomp­son’s declared it “pure gonzo” — an uncon­ven­tion­al name for an uncon­ven­tion­al form.

“Christ,” Thomp­son remem­bers think­ing, “if I made a break­through, we’ve got to call it some­thing.” Why not use a label with at least one instance of prece­dent? (It also appealed, he admits, to his inner “word freak.”) As for the sub­stance of gonzo, he attrib­ut­es to it “a mix­ture of humor and a high, stomp­ing style, a bit more active than your nor­mal jour­nal­ism” — as well as what­ev­er gets him past his innate hatred of writ­ing. “All I can real­ly get off on,” he says, is “when I can let my mind run. I start to laugh. I under­stand that Dick­ens used to laugh at his type­writer. I don’t laugh at my type­writer until I hit one of those what I con­sid­er pure gonzo break­throughs. Then it’s worth it.”

Pub­lished three years ear­li­er, Thomp­son’s best-known book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas marked the cul­mi­na­tion of a par­tic­u­lar writ­ing project: “to elim­i­nate the steps, or the blocks, between the writer and the page. That’s why I always get the fastest and newest type­writer. If they make one that costs twelve mil­lion dol­lars, I’ll write a bad check and get it for a while.” Reg­u­lat­ing this sig­na­ture gonzo direct­ness is a rig­or­ous styl­is­tic dis­ci­pline. “That’s the one book of mine that I’ve even read,” Thomp­son says, thanks to the “four or five rewrites” he per­formed on the man­u­script. “There’s not a word in there — I mean, there might be fif­teen or twen­ty, but that’s about all — that don’t have to be there.”

Inter­view­ing Thomp­son is vet­er­an jour­nal­ist Har­ri­son Sal­is­bury, the New York Times’ Moscow bureau chief in the 1940s and 50s. He also wrote many books includ­ing The Shook-Up Gen­er­a­tion, a 1958 study of juve­nile delin­quen­cy (and a vol­ume found in Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe’s per­son­al library) that could have primed his inter­est in Thomp­son’s debut Hel­l’s Angels when it came out a decade lat­er. Appear though he may to be the kind of estab­lish­ment fig­ure who’d have lit­tle enthu­si­asm for gonzo jour­nal­ism, Sal­is­bury’s ques­tions sug­gest a thor­ough knowl­edge and under­stand­ing of Thomp­son’s work, right down to the “ten­sion” that dri­ves it. “It could be drug-induced, or adren­a­line-induced, or time-induced,” Thomp­son says of that ten­sion. “I’ve been told by at least one or two con­fi­dent spe­cial­ists that the kind of ten­sion I main­tain can­not be done for any length of time with­out… I’ll either melt or explode, one of the two.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read 9 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

“Gonzo” Defined by Hunter S. Thompson’s Per­son­al Copy of the Ran­dom House Dic­tio­nary

Hunter S. Thomp­son Chill­ing­ly Pre­dicts the Future, Telling Studs Terkel About the Com­ing Revenge of the Eco­nom­i­cal­ly & Tech­no­log­i­cal­ly “Obso­lete” (1967)

Hunter S. Thomp­son Talks with Kei­th Richards in a Very Mem­o­rable and Mum­ble-Filled Inter­view (1993)

A Young Hunter S. Thomp­son Appears on the Clas­sic TV Game Show, To Tell the Truth (1967)

Read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as It Was Orig­i­nal­ly Pub­lished in Rolling Stone (1971)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • caseymariez says:

    Thank you for this.

    I did­n’t know what my style of writ­ing was called until I read about Hunter S Thompson–and this arti­cle is very infor­ma­tive, thank you. I did­n’t know Dick­ens was like this, too. I always laugh when I’m writ­ing and every­one thinks I’m nuts too.

  • Davina Powell says:

    Art and the cre­ative process SHOULD be joy­ful, don­cha think? Get­ting there maybe some­times tor­tur­ous, but, as every moth­er knows, (are women not the penul­ti­mate of cre­ativ­i­ty? Despite the hijack num­ber done dur­ing The Renais­sance) if your cre­ative out­put is not bring­ing you joy, there’s some­thing very, very wrong. I hope your work is going well, best wish­es from South Wales
    One world, one love, no bor­ders ✌🏾❣️

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