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Literature: The Craft

by Paul Wilner

Air Force sportswriter Hunter S. Thompson in 1957, well before he began the long trek to gonzo journalism. His strange trip included stops in Big Sur, Glen Ellen and San Francisco.
Air Force sportswriter Hunter S. Thompson in 1957, well before he began the long trek to gonzo journalism. His strange trip included stops in Big Sur, Glen Ellen and San Francisco.

Peter Richardson’s Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo, details the art — not just the myths — surrounding the outlaw author. Richardson, who teaches courses on California culture at San Francisco State University, discussed his biographical approach with the Gazette’s Paul Wilner.

Your first book was on historian and editor Carey McWilliams, and you’ve also written accounts of Ramparts magazine and the Grateful Dead. What’s the connection between these disparate projects?

I was teaching medieval literature in Texas, took a leave to work at the Public Policy Institute of California, and asked Peter Schrag, the (former) editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, what I should read as background, and he said, “Everything by Carey McWilliams.’’ McWilliams assigned Hunter to write about the Hell’s Angels for The Nation. For the Ramparts book, I met Warren Hinckle, Bob Scheer and Dugald Stermer. Rolling Stone cofounder Jann Wenner also worked there. Thompson was a big Dead fan, too, so I felt like I had a running start.

Savage Journey
(University of California Press)
A new book goes beyond Thompson’s legendary persona.

You take pains to distinguish Thompson’s literary achievements from his larger-than-life image. How did you fix on that as a central thesis?

The two volumes of his correspondence, edited by Douglas Brinkley, are the best things Thompson ever wrote. It’s him talking. Not on deadline. Not for money. That’s him. It’s funny. It’s menacing. It’s importunate. That connects him with Henry Miller. Part of it was necessity, because they weren’t living in publishing capitals for hundreds or even thousands of miles, in any direction. Reading the correspondence made me think, “Now, this guy is a really interesting figure in a way that isn’t captured in the cartoon version.”

Was it a conscious decision to maintain reportorial distance, rather than mimic his approach?

I wouldn’t dream of trying to write in that gonzo style. One of the reasons for the tone I take is that some of this is serious. There’s something more durable there than people give [Thompson] credit for. Some people stopped reading Hunter a long time ago because the persona’s much more fun. He was a master of invective — an Ambrose Bierce figure — so you can’t protect him from the moral judgments that people are going to make. You shouldn’t try. But let’s read him carefully first.

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