Gonzo Text

Disentangling Meaning in Hunter S. Thompson’s Journalism

by Matthew Winston (Author)
©2014 Textbook VIII, 199 Pages
Series: Media and Culture, Volume 11


Hunter Thompson’s writing is widely read and studied, yet as a methodology and body of work his Gonzo journalism has not been the subject of much critical or theoretical examination. This book fills the gap by constructing a coherent theoretical framework around Gonzo journalism.
Drawing on theories of subjectivity and authorship from Derrida, Foucault and Barthes, key themes of Gonzo journalism are considered, including edgework, representations of drug use, ideas of professional objectivity in political journalism, sports in American culture and ‘the death of the American Dream’. It is considered in wider social, political and historical contexts and in terms of boundaries of reportable experience and of objectivity and/or journalism.
Matthew Winston’s study provides a critical commentary and a theoretical exploration of how Gonzo can be read as destabilising conventional ideas of journalism itself, in its peculiarly unclassifiable nature.
This book is designed to be read by postgraduates and scholars in journalism, cultural studies and media and communication. It is also suitable as an undergraduate text dealing with journalism theory, literary journalism, sports journalism, the New Journalism and the wider historical contexts of American journalism.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Disentangling Gonzo
  • Notes
  • Chapter One: A Pompous Contradiction in Terms
  • Wild Bursts of Madness
  • Freak Power
  • Notes
  • Chapter Two: Getting Hold of the Drugs
  • A Relatively Respectable Citizen
  • Treacherous, Stupid and Demented in Every Way
  • Notes
  • Chapter Three: Reality Itself Is Too Twisted
  • A Living Human Body
  • Hallucinations Are Bad Enough
  • Notes
  • Chapter Four: Shallow, Contemptible, and Hopelessly Dishonest
  • The Double-Standard Realities
  • The Realm of Speculation
  • Notes
  • Chapter Five: Cheap Thrills
  • The Last Possible Second
  • At Least Neo-Respectability
  • Chapter Six: A Very Hard Dollar
  • A Hell of a Lot of Money
  • ‘Spuen-tan-EUS?’
  • Notes
  • Chapter Seven: Pictures of the Riot
  • ‘Don’t They Respect Anything?’
  • A Sea of Drunken Horrors
  • Notes
  • Chapter Eight: This Bedrock Sense of Professionalism
  • The Conditions of My Turning Pro
  • Whatever Seems to Be Happening Down There
  • Notes
  • Chapter Nine: What Sort of Journalist I Was
  • An Honest Living
  • Neutrality Is Obsolete
  • Notes
  • Chapter Ten: The Place of Definitions
  • Private, Human Time
  • What Used to Be Called the American Dream
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii → Acknowledgments

Thanks are owed to a lot of people, but I will try to keep this manageable. Firstly, I must acknowledge the debt I owe to Bob Franklin and Paul Bowman of Cardiff University, who have been beyond supportive and beyond helpful. I would also like to thank everyone else at JOMEC who has helped, advised, talked to and/or employed me over the years of writing this book. Feeling part of the departmental community has meant so much, practically and otherwise. I am also indebted to the AHRC, for helping to fund my research. Beyond that I need to thank my family, Adele, Brian and Jessica for their aid, encouragement and support, and lastly, Emma Smith, both for her invaluable advice and suggestions regarding my research, and for everything else. ← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 → • Introduction •

Disentangling Gonzo

What were we doing out here? What was the meaning of this trip? Did I actually have a big red convertible out there on the street? Was I just roaming around these Mint Hotel escalators in a drug frenzy of some kind, or had I really come out here to Las Vegas to work on a story?

—Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 2005, p. 56

Alot has been written about Hunter S. Thompson. As a journalist, he rose to national prominence with his exposé of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang (Thompson, 1967) and cemented his reputation with the pioneering of ‘Gonzo’ journalism, his own exuberantly drug-addled, subversive, subjective method of writing the story—whether running wild in Las Vegas (Thompson, 2005a) or following McGovern or Nixon on the campaign trail (Thompson, 1983). His subjective, first-person, literary journalism includes elements of autobiography, and he also published autobiographical works such as Kingdom of Fear (Thompson, 2003) as well as volumes of his letters such as The Proud Highway (Thompson, 1997) and Fear and Loathing in America (Thompson, 2006). Much has also been written by others about the life of this journalist, author and activist, whose lifestyle and legendary exploits are inextricably entangled with the writings, Gonzo and otherwise, for which Thompson became famous.

Ralph Steadman, Thompson’s long-time illustrator and partner-in-crime, wrote a memoir of their collaboration (Steadman, 2006), and Thompson’s Aspen-based friends and neighbours Michael Cleverly and Bob Braudis wrote a collection of Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson (Cleverly and Braudis, 2008). Thompson, literary figure but also celebrity poster-boy for drugs, guns, and a wildly excessive interpretation of rugged individualism, lived a very examined life.

In addition to biographical works such as these, and others such as E. Jean Carroll’s Hunter (Carroll, 1993), McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist (McKeen, 2008) and the exhaustive Gonzo (Wenner and Seymour, 2007), which was an oral biography assembled from interviews with scores of Thompson’s friends and associates, Thompson the cultural icon and quasi-fictional character has shown ← 1 | 2 → up and continues to show up in all sorts of unlikely places in American culture. From Doonesbury (see Von Hoffman, 2010) and The Simpsons (Viva Ned Flanders, 1999) to films such as the fictionalised Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) or the theatrically distributed feature-length documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2009), and even a biography in the form of a graphic novel (Bingley and Hope-Smith, 2010), Thompson gets around as a cultural figure.1

The fact of Thompson’s prominence is interesting, as a kind of celebrity outlaw journalist, famed for guns, outrageousness, ultra-activist politics and, perhaps most prominently, legendary alcohol and substance abuse. Arguably just as interesting, however, is that Thompson’s writing, though he was a writer by profession, is seldom the primary focus of all this attention. As Nuttall has noted in assessing continued interest in Thompson’s lifestyle, the King of Gonzo’s writing is worthy of study without reference to his counter-cultural exploits (were the two separable):

Although almost as much has been written about him as by him, no writer can remain alive solely through his biographers. There must be something in the work, the oeuvre, which demands posterity’s attention. In Thompson’s case it is the way he transformed not only political writing, allowing the private to invade the public, but also the very way we think about a journalist’s role as producer of the first draft of history. (2012: 113)

I should make clear that I am in no sense trying to plant a flag and claim first dibs on analysing Hunter Thompson’s contributions to literature. Many of the examples I refer to above discuss the nature of Thompson’s writing, and other works have examined his work in depth (see for example, Stephenson, 2012) and with particular reference to the history of what came to be called The New Journalism (see for example, Weingarten, 2005). It is, however, interesting that the life of the outlaw journalist tends to get more ink than the actual journalism. As Alan Rinzler puts the question, in his foreword to Hunter’s ‘graphic biography’:

Why isn’t Hunter S. Thompson taken more seriously? As his editor and literary goad for 35 years over four of his best books, I’m sorry to see that the public spectacle of Hunter as the King of Gonzo—a brain-addled, angry, deeply depressed, self-destructive lout—has prevailed in the popular consciousness while the real story of this ground-breaking prose artist and investigative journalist has all but disappeared. (2010: v)

While I think this assessment may overstate, at least a little, the extent to which Thompson’s work is obscured by his legend, it does seem clear that that legend has a prominent cultural life, worthy of consideration in studying the ← 2 | 3 → writings in which, let us not forget, the legend originated. The public persona of Hunter S. Thompson as (in)famous Gonzo journalist was principally constructed, after all, within and by Thompson’s works. That being said, the primary object of study of this work is ‘Gonzo journalism’, with reference to the figure of Hunter Thompson, and not the other way around.2

The figure of Thompson, and the ways in which Gonzo journalism makes reference to it, remain a part of Gonzo, and one which must be dealt with in classifying and interpreting the Gonzo Text. The books he produced include works that are (relatively) uncomplicatedly ‘Gonzo Journalism’, such as Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (Thompson, 2005a), but also other books of non-fiction, as well as a novel (Thompson, 1998), which fairly straightforwardly aren’t a part of this category. Since Gonzo isn’t a sharply defined category or a clear label affixed to some works and denied to others, arguing over what does and doesn’t belong ‘in’ the Gonzo Text seems a fairly pointless exercise, but it is very interesting to note precisely this flexibility. I should make clear that throughout this discussion, the capitalisation of ‘Text’ signifies that the word is being used to refer to a cultural object being considered in terms of its possible meanings and cultural relevance(s), as opposed to text such as the text of a document, which signifies a piece of written language. This is what I mean when I speak of the Gonzo Text—at it’s simplest, the Text comprised of the many texts (as in ‘works’, ‘pieces’ or ‘articles’) of Gonzo journalism.

‘Gonzo’ is hard to pin down, yet it remains a powerful cultural signifier. The purpose of this examination of the ‘Gonzo’ literary journalism of Hunter Thompson is to attempt the fullest possible theorisation of how this Gonzo Text can be read, with particular reference to its peculiar nature in terms of style, subjectivity, journalistic conventions and methodology, and its representations of prominent themes such as drug use and counter-cultures, ultra-activist and dissident politics, edgework, big-money sports, and even the so-called death of the American Dream. It is perhaps worth noting that drug use, as subjectively experienced first-hand by Thompson, rather than as a socio-political phenomenon to write about, is an exceptionally prominent feature of the Thompson legend/persona (which will be considered in some detail; see especially Chapters Two & Three). It is a key theme of the type of construction of Thompson which allegedly obscures the writing, and for which Rinzler expressed such disgust.

In his foreword to Ralph Steadman’s memoir, even fellow writer Kurt Vonnegut introduces the figure of Thompson as a friend, a Kentuckian, and a brilliant writer, but also as a ‘gun nut and drug abuser and heavy consumer of grain alcohol’ before going on to address Thompson’s drug use:

Until I myself read and then met Hunter, I would have thought it impossible for ← 3 | 4 → anyone whose brains were so saturated with mind-benders to make sense on a telephone, let alone write so well. (2006: xvii)


VIII, 199
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Journalismus Medienwissenschaften Kommunikation methodology theoretical framework subjectivity
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 199 pp.

Biographical notes

Matthew Winston (Author)

Matthew Winston (PhD, Cardiff University) is a tutor in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University.


Title: Gonzo Text