News of the suicide of Hunter S. Thompson reminded Penn English lecturer Robert Strauss how swiftly fashions change.
LITERATURE/We ask a Penn English lecturer about “Doctor” Hunter S. Thompson’s lasting legacy.
When the self-proclaimed “doctor of gonzo journalism” took readers along on his drug-addled ride through the U.S.—and his own ranting, raging psyche—in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” it seemed he’d ripped apart the straitjacket of journalistic objectivity forever.
Three decades later, says Strauss, Thompson is a period piece “you almost have to read in a classroom setting.” That, he says, is because few people really take the time to read anymore. Thompson’s work, he says, was “thick, it was full of stuff…it was packed with information, and long. And now even the best journalism isn’t like that. It’s 15 tips to do this, 12 tips to do that.”
Strauss often assigns Thompson’s piece on Nixon’s last day in office to his creative non-fiction writing students. “But you know what?” he says, “None of them were even born then. Yes, he’s contemporary compared to [Alexis] de Tocqueville, but they’re reading it as history.”
Thompson’s quasi-factual style, where events were seen through the prism of the author’s experience, is his great contribution to American journalism, says Strauss. But now, in less skillful hands, that style can be obtrusive.
“ I think today young people who write fast and loose, especially about music, trying to bust a lot of conventions. ... They fail a lot of times.”
What’s in style now in personal narrative, says Strauss, is putting yourself “slightly” in a story. “There are a lot of I’s in magazine journalism today, but a lot of it could be easily substituted for the third person. A lot of times it just doesn’t work. To prove they were there they say, ‘I ate eggs and he ate ham.’ It’s something that puts the writer there but doesn’t enhance the story.”
When Thompson wrote about a scene you had no doubt he was there, and that he was an active participant, says Strauss, and his style was completely his own. “Anybody like Hunter Thompson, where you can [immediately] tell who’s writing it … it’s rare.”
Originally published on March 17, 2005