Dog Days Classics: Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

I know this quote is probably not the ontological narrative or historiographical prose you expect to see at the beginning of one of these posts.  My passion is cultural and intellectual history, but when I developed this interest as an undergrad, I pictured writing about the history of Christmas and Superheroes as a concept. So my when my Masters was filled with the overwhelming sinking feeling of nature of being introduced to Michel Foucault, Hayden White, Jürgen Habermas, Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson, Judith Butler, et al, I felt overwhelmed, like I started to lose touch with the history I so enjoyed. As a teacher at heart, I see the cultural narrative in the zeitgeist of poetry and song. For me, there is more about the working class struggle and drive for success in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman than in Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Great at parties

As an academic, in my mind, my job is not singular; it is twofold. I need to love being in the library. I need to love research. And, frankly, I need to love Max Weber. I have overcome that fear of Michel Foucault, Hayden White, Jürgen Habermas, Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson, and Judith Butler. However, the other part of the job is to teach that information and that can be much more tricky. One’s research needs to add something to humanity (as Dr. Denis Gainty told my 7045 class). Unfortunately, how that research reaches humanity has two major extremes.

As a child of cable TV, I grew up in the era of commercialized and commoditized history on the History Channel, the first extreme. The 1960s I was taught was very polar: hippies, Civil Rights, and Anti-War against the establishment. Black and White. Over time, these ideologies won or lost, but are long since gone. Nixon was evil. History was sterilized, closed, and oversimplified. Anti-War people today? They were a different breed! Movements were confined to an era. The radical ‘60s were such an era.  On the other extreme are the dense, almost foreign texts, designed more to impress one’s peers than to impart knowledge to the populace. It was this that nearly kept me out of academia.

As an undergrad, between my Attention Deficit Disorder (diagnosed, not slang) and some of the books I was assigned, such as Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolutions, made me think that academia was beyond reach. I felt like professors were a breed apart trying to talk over my head until History 101 + 102.

As a sophomore at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I was in a US History survey course under the impressive skill of Allan Winkler, a brilliant professor who had a predilection for leading lecture halls of some 300 students in the chorus of “Wabash Cannonball.” As outside reading for the post-Civil War segment of the course, we were assigned Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger. Through the predictable dime novel plot, the simple “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” morality is the nugget of the American Dream — the sly and cunning object at the heart of American identity which drives immigrants to these shores and the working class to hope for a better life. As we sat down with the TA and discussed it, my experiences with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas came roaring back.

Like many readers in the decades since its publication, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heartof the American Dream has resonated with me.  I know this associates me with the dozens helpless druggies who see deeper meaning in all things, but I urge that this is not the case. Along with many others my age, I saw the Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro movie in high school and soon after read the book. However, not unlike The Big Lebowski, the movie seemed merely to exude a form of livelihood my mundane middle class white upbringing did not.  I was not a druggie. I was a nerd, frankly, and with that, all the trappings of school work and attentiveness to study. Fear and Loathing represented a challenge to that.

The story is told through the character Raoul Duke, a representation of Hunter S. Thompson’s own experiences in Las Vegas. Thompson’s urging in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is much more complex than a standard exploring-America narration like Kerouac’s On the Road. Thompson’s search for the American dream is a defining literary moment of New Journalism, becoming, as Thompson himself put it, Gonzo Journalism. The sensational mixture of fiction and autobiography, curiosity and confidence, fear and loathing, creates a world in which the broken man looking for the American dream finds both its death and still beating heart and the core of shallow soullessness in a vivid parody of the 19th and early 20th century oddity that is the Circus Circus casino. Representing, in the end, something that Thompson considers more true of an era than a straight narration. He was quoted multiple times before his death that he was unable to remember (for possibly obvious reasons), what was true and what was not.


While the book writhes in the bizarre and hilarious from the opening lines of “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold” to the description of the drugs in the trunk: “We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.” However, the book’s core message is one of loss.  They really are trying to find the dream lost and as a desperate searcher, he looks for the signs of victory of his movement; his people.

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

.

In many ways, the Wave Speech is the very essence of what history is. The book is filled with utter chaos and distraction. Yet out of that chaos, comes a sad truth, a narration of a bygone generation. The job of the historian, the true historian, is to not just describe what happened, but why. To get to academia and to really comprehend the past, we have to move passed the basics of “what,””where,” and the “who;” they are just the starting point of the story.

In depicting the character of Raoul Duke, Hunter Thompson is the cartoon of a character after the era. He is the quintessential Sixties washout. While his attempts to grapple with the idea of America are humorous, his attempts to discover the American Dream are incredible.  The dark heart of the American Dream he discovers is sublime. The sense of loss, the sense of defeat, the realization of the end of an era is incredible. This is not the clichéd “the sixties ended for me that day…” speech, this is a far darker questions of “Were we winning?” “Where has the movement gone?” “Was it worth it?” History is not mundane and finished. History is a social and cultural movement.  It could not be black and white.

This work had weight for me. As I started to understand that weight, I put into context some of the heavier works. I spread out to Howard Zinn and James Loewen. I realized that Hunter S. Thompson’s form of journalism as a foil to the other “new journalists” of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, or Joan Didion represented the recollection of a tarnished era that its survivors still grapple with for meaning. I realized more and more history was not black and white, as my Microbiology Professor Dr. Bhattacharjee was fond of saying, “All things, even science, are not black and white, they are grey area; it is a Supreme Court Case, 5 to 4!” If that is not academic, then I cannot be either.

Nicolas Hoffmann is a doctoral student at Georgia State University, focusing on 20th Century American Cultural and Intellectual History. He received his BA in History from Miami University in Oxford, OH and both an MA in History and MAT in Secondary Social Studies Education from Georgia State University. He teaches World History, US, AP US and Economics at Oak Mountain Academy in Carrollton, GA.

Past entries in this year’s Dog Days Classics series:

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