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Letters display new side to gonzo journalist

The Proud Highiway
The Proud Highway: Saga of a Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967 – The Fear and Loathing Letters, Volume I
By Hunter S. Thompson

Villard: 1997

This review first appeared in the American Reporter in 1997.

Dear Mr. Thompson,

I'm not much for writing "fan" letters, and we're not friends – nor even acquaintances. Still and all, with a head full of good Kentucky bourbon and cheap Greek cigarettes, I find myself talking to you while reading your collection of letters and it seemed to make some sense to put it down on paper (or, at least, on keyboard and monitor ...).

Reading your work has always been a sensory experience for me – you have the ability to make the reader feel more alive, more aware of the world around him. Good writers do that.

Hemingway did. Made you want to drink a nice Spanish red wine while reading "The Sun Also Rises." Scott Fitzgerald, too (although maybe a martini or gin and tonic in his case), and Dashiell Hammett (whiskey). You've a very conversational tone, and that's especially true of your letters.

Reading them leads to a sense of mood – manic and close to the edge in your case, but that ability to create mood is there just the same. It's that ability to set a tone, to create a sense of time and place, that sets the good writers apart.

Now, the other folks reading this might object to the above comparisons. After all, you're a "journalist," not a novelist like the others. But as William Kennedy notes in his foreword, you've managed to meld the two. You're not a journalist in the traditional sense; rather, you're a journalist the way Goya or Picasso were, creating impressionistic images of what you've witnessed. And in many ways, those creative strokes are far closer to the truth than any news hack will ever get in his dry, detached voice.

What comes through in your letters clearer than anything else is that you're a a lot more thoughtful than you let on in your "journalism." It seems at times that you've become trapped by your own self-made image of a drug-crazed madman, that you can't let folks know you're a pretty clear thinker who cares deeply about his world. And that seems a waste. Don't get me wrong: Your writing is always tight and generally entertaining. But you've a good mind for spotting bullshit; not too far from Camus or Hemingway. Be nice to see more of that and less effort expended into being who folks want you to be.

Reading your letters, I truly enjoyed the ones from Charles Kuralt; it showed a side to him most folks never knew. I certainly didn't. And I like him more for it. There was a bit of muscle beneath that pleasingly soft exterior, wasn't there?

I also admire your ability to spot a winning horse early on. In '64, you described Ronald Reagan as "the prototype of the new mythological American, a grinning whore who will probably someday be President."

And despite your "gonzo" label, you can distill the essence of life with the best of them. In a '64 letter to your Marxist pal Paul Semonin, you laid down a line that Camus would have been proud of: "Your whole theory has only one flaw – you seem to have lost faith in the maverick, the man who can be convinced and thereby throw the switch on those both above and below him. He is the creation of this culture, the wise peasant, a man with a salary and enough leisure to ponder the alternatives, an enemy or an ally depending on what reaches him." Good stuff there.

But for God's sake, man, how could you sign your love letters "Hunty"? Oy vay ...

BTW, this "editor" they had on your letters book is absolutely clueless. I'm really interested now in reading the letters that pinhead didn't use. Typical academic; in his introduction has to use the word "important" to show off what he presumes is his superior knowledge: "(Fritz) Fanon ... wrote many important books denouncing imperialism." What the hell is an "important" book, anyway? And how "important" can a book be that no one's ever heard of? What's "important" at all in life is having enough booze, music and friends to get by. That editor of yours ought to be beaten about the head with 2x4s until he forgets every multisyllabic word he ever learned. It's too bad to see that kind of crap creep into a book of basically honest reflections.

Good collection of letters; get somebody else to edit the next batch.