After several days underground, I have at last emerged, ready to reflect on the recent and tragic loss of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. For a twenty-three year old writer struggling as much with the identity of his country as he is with his own identity, this loss is deep, severe, and still without definite form.
I have read many of the tributes that followed Dr. Thompson’s suicide. They came out to offer minimal variations on the same theme: a life of drinking and drugs is what we’ll all remember, but his contribution to journalism was massive and valuable to the legacy of the written word. Great, I suppose. It certainly takes care to provide lip service to a strange human being that refused to pay lip service to anyone. It only animates more brilliantly the gigantic loss we have experienced, largely without realizing it.
In George McGovern’s comments on Dr. Thompson’s passing, he mentioned that the only time HST expressed anger at his actions was when the former Senator spoke warmly at President Nixon’s funeral (Mr. McGovern’s comments appear on epsn.com). McGovern recalls that Thompson said the only reason that he should have gone to the funereal was “just to make sure the son of a bitch was dead.” This was certainly not a man who pulled punches, in matters of life, or death.
His stated purpose (and subtitle) of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was to chronicle the death of the American Dream. The death of the American Dream. It’s a funny idea to consider. Let it roll around your tongue; let it float in the vast expanse of your mind; allow it to spark your imagination. What is the status of the American Dream? Is it not in admirable shape? Any American can put a dream to the test, and, with hard work and dedication, become entitled to massive tax breaks. I should clarify; any American with a favorable credit rating and friends of influence can put his dream to the test [gender neutrality omitted deliberately]. Surely that is the stuff of the American Dream.
Was it always this way? Since I’m a mere twenty-three years old, I’m not sure what it was like in the seventies, when Dr. Thompson followed around a Senator from South Dakota in hopes that he might unseat a proper villain and the leader of the free world. I don’t know what it was like in the twenties when things were roaring, or then when they came to a crashing halt on that October day. Since I am only twenty-three, I cannot comment on what comprised the American Dream when Theodore Roosevelt was leading the Rough Riders up Kettle Hill (nor what it meant to the Buffalo Soldiers that were engaged in the same struggle without the same accord). And what was the American Dream on that battlefield in Gettysburg, soaked with American blood spilled by American hands, as President Lincoln tried to pay homage to those who gave their lives? Might I ask, since my family was in southern Italy and I was almost two hundred years from birth, if there was an American Dream in Philadelphia, 1787, as a group of landed white males, operating under varied degrees of idealism, tried to strengthen the ties within an infant nation whose survival was by no means certain?
It would be hard for me to say for certain if there was even a notion of an American Dream in any of those places, the places that we all admire as the lifeblood of the American Dream, because I was not there. The more I think about it, though, the less I concern myself with the merits of this potential reality.
New historicism aims to disperse the smoke and shatter the mirrors of our myth-making tendencies as we construct our past to suit our present. That’s fine; hell, it’s almost definitely a good thing. But is there any evil in a little bit of generous recollection, to the extent that it forces us to aim for great heights and better days? I don’t think so, and I’m pretty sure Dr. Gonzo didn’t think so. I see the presence of this American Dream as a sign that we haven’t lost our frontier spirit. Even if we have falsely justified its existence, there is something reassuring in the fact that we continue to dream of better days. That, though we have reached the top of Mt. Everest, we look to the stars above and set to task on reaching them.
But, as Thompson has written, that Dream is perhaps terminally ill. Somehow the remarkable substance of the American Character has perverted and deformed itself into a grotesque form that even Dr. Thompson would struggle to characterize in his best days (the other consensus – one which I have some trouble refuting – of the remembrances is that Dr. Thompson hadn’t written anything of value in about twenty years). Greed has largely replaced conscience; personal agendas have replaced united effort; superficial displays have replaced genuine action. You may say that this grand conscience, this collective effort, and this genuine action never really existed, but I like to think that our ability to aspire toward these ideals renders reality irrelevant.
We cannot content ourselves with the moral and ethical realities of the past; we must work to realize their ideals in the present. Dr. Thompson saw this, and he helped a lot of us see it through his eyes and words. That was his unique contribution to journalism; I don’t think that his vision would have been properly conveyed in a dispassionate, detached manner. How could it? His message could only be conveyed in a frenzied, personal voice. Such is the necessity of men of passion; how can one detach oneself from something so important? We are dealing in life and death; dispassion is frankly not an option. With that voice Thompson navigated the border between fact and fiction as casually as one crosses the many cracks in a sidewalk. Perhaps we needed it; Dr. Thompson dealt in heavy truths, and the breaks into fictitious hyperbole might have saved our minds from having to confront the grim reality of the dying American Dream all at once.
Because he is gone, the questions rose in my mind: who will take on the massive task that Dr. Thompson has left us? Who will have the courage and the vision to ride with the Hells’ Angels, and understand their strange adherence to the American Dream, even as they are rejected by the very society that they are perversely preserving? Who will join the ride in a Presidential Campaign as a political neophyte and discover the dying American Dream that seasoned veterans are too burned out to see? Who will go down to Kentucky and gasp at the desperate situation we find among the good and the proper? Who will, after being horrified by the political landscape he observed, run for sheriff against all odds and come so close to winning, because there is no reason to give up on doing what is right – the foundation of the American Dream?
Dr. Thompson has left us all a tall order. I worry that in his passing, as in the later years of his life, we might start to forget. Without Hunter we may lose our focus on the fact that this country was forged in the furnace of passion and imagination, and that this ideal is in a dire state. We need to remember that there was a time when Republicans valued freedom and privacy instead of tax cuts and “freedom” (the definition of “freedom” can be found on the bumpers of Lexus SUVs). There was also a time when Democrats were not racing to the middle as a means of self-preservation, a time when their identity was positive rather than defined against the Republican model.
Dr. Thompson’s greatness is partially defined by his ability to be equally contemptuous with the both parties. In ’72 you were no better off being Hubert Humphrey than you were being Richard Nixon. Both were corrupt hacks operating on a very definite calculus designed to maintain power. I think Dr. Thompson gravitated towards Senator McGovern because there was an element of him that defied this overwhelming political logic. The ability to smell a rat is vital to good journalism. Dr. Thompson’s ability to rage openly on this desperate state was his virtue.
What lies ahead of us is quite uncertain. I’d like to say that we’re at a crossroads with monumental implications. Unfortunately I feel that we have passed that crossroads and are barreling down the road unawares towards the cliff’s edge. Dr. Thompson wasn’t afraid of cliffs. It seems that he loved the edge, whether on a slick road with a Ducati at 120mph, or seated in a hotel room with a typewriter on his fingertips and peyote in his head. But his edges were always very different than the fate that looms ahead.
We’ve got to promise ourselves that the fight will continue. Even though, or perhaps because, we may never have anyone to chronicle the slow expiration of this American Dream, we must have the fortitude to fight to revitalize it. One soul at a time, we’re going to have to restore the frontier spirit that brought this country to prominence. We need to restore the common cause that allowed us to build a great nation. We need to pull our co-workers and rivals out of the crosshairs in a race to the top, and into a state of respect and love. It is very lonely at the top, and though your ride there may be air-conditioned and include a CD changer, the loss of community, which is the expense of such a quest, could well spell the death of our American Dream.
God bless you, Dr. Thompson. You will be missed.
By: Thomas Falbo, Jr