Hunter Stockton Thompson blazed across the republic of American arts and letters for too short a time. When in February 2005 Thompson, 67, killed himself with a .45 at home in Woody Creek, Colorado, freethinkers and lovers of his savage, beautiful words grieved the world over — and we still do.
Thompson was a Southern boy from Louisville, Kentucky, whence comes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Fay, later Buchanan. After a sally into higher education and military service, both marked by varying degrees of brilliance and insubordination, Thompson moved to New York City and worked as a reporter. His specialty was, initially, sport, and his forte was observation. He was 21 and working for TIME magazine on its copy desk when he decided to type out The Great Gatsby just to see how it felt, how Fitzgerald’s style affected his fingertips.
He travelled alone for a story, by car or boat or canoe or motorcycle, and took his own (excellent) photographs. His early stories are varied and rich, ravishingly written even when the tale itself is a plain, unvarnished one. All the better if he shocks or upsets you with his subject or his prose: that means you’re thinking. When in July 1963 Thompson announced he was through with hitch-hiking because superhighways were a drag, he detailed his real reasons in no uncertain terms for a country in the midst of the civil rights movement, getting set for the march on Washington within month:
Outside of Jacksonville, on a cool July evening, I was picked up by three negro air force sergeants with no real interest in a leisurely drive across the Deep South. They wanted to make time, and 19 hours later they let me out of the car at Times Square in Manhattan. During those hours I had to act as purchasing agent for all their food — which we ate in the car en route — because they couldn’t get served in any of the drive-in restaurants.