Hunter S. Thompson, the brilliant writer who called his baby son Dirtbag

As a 21st century female bibliophile, I give a lot of leeway to authors of the past who hold reprehensible opinions. How much can I blame Pliny the Younger of the first century AD for a letter in which he writes with condescending delight that his wife is interested in his work? Do I dare execute a 21st century judgment on authors of past times? For the most part, the answer for me is no. I’m rather more inclined to judge a work based on its own merits, than by the merits of its author. But I’ve reached an impasse with Hunter S. Thompson.


A first edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
A first edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.


I love Hunter S. Thompson’s work. His writing is sparkling and crystal and beautiful and bursting with creativity. But he was a pretty reprehensible person. Again, normally I’m able to separate the two. The problem with HST is that his works are so heavily autobiographical that his own personal foibles become part of what makes his writing great.


A few examples. As the title suggests, HST was rather cruel to his son, Juan. When Juan was a toddler, HST taught his son that his (Juan’s) name was “Dirtbag.” Admittedly as the years went by there was a lot of affection between the two. But HST expressed his affection for most people in pretty insulting ways. He was known for spraying close friends and family with fire extinguishers, for example. Ha. Ha. Funny. Love you too, Hunter. Now excuse me while I go home and shower.


I learned about all this while reading the excellent biography of HST by William McKeen, Outlaw Journalist. But these tidbits are only the beginning. HST’s relationship with women was particularly astounding. He took advantage of a long line of women who did everything he asked and took care of his every need while he treated each like dirt, including but not limited to rampant cheating. These women put up with tantrums (such as typewriters thrown at them), frightening jealousy (involving beatings), and even close calls with loaded guns because they believed in his literary genius.


Which brings up an interesting side question. Would I go back in time and willingly become the degraded slave of an author I considered a literary genius, just to support him in his art? Shakespeare? Melville?


No. I wouldn’t.


Back to HST. Generally, an author’s personal life is none of my business to judge on moral terms. The problem is that HST pioneered Gonzo Journalism, a style of writing in which the narrative is an autobiographical story about getting the story. Sure, HST has been criticized roundly and justly for allowing a decent amount of fiction to crawl into his works of “journalism.” But for the most part what makes his style of autobiographical writing so compelling is because he’s such a crazy character, himself.


Take Raoul Duke, HST’s alter ego from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—a very nearly perfect fictional novel about the very real experience of HST covering two stories in Las Vegas. It is so fun to read from Raoul Duke’s perspective:


No cop was ever born who isn’t a sucker for a finely-executed hi-speed Controlled Drift all the way around one of those clover-leaf freeway interchanges. Few people understand the psychology of dealing with a highway traffic cop. Your normal speeder will panic and immediately pull over to the side when he sees the big red light behind him… and then he will start apologizing, begging for mercy. This is wrong. It arouses contempt in the cop-heart. The thing to do–when you’re running along about a hundred or so and you suddenly find a red-flashing CHP-tracker on your trail–what you want to do then is accelerate.


On the other hand, there’s the part of the story when Duke’s attorney gets a young runaway, Lucy, high. All sorts of disturbing events follow. Duke says:


There was absolutely no choice but to cut her adrift and hope her memory was f—ed.


So it isn’t as if HST seeming lack of empathy doesn’t deeply impact his writing and the development of his plot. In addition, HST seems to understand the consequences, somewhere within himself:


The possibility of physical and mental collapse is now very real. No sympathy for the Devil, keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride.


Can we also just stop a minute and enjoy that prose?


From what I read in Outlaw Journalist and what I’ve heard from people who have met him, HST was a terribly charismatic guy. It was hard not to like him, even while he treated his most loyal friends like dirt. So I am conflicted. Should I feel bad about liking his writing so much, even while I wouldn’t want to be within 5 miles of Raoul Duke?


I’d like to make a quick distinction here. I am not talking about disliking books because I dislike a character. That’s not really my style, and I like Duke, though I’d never want to meet him. I am also not talking about authors who do not write memoir/autobiography. Finally, I’m not talking about writers of the past—I find that I am more accepting of major personality flaws in authors from different time periods, as it is one more piece of context to understand a world in which I never lived. But Hunter S. Thompson is none of these. What do I do with him?


In closing, a quick shout-out of Stefanie at So Many Books. I had been thinking about writing a post on this for a long time, but her post about a related issue spurred me to put it to writing even though I haven’t really come to a conclusion yet.


I’d greatly appreciate my readers’ opinions on this, so please comment.


43 Comments Add yours

  1. Mike Smith says:

    His best is “Campaign Trail”

    1. Yes! That’s part of Golden Age Hunter. It’s a favorite book of mine to recommend to people.

  2. Ashley Kidwell says:

    I am not a book person at all, but I enjoy very much learning about life and people. Personally, I wish that I had the courage to live part of the life that HST did, however, I would never have treated people/women around me the way he did (but I am in a different world and life). It’s my understanding that he had a rough life and was under the influence of drugs etc. I do not respect many of the things he did, but I sure do find them very interesting. He sounds like 50 shades of grey meets George Carl -how can you go wrong with that? (unless you are personally involved in his craziness). Many of us grow up and have been taught to see black and white, but in reality, that is probably only 1% of life -if that. Shades upon levels of shades. Maybe writing was therapy more than anything for HST…

    1. Hunter did have somewhat of a rough life, but it was his own doing. For example, he joined the military as a teenager to avoid a second stint in jail, and on the first day in line he threw up from a hangover in front of his drill sergeant. As he said himself, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”

      I think writing was therapy for him, but I think it was much more than that. At a very young age he dedicated himself to writing–and make no mistake, he worked VERY hard at it. One of my favorite stories is of him typing out the entirety of great novels, such as The Great Gatsby, so that he could really get inside the style of important authors. The guy was dedicated.

  3. Ashley Kidwell says:

    In my previous post when i referred to George Carl -that was suppose to be George Carlin 🙂

    1. Mike Hunt says:

      Ok now that makes sense. Yes it does! I find the man to be amazing and you have to remember he was highly intoxicated so when people are messed up bad like that there judgement is very blurred. Fear & Loathing in Las VEGAS gives you a little view into how hard core he could go & it sounds like he went hard until his last days. I’m impressed that he was such a Good author considering what he lived like I’d be impressed just by that. He’s AWESOME in my book…

  4. there are so many idiosyncrasies in peoples persona that even when we think we know someone via their work, their books, tv, movies etc, we’re often projecting a lot of conclusions that aren’t necessarily true. also, other aspects of the person go unrevealed (good and bad). if someone does something considered reprehensible in any time, its reprehensible. sure moral codex change regarding certain things but liars, cheats and scoundrels are liars cheats and scoundrels no matter what age they wrote in. no real reason for the moral pass. just because someone is a good writer is no excuse for their shortcomings. then again, nobody’s perfect.

    Ive made the drive from Ely NV to Redlands CA about 20 times or so and have seen everything from desert dogs to experimental aircraft, ufos, etc, endless landscapes with no cell coverage, no one to hear you if you scream. its like a land version of the bermuda triangle for your mind. you also get random am radio stations every time. coast to coast am is the best thing to keep you awake.

    1. I certainly agree that one’s talents, even if spectacular, do not make up for moral reprehensibility. But, as you said, nobody’s perfect. So for me, except in extreme cases (you know, Hitler, etc., and when it hurts others) I try hard to avoid personal judgment. For that reason normally the personal foibles of a beloved author do not bother me. But HST is different…

      That drive is described with a lot of panache by HST in F&L–I love the part where they pick up the hitchhiker and Duke meditates on the fact that they’re near where the Mansons were.

  5. splibmo says:

    I find Hunter very entertaining because he was an original. I obviously don’t approve of the way he treated people but sometimes that kind of behavior goes along with being a genius. Hunter committed suicide by a self inflicted gunshot wound. A movie called Where the Buffalo Roam was made about Hunter’s writings and although somewhat dated it still is hilarious, Bill Murray plays Hunter and Neil Young sings the title track.

    1. The biography I read talked about how HST has so many particular movements, habits, and facial expressions that Bill Murray followed him around for a while trying to learn them all, then subconsciously continued to do them long after the movie.

  6. Nicely done, and an interesting overview of HST. Here’s one of his quotes that might help explain his rather, uh …, unique view of life: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” Thanks for your words.

    1. Yes, that’s definitely a good way to sum him up!

  7. Jeff Parker says:

    I agree. Hunter S. Thompson’s writing was made colourful, brilliant, and stimulating -to a great degree- because of his eccentric and drug-filled life. Furthermore, by killing himself primary due to the fact that his body could no longer take hard-core drug abuse, he brought the term “addiction” to an all time intensity! However, he was one of those “beyond recall” addicts who actually constituted an anomaly. That is, despite his crazy addictions and lifestyle, his creativity and novelties were actually paired consistently with diligence thus resulting in a prolific and success career. This all reminds me of the life of Edgar Allan Poe and how his creativity was combined with his opium/ narcotic addiction.

    1. Yes, interesting. One of my favorite 19th century books is Confessions of an Opium-Eater by Thomas DeQuincey. And certainly some amazing works have been written on account of opium, like Kubla Khan. The modern equivalent besides HST may be rockstars with drugs?

      1. Jeff Parker says:

        DeQuincey definitely serves to further epitomize how opium (or other narcotics) can lead to bouts of creativity. In fact, during his periods of low opium usage, his literary works suffered and he produced significantly less. Similarly to HST, DeQuincey never quit doing drugs. Interesting, indeed. It is as though both men lived to repeatedly become elated and then write. (Perhaps not in that order though…)

        Just out of curiosity:

        Rebecca, what do you think of kindles and nooks? Do you enjoy reading ANY literature on electronics? Or do you think they just ruin a great book?

        1. I think this may lead to another blog post, eventually, because it got me thinking how much one’s personality contributes to one’s innate talents. I think, for example, of the biographical differences between Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and how that is so neatly reflected in the differences between their personal styles in music. Hm.

          As for e-readers. Yes, I do read on an e-reader. I realize this may make me enemies, but I do. Not all the time–usually quick, shallow junk stuff that I read to balance the heavier stuff, but which I don’t want gumming up my bookshelves. Also for when I travel. In other words, books I would normally read in paperback and then forget about. I am also inclined to get the e-book version if it’s a history of some sort, because e-readers are much more convenient for highlighting and taking notes and searching the text for key words/themes. That said, I am of course very aware of the different experiences that come with each medium. Because of that, so far my rule has been that for a book that means a lot to me, I will buy a very nice physical copy of it to enhance the (re-)reading experience.

  8. Roger says:

    My favorite was Hell’s Angels

    His behavior towards women would have been described as “womanizing” by his genration.

    Would he have produced what he did minus the philandering? I think not. Whatever
    he was he appeared to relish the image of HST unchained

    I passed on a chance to meet him in the 1990s. I have no regrets. Over the phone somethin deranged came across (someone elses answering machine to be honest)

    1. Very interesting! I wonder if I would have passed on the chance. As I said, I’m conflicted.

  9. Richard himes says:

    Interesting post. I have been a fairly serious HST collector over the years. I have a few copies of Screwjack, including a leather bound rarity, a presentation copy of the letters, and a signed F&L 1st Ed. Signed, in fact, in front of me at one of the DR’s last signings in NYC, and I have a picture of him penning his initials while cradling a $100 bill in his hand, which he had just offered me for the book (no deal). It’s this hobby that led me to Bauman in the first place, and eventually to this blog.

    I’m not so conflicted about Hunter. His gonzo journalism was as much fiction as it was fact, so I always took the more ribald vignettes with more than a grain of salt. For instance and example, in F&L on the Campaign Trail, he goes on for chapters about McGovern’s use of bio gamine powder for stamina on the trail, which he reports as fact, with sources, and uses to explain all manner of odd behavior real or imagined.. None of it, of course, was true, which Hunter gleefully noted when the mainstream media picked up the story.

    So although Hunter inserted himself into his stories, what he really inserted was his unfettered id, as well as flights of fantasy that likely started as riffs on a theme while drunk at a Selectric. The scenes end up being so funny that it really stops mattering whether or not they actually happened. Did Hunter really station himself with a cooler of beer at the 17th mile of the Honolulu marathon and scream “you’ll never make it, quit now!”? Put a pigs head in his landlord’s toilet bowl? Hideous behavior, but funny. And all delivered with, as you say, electric prose.

    So for me, anyway, it’s easier to separate the man from the character. He did, after all, muse about how he felt burdened by his reputation. That doesn’t mean I hold him blameless for his treatment of Sandy, Juan, and some sympathetic acquaintances of his I have met over the years who found his friendship more of a burden than a blessing. But it does allow me to enjoy the writing for what it is – a drug-addled 60s Hemmingway.

    1. Thank you very much for this. I like the way you put it: “what he really inserted was his unfettered id.” I think for myself after reading Outlaw Journalist I was/am less convinced that the morally worst parts of his writing were fictionally based. But I definitely see how you reconcile it. And, I still admit despite my conflicted emotions that I really do adore his writing style.

      1. Richard himes says:

        So, after reading your reply I bought and read Outlaw Journalist, thinking that perhapsI had missed something in the other Biographies I’d read over the years. I like McKeen, and even have a copy of his first book on HST, which was closer to lit crit than bio. I thought it was a good, fair book, but aside from some tidbit anecdotes I don’t think I learned anything I didn’t already know. That’s not criticism, by the way, since I have been a voracious reader on HST.

        I am, therefore, a little confused by your strong reaction to it, being tempted to throw out the literary baby with the bathwater. As I noted above, I can’t and won’t excuse or defend his behavior towards Sandy and Juan, and, after reading McKeen, his later treatment of the other women in his life. All of whom, it seems, eventually reached a breaking point where they could no longer put up with the totality of life with Hunter.

        And maybe that’s the trick. I think his behavior, in McKeen’s book, might be much more abhorrent to women than to men. Not that men excuse the pecadillos and self-centered childishness, but I don’t think we take it as personally, since we wouldn’t generally picture ourselves in the same relationship dynamic. Also, some of the frathouse puckish behavior (fire extinguisher greetings, screeching bullhorns, male bonding over explosives, a suicidal drunken monkey in Rio) reads as endearing to many men, and idiotic to most women., much like the Three Stooges.

        Although I do think it fascinating that despite a long and public history of being a self-centered lothario with a violent streak, there was still a long(ish) line of women who would put up with it – for decades – and that they all describe him as charming. The description reminds me of a close friend in school, whose girlfriends were incredibly devoted to him, danced around his boundaries, mothered him, and forgave his pecadillos. You couldn’t chalk up their tolerance to the usual wealth/fame/looks excuse, either, although he was extremely intelligent and also very charming. I always wondered how he got away with all that one-way attention. Reflecting on it after many years, I now think he was totally upfront about what he expected and needed, and attracted women whose mothering instinct his needs and behaviour aroused. On the other hand, however, both have left some frustrated exes in their wake, and had an amazingly polarizing effect on women. Most allowed themselves to be charmed, but wouldn’t have ever considered subjecting themselves; that’s all, just subjecting themselves. But those that bought the ticket, took the ride.

        1. Thanks for the additional comment. I am pleased that you read Outlaw Journalist. And while I don’t disagree with your comments, they don’t quite hit the mark for me on this issue. What I’m mulling over is not whether he’s a bad guy or not, and therefore whether I should read his work. (I read plenty of works by writers who are/were terrible people.) It’s taking that concept a step further: that this man made some brilliant work by channeling, focusing, and advertising the worst parts of him into a story and style that I actually find enjoyable and entertaining. As another example, would we read Lolita if Nabokov was actually a pedophile?

          You may argue rightfully that HST was not quite truly his literary persona Raoul Duke. But I do feel that HST has taken the issue a step further than most great writers who are terrible people. And I’m not sure how much that should matter to me, if at all.

  10. Michael Tait says:

    I was lucky in that I’d never heard of him until one of my friends handed me a copy of Fear and Loathing and said “Read this, you’ll enjoy it”. I did, very much so. A few years later, having discovered more about the author by that point, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it so much. I think the innocence with which I read the book really made a difference.

    1. The first time I read F&L I didn’t know much about his biography, either. I thought it was entirely, every bit of it, fictional. According to Outlaw Journalist, not so much!

  11. Stefanie says:

    If only things were an easy black-and-white, eh? I generally manage to keep the author separate from the work but in a case like HSt, he makes it really hard. Is it possible to appreciate the work while disliking the author?

    1. Stefanie, thanks. For me, I kind of love that everything is grey. Black and white would be boring!

      1. Stefanie says:

        I completely agree! 🙂

  12. Justin says:

    Thanks for writing such a thoughtful piece on HST, Rebecca. We threw a benefit in his honor the year he left, and donated the money to the Gonzo Trust. We had people read their favorite excerpts aloud, and it was clear to see how much he meant to everyone who read. I think HST has always been polarizing, but not so much because of his risque content or personal life, but more so because of his ability to hold the mirror, albeit a circus mirror, at times. I still share a mutual friend of Hunters’, and secretly always feel a little honored to be of that 6 degrees every time we’re together. One thing that is also clear, and unusual about Hunter- every time we discuss him we smile and laugh. I think that really says a lot about him- not just Hunter the writer, but the Hunter the human being.
    Thanks again for the ruminate piece- I enjoyed it. 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment! I don’t think I emphasized that enough in my post–how much people really liked HST. Your comment gives a little more balance.

      1. Justin says:

        Honestly, I think your piece was more than considerate of all aspects Hunter. I actually reread the posting- you can tell that you really thought about what you were writing. I imagine that such a thoughtful/analytical style of writing is a little exhausting. Am I right? I suppose I just felt like chiming in after reading such a considerate piece and wanted to be a part of it’s dialogue, so thanks for that. Too often I seem to find reviews that focus more on the drugs than the writing- a real shame. Your review was unique and honest, and it has encouraged me to read more of your blog. Thanks too for getting this place together, so far I like it.
        All the best and happy holidays to you and yours.

  13. Mark says:

    It’s well-documented that Hunter could treat people, especially the women in his life, badly. He once described himself as “a lazy, drunken hillbilly with a heart full of hate.” But he also had many true-to-the-end friends of both genders. You know, his widow Anita blogs at and she seems willing to engage both fans and critics. Why not run your thoughts by her?

    1. Hm, interesting thought. I will think about it. One thing that seems to be a ringing truth in HST’s life is that, despite it all, he inspired loyalty and devotion in many, many people. As I mentioned in the post, his charisma was legendary. So maybe it’s a case of those around him not turning a blind eye, and not accepting his faults, but loving him despite his faults.

  14. Hester Sturrock says:

    A toad, is a toad, is a toad. Fortunately, we don’t know very much personal information about the classical authors, such as William S. and the ancient Greeks and such. The same thing about some of the classical artists or any artistic product we admire. Society seems to allow popular artists more leeway in destructive behavior than we do in so called regular people. Like the woman in modern times who lives with an alcoholic rock ‘n roller who beats her becauase he is a genius. Or some such cr*p. My suggestion would be to put HST’s work aside for a awhile and see how you feel in 6 months or a year or two. If the negativity of his personal life affects you, then why bother? There are so many wholesome works of art made by decent balanced people, then why waste your time and emotions on the mean people of the world. Or are there that many wholsesome works of art made by decent balanced people.? This is a huge major topic in itself. Hester

    1. Hester, thanks for your thoughts. I definitely agree that one could read only works by decent people for one’s entire life and still have more great books than time to read them all. There are always more books than the approx. 80 years we’ve been given.

  15. benjaminxjackson says:

    This is a great post with a lot of interesting ideas in it. I think Richard Himes captured much of the truth in his comment above. I have read Hunter S. Thompson from a number of perspectives. When I was a student, I took a class in popular culture where the professor told us a story about how he had an Italian woman in his class who hated Hunter S. Thompson because all he did was talk. She had come out of an Italy in the 1970s wehre Red Brgades were blowing things up and shooting people. She appratnely thought that he needed to actually live up to something.
    Later, when I read his stuff as a working journalist, I realized that he would build a story around a shred of fact, but that it was all a work of press-release based fiction. One of his columns was about the U.S. prision system where he describes being on a flight — in first class of course — sitting next to an official form the bureau of prisons who gives him stats and numbers. Then you realize every journalist who paid atention to that beat at the time probably had the same data but no story out of it.
    It makes me wonder whether the appeal is that he claimed to do things a lot people wished they could do — be rude and aggressive back tot he rude and aggressive people.
    As fara s the insanity, alcohol and violence quote — apparently that came from a movie poster for ‘Where the Buffalo Roam.” I read an interview with Hunter where he said he hated it because he was now afraid he was going to be attacked every time someone came up to him.
    There is the legend and the person, and I think the two get confused here. Interesting stuff, sorry for the long-winded reply.

    1. Thanks for the note. I’m not entirely convinced, having read the biography I did–my post is a very short summary of a number of issues mentioned in Outlaw Journalist. I personally feel an attraction to his writing not because he did things I wish I could do, but because his prose is just so well done and because he is just so…fun.

  16. Jeff Yoders says:

    Rebecca, P.J. O’Rourke, who WAS a close friend of HST, once told me that Hunter’s entire persona was based on his abilities to be more likeable, more able to take a lot of drugs and more able to be stronger and essentially bully any of his friends into doing what he wanted. Hunter was also physically strong as a bull (which is why Johnny Depp was a terrible choice to play him n the films) and that played into his relationships with both women and men. PJ said it was pretty essential to stand up to him to gain his respect as a friend and that’s what most of the people who showed up in his work and both of his wives, at one time, did. I’m not writing this to condone what would today be called bullying but to simply add context to the world he lived in.

  17. jb says:

    +1 for hells angels and campaign trail.

  18. As a skillful, serial liar, Hunter created a persona that allowed him to be the most honest guy in the room, which is why his best work so vividly captures a time, place, and mindset. He could also be brutally funny, oftentimes laughing at himself. (And at–and with–his readers for buying in.) Did his act ensnare him and force him to perform outrageously to meet the expectations of others? Maybe. Still, there’s a deep soul lurking within his work and a seemingly genuine anguish over the United States’ betrayal of its great possibilities. One wears the makeup to draw attention to the things one cares about, until one day you find you can’t take the makeup off. My suspicion is that Hunter found himself becoming both Gatsby and Nick: Gatsby earned the money and opened doors; Nick suffered for his sins.

    1. This is an excellent point and very well put. I’ve come to think quite similarly, that he prepared a very carefully cultivated mask of his own blood, sweat and tears, and then sacrificed the ability to take it off. But I also do think the mask was made from whatever material he had to work from out of himself. Thank you for your comment!

  19. Thompson was fearless, and gave no fucks what others thought, that’s why he was a genius and you are not OP. You are just a cringing moralist trying to fit into the politically correct zeitgeist, real geniuses reject the zeitgeist and live on their own terms. If Hunter were alive today he’d be called a “troll,” and a “hater,” and he would laugh knowing he was intellectually and creatively superior to his accusers, and all the accusers would ever have was seething jealousy.

    1. Interesting perspective. He was indeed fearless, but I believe he cared very much what others thought. (Have you read any biographies of him?) Further, if that’s your criteria for genius, then Ann Coulter is a genius. I think HST himself would disagree with you there.

      One of the great things about being able to admit you’re not a genius (ALERT: I am not a genius) is that it gives you the freedom to explore your conflicted feelings on a subject without fear of how others will view the admission that you don’t know everything. It’s liberating, and it’s a joy.

    2. Jeff Parker says:

      I disagree, Mr. Rogers. Mozart was definitely a genius and he wrote music for the high officials and did what they wished (to an extent). He only rebelled against his own flesh with his own addictions. Furthermore, what about all the unknown scientists curing cancer and inventing medical marvals? Are they rebelling against the “zeitgeist”? No. Above all, two things need to be said upon closing. First, yes, some geniuses are rebels and “haters”. But some are not. Second, why would you insult Rebecca like that? I don’t think she ever claimed to be a genius. Even if she did, then have you formally assessed her? Do you know anything about her or her intellectual capacities, creativity, fluency, processing time, or fluid intelligence? Overall, it is not your place to make her or anyone else feel bad, less-than, or anything else but respected. After everything, she still handled your barb with grace and dignity.

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