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.
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.