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Books William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson

Published on December 12th, 2013 | by Thompson


Defining Gonzo Rhetoric through Literary History


Gonzo rhetoric, or roughly, the blending of nonfiction with fiction, is the bastard child of Hunter S. Thompson and the Beat Generation, and although it was once a weapon used in the people’s behalf, Thompson’s Gonzo spawn has been adopted by politicians and mainstream media to increase their audience, in turn, increasing campaign contributions and advertising revenues.

With the proliferation of Gonzo rhetoric, it’s important readers of all media are aware of its presence and can take action to either avoid it, read past it, or take it back for the people. This report, “How Hunter Thompson Built Fox News, and How Gonzo Rhetoric can Work for the People Again,” consists of five parts:

  1. Defining Gonzo Rhetoric through Literary History
  2. Defining Gonzo Rhetoric through Literary Theory
  3. Defining Gonzo Rhetoric through Contemporary Examples
  1. The Problem: The Effect of Gonzo Rhetoric in Politics and Mainstream Media
  2. The Solution: Using New Methods and New Media to Combat Gonzo Rhetoric in Politics and Mainstream Media

The objective of this report is not only to shed new light on the issue of Gonzo rhetoric in politics and mainstream media, but to give Gonzo rhetoric back to those for which it was intended. In order to solve the problem, though, we must have a strong grasp on what Gonzo rhetoric is and what it is not.

Defining Gonzo Rhetoric through Literary History

To define Gonzo rhetoric, it’s best to start at the beginning of Gonzo journalism, found in the June 1970 edition of Scanlan’s Monthly.

“I got off the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands…big grins and a whoop here and there: ‘By God! You old bastard! Good to see you, boy! Damn good…and I mean it!'” (4).

The first paragraph of Hunter Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” is truly the beginning of Gonzo rhetoric. The first letter, “I,” gives us the first, and perhaps most important defining characteristic of Gonzo rhetoric: first-person narration. When The Boston Globe’s Bill Cardoso first penned the term “Gonzo” in 1970 to describe Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” he was attempting to define what was previously indefinable, even by Thompson himself. Since then, Gonzo has been used to define a mode of journalism made popular by Thompson, which utilizes first-person narration.

“In the air-conditioned lounge I met a man from Houston who said his name was something or other–‘but just call me Jimbo’ – and he was here to get it on. ‘I’m ready for anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinkin?’ I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn’t hear of it: ‘Naw, naw…what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby time? What’s wrong with you, boy?’ He grinned and winked at the bartender. ‘Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey…’ I shrugged. ‘Okay, a double Old Fitz on ice.’ Jimbo nodded his approval” (4).

Fittingly, Cardoso explained that “Gonzo” was South Boston Irish slang for the last man standing after an all-night drinking marathon, but it is also a corruption of the French Canadian word “gonzeaux,” meaning “shining path.” Though this is disputed, it may be more fitting than the South Boston Irish slang descriptor.

Like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952), Gonzo is all about the journey – the journalist’s journey. The path the journalist takes to get the scoop is the scoop even if there isn’t a scoop, and Thompson proved it, but he had to shake the shackles of journalistic objectivity.

Hell’s Angels (1966) was Thompson’s final foray at writing what people may have perceived as objectivity, and even then he took flak for fabricating events (only from the Angels), but he stuck by his story (despite a brutal beating). He wouldn’t make the same mistake again, and the violence he saw at the 1968 Democratic National Convention had a lot to do with the change in his writing style. Even while covering the 1972 Presidential Campaign, Thompson remained absolutely subjective, because if no one else was attempting to be objective, why should he?

“So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here – not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms” (XX).

Thompson’s dismissal of objective journalism paved the way for others to take advantage of novelistic nonfiction, but there was another writer doing something similar at the time. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) utilized novelistic narration (not first-person narration, however), altered events, and even added his own events and commentary to an otherwise true story of mass murderers.

“[E]ven an attorney of moderate talent can postpone doomsday year after year, for the system of appeals that pervades American jurisprudence amounts to a legalistic wheel of fortune, a game of chance, somewhat fixed in the favor of the criminal, that the participants play interminably, first in the state courts, then through the Federal courts until the ultimate tribunal is reached – the United States Supreme Court. But even defeat there does not signify if petitioner’s counsel can discover or invent new grounds for appeal; usually they can, and so once more the wheel turns” (330).

Capote wasn’t pleased when he didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize, but perhaps the world wasn’t quite ready for novelistic nonfiction in 1966. Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night did win the Pulitzer two years later as half novel, half nonfiction.

“If one was going to take part in a literary demonstration, it had better work, since novelists like movie stars like to keep their politics in their pocket rather than wear them as ashes on the brow; if it is hard for people in the literary world to applaud any act braver or more self-sacrificing than their own, it is impossible for them to forgive any gallant move which is by consensus unsuccessful” (7).

But no one pushed the envelope like Thompson. He had no interest in keeping his politics in his pocket and didn’t care if his contributions were deemed unsuccessful. In fact, he called Gonzo journalism a failure, but he didn’t expect forgiveness and didn’t want it.

Thompson took it upon himself to create Gonzo journalism, or journalistic fiction, a genre that serves as a journalistic record of events but reads like fiction because the author actually plays the hero and claims no objectivity. It’s like an epic newspaper column, and he wrote journalistic fiction because he so despised the journalism being peddled at the time.

“Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits – a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage” (XX).

While covering an uninteresting Las Vegas dirt bike race and writing his self-described “failure” in Gonzo journalism, Thompson proved that the author can be an outlaw and a hero – and he might have been one of just two writers in the world who could.

Jack Kerouac tried and failed to do so with Big Sur (1962) because, frankly, he was just not as interesting as the friends he followed around, most notably, Neal Cassady (Cody Pomeray), who upstaged Kerouac throughout On the Road (1957) as Dean Moriarty.

“[R]emember just one thing: this guy has his troubles too, and another thing, he never complains and he’s given all of you a damned good time just being himself, and if that isn’t enough for you then send him to the firing squad, that’s apparently what you’re itching to do anyway … He was Beat – the root, the soul of Beatific. What was he knowing? He tried all in his power to tell me what he was knowing, and they envied that about me, my position at his side, defending him and drinking him in as they once tried to do” (183-84).

On the Road could not have happened without Neal Cassady, and not because he does all the driving. Neal was the reason Jack got off his ass in the first place, because Neal’s life was damned interesting, and Jack’s life was not.

The one man that may have influenced Thompson the most was William S. Burroughs, and he is most likely the hero Thompson longed to recreate. Although Naked Lunch (1959) is really only novelistic in its narration, Burroughs was probably the inspiration for Thompson’s Gonzo journalism.

“There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing…I am a recording instrument…I do not presume to impose ‘story’ ‘plot’ ‘continuity’…Insofar as I succeed in Direct recording of certain areas of psychic process I may have limited function…I am not an entertainer” (184).

The format of Naked Lunch is actually more journalistic than it is novelistic. Burroughs kept books of notes about his trips, relapses, and withdrawals, but published them as if he shuffled all his notes like a deck of cards and rewrote them in random order. Just like Thompson going through his recorded tapes after a wild week in Vegas and trying to put them back in chronological order.

Unlike Kerouac, the follower, and Burroughs, the recorder, Thompson was the party planner, the party, and the after-party. He constantly entertained and was constantly watching and recording events. In the world of journalistic fiction, he truly was judge, jury, executioner, and stenographer.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas continues to be Thompson’s most popular “failure,” but the book put him on the map, and he never lived story to story, paycheck to paycheck again. His Gonzo rhetoric made it all possible, and it’s now making it possible for so many politicians and journalists.

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About the Author

When Thompson isn't busy writing for Go Gonzo Journal, you may find him drunk at the movie theater with Professor Heinous or stirring up trouble in a bar with his attorney. Thompson also enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and watching and betting on baseball and football.

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