Heir Aberrant

Is Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson the spiritual twin of H.L. Mencken?

Books: Literary Genealogy

September 08, 2002|By Stephen R. Proctor | By Stephen R. Proctor,SUN STAFF

Fans of H. L. Mencken, the original bad boy of American journalism, argue endlessly about the details of his life and work, but few would disagree on this point: There will never be another like him.

But, as Baltimore prepares to celebrate Mencken Day -- its iconoclastic son was born 122 years ago Thursday -- the truth must be faced. There is, and has been, another Mencken. He's the outlaw journalist of our era -- Hunter S. Thompson.

Comparing the erudite Mencken to a drug-addled madman like Thompson may leave scores of Menckenites sputtering into their coffee. Blasphemy! But consider.

In the 1920's and '30s, as a reporter and columnist for Baltimore's Evening Sun and literary critic for New York magazines, Mencken towered over American journalism -- railing at Puritans and Babbitts, thumbing his nose at Prohibition and writing outlandishly about every-thing from the Scopes Trial to the "imbecilities" of Roosevelt's New Deal. Interest in his work never wanes, with another major biography coming out in November (sneak preview: It's terrific).

Flash forward 50 years and there is Thompson, the new enfant terrible, with a persona to match his times. He was a prankster run amok, reveling in the culture of booze and drugs as he pursued the outrageous craft he called Gonzo Journalism everywhere the American Dream could be chronicled, from the Kentucky Derby to the presidential campaign. His memoir, Kingdom of Fear, is due out in December.

Scoff if you will, but this much can't be denied. Barely two years after Mencken's death, his ghost appeared in Thompson's fervid imaginings.

Devouring Mencken

In December 1957, when Thompson was starting out as sports editor of the Jersey Shore Herald, he wrote a rollicking letter to a friend recounting a cynical daydream about the godforsaken town where he worked. In it, Thompson has Mencken mock the place as "enough to make a man pray for a plague of maggots."

Thompson's two books of letters -- The Proud Highway (1997) and Fear and Loathing in America (2000) -- show that Mencken was much on Thompson's mind as he found his way in journalism. He devoured Mencken's collected works and began to quote and mimic him. Thompson fell under the spell of many writers as he worked to develop his own style -- chiefly F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

He was so entranced by them that, like a young painter copying a Rembrandt, Thompson typed out every word of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms. The editor of his letters, Douglas Brinkley, believes Thompson's journalism was most influenced by George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, an account of slumming with low-lifers in two cities.

But a close reading of Thompson and Mencken -- along with a study of his letters -- makes it unequivocal: It was Mencken who inhabited Thompson's consciousness from the moment he set out in journalism.

Casual comparisons of the two writers are hardly uncommon. Book critics are fond of referring to Thompson as an acid-headed Mencken, or the like. But delving more deeply into their work shows how close Thompson comes to being Mencken reincarnate.

The underpinnings of everything Thompson came to stand for as a journalist -- his commitment to "total subjectivity," his insistence on making himself a character at the heart of his stories, even aspects of his style -- are found in Mencken.

By the time he set out to write his classic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Thompson had established his persona as the larger-than-life agent provocateur of the press corps, spewing invective and stalking his mortal enemy, Richard Nixon.

Hounding the enemy

Whether contrived or spontaneous, Thompson's persona was not unlike Mencken's when he showed up in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925 to cover what he had famously dubbed "The Monkey Trial," in which teacher John T. Scopes was accused of violating state law by teaching evolution instead of the Biblical story of Genesis.

Mencken arrived in Tennessee as something of an outlaw journalist himself, having already published his scathing essay "The Sahara of the Bozart," describing the American south as "almost as sterile artistically, intellectually, culturally as the Sahara Desert."

His coverage of the Scopes Trial and its immediate aftermath provides a convenient case study of how Mencken's work inspired Thompson's Gonzo Journalism -- starting with the notion of reporter-as-character. Mencken was so much a character in the Scopes trial that he would be a central figure in Inherit the Wind, a play written about those two weeks in Tennessee, just as Thompson would be the inspiration for the character Duke in Garry Trudeau's comic strip "Doonesbury."

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