The suicide of Hunter S. Thompson, aged 65, according to the New York Times, or 67, according to the Washington Post, at his home in Aspen, may definitively mark the conclusion of the chaotic "baby-boomer" rebellion that began in the 1950s and crested in the 1960s, and which was dignified with the title of "the counter-culture."
"Counter" it was, as an expression of defiance toward everything normal and reliable in society. "Culture" it was not, any more than Thompson's incoherent scribblings constituted, as they were so often indulgently described, a form of journalism.
When a major representative of any dramatic period in history dies, it is tempting to proclaim the end of an epoch, but the lonely death of Thompson--he shot himself in his kitchen--seems more emblematic than any other associated with the '60s. The incident might even have been accidental, brought on by one of Thompson's self-storied flings into the ingestion of garbage drugs. Who knows?
But Louisa Davidson, wife of the sheriff of Pitkin County, the jurisdiction wherein the death occurred, probably had it right: "he was not going to age gracefully. He was going to go out with a bang. He was tormented."
Whatever the actual circumstances, it is difficult to imagine a still-living personage, or even one who preceded him into eternal silence and collective forgetfulness, more representative of his time. William S. Burroughs, the prosewriter once hailed for allegedly reinventing the American novel, died at 83 in 1997. Allen Ginsberg, the versifier who had supposedly changed American poetry forever, expired the same year at 70. Ken Kesey, another overrated writer, joined them in 2001. The comedian Lenny Bruce and the author Jack Kerouac left the scene long, long before, in the '60s themselves. Who is left? No one but minor figures.
Thompson had much in common with Burroughs and Ginsberg. First, their products were mainly noise. Their books were reissued but now sit inertly on bookstore shelves, incapable of inspiring younger readers, or even nostalgic baby boomers, to purchase them. Thompson claimed credit for the invention of "gonzo journalism," epitomized by his great success, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, published in 1972. He will inevitably be hailed by newswriters as the creator of a genre. But if his work is taught to the young, it is as an exemplar of the madness of the '60s, not as literature or journalism. Aside from his own later works, including such trivia, bearing his signature, as The Great Shark Hunt, Generation of Swine, and Songs of the Doomed, of what did "gonzo" journalism consist? Thompson left no authorial legacy.
It has long been argued that lasting literature is an impossibility without imitation and emulation, and that although young authors often produce works ridiculously imitative of their idols, real writers grow out of such mimesis to gain recognition for their own, individual abilities. But who can imagine a youthful talent beginning with an exercise in the gonzo style? Thompson produced no others like him, for the same reason Burroughs and Ginsberg generated no schools of novel-writing or verse. One may go further and say they had nothing to teach the young, except to emit a cacophony.
Indeed, it would be one thing to say that Thompson and the others like him, such as Burroughs and Ginsberg, are dated. Even embarrassingly old-fashioned artistic works, bereft of immediacy for those who are not part of the environment from which they emerged, have the capacity for revival. But Thompson produced a clamor without content. Doubtlessly, the most pathetic aspect of the '60s phenomenon was the absolute conviction of Thompson and those who encouraged him that "living in the moment" really did count more than anything else in the world, that history never existed and that the future was their property.
His enablers included lefty journalist Warren Hinckle III, who first published Thompson's experiments in incoherent "reportage" in a forgotten magazine called Scanlan's, and pop huckster Jann S. Wenner, the grand ayatollah of Rolling Stone, a tabloid which began as a pop music paper, then tried to make itself over as a serious journal, and is now read by . . . who? For some commentators, the greatest compliment paid to Thompson was the incorporation of a dishonest, heartless figure modeled on him, and named Uncle Duke (after Raoul Duke, the narrator of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) into Doonesbury. But that strip is generally known for its tone of dishonesty and heartlessness, and, like the writings of Thompson, seems extremely dated, increasingly unread, and finally irrelevant in its mean-spiritedness.
Thompson, as I can say from personal witness, was not flattered by the Doonesbury valentine. "I don't steal from his stuff, do I?" Thompson grunted in a bar one afternoon in San Francisco. For him, imitation, or caricature, was the least sincere form of flattery, and in his bilious reaction there might have resided a microscopic element of self-awareness. He may well have understood that the drugs, gunfire, motorcycle mishaps, public rantings, and widespread adulation in which he was immersed were evanescent, and that his books were too thin to keep his memory alive for very long.
One must imagine that in his own middle '60s Hunter Thompson looked into the mirror and saw that nobody needed a gonzo interpretation of the world after September 11, that nobody was amused by his capacity to survive fatal doses of sinister concoctions, and that, increasingly, nobody knew or cared who he was.
He was flattered to be described as chronicler of "the death of the American dream." In reality, he described a nightmare from which America awoke years ago.