During the first week of Journalism 318: the Literature of Journalism, Professor Robert de Maria introduced the class to journalist Hunter S. Thompson and his book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Noting the title of the course as the “literature of journalism,” I was immediately intrigued. Where is the journalism in this acid trip of uppers, downers, laughers, and screamers? Where is the journalism amidst the saltshakers of cocaine, amyls, and ether?
The answer is this: Gonzo Journalism. It’s an interesting word, gonzo. (I’m not sure why, but the word “gonzo” conjures images of Fonzi from Happy Days in my mind. Perhaps it’s the two-syllables and emphasis on the letter “z.”) The word holds origins in both Irish and French vocabulary. Some believe that Gonzo originated from Irish slang meaning the last man standing after an all-night drinking marathon. Others believe that the word maintains French origins from the word, “gonzeaux,” which translates to the shining path. In my opinion, either of these interpretations fit Thompson and his Gonzo practices to a “T.”
Gonzo journalism is a style of journalism that includes the reporter as part of the experience through first-person narration. The term described one of Thompson’s first journalism pieces. He continued to popularize the style in his writing throughout the 1970s. Gonzo journalism emphasizes personal experiences and emotions to achieve a desired reputation of an event or idea. The “Gonzo fist,” two thumbs and four fingers holding a peyote button, became the symbolism for Thompson and Gonzo journalism.
Most of the students in Journalism 318 felt conflicted by what we, as students, know as journalism. The journalism taught within the Journalism and Mass Communications Departments includes detached writing that spells facts and observations to a reader. How could Gonzo journalism and the writings of Hunter S. Thompson fall beneath the category of journalism when the narrator appears everything but reliable?
My response to the problematic question is this: Thompson knows exactly what he wants the reader to understand and he uses any means possible to achieve the desired understanding. In a way, Gonzo journalism behaves like a fiction short story. An author desires the reader to feel a certain effect and uses the story to achieve the desired feelings. (Thompson did indeed trip acid and other drugs while in Las Vegas. He based Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas upon his acid trip adventure with Oscar Acosta. But he warped the truth in order to attain his goal of describing the “American Dream” to the reader.) Thompson believed that this approach advocated a certain truth that was otherwise difficult to achieve.
In a 1973 issue of Rolling Stone, Thompson stated, “If I’d written the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people—including me—would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.”