Hunter S. Thompson was a talent all his own, a breed of genius rarely seen. Tom Wolfe, the godfather of New Journalism, compared Thompson to none other than Mark Twain, calling Thompson “the century's greatest comic writer.”
Thompson grew up in Louisville, specifically in Cherokee Triangle, and attended Male High School. He showed a gift for writing early on and was inducted into the Athenaeum Literary Association, Male’s exclusive literary club. His small involvement in a liquor store robbery prevented him from graduating high school, so he joined the Air Force. There, Thompson began his career in journalism, later lying his way into a position as a sports editor for a small newspaper, claiming credentials he didn’t have.
With “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” an early article for the short-lived magazine, Scanlan’s Monthly, Thompson introduced “Gonzo journalism,” his trademark style. Gonzo stands out from traditional journalism as more subjective, less about the facts and more about a story’s experience. Gonzo journalism loves exaggeration, hilarity, and sarcasm – traits that defined Thompson.
Thompson became known for pieces like Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72. Despite his literary success, Thompson is typically viewed as a maniac in popular media, a drug-addled, booze-ridden lunatic. For a lot of people, he’s more famous for being “that drug guy,” which is fair enough…but not enough. They’re missing out on great literature. He was the best of a generation.
And he was from here.
Until recently, it appeared that Louisville couldn’t get over Thompson’s crazy reputation, either. Louisville barely seems to own Thompson (compared to, say, Muhammad Ali) and in turn misses out on the potential benefits of claiming hometown status of one of the greatest writers of our age.
In 2004, the Louisville Pride Foundation announced its Hometown Heroes campaign, what resulted in a series of giant photographic banners draping downtown skyscrapers. They portray our city’s most influential natives: Ali, Colonel Sanders, and Diane Sawyer, to name a few. Impossible to ignore, they hang like sails of battleships, massive displays of local pride.
For a decade, Thompson was excluded from the banner group. Why? That wild reputation of his, maybe? It's hard to say, but, regardless, things have begun to change.
Earlier this year, Louisville celebrated Hunter S. Thompson with Gonzofest, the annual six-day festival of live music, poetry, and art in honor of his work. The main event unveiled Thompson’s own long overdue banner, which will hang in his childhood neighborhood of Cherokee Triangle.
For Thompson fans, the banner is a big enough deal on its own. There’s a tremendous feeling of, “About time.” Thompson leaves a mark on anyone who reads him; he’s often considered an inspiration. It was his influence that motivated me to overcome an anxiety disorder, for instance. The man lived a life of extremes, obsessed with The Edge. For me, a guy who found it difficult to leave his room, Thompson provided a model of what could be, a goal to strive for. That went a long way in overcoming an affliction, which is just one example of the type of effect he's had on millions of people.
But there’s something especially charming and significant about this recognition for Thompson from Louisville: our local government publicly honored a madman. That telling honor, no matter how overdue, shows a preference for local culture over the mainstream, an interest in supporting the arts. It’s substance over surface: Keeping Louisville Weird.
Louisville has a rich cultural history spanning more than a century, with many notable figures gracing us with their presence: from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Jennifer Lawrence. Louisville has a gift, apparently, talent in the water. That talent, that weirdness, is something to invest in and encourage – as we have with Thompson’s banner. We could be a major center for the arts someday, an American Paris.
Thompson once wrote, “It never got weird enough for me.” To be sure, Louisville’s decision to honor Hunter S. Thompson out in the open is a step in the weird direction. But that’s just where Louisville needs to go. And Thompson, more than anyone, is the one to show us the way.