Writing about the poetry of Eliot is difficult for a number of reasons. One major difficulty is that Eliot himself helped dictate the rules for how critics interpret poetry. He did this through his many influential essays on poetry, beginning with those in The Sacred Wood, and through the way he transformed the style of modern poetry. Every young poet writing in English after Eliot has had either to imitate or to reject him (often both).
Eliot as a thinker was profoundly interested in the role of literary tradition—the impact of earlier great writers on later ones. However, he himself in a sense started from scratch. When Pound first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” he was astonished. Eliot, Pound wrote, “has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.”
Sometime in the period from 1908 through 1910, Eliot managed to create a new poetic style in English. During this time, he had been reading the French Symbolist poets, who had flourished in the last half of the nineteenth century. Eliot was especially drawn to Laforgue, whose dramatic monologues contained a mixture of highly sophisticated irony and an original, difficult style. “The form in which I began to write,” Eliot later commented, “was directly drawn from the study of Laforgue. . . . The kind of poetry that I needed, to teach me the use of my own voice, did not exist in English at all; it was only found in French.”
The immediate result of this new style was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the first major modernist poem. Modernism was an artistic movement that lasted, in American and English literature, from about 1900 to 1940, although most literature since that time continues to be heavily influenced by modernist techiques. These techniques, first developed largely by Pound and Eliot, involved the use of free verse (poetry without regular meter and rhyme), multiple speakers (or personas) within one poem, and a disjointed, nonlinear style.
Another clear influence of French Symbolist poetry on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was Eliot’s use of intensely urban imagery: Prufrock is a citizen of the modern city, an acute observer of its confusion, grime, and poignancy. The poem’s opening lines are reminiscent of images that French readers had found in the work of Baudelaire. For English readers, however, the stark pictures of Eliot’s poem were startling: “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.” When Prufrock, and Other Observations appeared in 1917, readers knew that a new and powerful poetic movement was beginning to make itself felt. Eliot and Pound knew that they were creating a literary revolution: Both poets actively furthered the revolution through their essays, articles, and reviews. Two years later, in 1919, Poems was published. The volume included “Gerontion,” a monologue spoken by an old man and cast in blank verse. Once again, the setting was bleakly urban and the sensibility of the speaker was distinctly modern, which meant that the speaker’s viewpoint was ironic, detached, and resigned.
The Sacred Wood, a collection of essays, appeared soon after the publication of Poems. Scholars still debate the impact on subsequent literature of these relatively short prose articles, most of which were written for literary magazines or newspapers. Students of modern English literature agree, however, that these essays, like the poems that preceded them, permanently altered the way readers assessed poetry. Eliot not only shaped readers’ perceptions of modern poetry but also reevaluated the poetry of the past, the “tradition,” as Eliot termed it.
Two essays from the collection are particularly important: “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and “Hamlet and His Problems.” In the first, Eliot sets out two key critical ideas: the nature of the tradition and the “impersonal theory of poetry.” For Eliot, the tradition of literature comprised a living body of works that both influenced contemporary writers and, at the same time, were somehow changed by the light cast on them by modern works. According to Eliot, the masterful poet, fully conscious of working within the tradition, is very much an instrument of the tradition; that is, he or she is in a way an impersonal medium for the common literary heritage. In “Hamlet and His Problems,” Eliot introduced the theory of the “objective correlative,” the idea that the words of literature should correspond exactly with things and with emotions.
One last key critical idea of this period, introduced in “The Metaphysical Poets” and “Andrew Marvell,” was the “dissociation of sensibility.” A practical effect of Eliot’s emphasis on literary tradition was to give new importance to literary periods that had been neglected; one of these, in Eliot’s view, was the era of the Metaphysical poets at the beginning of the seventeenth century. He believed that English poetry had declined in the period following the Metaphysical poets, such as John Donne and Andrew Marvell, and that the cause of this decline lay in a “dissociation of sensibility.” In other words, thought and feeling in poems (sensibility) began to be severed (the dissociation). Poets were no longer able to join the intellect and the emotions to produce true masterworks.
These three ideas—the impersonal theory of poetry, the objective correlative, and the dissociation of sensibility—certainly changed the way American and British scholars studied poetry: Innovative critical schools, such as the American New Criticism of the late 1920’s and 1930’s, were the result, and university training in literature was also changed by these principles.
Easily as important, however, is the fact that Eliot’s theories go a long way toward explaining what he was trying to do in his poetry. In his next major poem, and his most famous, these ideas were given full play. The Waste Land is unquestionably one of the most important poems of the twentieth century. Its importance lies in its literary excellence—its insight and originality—and in its influence on other poets. Although Eliot said that he always wrote with his mind firmly on tradition, The Waste Land broke with the look, the sound, and the subject of most poetry written since the early nineteenth century. In the poem, allusions to myth, religion, Western and Eastern literature, and popular culture are almost constant; in fact, many stretches of the poem are direct, and unacknowledged, quotations from other sources. Because no one narrator appears to be speaking the poem, the work seems as impersonal as a crowded London street. The five sections of The Waste Land also constitute Eliot’s “objective correlative,” a chain of events that sparks a particular emotional mood. The mood is one of despair, loneliness, and confusion—the central feelings, Eliot believed, of modern city dwellers.
During the early and mid-1920’s, Eliot struggled to emerge from his own private wasteland. Many of the poems of this period, such as “The Hollow Men,” reflect his desperation. At the same time, he was deeply immersed in the study of the great medieval poet Dante, whose poetry and prose seemed to illuminate a way that a poet could approach religion and achieve serenity of spirit. Accordingly, at the end of the decade Eliot joined the Church of England; from then until the end of his life, he was a faithful to it. Ash Wednesday (1930) accurately describes the stage in Eliot’s life that hovered between intellectual, nonbelieving despair and instinctive religious faith. In the poem, the speaker is far less impersonal than in earlier works: There is no reason to suppose, in fact, that the narrator is not Eliot himself, a man desperately seeking his God.
By 1930, Eliot was firmly established as an influential man of letters. As his literary star continued to rise, however, his personal life became more difficult. By then, he had separated from Vivien, and in 1933, with the cooperation of her family, he had his wife committed to a mental institution. Thereafter, Eliot lived the life of a secular monk. He actually roomed in the households of celibate clergy throughout much of the 1930’s.
Eliot had also become an even more prolific writer of reviews and essays. In fact, although he published a considerable amount of important criticism during the 1930’s (including The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England, 1933, and After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, 1934), his output of poetry had slowed to a trickle.
Not so his dramatic writing. Evidently, Eliot’s creative drive had rechanneled itself toward the writing of plays, especially ones with strongly religious themes. His first full effort was The Rock, which was a modernized version of the traditional pageant play staged in a large church. The peak of his dramatic career, however, came with Murder in the Cathedral. In this play set in the Middle Ages, Eliot retells the story of the murder of Thomas à Becket by his former friend King Henry II. The work enjoyed much popular success in London and New York, and it has been repeatedly broadcast as a radio play. The widespread acceptance of Murder in the Cathedral led Eliot to believe that the time was ripe for a revival of poetic drama, although, as it turned out, he remained the only masterly practitioner of the form.
Eliot’s last great poetic achievement came during the early 1940’s, with the publication of Four Quartets. Written as Britain faced the threat of Adolf Hitler’s armies, this long poem is strongly affirmative—a real departure, in many ways, from Eliot’s previous work. Many critics argue, in fact, that this, and not The Waste Land, is his greatest poem. The Four Quartets consist of “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding” (three of which were published individually). In this sequence, Eliot has moved quite far from his earlier impersonality: The poem is nearly autobiographical, although much of it explores the relation of human beings generally to God. Each of the places named in the quartets had a deeply personal meaning to Eliot. East Coker, for example, is the town from which the Eliot family came to the New World, and the Dry Salvages are a group of small, rocky islands off the New England coast, where Eliot vacationed as a boy.
From World War II on, Eliot seemed increasingly to find the serenity for which he was searching. He continued to write plays, and these became more approachable, more popular, even more humorous.
Eliot definitely had his comic, whimsical side. Nowhere is this better displayed than in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), the series of poems about extraordinary felines that went into the making of Cats (1981), the successful Broadway hit musical. It seems reasonable to suppose that Eliot would have appreciated his success on Broadway. One of the twentieth century’s most difficult poets had at last found easy popular acclaim.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
First published: 1915 (collected in Prufrock, and Other Observations, 1917)
Type of work: Poem
A genteel, middle-aged speaker describes the emptiness and anxiety of a life lived in a grim twentieth century city.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” marks the beginning of the modernist movement in Anglo-American poetry. It is the first English-language poem in the twentieth century to employ free verse, startling juxtapositions of allusion and situation, an intensely self-conscious speaker (or “persona”), and a truly urban setting. The initial quotation is from Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), the great fourteenth century epic describing the author’s descent into the Inferno and eventual ascent into Paradise. The lines (in Italian) are spoken by one of the damned souls to Dante as he journeys through Hell. Like souls in the Inferno, Prufrock exists in a kind of living death.
In the poem’s opening lines, Prufrock invites the reader to accompany him as he walks through a modern city making his social rounds. Perhaps he assumes that they share his comfortable wealth and socially active lifestyle. As his proper, even prissy, name implies, Prufrock is neurotic, fearful, sensitive, and bored. His upper-class friends—the women who “come and go”—apparently lead arid and pointless lives. At any rate, what is evident right from the outset of the poem is that Prufrock is unhappy with his life. His unhappiness, he suspects, has something to do with the society in which he lives: There is, for example, the jarring clash between the grim cityscape through which he walks and the mindless tea-party conversation of his friends.
One important way in which this poem is different from the poetry of the century before it is the way in which the speaker describes nature. In the nineteenth century, poets described the natural world as the real home of God, as the fountain at which weary human beings could refresh themselves. A nineteenth century poet, such as William Wordsworth, might have described the coming of evening as being “gentle, like a nun.” In contrast, Prufrock’s evening is like a very sick person awaiting an operation; the dusk over the city is anesthetized and spread-eagled on an operating table. The urban images that follow this one are just as grim: Prufrock’s city, which is perhaps Eliot’s London, is a town of cheap hotels and bad restaurants. The streets appear sinister; they seem to threaten the people walking in them, bullying them with pointed questions. The urban landscape is made even more ominous by a “yellow fog” that, catlike, “rubs” against windows and “licks” the “corners of the evening.”
As night falls and the fog settles in, Prufrock describes another landscape—this time, a temporal one where time stretches to infinity. He knows, however, that he will not be able to use this time to advantage; as usual, he will be indecisive. “There will be time” enough, he says, but only for “a hundred indecisions.”
Like the limitless streets outside his window, infinite time also threatens Prufrock. The more life he has left to live, the more he is left to wonder and to question. Wondering and questioning frighten him because the answers that they provoke might challenge the perfect, unchanging regularity of his tidy existence. He knows that time is dangerous, that “In a minute there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Nothing, in other words, is as settled as it seems. Nothing that has happened to Prufrock in his life is particularly comforting: He would like his life to change, but at the same time he fears change and the unexpected events that change might bring. He feels as though he already knows everything that is bound to happen to him. He especially knows the kinds of people whom he is likely to continue meeting—socialites who pin him down with their critical scrutiny.
Yet something besides these general, abstract worries bothers Prufrock. His chronic indecision blocks him from some important action. The reader never learns specifically what this thwarted act might be, but Prufrock seems to address a woman, perhaps one he loves. Their friends appear to gossip about them “among the porcelain” teacups. Prufrock implies, however, that the woman would reject him if he could ever gather his courage and tell her how he feels. He pictures her sitting in her genteel drawing room, explaining that she had not meant to encourage him: “That is not what I meant at all,” she tells him.
Prufrock knows, in any case, that he cannot be the hero of anyone’s story; he cannot be Hamlet (despite Hamlet’s similar bouts of indecision)—instead, he is only a bit player, even a Fool. He imagines himself growing old, unchanged, worrying about his health and the “risks” of eating a peach. Still, he faintly hears the mermaids of romance singing in his imagination, even though they are not singing to him. In a final imagined vision, he sees these nymphs of the sea, free and beautiful, calling him. Reality, however, intrudes in the form of “human voices,” perhaps those of the art-chattering women, and he is “drowned” in his empty life.
“Tradition and the Individual Talent”
First published: 1919 (collected in The Sacred Wood, 1920)
Type of work: Essay
The writing of a poem is a living dynamic wherein the contemporary poet is shaped by literary tradition, while, at the same time, tradition is altered by the poet.
Only rarely in the history of English literature has a critical essay, such as “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” so changed the way people understand poetry. Anyone who has any real interest in modern poetry—reader, critic, or poet—has had to confront this essay and decide for himself or herself its strengths and weaknesses.
One of the important ways that the essay has altered literary criticism has to do with the meaning of the title’s key words, “tradition” and “individual talent.” In the very first paragraph, Eliot indicates that, by “tradition,” he does not mean what people usually mean in talking about literature; ordinarily, a “traditional” writer is perhaps an old-fashioned writer, one who uses tried-and-true plots and a steady, understandable style. Rather, Eliot uses “tradition” in a more objective and historical sense: His definition of tradition is paradoxical because he says that the historical sense of tradition is a keen understanding of both what is timeless and what is not. A true poet understands “not only the pastness of the past, but . . . its presence.”
This is less confusing than it appears: Eliot simply means that for a poet writing in the tradition—a poet who understands his or her heritage—all the great poetry of the past is alive. When the poet writes a poem, great poems of the past help to enliven the modern work. This dynamic relationship is not finished when the poem is written, however, because the new poem casts a new light on the poems that came before. In the same way that the tradition of great poetry helped shape a new, modern poem, the contemporary poem changes the way one looks at the poems that shaped it.
Another apparent contradiction lies in Eliot’s use of “individual” in “individual talent.” He says that a poet’s true individuality lies in the ways he or she embodies the immortality of poetic “ancestors.” In a sense, poets who know what they are doing “plug into” tradition; electrified by the greatness of the past, they achieve a sharper profile, a greater individuality.
It is important to stress that Eliot is not saying that good poets should simply copy the poetry of the past. In fact, he argues just the opposite: Good poets bring something new into the world—“novelty,” he writes, “is better than repetition”—that makes an important advance on what has come before. To do this, the poet has to know what is truly new and different; a poet can do this only by having a thorough knowledge of the classic and traditional. To have this kind of knowledge means, in turn, that the poet needs to know not only about the poetry of his or her own language but also about the poetry of other nations and cultures.
In a crucial metaphor about midway in the essay, Eliot compares the poet to a catalyst in chemistry. He describes what happens when two gases are combined in the presence of a piece of platinum: A new compound is formed, but the platinum is unaffected. The platinum is the poet’s mind, which uses tradition and personal experience (the two gases) to create a poem. In this kind of literary combustion, the poet remains “impersonal.” That is, he or she manages to separate individual facts of life from the work of art that is being created. As Eliot says, “the poet has, not a ’personality’ to express, but a particular medium,” which is the medium of poetry.
In a third, concluding section of the essay, Eliot draws an important conclusion, one that has been crucial to the way poetry has been studied since the 1920’s. The essay shifts the study of a poem from an emphasis on the poet as a person, to the study of the poem isolated from the poet. After reading this essay, critics would increasingly concentrate on the internal structure of poetry—the tropes, figures, and themes of the work. At the same time, critics would banish the life of the writer from the study of his or her writings; the poet’s personality, as Eliot seemed to imply, was irrelevant to the artwork produced. The peak of this theory was reached with the New Critics and their successors in Britain and the United States from about 1930 through the 1950’s. Later years, however, have seen a waning of the impersonal theory of poetry and a return of the poet to his or her work.
The Waste Land
First published: 1922
Type of work: Poem
A complex tapestry of voices, cultures, and historical periods, the poem weaves a portrait of modern society in decay.
In order to understand The Waste Land—one of the most difficult poems in a difficult literary period—the reader might do well to envision the work as a much-spliced film or videotape, a montage of images and sounds. This imaginary film is, in a sense, a real-life documentary: There are no heroes or heroines, and there is no narrator telling readers what to think or how to feel. Instead, Eliot allows multiple voices to tell their individual stories. Many of the stories are contemporary and portray a sordid society without values; other stories are drawn from world culture and include, among other motifs, Elizabethan England, ancient Greek mythology, and Buddhist scriptures.
The poem is divided into five sections. In the first, “The Burial of the Dead,” the speaker is an old Austro-Hungarian noblewoman reminiscing about the golden days of her youth before the disasters of World War I. The second section, “A Game of Chess,” is set in the boudoir of a fashionable contemporary Englishwoman. The third, “The Fire Sermon,” mixes images of Elizabeth’s England, the Thames and Rhine rivers, and the legend of the Greek seer Tiresias. The fourth, “Death by Water,” is a brief portrait of a drowned Phoenician sea-trader. The fifth, “What the Thunder Said,” combines the above themes with that of religious peace. These parts combine in the poem’s overall montage to create a meaning that encompasses all of them. Because the poem is so complex, that meaning must be left to the individual reader; however, many students of the poem have suggested that, generally, Eliot shows his readers the collapse of Western culture in the aftermath of the war.
Part 1 is a natural beginning for Eliot’s overall panorama because the speaker, Marie, describes her memories of a key period in modern history. Clearly, her life has been materially and culturally rich. Now in old age, thoughts of the past seem to embitter her, and she spends much of her time reading. The following stanzas describe the visions of the Sibyl, a prophetess in Greek mythology, and compare these to the bogus fortune-telling of a modern Sibyl, Madame Sosostris. The section’s final stanza imagines a fog-shrouded London Bridge as a pathway in the Underworld, where souls fleetingly recognize one another.
In part 2, a narrator describes the sensual surroundings of a wealthy woman’s bedroom—the ornate chair in which the woman sits, the room’s marble floor and carved fireplace, her glittering jewels and heavy perfumes. She is bickering with a man, her husband or her lover, and complains that her “nerves are bad to-night.” Then a contrasting setting appears: a London pub. Two women are gossiping in Cockney English about a friend’s marriage gone bad.
A description of the River Thames begins part 3. The narrator juxtaposes the pretty stream that Renaissance poets saw with the garbage-filled canal of the twentieth century. Most of the section tells the story of an uninspired seduction. The speaker, ironically, is the Greek sage Tiresias, who, in legend, was changed from a man into a woman. In this androgynous mode, Tiresias can reflect on both the male and the female aspects of the modern-day affair between a seedy clerk and a tired typist. This section ends with snippets of past songs about the Thames and the Rhine.
The brief stanzas in part 4 picture Phlebas, a Middle Eastern merchant from the late classical period. The tone is elegiac: The speaker imagines the bones of the young trader washed by the seas and advises the reader to consider the brevity of life.
The final section, part 5, is set in a barren landscape, perhaps the Waste Land itself, where heat lays its heavy hand on a group of anonymous speakers. They seem to be apostles of some sacrificed god, perhaps Christ himself. The opening stanza’s description of confused “torchlight on sweaty faces” in a garden and an “agony in stony places” tends to suggest this Christian interpretation. Hope, however, has fled the holy man’s followers, who wander through the desert listening to thunder that is never followed by rain. Nevertheless, the thunder holds some small promise. The poem shifts setting again. Now the thunder crashes over an Indian jungle while the speaker listens and “translates” the thunderclaps. The thunder speaks three words in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language, which is also the language of Buddhist and Hindu scriptures. The first word is “Datta” (“given”), the second is “Dayadhvam” (“compassion”), and the third is “Damyata” (“control”). In this three-part message from the natural world, which tells of God’s gifts of compassion and self-control, the speaker finally finds cause for “peace”—the “shantih” of the closing line.
First published: 1943
Type of work: Poem
The speaker meditates on his own life, the passing of time, and his own relation to God and to other human beings, living and dead.
Perhaps the best way to approach the Four Quartets is to view it as Eliot’s spiritual autobiography. This long work is by far the poet’s most personal poem. In it, he drops the many masks of his earlier verse—Prufrock or the multiple speakers of The Waste Land—and meditates on the meaning of life and God. The poem is divided into four sections, the “quartets” of the title: “Burnt Norton,” the name of an English country house with a memorable garden; “East Coker,” the village from which Eliot’s English ancestors left for the New World; “The Dry Salvages,” a group of small islands off the New England coast, to which Eliot would sail as a young man; and “Little Gidding,” the name of a religious community led by Nicholas Ferrar, a seventeenth century Christian mystic.
Much of the language in this poem is undramatic, abstract, and philosophical. In fact, it is important to remember that Eliot was trained as a philosopher, so that when he uses common words such as “time” or “future,” he has thought carefully about a very particular definition. As the poem makes clear, for Eliot “time” was not at all a vague concept.
“Burnt Norton” opens, as did The Waste Land, with a memory of childhood, although this time the memory is Eliot’s own. He recalls a garden where children played hide-and-seek. The surroundings are calm, quiet, and lovely—like the memories themselves. The following parts of this first section approach the passage of time in different ways: the change of seasons as it is charted by the movement of constellations, the “still point” of religious illumination and its contrast with the “internal darkness” of worldly life, and the struggle to capture time and eternity in words (Eliot’s own struggle as a poet).
Eliot imagines an older kind of time in “East Coker,” the poem’s second section. This is rural time, the cycle of the seasons in planting and harvest. Because the farming village of East Coker is also in Eliot’s own past, as the place of his forebears, it represents historical time as well. In the section’s third stanza, he pictures what an old country festival might have been like before the Eliots departed for America. When he looks at what his ancestors have bequeathed him, however, he feels deceived. He had hoped that their heritage would teach him how to grow old gracefully, but as he looks forward into old age, he sees only death—his own and that of others, no matter how powerful or famous. Thus he struggles to come to terms with the darkness. Words, he knows, cannot encompass death. He counsels himself to have patience, neither to hope nor to strive. Most of all, he realizes that he needs to put himself under the care of the “wounded surgeon,” a figure for Christ. Dying repentant, Eliot believes, is the only true life.
“The Dry Salvages,” the third section, comprises two memories of Eliot’s youth: the rhythm of the Mississippi River in his St. Louis boyhood and the sounds of the Atlantic Ocean near his family’s summerhouse. The river and the sea are “gods,” living beings that modern people have ignored—perhaps to their peril. His thoughts turn to New England fishermen, constantly fighting the elements, waiting to return to land. He draws a parallel between these men, cast on the harsh rhythms of the ocean, and his readers. They, too, are set on a voyage whose end cannot be known. They are not the same people who left port, for every moment they are changing. Like the sea, everything around the reader is unstable and flowing. Just as individuals are incessantly losing their past selves, so they are unable to see through the mists of the future. Memory remains their only reality, unless they attain the timelessness of the saint.
“Little Gidding,” the last section, hints at an answer to Eliot’s perplexity with the many kinds of time—human, natural, and divine. As he sits in a old English chapel, he hears a “Calling.” Through Love, human beings are redeemed, and through death, they are mysteriously born again.
In an October 1957 letter to a friend who had recommended he read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “Although I don’t feel that it’s at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I’ll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in sudden outbursts of frustrated violence. . . .”
Thompson carved out his niche early. He was born in 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky, where his fiction and poetry earned him induction into the local Athenaeum Literary Association while he was still in high school. Thompson continued his literary pursuits in the United States Air Force, writing a weekly sports column for the base newspaper. After two years of service, Thompson endured a series of newspaper jobs—all of which ended badly—before he took to freelancing from Puerto Rico and South America for a variety of publications. The vocation quickly developed into a compulsion.
Thompson completed The Rum Diary, his only novel to date, before he turned twenty-five; bought by Ballantine Books, it finally was published—to glowing reviews—in 1998. In 1967, Thompson published his first nonfiction book, Hell’s Angels, a harsh and incisive firsthand investigation into the infamous motorcycle gang then making the heartland of America nervous.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which first appeared in Rolling Stone in November 1971, sealed Thompson’s reputation as an outlandish stylist successfully straddling the line between journalism and fiction writing. As the subtitle warns, the book tells of “a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream” in full-tilt gonzo style—Thompson’s hilarious first-person approach—and is accented by British illustrator Ralph Steadman’s appropriate drawings.
His next book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, was a brutally perceptive take on the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign. A self-confessed political junkie, Thompson chronicled the 1992 presidential campaign in Better than Sex (1994). Thompson’s other books include The Curse of Lono (1983), a bizarre South Seas tale, and three collections of Gonzo Papers: The Great Shark Hunt (1979), Generation of Swine (1988) and Songs of the Doomed (1990).
In 1997, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, the first volume of Thompson’s correspondence with everyone from his mother to Lyndon Johnson, was published. The second volume of letters, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976, has just been released.
Located in the mostly posh neighborhood of western Colorado’s Woody Creek Canyon, ten miles or so down-valley from Aspen, Owl Farm is a rustic ranch with an old-fashioned Wild West charm. Although Thompson’s beloved peacocks roam his property freely, it’s the flowers blooming around the ranch house that provide an unexpected high-country tranquility. Jimmy Carter, George McGovern and Keith Richards, among dozens of others, have shot clay pigeons and stationary targets on the property, which is a designated Rod and Gun Club and shares a border with the White River National Forest. Almost daily, Thompson leaves Owl Farm in either his Great Red Shark Convertible or Jeep Grand Cherokee to mingle at the nearby Woody Creek Tavern.
Visitors to Thompson’s house are greeted by a variety of sculptures, weapons, boxes of books and a bicycle before entering the nerve center of Owl Farm, Thompson’s obvious command post on the kitchen side of a peninsula counter that separates him from a lounge area dominated by an always-on Panasonic TV, always tuned to news or sports. An antique upright piano is piled high and deep enough with books to engulf any reader for a decade. Above the piano hangs a large Ralph Steadman portrait of “Belinda”—the Slut Goddess of Polo. On another wall covered with political buttons hangs a Che Guevara banner acquired on Thompson’s last tour of Cuba. On the counter sits an IBM Selectric typewriter—a Macintosh computer is set up in an office in the back wing of the house.
The most striking thing about Thompson’s house is that it isn’t the weirdness one notices first: it’s the words. They’re everywhere—handwritten in his elegant lettering, mostly in fading red Sharpie on the blizzard of bits of paper festooning every wall and surface: stuck to the sleek black leather refrigerator, taped to the giant TV, tacked up on the lampshades; inscribed by others on framed photos with lines like, “For Hunter, who saw not only fear and loathing, but hope and joy in ’72—George McGovern”; typed in IBM Selectric on reams of originals and copies in fat manila folders that slide in piles off every counter and table top; and noted in many hands and inks across the endless flurry of pages.
Thompson extricates his large frame from his ergonomically correct office chair facing the TV and lumbers over graciously to administer a hearty handshake or kiss to each caller according to gender, all with an easy effortlessness and unexpectedly old-world way that somehow underscores just who is in charge.
We talked with Thompson for twelve hours straight. This was nothing out of the ordinary for the host: Owl Farm operates like an eighteenth-century salon, where people from all walks of life congregate in the wee hours for free exchanges about everything from theoretical physics to local water rights, depending on who’s there. Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time, was present during parts of this interview, as were a steady stream of friends. Given the very late hours Thompson keeps, it is fitting that the most prominently posted quote in the room, in Thompson’s hand, twists the last line of Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”: “Rage, rage against the coming of the light.”
For most of the half-day that we talked, Thompson sat at his command post, chain-smoking red Dunhills through a German-made gold-tipped cigarette filter and rocking back and forth in his swivel chair. Behind Thompson’s sui generis personality lurks a trenchant humorist with a sharp moral sensibility. His exaggerated style may defy easy categorization, but his career-long autopsy on the death of the American dream places him among the twentieth century’s most exciting writers. The comic savagery of his best work will continue to electrify readers for generations to come.
. . . I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than from anything else in the English Language—and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.
HUNTER S. THOMPSON
Well, wanting to and having to are two different things. Originally I hadn’t thought about writing as a solution to my problems. But I had a good grounding in literature in high school. We’d cut school and go down to a café on Bardstown Road where we would drink beer and read and discuss Plato’s parable of the cave. We had a literary society in town, the Athenaeum; we met in coat and tie on Saturday nights. I hadn’t adjusted too well to society—I was in jail for the night of my high school graduation—but I learned at the age of fifteen that to get by you had to find the one thing you can do better than anybody else . . . at least this was so in my case. I figured that out early. It was writing. It was the rock in my sock. Easier than algebra. It was always work, but it was always worthwhile work. I was fascinated early by seeing my byline in print. It was a rush. Still is.
When I got to the Air Force, writing got me out of trouble. I was assigned to pilot training at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola in northwest Florida, but I was shifted to electronics . . . advanced, very intense, eight-month school with bright guys . . . I enjoyed it but I wanted to get back to pilot training. Besides, I’m afraid of electricity. So I went up there to the base education office one day and signed up for some classes at Florida State. I got along well with a guy named Ed and I asked him about literary possibilities. He asked me if I knew anything about sports, and I said that I had been the editor of my high-school paper. He said, “Well, we might be in luck.” It turned out that the sports editor of the base newspaper, a staff sergeant, had been arrested in Pensacola and put in jail for public drunkenness, pissing against the side of a building; it was the third time and they wouldn’t let him out.
So I went to the base library and found three books on journalism. I stayed there reading them until it closed. Basic journalism. I learned about headlines, leads: who, when, what, where, that sort of thing. I barely slept that night. This was my ticket to ride, my ticket to get out of that damn place. So I started as an editor. Boy, what a joy. I wrote long Grantland Rice-type stories. The sports editor of my hometown Louisville Courier Journal always had a column, left-hand side of the page. So I started a column.
By the second week I had the whole thing down. I could work at night. I wore civilian clothes, worked off base, had no hours, but I worked constantly. I wrote not only for the base paper, The Command Courier, but also the local paper, The Playground News. I’d put things in the local paper that I couldn’t put in the base paper. Really inflammatory shit. I wrote for a professional wrestling newsletter. The Air Force got very angry about it. I was constantly doing things that violated regulations. I wrote a critical column about how Arthur Godfrey, who’d been invited to the base to be the master of ceremonies at a firepower demonstration, had been busted for shooting animals from the air in Alaska. The base commander told me: “Goddamn it, son, why did you have to write about Arthur Godfrey that way?”
When I left the Air Force I knew I could get by as a journalist. So I went to apply for a job at Sports Illustrated. I had my clippings, my bylines, and I thought that was magic . . . my passport. The personnel director just laughed at me. I said, “Wait a minute. I’ve been sports editor for two papers.” He told me that their writers were judged not by the work they’d done, but where they’d done it. He said, “Our writers are all Pulitzer Prize winners from The New York Times. This is a helluva place for you to start. Go out into the boondocks and improve yourself.”
I was shocked. After all, I’d broken the Bart Starr story.
What was that?
At Eglin Air Force Base we always had these great football teams. The Eagles. Championship teams. We could beat up on the University of Virginia. Our bird-colonel Sparks wasn’t just any yo-yo coach. We recruited. We had these great players serving their military time in ROTC. We had Zeke Bratkowski, the Green Bay quarterback. We had Max McGee of the Packers. Violent, wild, wonderful drunk. At the start of the season McGee went AWOL, appeared at the Green Bay camp and he never came back. I was somehow blamed for his leaving. The sun fell out of the firmament. Then the word came that we were getting Bart Starr, the All-American from Alabama. The Eagles were going to roll! But then the staff sergeant across the street came in and said, “I’ve got a terrible story for you. Bart Starr’s not coming.” I managed to break into an office and get out his files. I printed the order that showed he was being discharged medically. Very serious leak.
The Bart Starr story was not enough to impress Sports Illustrated?
The personnel guy there said, “Well, we do have this trainee program.” So I became a kind of copy boy.
You eventually ended up in San Francisco. With the publication in 1967 of Hell’s Angels, your life must have taken an upward spin.
All of a sudden I had a book out. At the time I was twenty-nine years old and I couldn’t even get a job driving a cab in San Francisco, much less writing. Sure, I had written important articles for The Nation and The Observer, but only a few good journalists really knew my byline. The book enabled me to buy a brand new BSA 650 Lightning, the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine. It validated everything I had been working toward. If Hell’s Angels hadn’t happened I never would have been able to write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or anything else. To be able to earn a living as a freelance writer in this country is damned hard; there are very few people who can do that. Hell’s Angels all of a sudden proved to me that, Holy Jesus, maybe I can do this. I knew I was a good journalist. I knew I was a good writer, but I felt like I got through a door just as it was closing.
With the swell of creative energy flowing throughout the San Francisco scene at the time, did you interact with or were you influenced by any other writers?
Ken Kesey for one. His novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion had quite an impact on me. I looked up to him hugely. One day I went down to the television station to do a roundtable show with other writers, like Kay Boyle, and Kesey was there. Afterwards we went across the street to a local tavern and had several beers together. I told him about the Angels, who I planned to meet later that day, and I said, “Well, why don’t you come along?” He said, “Whoa, I’d like to meet these guys.” Then I got second thoughts, because it’s never a good idea to take strangers along to meet the Angels. But I figured that this was Ken Kesey, so I’d try. By the end of the night Kesey had invited them all down to La Honda, his woodsy retreat outside of San Francisco. It was a time of extreme turbulence—riots in Berkeley. He was always under assault by the police—day in and day out, so La Honda was like a war zone. But he had a lot of the literary, intellectual crowd down there, Stanford people also, visiting editors, and Hell’s Angels. Kesey’s place was a real cultural vortex.