Gregory Borchard is an associate professor in the Hank Greenspun College of Journalism and Media Studies at UNLV. He is teaching a course this fall focusing on the late writer Hunter S. Thompson, who reinvented modern journalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s by forcefully writing himself into the narratives of American political and cultural life — a style that a colleague called “gonzo journalism.” One of Thompson’s best-known and best-loved books was his examination of America through the prism of events in and around Las Vegas during assignments for Rolling Stone magazine in 1971. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream cemented Thompson’s reputation as a new kind of writer and counterculture warrior — and although Las Vegas was described in distinctly negative ways, it also firmly established a link between the city in the desert and the gonzo journalist.
Who are you and why are you interested in Hunter Thompson?
I grew up in the first half of my life in Minnesota, Minneapolis, out in the suburbs. I went to school in Florida for my Ph.D, and wound up having [Thompson biographer] Bill McKeen as my advisor there. I hadn’t thought too seriously about Hunter Thompson as a serious writer until them, but the lifestyle in Florida seemed to have a natural connection to Thompson’s life.
My own personal interest? I love the style more than anything. The lifestyle is fun and crazy and breaks all the rules, but what a lot of people forget is that he was just able to write cleanly, clearly and well.
Tell us about some of your guest speakers.
[UNLV Greenspun School Assistant Director] Paul Traudt. We’ve talked about Thompson over the years. He’s a baby boomer who was active in the same kind of scene that Thompson was active in. He’s going to give sort of the cultural perspective, set the tone for what America was like in the 1970s.
Next would be Michael Green, who is the Nevada history expert. I contacted him to make sure that students didn’t leave the class thinking Las Vegas was a big drug pit in the 1970s. Then the final speaker who is on deck would be Bill McKeen (chairman of the journalism department at Boston University). He’s got a cult following. He’s done a lot of work on that era. He’s written about Bob Dylan and the Beatles as well as Thompson.
Hunter Thompson is obviously central to the class, but you’ll examine other journalists and writers too. What other writers will you be looking at?
[Danish-American social reformer] Jacob Riis, the muckraker who took photos of the Five Points area [of New York City] in the 1880s. It illustrates the American dream, or lack thereof.
Part of Thompson’s thesis was about Horatio Alger (a 19th-century writer who promoted the idea that young men could succeed in America with hard work, grit and honesty), and the idea that Las Vegas was the antithesis of the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story. [Abolitionist] Frederick Douglass and [African-American journalist and suffragette] Ida Wells.
A few years ago, going to a rock and roll concert in Las Vegas, we saw multiple iterations of Hunter Thompson in the crowd, a clearly deliberate homage. How did he get to be so closely identified with our city?
One of the guys who I ran around with in Florida came out to visit last year. It would have been Thompson’s 75th birthday, and we said, just for kicks, lets go out to Circus Circus and find the merry-go-round (the casino’s Carousel Bar, which featured prominently in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and which closed last year). When we got there, we realized that there was another group. We weren’t the only ones there. All of us recognized what we were doing there.
[Las Vegas] was more of a symbolic location for what [Thompson] was trying to say. The entire American experience at the time had sort of bottomed out … Las Vegas was a good place to describe that, with the casinos and the machines. The idea of putting a dollar in the machine and making a million dollars is the exact opposite of the American dream, the idea that you have to work for it.
[Las Vegas] certainly is the place that people associate with him.
Hunter Thompson is, for some, a champion of drug and alcohol abuse. Any concern that your students, or outsiders, might view the class as an endorsement of a dangerous lifestyle?
I was concerned about that. … I would say to them, Look, if you think Thompson’s book is simply a glorification of the lifestyle, you’re dead wrong. He would say so, too.
If you miss the story and the style in the book in exchange for just the hallucinations, you miss the whole point. That’s not why he put it together. Thompson’s family members — they want him to be remembered as a great wordsmith, not as a whacked lunatic on mescaline.
It’s been eight years since Hunter Thompson took his own life. What has happened to Thompson’s legacy and journalistic contributions since 2005?
It has grown. He will have a spot in the history books. Strangely enough, he will be more and more sort of canonized, but there’s also been an increased amount of scrutiny, too. There’s a camp that’s more and more leery and skeptical of the whole approach that he took, not just the drugs, but the nihilism, too. … It’s hard to measure the real contribution to journalism. Maybe we won’t know for generations.
Despite his deserved reputation as a drug and alcohol abuser, Thompson was quite critical of the Summer of Love generation for getting high while abandoning the political convictions of the New Left and the artistic aspirations of the Beats. What would he think of today’s generation of college students?
Thompson probably would see two sides of this generation. They’re in a tough spot. This generation specifically, the gang coming out of college in the past three or four years, has had it about as rough as anything that we’ve seen since the Great Depression. But he would probably also see the shallow and stupid of our time, the video games and reality television.
He would appreciate the difficulty and the challenges currently facing folks younger than you and me, but at the same time I doubt that he would see much room for hope. It’s really tough to be optimistic, especially these days. I don’t think Thompson would be optimistic at all.
Some, perhaps most, of your students could be considering careers in journalism. What can they take from this class and apply to the real world?
The style, their own style, the chance to get their voice, at least a chance to practice it, more than the technical aspects. Also, historically, to try to put the development of media and journalism into a larger context. The American dream has something to do with it. They need to know that it’s there, it’s a myth that was really popular a hundred years ago, and that it’s been written about and critiqued since then, and it’s still there. It’s a theme, a heavy one, that keeps emerging. They have to understand what it is, for their jobs and for their personal lives, too.
Is gonzo journalism, as a counterweight to establishment journalism, even necessary in a world in which anyone with an attitude can post a blog, tweets, Facebook posts, you name it?
That’s another class altogether. It’s a conversation we’ve been having for a number of years around here: How do you compete with this stuff? Why are we even bothering to teach the traditional means of journalism? Print is on the way out. What’s next?
I think gonzo is part of it. Maybe this class fits a role, in that it is about a way of doing things. There are other ways of doing things, too. The successful bloggers out there aren’t completely making it up. Credibility is still important. This is one class out of many that might help students find their niche in a world that has a whole lot of niches.
Part of it is about how to establish a voice, a voice worth listening to. How do you do that? You rely on some of the same techniques you’ve used all along. You have to write cleanly and clearly.
You have to write well. … Even gonzo has some structure to it.