Fans of H. L. Mencken, the original bad boy of American journalism, argue endlessly about the details of his life and work, but few would disagree on this point: There will never be another like him.
But, as Baltimore prepares to celebrate Mencken Day -- its iconoclastic son was born 122 years ago Thursday -- the truth must be faced. There is, and has been, another Mencken. He's the outlaw journalist of our era -- Hunter S. Thompson.
Comparing the erudite Mencken to a drug-addled madman like Thompson may leave scores of Menckenites sputtering into their coffee. Blasphemy! But consider.
In the 1920's and '30s, as a reporter and columnist for Baltimore's Evening Sun and literary critic for New York magazines, Mencken towered over American journalism -- railing at Puritans and Babbitts, thumbing his nose at Prohibition and writing outlandishly about every-thing from the Scopes Trial to the "imbecilities" of Roosevelt's New Deal. Interest in his work never wanes, with another major biography coming out in November (sneak preview: It's terrific).
Flash forward 50 years and there is Thompson, the new enfant terrible, with a persona to match his times. He was a prankster run amok, reveling in the culture of booze and drugs as he pursued the outrageous craft he called Gonzo Journalism everywhere the American Dream could be chronicled, from the Kentucky Derby to the presidential campaign. His memoir, Kingdom of Fear, is due out in December.
Scoff if you will, but this much can't be denied. Barely two years after Mencken's death, his ghost appeared in Thompson's fervid imaginings.
In December 1957, when Thompson was starting out as sports editor of the Jersey Shore Herald, he wrote a rollicking letter to a friend recounting a cynical daydream about the godforsaken town where he worked. In it, Thompson has Mencken mock the place as "enough to make a man pray for a plague of maggots."
Thompson's two books of letters -- The Proud Highway (1997) and Fear and Loathing in America (2000) -- show that Mencken was much on Thompson's mind as he found his way in journalism. He devoured Mencken's collected works and began to quote and mimic him. Thompson fell under the spell of many writers as he worked to develop his own style -- chiefly F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
He was so entranced by them that, like a young painter copying a Rembrandt, Thompson typed out every word of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms. The editor of his letters, Douglas Brinkley, believes Thompson's journalism was most influenced by George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, an account of slumming with low-lifers in two cities.
But a close reading of Thompson and Mencken -- along with a study of his letters -- makes it unequivocal: It was Mencken who inhabited Thompson's consciousness from the moment he set out in journalism.
Casual comparisons of the two writers are hardly uncommon. Book critics are fond of referring to Thompson as an acid-headed Mencken, or the like. But delving more deeply into their work shows how close Thompson comes to being Mencken reincarnate.
The underpinnings of everything Thompson came to stand for as a journalist -- his commitment to "total subjectivity," his insistence on making himself a character at the heart of his stories, even aspects of his style -- are found in Mencken.
By the time he set out to write his classic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Thompson had established his persona as the larger-than-life agent provocateur of the press corps, spewing invective and stalking his mortal enemy, Richard Nixon.
Hounding the enemy
Whether contrived or spontaneous, Thompson's persona was not unlike Mencken's when he showed up in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925 to cover what he had famously dubbed "The Monkey Trial," in which teacher John T. Scopes was accused of violating state law by teaching evolution instead of the Biblical story of Genesis.
Mencken arrived in Tennessee as something of an outlaw journalist himself, having already published his scathing essay "The Sahara of the Bozart," describing the American south as "almost as sterile artistically, intellectually, culturally as the Sahara Desert."
His coverage of the Scopes Trial and its immediate aftermath provides a convenient case study of how Mencken's work inspired Thompson's Gonzo Journalism -- starting with the notion of reporter-as-character. Mencken was so much a character in the Scopes trial that he would be a central figure in Inherit the Wind, a play written about those two weeks in Tennessee, just as Thompson would be the inspiration for the character Duke in Garry Trudeau's comic strip "Doonesbury."
In fact, Mencken covered the trial for the same reason Thompson dove into the '72 presidential campaign -- the chance to take on his nemesis, William Jennings Bryan. Mencken decided to go to Dayton only after learning that Bryan -- the Fundamentalist preacher, presidential candidate and lawyer he had hounded throughout his career -- would be there to help prosecute Scopes.
Before the trial began, Mencken had The Evening Sun post Scopes' bail, and he met with defense lawyers, including Clarence Darrow, to plot strategy. It was Mencken's idea to put Bryan on the stand and make him, not Scopes, the focus of the trial. On the stand, in perhaps the case's most memorable moment, Bryan rejected the idea that man is a mammal, giving Mencken the grist he needed to ridicule the aging warrior.
While he did not acknowledge it in his Evening Sun dispatches, revealing it only later in his memoir Heathen Days, Mencken also thrust himself into the story the moment he arrived in Dayton. As a prank, he whispered to a town clergyman -- one T.T. Martin -- that Bolsheviks from Cincinnati were plotting to come to Dayton and dispatch Bryan.
His July 15 report about the ensuing flap noted only that news of the Bolshevik threat had come to Martin, who "first warned Bryan and then complained to the police. The latter were instantly agog. Guards were posted at strategic centers and watch was kept upon all strangers of sinister appearance."
From his first dispatch, Mencken also made it clear, as it was in nearly every story he ever filed, that his approach to the Scopes trial would be what Thompson later described as a fundamental tenet of Gonzo Journalism -- total subjectivity. Mencken's first report on June 15, headlined "The Tennessee Circus," lambasted the "Ku Klux Klergy" behind the prosecution of Scopes.
"I rejoice that they have forced the fighting, and plan to do it in the open," he crowed. "My prediction is that when the peanut shells are swept up at last and the hot-dog men go home, millions of honest minds in this great republic, hitherto uncontaminated by the slightest doubt, will have learned to regard parts of Genesis as they now regard the history of Andrew Gump," a well-known comic strip character of that era.
Mencken's most famous story from the trial -- a July 13 dispatch later recast as "The Hills of Zion" -- displayed another trait central to Gonzo Journalism. For Mencken, and Thompson after him, the story was never the who, what, when, where, why and how of classical journalism. It was the great human carnival, the otherwise unrecorded background noise of high-profile events like the Monkey Trial or a presidential campaign.
In Dayton, Mencken found the real story on a steamy July night when he drove into the hills to take a first-hand look at a Holy Roller service unfolding in a mountain cornfield under a light strung from the branch of a towering oak tree -- a scene of "barbaric grotesquerie" that spoke volumes about why Tennessee lawmakers had their hands around the throat of the "infidel Scopes."
Thompson had begun reading Mencken in 1956, the year the 76-year-old journalist died at his home in West Baltimore. At the time, Thompson was a young airman working as sports editor of the Command Courier, the newspaper of Elgin Air Force Base in Florida. What he loved most about the job was his "Spectator" column.
"Each week," he wrote to a friend in October 1956, "I come closer and closer to libel, slander and calumny. This week's 'Spectator' will raise much hell, I'm sure -- but that's just the way the ball bounces. If H.L. Mencken could do it, then so can I."
Until his approach was cemented with the publication in 1971 of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson struggled with what it meant to be a journalist. He despised much of what he read in the press. "Newspapermen have become a breed of useless hacks and gossip-mongers," he wrote to author William J. Kennedy.
But the truth is that in his early years, Thompson pursued a fairly traditional approach to reporting. "The only way to attempt journalism," he wrote to a friend in April 1964, "is to assume you know nothing at the start, and then only write what you find evidence to support -- along with the evidence, so neither the editor nor the reader is forced to take your word for it."
Even as he wrote those words, another thought was creeping into his mind. "Personal Journalism," he wrote to the same friend barely three weeks later, "is the wave of the future. Art is passe, and so is The New York Times." Over the next five years, spurred on by a magazine assignment that would turn into the career-making book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, Thompson came to his conclusions about what that idea meant.
In a June 1971 letter to Jim Silberman, his editor at Random House, Thompson got to the bottom line: "What I'm talking about, in essence, is the mechanical Reality of Gonzo Journalism ... or Total Subjectivity, as opposed to the bogus demands of objectivity."
It is impossible to miss echoes of Mencken in the early works that put Thompson on the map as a writer, especially his 1970 piece for Scanlon's Monthly titled "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved."
Thompson began that piece with a scene in the bar at the Louisville airport, where he met a visitor from Houston named "Jimbo" and let him in on a secret. Thompson said he was on assignment for Playboy to take pictures of a riot the Black Panthers were plotting on Derby Day.
Shades of Bolsheviks in Dayton!
More tellingly, Thompson's interest was not in covering the horse race. He wanted to expose the truth about the hideous scenes that unfold on Derby Day among the rabble in the infield and Kentucky Colonels in the Paddock bar -- exactly the sort of "barbaric grotesquerie" Mencken set out to uncover among the Holy Rollers in Tennessee.
There would be other evidence of Mencken in Gonzo Journalism, none more striking than Thompson's use of Richard Nixon as a foil. Just as Mencken made a career out of bashing Bryan -- and later Franklin D. Roosevelt -- Thompson's fame grew exponentially from his bouts with Nixon.
Beyond the kinship of their reporting, Mencken and Thompson share stylistic characteristics -- namely a voice defined by invective, the hallmark of which is using trademark pejoratives over and over to bludgeon their subjects. In Mencken, the politicos of the day are charlatans, mountebanks, or zanies dispensing buncombe to the booboisie. In Thompson, they are vile, treacherous, swine defiling the American Dream.
Nowhere is Mencken's presence in Thompson's work more vividly on display than in the obituaries of their life-long enemies -- Mencken's "In Memoriam: WJB" and Thompson's "Chapter 666: The Death of Richard Nixon" (see story below). Both open with a savage blast. Both build to a merciless final assessment. Both make a mockery of those who, following convention, found something nice to say about the departed. Even the cadence of the writing is remarkably similar.
Anyone who doubts that Mencken was Thompson's literary progenitor need only read these obituaries side by side -- preferably aloud. They make the case eloquently.
Truth in fiction
None of the techniques that made these journalists famous would be acceptable today in any mainstream newspaper. But thanks largely to Mencken being reborn in Thompson, they are a mainstay of in-your-face magazines and outsider journalism.
But, as important as Mencken's influence on Thompson was, it would be unjust not to emphasize the magnitude of Thompson's creativity and talent. He took Mencken's foundation and built something that approaches performance art.
He carried the notion of reporter-as-character farther than Mencken ever did. The Derby story, for example, is built around his search for one face that displayed the consequences of decadence -- a "symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is." The morning after the race, Thompson stumbled out of bed in his hotel room, looked in the mirror and discovered that the face he'd been searching for was his own.
He also took Mencken's penchant for exaggeration to make a point and made the leap to combining fiction and journalism. "Gonzo," Thompson wrote, "is a style of 'reporting' based on William Faulkner's idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism."
And, finally, Thompson added his own ideas to the mix, most importantly that readers should experience Gonzo as the writer did. He took them into the moment by dropping into his pieces passages of unfiltered notes. He even left instructions for reading Gonzo: "Read straight thru, at high speed, from start to finish, in a large room full of speakers, amplifiers & other appropriate sound equipment. There should also be a large fire in the room, preferably in an open fireplace & raging almost out of control. The mind & body must be subjected to extreme stimulus by means of drugs & music."
But Thompson, unlike Mencken, always dreamed of being something more than a journalist. In the 1960s, he set out to write the next Great American Novel, a book he called The Rum Diary. It was never published until journalism had made him famous. Thompson's letters are infused with an undercurrent of sadness about his failure to make a mark as a novelist, a sense of regret that he never became what he declared himself to be in a 1957 letter to a girlfriend -- the "new Fitzgerald."
The pity of it is that he seems never to have appreciated having become the new Mencken.
NEVER LET THE ENEMY REST IN PEACE
Nothing illustrates Mencken's influence on Thompson more vividly than their obituaries of lifelong enemies -- William Jennings Bryan and Richard Milhous Nixon.
Begin with the sledgehammer openings:
Mencken: "Has it been duly marked by historians that William Jennings Bryan's last secular act on this globe of sin was to catch flies? A curious detail, and not without its sardonic overtones. He was the most sedulous fly-catcher in American history, and in many ways the most successful. His quarry, of course, was not Musca domestica, but Homo neanderthalis. For forty years he tracked it with coo and bellow, up and down the rustic backways of the Republic."
Thompson: "Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am the poorer for it. He was the real thing -- a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in heaven and hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that "I know I'm going to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon."
Conclude with the brutal final assessment:
Mencken: "It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the barnyard."
Thompson: "If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin."
KINSHIP OF PEJORATIVES
Mencken and Thompson both peppered their writing with stock vocabularies of pejoratives, used mostly to bludgeon their subjects.
Fear & Loathing