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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as Literature

Hunter S Thompson is emblematic of the increasing individualism and the rise of the ‘rebel’ in the 1960s.

At first glance, Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas does not seem to be something worthy of studying in a literature course. His gonzo journalism is simply an account of crazy people on drugs doing shady things. There seems to be little clear objective and a lack of a straightforward plotline. The drug use or criminal activity depicted isn’t really connected to any social movement of the ‘60s.

On the other hand, Thompson’s work is emblematic of something in American culture that has been well-known ever since the ‘60s. Thompson is the typical rebel, the typical outlaw. An extremely individualistic man, he pushes the limits of what is considered acceptable in society with his heavy use of drugs and fascination with guns, rejecting all authority and sense of moral order. This highly individualistic ‘rebel’ ideal, not being controlled by anyone or listening to anyone, is something quintessentially American that really began to take root in the ‘60s with the countercultural movement.

In the 1960s, America became less of a society in which consensus prevailed, and more of a society in which individuals with radically different beliefs, ethics, and morals all collided and coexisted. America became a more divided country, a more diverse country, and a more individualistic and less communitarian country. The ‘50s were the decade of the perfect Norman Rockwell portraits of middle America, the decade of a strong middle class, a baby boom, wide-ranging post-war consensus on politics and religion, the growth of suburbia and the nuclear family, and a general anti-communist attitude. Those who didn’t fit into the typical American ethic were unwelcome in society. Communists and radicals were blacklisted. Homosexuality, drug use, and pornography were all taboo and driven underground. We were conformists. The ‘60s changed all of that. With the civil rights movement, protests against the Vietnam War, the women’s rights movement, the sexual revolution, new types of music, supreme court rulings protecting individual rights and limiting the rights of law enforcement, and a rise in drugs and crime, America was radically changed. We were no longer a conformist society where everyone fit into a common ethic, but we were instead a very individualistic society where individuals had the freedom to do what they wanted, and push social norms farther.

Hunter S. Thompson’s writing really reflects this shift. His heavy drug use, profanity, and obsession with guns reflect an increasing tolerance, acceptance, and popularity of the ‘immoral’ outlaw, a person who rejects the norms of society and does what they want. His disdain for authority, whether the police, Nixon, the war, or “big money” also shows strong individualism and an anti-establishment attitude. Rather than trying to be a moral person untainted by scandal who peacefully resists authority to stand up for what he believes, in the vein of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Hunter Thompson just is who he is, and speaks his mind freely. Despite his drug use, shady activities, craziness, and interest in violence, Hunter Thompson is a likable guy. He speaks what he thinks and is not in the hands of anyone, a trait that post-1960s individualistic America has always appreciated. He appreciates other rebels who pushed social norms, like Muhammad Ali. This is why he is worthy of study in a 1960s literature course.