10 Life Lessons We Can Learn From The Writing Of Hunter S. Thompson

Who doesn’t like Hunter S. Thompson? Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is right up there with the Bible for many university students and young journalists, who idolize the excessive lifestyle of alcohol, drinks and general recklessness that Thompson lived, which unfortunately ended with his suicide in 2005 at the age of 67. Recently the first trailers and movie poster for the The Rum Diary debuted, which is based on the author’s novel of the same title and stars Johnny Depp as a boozehound journalist on assignment in Puerto Rico (loosely based on Thompson’s own experiences). In celebration of the film, here are ten life lessons we’ve learned from Thompson’s literary canon.

1. Drugs are bad.

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)

Arguably one of the most famous opening passages of any novel, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas is more effective as an anti-drug PSA than those lame monthly presentations they gave when you were in high school. 

2. Some drugs are worse than others.

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge, and I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)

Okay fine, you can smoke weed. Just stay away from the hard stuff, otherwise you’ll end up like Fear and Loathing‘s protagonist Raoul Duke’s attorney Dr. Gonzo, screaming for someone to throw a radio into a bath tub while the water is running.

3. Drink in moderation.

Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By mid-afternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races. The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It’s hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped. Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines.

– “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” (June 1970)

When he wasn’t writing, it was well-documented that Thompson routinely enjoyed four Bloody Marys, two margaritas and six lines of cocaine as part of his daily breakfast, but he balanced it out with two grapefruits, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon, a slice of key lime pie and eggs benedict. The lesson here? Everything in moderation.

4. Don’t get involved with motorcycle gangs.

The hard core, the outlaw elite, were the Hell’s Angels… wearing the winged death’s-head on the back of their sleeveless jackets and packing their “mamas” behind them on big “chopped hogs.” They rode with a fine unwashed arrogance, secure in their reputation as the rottenest motorcycle gang in the whole history of Christendom.

Hell’s Angels (1967)

Remember when your mother told you not to run away with a motorcycle gang? If you didn’t believe her it was a bad idea, just read Thompson’s account of running with the Hell’s Angels in California, which doesn’t shy away from details of the group’s more unsavory and illegal activities.

5. Some politicians are really, really corrupt.

Richard Nixon has never been one of my favorite people anyway. For years I’ve regarded his existence as a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad.

Pageant (July 1968)

Thompson covered a lot of politicians and political campaigns during his lifetime, so he witnessed firsthand the dark side of American politics on many occasions. No writer was more outspoken about Nixon, and even though he slowed down writing towards the end of his life, Thompson wrote several columns highlighting his disgust and outrage over George W. Bush’s presidency.

6. Too much television will rot your brain.

The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.

Generation of Swine (1988)

Thompson, a print journalist through and through, did not care for the gloss and pageantry of the television business. He’s probably turning in his grave right now at the thought of Jersey Shore.

7. Music makes the world go around.

Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of fuel. Sentimental people call it inspiration, but what they really mean is fuel. I have always needed fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.

Kingdom of Fear (2004)

Even though he wrote most frequently for Rolling Stone, Thompson didn’t contribute music articles, though he enjoyed listening to a variety of artists including Warren Zevon, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan.

8. War never solves anything.

The TV news was about the Laos Invasion – a series of horrifying disasters: explosions and twisted wreckage, men fleeing in terror, Pentagon generals babbling insane lies.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)

Or to quote Edwin Starr, “War/ What is it good for/ Absolutely nothing.”

9. Perseverance will get you everywhere.

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

– “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl” (Rolling Stone, February 1974)

They should make motivational posters with this slogan on it.

10. If all else fails, move to Puerto Rico.

It was the kind of town that made you feel like Humphrey Bogart: you came in on a bumpy little plane, and, for some mysterious reason, got a private room with a balcony overlooking the town and the harbor; then you sat there and drank until something happened. I felt a tremendous distance between me and everything real.

The Rum Diary (1998) TC mark

image – MDCArchives

More From Thought Catalog

  • http://fwp.me Calvin Camus

    Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas wasn’t about getting fucked up in the desert; it was about the decline of the American dream, a subject that is more relevant than ever.

    ” Frankly, I have no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left me.” – HST

  • http://thefirstchurchofmutterhals.blogspot.com/ mutterhals

    Number seven forever.

  • jus ben hones

    This is nice because Hunter is one of the best writers there ever was. You, however, have a long way to go.

  • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

    Maybe I’m just exceptionally burnt out, but I only feel like paying attention to #10.

    Also – SIX lines in the morning? What the hell did he inhale for lunch?

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  • Filmfaerie

    RIP, my favourite scoundrel and hellian. A few good memories here and there, though I think HST had alot more relevant sentiment in Vegas that fits in today’s era of debauched idiocy. He was fun, tyrannical, and like any proper gentleman, he knew when the party was over.

    If all you get are drugs from his writings, at least you read him. Now go do it again. There is more.

  • Dr. Gonzo

    Pretty much every one of these “lessons” you’ve drawn completely misses the point of HST

  • Sdsadlk

    “Life has improved immeasurably since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously.”-from a letter, don’t have the date to hand but it was written during the Puerto Rico year(s).
    If there’s a persistent note in Hunter Thompson’s early career, it was wanting to be A Writer Of Great Fiction.  He threw everything into that.  A shift in this thinking about what this meant and how he lived his life is seen in the above quote. 
    ‘Taking it seriously’ would probably refer to his first jobs, working as sports editor on an army base paper, or briefly as a copy boy for Time.  Possibly he thought of this as the Hemingway route, of journalism as a way into life writing fiction.
    He worked enough to put any modern-day blogger to shame (20 cups of coffee a day and 4 packs of cigarettes to keep running on 2 hours sleep a day in his own words).  But he was still trying to work with the establishment.  He was, after all, still copy boy at Time, maybe the most competitive entry-level position available.  
    He was fired from Time (for insubordination), and then again from the Midtown Record (NY paper), for kicking a candy machine.  This is what he wrote afterwards.
    “’Your work is good,” they said, “and you have a very deep, very keen mind.  But this isn’t Greenwich Village, and you seem a little anti-social, a little off-beat.  You don’t seem to be very conscious of community relations and we can’t afford to have people like you working for the Record.’

    So there you have it, an epitaph for Hunter Thompson.  “He was a good lad, but he was a little off-beat.”And here’s another one for you: “he was right, dead right, as he hustled along (in his own off-beat way), but he’s just as unemployed as if he’d been wrong.”
    (Another letter, not sure when it was written except for just after he was fired from the Record)
    It’s the moment of reality-biting that everyone with a steady graduate position thinks they ‘understand’, in some profound and eternal way.   ‘If you want to succeed you need more than just passion, or talent, or a deep mind or whatever.  It doesn’t stop you needing to tick boxes.  It doesn’t stop you needing to impress the right people and put in the hours at the right social events and most importantly of all don’t kick the fucking candy machine.’
    Or?”Well, at any rate, I hope you get the point.  I’m sans salary, whether I was right or wrong.  I’m convinced, of course, that to play a role or to adjust to fraud is wrong, and I damn well intend to keep right on living the way I think I should.”
    Because hey, maybe it’ll work out.  Maybe ‘miraculously’ (as some people would describe it) you’ll make a living, the living you want, without having to ‘assume the position’ for all the people you’re going to spend your life needling out of their jobs.  
    But that’s a hell of a commitment to make.  If you’ve got more arrogance than talent, more walk than talk, you’re fucked.  You’ll go down a fool and no one will ever think of you as anything more than a cautionary tale.
    “The difficulty is not in the question, I think, but in the person who answers it.  There are so few people who are strong – or lucky – enough to be right in this lunatic world, and many of the best ones never live to find it out.”This leads up to point 10.  Sometimes you just have to say “fuck it” and head to Puerto Rico.  Or the Kentucky Derby.  Or Las Vegas.  Or the campaign trail.  You’ve just got to know that you’re risking completely destroying your life.  Sometimes, if there isn’t anything in your life that you want to save, or want to hold onto, there’s nothing wrong with risking it.I really was changed by reading HST.  Whenever I make a decision about anything, my first thought is to remember not to take things seriously.  Compensate for a lack of tradition and success stories of the route I’m on with hours of work, good training, dedication, no limits on what you’ll try in the name of whatever means the most to you at the time, and a willingness to get balls deep into something while everyone else is trying to second-guess the worst case scenario.  Don’t take things too seriously.  That way lies madness, job security, a pension, low blood reassure, a good heart-rate for someone your age, and a mountain of missed opportunities.

    • Flash Gordon

      That’s a really wonderful passage man, thanks for writing it. Could you by any chance tell me where you got the quote: “I damn well intend to keep right on living the way I think I should.”

      I’ve read it before and it’s one of my favourites… micro self-determination. Brilliant.

      Peace out.

  • ggahgah

    Anyone who is a HST fan should also be fully aware of the fact that he didn’t commit suicide. It takes some very shallow delving for that one. 

    • Customconcern

      dude wat

    • Customconcern

      he had been planning it for years…

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  • http://twitter.com/skypulsemedia Howie at Sky Pulse Media

    I agree with all the points except for number 1. There are drugs that are very damaging like crack, heroin, crystal meth which you cover in point 2. Some are in between like pot which is over all beneficial but can ruin your motivation. And others like Exstacy, Mushrooms and LSD are highly beneficial to society. Without LSD we would never have had Avatar or Apple Computer or the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd.

    But hey 9 of 10 is 90% so you get an A!

  • https://thoughtcatalog.com/harry-floyd/2014/07/5-reasons-hunter-s-thompson-actually-had-an-incredible-work-ethic/ 5 Reasons Hunter S. Thompson Actually Had An Incredible Work Ethic | Thought Catalog

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