Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas | Study Guide

Hunter S. Thompson

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas | Context


Fact and Fiction in Las Vegas

After Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was published, Random House designated the book "a work of the imagination," so it could be listed on The New York Times fiction bestseller list. Later editions would be labeled nonfiction or journalism. The book is a mix of both, and in an introduction to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas published in Thompson's 1979 essay collection The Great Shark Hunt, Thompson dismisses the argument as immaterial because "both 'fiction' and 'journalism' are artificial categories" and the truths about American culture in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas remain true for Thompson regardless of category.

Thompson did travel to Las Vegas in 1971 to cover the Mint 400 for Sports Illustrated. He took with him Oscar Zeta Acosta, an old friend and attorney. In the text of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson calls himself Raoul Duke, an alter ego he uses in other texts, such as The Rum Diary and Hell's Angels. The use of a fictionalized stand-in allows Thompson more flexible use of facts in pursuit of expressing larger truths about the week in Las Vegas, in keeping with the principles of gonzo journalism. Thompson gives Acosta the alter-ego Dr. Gonzo. In his jacket copy for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, published in 1979, Thompson recounts Acosta's protests at being recast under a pseudonym, even though ownership of his part in this story could have jeopardized Acosta's right to practice law in California.

Acosta was Thompson's main contact on a story covering the death of journalist Reuben Salazar at the hands of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. That article appeared in Rolling Stone's April 29, 1971, issue under the title "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan." The Salazar story created stress, so Thompson and Acosta went to Las Vegas to escape the pressure for a few days. Sports Illustrated wanted 250 words about the race and rejected Thompson's 2,500 words, but Thompson continued work on the story because he was having fun with it, and it evolved into a serialized piece for Rolling Stone, and later a book. Many elements of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are true, or have a grain of truth in them. For example, Thompson did run out on a hotel bill at the Mint. However, other elements, such as the timeline, are fictionalized. The District Attorneys' conference that dominates the second half of the book took place more than a month after the Mint 400 in 1971. During his life, Thompson went into some detail, but not a lot, about these distinctions for the sake of artistic integrity and, perhaps more importantly, for the sake of staying out of prison.

Gonzo Journalism

Traditional journalists are trained to observe and report on stories, providing objective facts in the name of balanced coverage. The 1960s saw a shift in the tone of journalism with the advent of new journalism, a movement started by American writers such as Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe. Practitioners of new journalism immerse themselves in their story content through extensive research and interaction with their subjects—as do most investigative reporters—but rather than a product of straight reportage, the story incorporates more subjective literary elements such as character development, vivid description, and plot arcs. Sometimes new journalists would live and work alongside their subjects, as Tom Wolfe did while working on The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He joined Ken Kesey's band of Merry Pranksters to create an inside look at hippies and drug culture in 1960s America.

Thompson introduced Wolfe to Kesey. Thompson had employed some techniques of new journalism in his first book Hell's Angels, in which he embedded himself with a Hell's Angels chapter for about a year. In Hell's Angels, Thompson is more observer than direct participant, and he took from Wolfe the idea that a journalist could get away with joining the story. In 1970 Thompson took an assignment to cover the Kentucky Derby for the now-defunct counterculture magazine Scanlan's. The result is an account of booze-soaked mayhem as Thompson interacts with the Derby attendees he called "the whiskey gentry." Thompson's role in this mayhem is the story, moving this piece beyond the bounds of new journalism, still ultimately based on observation, and into new territory. After reading the Kentucky Derby article in Scanlan's, Boston Globe Sunday Magazine editor Bill Cardozo, contacted Thompson to christen Thompson's work "pure Gonzo," a slang term for crazy. The name stuck, and gonzo journalism was born.

Gonzo journalism is a term Thompson himself sometimes embraced and sometimes distanced himself from, but the style rests on the principle that the reporter becomes not just an active participant in the story but engages in behavior sufficiently outrageous that it becomes the story. Gonzo abandons the traditional journalist's emphasis on facts in favor of conveying essential truth. These principles drive the outrageous behavior in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which Thompson called a failed experiment in the style because some of the text is fictionalized although the story expresses a philosophically true version of the events of Thompson's travels to Las Vegas.

Ralph Steadman

Ralph Steadman was Hunter Thompson's longtime collaborator and illustrator. He was a British artist and cartoonist who learned technical drawing during his stint in the Royal Air Force between 1954 and 1956. He learned artistic drawing through a correspondence course he completed during these years. His early work appeared in British newspapers, and he eventually sold his drawings to the humor magazine Punch.

Steadman's breakthrough as an artist came in 1970. American magazine Scanlan's enlisted him to travel to the Kentucky Derby to illustrate a story Thompson was writing about the Kentucky Derby. He produced grotesque illustrations of the Derby crowd, which mirrored the grotesquerie Thompson's descriptions portrayed of the wealthy socialites drinking and fighting with the race as a backdrop. The article, "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" is generally regarded as the birth of gonzo journalism, in part because of Steadman's drawings. In creating the drawings, Steadman became collaborator as well as illustrator, serving as a sounding board for Thompson's ideas. Steadman's work became less conventional as a result of the partnership. His style of drawing incorporated distorted figures and facial features, ink splashes, violence, and surrealist elements.

While working on an article about the America's Cup race in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1970, Thompson gave Steadman the psychedelic drug psilocybin—Steadman's only experience with drugs in his life. The race was a disaster, and Steadman vowed never to return to the United States again. His working relationship with Thompson was strained but not broken. Rolling Stone contacted Steadman to do the illustrations for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas after the copy was complete, and Steadman—working from England—sent the illustrations within four days. All the illustrations were printed as sent, even though Steadman had never been to Las Vegas.

Steadman and Thompson would go on to collaborate on other projects, including Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, and their work has become fully intertwined in readers' consciousness. Even so, their relationship was often contentious, with Thompson's violent tendencies and habits often making Steadman feel "threatened."

San Francisco and America in the 1960s

American culture in the 1960s has, in many ways, become synonymous with hippie culture. The 1960s were defined by two major events: the civil rights movement (1955–present) and the Vietnam War (1955–75). These events sparked protests and demonstrations across the country by citizens, mainly students, who supported racial equality and opposed the war. The decade marked a turning point for American culture in its widespread rejection of political norms such as segregation and unquestioning support of the U.S. government. These challenges to political norms gave way to challenges against social and moral norms, which led to the sexual liberation, rejection of materialism, and drug culture that characterized the counterculture movement. Counterculture is defined as a culture that stands in opposition, or counter, to the established mainstream culture. The counterculture of the 1960s embraced free love over the sexual restrictions of marriage and family, communal living over the traditional American focus on material wealth, and used psychedelic drugs as a way of expanding consciousness and finding spiritual fulfillment. San Francisco, California—especially the area around the intersection of Haight Street and Ashbury Street—became a hub for this movement, driven by musicians such as Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles, and the Grateful Dead. Thompson lived in San Francisco for a time during this era, and he revisits his memories on multiple occasions in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, holding up a past marked by harmony and idealism in sharp contrast with the overt capitalism and covert violence that characterize his vision of Las Vegas.

Notable counterculture leaders included Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, both acquaintances of Hunter Thompson and discussed in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Kesey traveled the United States in a bus filled with his followers, known as Merry Pranksters, to spread the counterculture philosophy, also known as hippie culture, derived from the word "hip" because opium users got sore hips from lying on them for prolonged periods. Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor, advocated the use of LSD, also known as acid, as a mind-expanding experience.

Hallucinogens were among many drugs that saw a surge in use in the United States in the 1960s, and not all of them were associated with mind-expansion and protest culture. The Vietnam War opened a trade pipeline from Southeast Asia, which brought heroin, an opioid, from the region into the United States. Much of this heroin came from Laos and Burma, where the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) enabled opium growers to send their products to France for processing before it moved on to the United States. The CIA covertly enabled these efforts to maintain friendly relations with Laotian tribesmen who were allied with the United States in fighting against the communist armies in Vietnam. The number of heroin addicts in the United States reached an estimated 750,000 between 1965 and 1970. The United States government's involvement in creating the early narcotics epidemic in America stands in ironic contrast with the district attorneys' conference that dominates Part 2 of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as it features government officials coming together in an ostensible effort to fight a government-created problem. It is also notable that out of all the drugs Raoul Duke mentions carrying in his car and using throughout the novel, heroin is not one of them.

The connection between drug use in America, the CIA, and law enforcement added to a general distrust of all authority in the United States in the 1960s. Police responded to the counterculture in sometimes violent ways. In 1968 police cracked down on protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, an occasion Thompson characterized as the end of the American dream. A free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway in California broke out in violence when Hell's Angels hired to provide security became unruly. One audience member was killed. Charles Manson twisted the communal hippie ethos to form a cult of mostly female followers, who carried out gruesome murders against wealthy Californians before being apprehended in Death Valley—part of the desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Thompson considered these events indicative of the downfall of the counterculture movement and references them at various points in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as signs of the decline of the counterculture philosophy, if not its outright failure.

Las Vegas and America in the Early 1970s

Thompson interviewed Richard Nixon during the 1968 presidential primary season on a car ride between Boston, Massachusetts, and Manchester, New Hampshire. Thompson recounted they had a pleasant conversation about football, but for Thompson, Nixon represented everything wrong with America at the end of the counterculture era of the 1960s. The social and moral freedoms that defined the 1960s counterculture sparked a conservative backlash, leading to Nixon's election to the presidency in 1968. This same backlash encouraged violent police crackdowns on civil rights activists and Vietnam War protesters around the country. The desire to preserve a flawed status quo and the resistance to personal freedom and the liberated attitudes and behaviors of the 1960s leading to Nixon's election, were the aspects of American culture Thompson regarded as wrong. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Thompson paints the Nixon presidency and the city of Las Vegas as emblematic of the backlash.

Republicans in the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the sexual liberation and drug use of the 1960s counterculture as a deep threat to American life, and they disliked the instability sparked by protesters. The movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), guaranteeing equal rights for women in the U.S. Constitution, and liberal government spending policies created further unease for political conservatives who wanted a return to the clearly defined social roles and economic prosperity of the 1950s.

The contrast between the surroundings of Las Vegas in the early 1970s and Thompson's background in 1960s counterculture mirrors the contrast between the progressive politics of the 1960s and the more conservative politics of the early 1970s. Las Vegas stands for many of the conservative values many railed against in the 1960s. The casino industry represents a pure and aggressive form of capitalism, with showy displays of wealth and structures designed to keep players at the tables. The violence casinos often employ to ensure their profit margins reflects the same kind of violence Thompson attributes to the United States government in Vietnam and other locations as well as the violence law enforcement agencies employ to maintain order and control. Visitors enjoy bland entertainment in Las Vegas. It's glitzy, but it has no substantive message, a reflection of lost artistic culture after the 1960s, as the novel's characters observe when they talk about 1960s icon John Lennon losing the edge in his music after leaving the Beatles.


Whatever its ratio of fact to fiction, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a satirical work because it uses literary techniques to criticize social and political conditions in the United States. The criticism is specific to 1971, but could apply to a number of points in American history since 1971 as well. Satire is most frequently associated with humor, and a lot of satire is funny, but it can use other techniques—most notably, hyperbole, juxtaposition, parody, and irony—to convey a message as well. Much of the humor that appears in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas stems from the extreme exaggeration, or hyperbole, that characterizes drug use and its effects on Duke and Dr. Gonzo. Some juxtaposition, the positioning of extreme opposites in close proximity to one another for purposes of comparison, plays a role in creating humor in the novel. For example, the presentation of Duke and Dr. Gonzo mingling with the same law enforcement officials they have taken great pains to avoid is extremely funny. When they imitate California investigators and tell absurdly horrible tales to a district attorney from Georgia, they make themselves into parodies, or grotesque exaggerations, of the law enforcement officers they have faced in their lives. This scene also plays for humorous effect. Some of the ironic moments in the novel are less humorous. Irony results when the intended meaning of words are the opposite of their literal meanings or when the intended result of an action is the exact opposite of its literal outcome. For example, Dr. Gonzo enters into a relationship with the young runaway Lucy because he wants to help her, but he ends up causing her untold physical and psychological damage.

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