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Leibniz-Gymnasium Altdorf

Kollegstufe Abiturjahrgang 2010

aus dem Englischen

The American Dream in Hunter Thompson's

"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"

Verfasser: Moritz Stückler

Leistungskurs: Englisch 1
Kursleiter: LAss H. Bartels

Erzielte Punkte:
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Table of Contents
1. Introduction...................................................................................................................3
2. Background Knowledge................................................................................................4

2.1. Gonzo Journalism....................................................................................................4

2.2. Biography of Hunter S. Thompson..........................................................................5

2.3. The American Dream in General.............................................................................9

2.4. Summary of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas........................................................10

2.5. Autobiographical Aspects......................................................................................10

3. Analysis of the American Dream-Theme...................................................................12

3.1. A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream........................................12

3.2. Las Vegas as a last Resort for the American Dream..............................................13

3.3. Drugs as a Catalyst to examine the American Dream...........................................13

3.4. Symbols for the American Dream throughout the Book.......................................14

3.5. Disrespect of any Authority...................................................................................16

4. Conclusion....................................................................................................................19
5. Bibliography.................................................................................................................20

5.1. Primary Sources.....................................................................................................20

5.2. Secondary Sources.................................................................................................20

6. Author's Declaration of Originality...........................................................................22

1. Introduction
Though Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is not a very well known name in the literary
landscape of Europe today, his work definitely reached a cult-like status. Ask young
people between, let's say 15 and 40 years for any book or film on the topic of drugs in
general, and Thompson's “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” will definitely be among the
top answers. Every once-in-a-while-pot-smoker knows Thompson's psychedelic trip-
report for its precise description of being high, stoned, drunk and whatever one can be. It
is popular for readers among several generations. Not least because of its renaissance in
1998, when the book was made into a major Hollywood movie, starring some of today's
most popular actors (e.g. Johnny Depp, Cameron Diaz and Tobey Maguire).
Besides the mentioned book and his preceding debut, „Hell's Angels“, the rest of
Thompson's work is quite unknown in Europe. And there is a reason for that: Thompson
mostly writes about typical American topics. Whether it is politics ("Fear & Loathing on
the Campaign Trail '72"), sports ("The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved") or
culture ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"). Most people, reading "Fear and Loathing in
Las Vegas", think it is just a exaggerated trip report of two coke-sniffing junkies in the
early seventies.
Well, on the one hand, they are absolutely right. It definitely is one of the most
precise descriptions of drug effects. The New York Times once called it “the best book on
the dope decade”1, but on the other hand, there is obviously much more to this piece of
new American literature. Therefore it got included into the famous “Modern Library”2
where it is now surrounded by classic literature from Tolstoy to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Thompson's beat, he once said was "the death of the American dream." 3. This theme
can be discovered throughout all of his work, especially in “Fear and Loathing in Las
Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream”.
The following thesis is going to shed light on the author of this book, as well as its
genre and the special requirements coming with this. The main part is dedicated to the
theme of the American Dream in the book, and it will point out some relevant examples
for various aspects of this theme. Finally there will be a conclusion, which will answer
the big question of this thesis: Is the American Dream still alive?

1 Woods, Crawford: The Best Book on the Dope Decade. From: The New York Times, 23.7.1972
2 The American Modern Library is a prestigious publishing company for newer high-class american
literature. In 1998 they started a poll to select the Best 20th-Century Novels (see Wikipedia to "Modern
Library", accessed on 1.1.2010)
3 Weil, Martin; Lengel, Allan: Hunter S. Thompson dies at 67. From: The Washington Post, 21.2.2005

2. Background Knowledge

2.1. Gonzo Journalism

More than at any other book, one has to look at the Genre of “Fear and Loathing in
Las Vegas” to understand what the author wanted to say, when he wrote this piece. The
book doesn't fit into any common description of literature. Because at first hand Hunter
S. Thompson always used to be a journalist, and not a writer. In terms of journalism
Thompson was never mainstream. He had his own definition of journalism, which differs
very much apart from common definitions of good journalistic work.
This is what Thompson is still known for today. He created his own style, today
called “Gonzo” or “Gonzo Journalism”. Though it is hard to define this genre, there are
two key features, which can be found in all works which are supposed to be "Gonzo":

− The author puts himself into the action. He is no longer just describing a situation,
but he is in the midst of it.
− Loss of objectivity: Where a classical journalist always tries to stay neutral,
Gonzo writers definitely describe situations through their own eyes.

Hunter made this clear, when he wrote the following in an obituary for Richard
Nixon, who used to be one of his greatest opponents and at the same time a reappearing
topic to write about throughout his entire life:
"Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for
Objective Journalism -- which is true, but they miss the point. It was the
built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon
to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on
paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-
American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the
cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon
clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful."4

This also explains the use of strong language Thompson uses in his writing. Later he
said, that "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" was supposed to be pure Gonzo:
"My idea was to buy a fat notebook and record the whole thing, as it
happened, then send in the notebook for publication--without editing. That
way, I felt, the eye & mind of the journalist would be functioning as a
camera. The writing would be selective & necessarily interpretive--but
once the image was written, the words would be final[...]No alterations in
the darkroom, no cutting or cropping, no spotting ... no editing."5
4 Thompson, Hunter S.: He Was a Crook. Kicking Nixon while he’s up. From: Rolling Stone, Issue 684,
5 GSH, page 106

Regarding these plans, "Fear and Loathing" was a failed experiment, because he had
to edit the book and make changes. He wrote afterwards: "and in the end I found myself
imposing an essentially fictional framework on what began as a piece of straight/crazy
With these measures he erases the border between literature and journalism or one
could say between fiction and reality. "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is not entirely
fictional! Most of what is described in this book actually happened to Hunter S.
Thompson himself. Therefore some people might also say, that this book is a travelogue,
because it describes the savage journey of two people, which actually happened.
But, on the other hand, it is not entirely based on real events. Thompson made
several changes to the actual course of actions and made some things up, which did not
happen at all or in another way. This is where he wipes out genre-borders. Though it has
a true core and most of it is a correct documented travelogue, he added fictional
elements, to amplify his intention, to make it even clearer. Thompson sums it up very
nicely, while writing the jacket text for the Vegas-book:
"and from here on in there is no point in running down details, because
they're all in the book. More or less... and this qualifier is the essence of
what, for no particular reason, I've decided to call Gonzo Journalism. It is
a style of "reporting" based on [the] idea that the best fiction is far more
true than any kind of journalism"7

2.2. Biography of Hunter S. Thompson

Gonzo Journalism is deeply connected to its author, because he is describing

situations through his very own eyes. Consequently one should know the author really
well, wanting to understand Gonzo texts. Because of this, a quite extensive look into the
life of Hunter Thompson, is necessary.

Hunter Stockton Thompson was born on July 18th 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky. He
grew up in a lower middle-class family. His talent of writing could already be seen at the
age of 10, when he started a small neighborhood sports-newspaper, called “The Southern
Star”.8 Regarding his talent and obsession about writing, it was no surprise, that
Thompson got accepted into the prestigious Athenaeum Literary Association at the Age
6 GSH, page 106
7 GSH, page 106
8 after Knox, Peter W.: A Savage Journey into Hunter S. Thompson’s American Dream: A Critical
Investigation Into the Theme as Found in His Writing and Lifestyle. Senior Thesis. Washington
College, Chestertown, Maryland 2006, page 14

of 15. With 14, Hunter's father died, and his mother had to take care for him and his two
brothers entirely on her own. Both, his mother and his father were known to be drinkers,
and his father's death made his mother's drinking behavior even worse.
Also his father did use corporal punishment on Hunter and his brothers quite
frequently. Maybe these circumstances are the reason, why hunter became quite
aggressive and started to brush with the law. He was stealing, vandalizing and playing
evil pranks on people while he still was a teenager. His addiction to alcohol, cigarettes
and drugs also started by this time. Ironically these bad habits would later make him
famous. One of his Athenaeum friends, who became a colleague of Hunter at the Rolling
Stone magazine, Porter Bibb, remembers: “We all started drinking at about fourteen.”9.
At the age of 17, Hunter was “charged as an accessory to robbery after having been
in a car with the person who committed the robbery.”10. He was sentenced to 60 days in
jail. After 30 days, he traded the other half in for a sign-up at the U.S. Air Force. After his
basic training he got transferred to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where he got to cover
sports for the Base's Newspaper. In 1958 he was honorably discharged. His commander,
Col. W.S. Evans, wrote about Thompson : “In summary, this airman, although talented
will not be guided by policy,” he also stated that “Sometimes his rebel and superior
attitude seems to rub off on other airmen staff members.”11.
After his time in the Air Force, Thompson continued his sports writing by accepting
several minor jobs and he mostly he got fired right afterwards. At the end of the 1950s he
moved to New York, later even to South America, without having any mentionable
success. He started writing his first novels and short stories, but nobody wanted to
publish them. In 1963 Hunter married Sandra Dawn Conklin, and in 1964 their first and
only son Juan Fitzgerald Thompson was born. The young family moved to California and
Thompson started to immerse in the whole 1960s culture and hippie movement taking
place in San Francisco, along with all side-effects such as heavy drug use.
Hunter Thompsons' success finally started in 1965, when he was asked to write a
piece about the Californian motorcycle gang Hell's Angels. After a successful article, he
was asked to write a whole book about these outlaws. He ended up riding and living
along with the Hell's Angels for about one year, witnessing beatings, rapes and robberies.
One day, the gang beat him up heavily, after accusing him of having mere financial

9 Knox, Peter W.: A Savage Journey into Hunter S. Thompson’s American Dream: A Critical
Investigation Into the Theme as Found in His Writing and Lifestyle. Senior Thesis. Washington
College, Chestertown, Maryland 2006, page 15
10 Wikipedia on "Hunter S. Thompson"
11 Rolfsen, Bruce: Writer Hunter S. Thompson commits suicide. From: Air Force Times, 21.2.2005

interests in his company among them. Anyways: Thompson finally had success. The
Hell's Angels-book sold very well, and he got to write articles in several considerable
publications such as the New York Times or the Time Magazine.
He devoted himself more and more to political topics and ended up at the
Democratic Convention 1968 in Chicago, where there were heavy clashes between the
police and anti-war-rioters. After what had happened in 1968 (namely the assassination
of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy), the riots in Chicago were amongst the
heaviest in the U.S. history. Several thousands of soldiers were needed to end the turmoil.
Thompson got right into it and his press credentials didn't help him at all: "I went
totally prepared. You don‘t take a motorcycle helmet to Chicago, normally, without a
motorcycle . . . And I still got the shit beaten out of me by the police."12.
The Chicago Convention was a traumatizing event in Thompson's life. Afterwards
he said: "I went to the Democratic Convention as a journalist, and returned a raving
beast."13 as well as "that week at the Convention changed everything I‘d ever taken for
granted about this country and my place in it." Even some time after the convention,
Thompson was still traumatized: "every time [Thompson] tried to tell somebody what
happened in Chicago [he] began crying, and it took years to understand why."14.
Thompson was disappointed by politics in his country, and he decided to do
something against this. So he started a campaign and ran for county sheriff of Pitkin
County, Colorado (within this county lies Aspen, which used to be his hometown at this
time) He had his very own liberal program, which contained measures to scare reckless
tourism-investors away, as well as legalizing drugs and forcing people to walk or to use
their bikes. In the end he lost by six votes.
In 1971, Thompson was working on another article about murder of Los Angeles
Times columnist Ruben Salazar. For his research, Thompson contacted the Chicano
Movement activist and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta. Acosta was in danger of violent
assaults, so he was being guarded all day and night. Thompson could not get the
necessary information from Acosta, that he needed for his article. To kill two birds with
one stone, he decided, to accept an offer from Sports Illustrated, to write a 250 word-
piece on the desert rally Mint 400 in Las Vegas on their expenses and to invite Acosta on
the trip, so they would have time to talk about his research on the Salazar-article.
12 SOD, page 115
13 Torrey, Beef; Simonson, Kevin: Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson. University Press of
Mississippi, Mississippi 2008.
14 after Knox, Peter W.: A Savage Journey into Hunter S. Thompson’s American Dream: A Critical
Investigation Into the Theme as Found in His Writing and Lifestyle. Senior Thesis. Washington
College, Chestertown, Maryland 2006, page 36

"...and just about then, I remembered that another old friend, now working
for Sports Illustrated, had asked me if I felt like going out to Vegas for the
weekend, at their expense, and writing a few words about a motorcycle
race. This seemed like a good excuse to get out of LA for a few days, and
if I took Oscar along it would also give us time to talk and sort out the evil
realities of the Salazar/Murder story. So I called Sports Illustrated [...]
and said I was ready to do the ´Vegas thing.` They agreed..."15

He took a notebook and a tape recorder with him, from which he then wrote "Fear
and Loathing in Las Vegas". The story was published in two parts in the young Rolling
Stone magazine and later turned into a book. It was a major success and marked
Thompson's peak in terms of creativity and success.
As Thompson was more and more interested in politics, he was asked to cover the
presidential election 1972: Richard Nixon ran for a second term against his democratic
opponent George McGovern, who was highly supported by Thompson. He spent nearly
one year traveling along the "campaign trail" with the candidates of the democratic party.
After this he got even more into politics. He was sent to Vietnam and was supposed
to write about the end of the war, as well as covering the U.S. Invasion of Grenada in
1983. In 1980 he got divorced from his first wive.
During the following years, he wrote many articles for different prominent
magazines (e.g. Playboy) and several books. All of them with average success.
In 1998 Thompson regained a lot of popularity because of the release of the movie
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" by director Terry Gilliam. He was integrated into the
movie-making process and even had a small cameo appearance in the movie itself. After
1998 Thompson's creative output decreased. Next to some books, he wrote an internet
sports column for the American Sports-Network ESPN.
In 2003 he married his second wife, Anita Bejmuk, who used to be his assistant.
At 5:42 pm on February 20th in 2005 Hunter S. Thompson killed himself with a
head-shot by one of his numerous guns. His suicide was no surprise for his loved ones.
He always told that he would go out like this. A suicide note was published in Rolling
Stone magazine. It was called "Football Season is over", which shows his deep
dedication for sports. He killed himself at the age of 67 just like Ernest Hemingway, who
used to be one of Thompson's role models.
Hunter Thompson had planned his funeral about 30 years ago. He wanted his ashes
to be shot out of a canon shaped like a huge fist. His good friend Johnny Depp and

15 GSH, page 106


Hunter's loved ones fulfilled his last wish, and built a monumental canon, two feet taller
than the Statue of Liberty on his property in Aspen, Colorado. Depp himself pulled the
trigger, that would blast Thompson's ashes into the dark Colorado sky.16

2.3. The American Dream in General

To examine the meaning of the American Dream in "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas"
properly, one definitely needs to analyze Thompson's personal understanding of the
American Dream. He isn't making it very hard for the reader to discover this, since he is
naming the American author Horatio Alger Jr. several times, who is famous for his works
on the American Dream.
The concept of the American Dream is not fixed, so everybody can define it for
himself. But Alger's idea is the one, that we still remember today. It can be shortly
described as "from rags to riches".
This saying can be deployed in a scientific way. It basically says, that you can reach
material wealth (which was almost equal to general wealth in the beginning of the 20th
century) with hard work, no matter who you are.
This idea developed in times when immigrants from Europe came to America.
Because people came from nearly every European country and were needed in the new
world, they did not suffer from disadvantage because of their origin or their religion. As
long as they worked hard, everybody was equal. Today we know, that this concept
already had its weaknesses by the time it developed, regarding segregation of blacks and
other minorities. However, it seemed to work for white European men.
Today we have a synonym for this "rags to riches"-saying. Sociologists called it
upward or vertical mobility, meaning the ability to change your social status because you
work hard, and without any disadvantages because of one's gender or origin.
Vertical Mobility is strongly connected to Capitalism. Most other forms of economy
have the aim to abolish any social classes. Therefore it is quite significant, that this theme
is widely known in America, which is supposed to be the most capitalistic country these
Thompson's sense of the American Dream is basically equal to Horatio Alger's, at
least he wants to act like him, when he asks himself: "How would Horatio Alger handle

16 Whole passage 2.2. after Wikipedia on "Hunter S. Thompson" and Knox, Peter W.: A Savage Journey
into Hunter S. Thompson’s American Dream: A Critical Investigation Into the Theme as Found in His
Writing and Lifestyle. Senior Thesis. Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland 2006

this situation?"17

2.4. Summary of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The actual plot of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas plays a minor role in the intention
of the book. It is about journalist Raoul Duke and his Samoan attorney Dr. Gonzo, who
travel from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. The book is divided into two parts. In part one
Duke is supposed to write an article about the Mint 400 - a motorcycle race in the desert
of Nevada. Duke and Dr. Gonzo rent a red Chevy convertible, stock up on every kind of
drug they can find in Los Angeles and start their 450 km trip. Once in Las Vegas they
visit the race, but barely pay attention to it. They push it to the limits, take drugs, get
drunk, live on room service and don't pay their bills. After the race, both of them want to
leave the town as soon as possible, because they are afraid of hotel managers and the
On the way back to L.A. Duke gets another assignment. He is supposed to cover the
National District Attorneys' Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs at another
place in Las Vegas. So Dr. Gonzo returns to the city, Duke turns around, and they start all
over with their reckless destruction of themselves, cars and hotel rooms.

2.5. Autobiographical Aspects

Most of the plot of this book actually happened to Hunter S. Thompson and the
attorney Oscar Acosta in the early 1970s. Thompson was supposed to do a 300 word
piece about the Mint 400-Race. He ended up sending in a 2500 word-manuscript, which
barely covers the Mint 400 at all, and it got heavily rejected.
Though the events in this book are mostly true, one should not make the mistake to
think, that Raoul Duke is Hunter S. Thompson. This figure is definitely based on him,
and can be called an alter ego, but they are not the same person. Same with Oscar Acosta
and Dr. Gonzo. Thompson changed the name of Acosta primarily because of legal
reasons (Acosta was still an attorney and could have lost his reputation), but once he did
this, it allowed him to make changes to the character as well.
Regarding the course of events, Thompson and Acosta in fact went to Las Vegas. In
difference to the book, both trips took place during several weeks, not one after another.
To amplify the impression of reality, Thompson adds some Newspaper and radio

17 FLLV, page 70

excerpts as well as TV-Announcements from the time they are supposed to be in Vegas,
e.g.: "GI Drug Deaths claimed" or "Torture tales told in War Hearings", both relating to
some minor affairs during the Vietnam War.
Besides that it is hard to separate which things actually happened and which were
made up by Thompson. Furthermore, the unbelievable drug consume of both, Duke and
Gonzo is believed to be true.

3. Analysis of the American Dream-Theme

3.1. A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

The theme of the American Dream appears all over the book. It is mentioned
literally numerous times, also in the book's subtitle: "A Savage Journey to the Heart of
the American Dream" . Though it is anything but hidden throughout the text, it might be
hard to connect events in the book to the theme of the American Dream for readers, who
don't know Thompson's background. People might think that all these things Duke and
Gonzo talk about don't make any sense at all, that this is just some gibberish that two
drug addicts made up on their fevery trip. Also, if you don't know the biographical
background to this book, many of their statements seem to be taken out of any context.
One of the first things, Duke tells a hitchhiker, that they pick up on their way to Las
"´Can you hear me?` I yelled. He nodded. ´That's good,` I said. ´Because I
want you to know that we're on our way to Las Vegas to find the American
Dream.` I smiled. ´That's why we rented this car. It was the only way to do

According to this statement, Duke verbalizes their mission: To search for the
American Dream in Las Vegas.
Thompson always had this idea of writing about "the American Dream". Thompson
proposed in a letter from 1968 a new book to "be made up of existing individuals whose
lives, words, actions, fears, hatreds, etc. best illuminate the various keys we need to show
how and why the American Dream is dead."19
According to this quotation, Thompson believes, that the American Dream is already
dead (probably since the Chicago Convention). As mentioned before, one has to separate
between Thompson and Duke. Duke obviously still wants to find out if the Dream is
dead or alive.
Thompson just did not know where he would find the American Dream embedded
into a situation that he could write about. Neither Chicago nor the Sheriff-Campaign of
Aspen seemed to deliver the right framework for him to cover the American Dream.
With these thoughts probably in the back of his head, he received the offer from
Sports Illustrated in 1971 to go to Las Vegas. And so he had one more reason to take this

18 FALLV, page 6
19 after Knox, Peter W.: A Savage Journey into Hunter S. Thompson’s American Dream: A Critical
Investigation Into the Theme as Found in His Writing and Lifestyle. Senior Thesis. Washington
College, Chestertown, Maryland 2006, page 29

offer: He would search for the American Dream in Las Vegas. He thought that if the
American Dream could survive somewhere, it would be in Las Vegas. And he was right,
so he named his work matching to his experiences: a savage journey to the Heart of the
American Dream, which is a very adequate summary of the trip.

3.2. Las Vegas as a last Resort for the American Dream

The city of Las Vegas is essentially built on the idea "from nothing to something".
Where else can somebody come to a town with empty pockets and return as a
millionaire? Las Vegas turned the "from rags to riches"-concept into a moneymaking
industry. Somehow it abuses the American Dream by offering it to anybody who's willing
to risk some money at the crap tables, and erasing the "hard work"-part:
"Who are these people?[...]Where do they come from? They look like
caricatures of used-car dealers from Dallas. But they're real. And, sweet
Jesus, there are a hell of a lot of them--still screaming around these
desert-city crap tables at four-thirty on a Sunday morning. Still humping
the American Dream, that vision of the Big Winner somehow emerging
from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas Casino. Big Strike in
Silver City. Beat the dealer and go home rich. Why not?"20

So this is the perfect place for Duke and Gonzo to start their experiment and see if
the Dream is still alive. It is already on their way to Las Vegas, when Duke recognizes
that he is in the middle of an American Dream, caused by the circumstances of their
"Jesus, just one hour ago we were sitting over there in that stinking
baiginio, stone broke and paralyzed for the weekend, when a call comes
through from some total stranger in New York, telling me to go to Las
Vegas and expenses be damned – and then he sends me over to some office
in Beverly Hills where another total stranger gives me $300 raw cash for
no reason at all . . . I tell you, my man, this is the American Dream in
action! We‘d be fools not to ride this strange torpedo all the way out to the

3.3. Drugs as a Catalyst to examine the American Dream

The method which Duke and Gonzo use to explore the condition of the American
Dream is very clear: Exaggeration - resulting in excess. They don't go there, to work hard
and receive their fair loan, to work slowly "from rags to riches". No, they leave out the

20 FLLV, page 57
21 FLLV, page 11

work-part and try to gain the success instantly. They don't want to find out if there are
leftovers from the American Dream, no, they want to know if it is fully alive and
therefore they start their excess on everything.
They keep up this permanent exaggeration by their constant use of drugs. It is the
only appropriate way for them, being influenced by the whole hippie-movement. So they
ignore their biological and mental health, and start taking every kind of drug, they can
find. Not only that they smoke pot or drink heavily, but they also take heavy and
dangerous drugs such as LSD, Cocaine, Mescaline or Ether. Thompson's description of
their drug experiences is always very real and extensive. He never mentions any bad
side-effects, such as addiction or hang-overs:
"He came back with the ether-bottle, un-capped it, then poured some into
a kleenex and mashed it under his nose, breathing heavily. I soaked
another kleenex and fouled my own nose.[...]Soon we were staggering up
the stairs towards the entrance, laughing stupidly and dragging each
other along, like drunks. This is the main advantage of ether: it makes you
behave like the village drunkard in some early Irish novel ... total loss of
all basic motor skills: blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue--severance
of all connection between the body and the brain. Which is interesting,
because the brain continues to function more or less normally ... you can
actually watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can't control

3.4. Symbols for the American Dream throughout the Book

Thompson wants to establish a big contrast between the disrespect Duke and Gonzo
exercise and the American Dream, which is represented by signs of material wealth.
Thompson literally fills the book with symbols for America, the American Way of Life
and the American Dream. Looking for it, one will find, that nearly every page is full of
these symbols.
Right in the beginning, when Duke talks about the drugs they bought, he is
connecting it with a typical American mentality: Shopping 24 hours and 7 days a week -
around the clock: "Getting hold of the drugs had been no problem, but the car and the
tape recorder were not easy things to round up at 6:30 on a Friday afternoon in
Another outstanding example of these symbols are the cars Duke and Gonzo drive.
There is this red Chevy convertible, which he only refers to as a "Red shark"24. When he
22 FLLV, page 45
23 FLLV, page 12
24 FLLV, page 51

wanted Rolling Stone to pay for the car, after he submitted the story, Jann Wenner, his
former boss complained about it. Thompson answered in a rather harsh, but true way:
"Well, I can't cover the goddamn American Dream in a Volkswagen, what the fuck is
wrong with you?"25
In the second half of the book Duke and Gonzo rent another car, because they
trashed the "old" one completely. So they pick again one of these huge street cruisers,
even a bigger one, namely a white Cadillac Coupe deVille, lovely called "White Wale"26,
which they treat in the same manor. These cars represent the American Dream better than
anything: they are big, they are luxurious and they guzzle a lot of gas.
He also names some pieces of music in the book. Like the cars, it is only music,
deeply connected to America and the American Way of Life. For example artists like:
Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones or Jefferson Airplane.
Contrast couldn't be heavier when Duke and Gonzo arrive at their second station,
which Duke is supposed to cover: the National District Attorneys Association's
Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. This situation is just crazy, and one can
barely imagine that it actually happened: two drug addicts sitting in the Flamingo Hotel
surrounded by several hundreds of policemen and attorneys, who are not noticing the
highly intoxicated duo among them:
"We sat patiently through the first two hours, although it was clear from
the start that we weren't going to Learn anything and it was equally clear
that we'd be crazy to try any Teaching. It was easy enough to sit there with
a head full of mescaline and listen to hour after hour of irrelevant
gibberish.... There was certainly no risk involved. These poor bastards
didn't know mescaline from macaroni."27

Perhaps Thompson put an even deeper sense to this scene. Maybe he compares this
group of policemen and attorneys to the American people, who don't see their real
opponents because they are among them. These opponents could be for example
politicians (Thompson would definitely have thought of Richard Nixon or George W.
Bush) who still get voted, though they are the people's opponents. He said something to
this topic in one of his newer books "Kingdom of Fear":
"Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be
happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are
these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by

25 after Gibney, Alex: Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. 2008 (Interview with Jan
Wenner at 51:15 minutes)
26 FLLV, page 177
27 FLLV, page 143

stupid little rich kids like George Bush?"28

3.5. Disrespect of any Authority

Once Duke and Gonzo are high, they start their "Savage journey to the Heart of the
American Dream" by disrespecting basically every authority or law, but still insisting on
the nice things coming with the American Way of life, such as room service, driving
luxurious cars or living on room service.
As an first example both of them naturally don't obey to the very strict Nevada state
laws, for example concerning drug consume or traffic limits. Thompson nicely contrasts
this with the mention of a traffic sign on their way to Las Vegas: "DON'T GAMBLE
But they don't respect anything else during their journey. Starting with social and
ethical principles, such as not harming other people or not trashing a hotel room:
"The room was full of used towels; they were hanging everywhere. The
bathroom floor was about six inches deep with soap bars, vomit, and
grapefruit rinds, mixed with broken glass. I had to put my boots on every
time I went in there to piss. The nap of the mottled grey rug was so thick
with marijuana seeds that it appeared to be turning green. The general
back-alley ambience of the suite was so rotten, so incredibly foul, that I
figured I could probably get away with claiming it was some kind of
´Life-slice exhibit` that we'd brought down from Haight Street, to show
cops from other parts of the country how deep into filth and degeneracy
the drug people will sink, if left to their own devices."30

One day, a maid comes into their room, and Dr. Gonzo nearly kills her, because he is
so intoxicated and does not understand, she just wants to clean the room. Even then, in
this precarious situation, their experiment does not end, as they find an excuse for their
suspicious behavior - they pretend to be undercover cops, and they will put the maid on
the payroll, if she works for them.
"´In that case, maybe we won't have to put her away... maybe she can help.`´Yes!`
she said eagerly. ´I'll help you all you need! [...]´I think we should put her on the
Nobody stops Duke and Gonzo, no Maid seeing their wrecked up hotel suite, and no
police officer: On his way back to Los Angeles Duke gets pulled over by a cop. His car is
full of drugs and he has a gun with him. Also he didn't sleep for a long period of time,
28 after McBride, David: Book Review on Kingdom of Fear. University of Nottingham, Nottingham 2003
29 FLLV, page 42
30 FLLV, page 187
31 FLLV, page 183

and he drinks beer while driving. Instead of getting arrested, the cop just tells him to stop
at the next rest area, which he doesn't:
"´Here's how it is. What goes into my book, as of noon, is that I
apprehended you... for driving too fast for conditions, and advised you...
with this written warning`--he handed it to me--´to proceed no further
than the next rest area... your stated destination, right? Where you plan to
take a long nap...`"32

These are just very few examples for the sheer excess Duke and Gonzo celebrate on
their trip. The shocking part about this is, that nobody stops them. They don't get caught.
Everybody seems to believe in their lies. Duke is right, when he states:
"But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right
and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical
salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country--but only for those
with true grit. And we were chock full of that."33

Their reckless trip to the Heart of the American Dream goes on, as they reach their
actual first goal, the Mint 400 Race. Their disregard for social values, ethic principles or
job duties continues at the press registration in their hotel. They arrive totally incapable
of everything, because they are on a LSD trip. They can barely speak but anyhow they
still get their press credentials for the race. Not that Duke just doesn't cover the action
regarding the sports aspect, he doesn't even mention who wins the race. Instead they
linger around at the bar of this event, and have one drink after another.
"Lacerda34 insisted on Total Coverage. He wanted to go back out in the
dust storm and keep trying for some rare combination of film and lens that
might penetrate the awful stuff. [...]Lacerda agreed, and sometime around
noon he went out on the desert, again, in the company of our driver, Joe. I
went back to the blockhouse bar/casino that was actually the Mint Gun
Club - where I began to drink heavily, think heavily, and make many heavy

Finally, when the race is over, Dr. Gonzo flees the town and leaves Duke behind.
The situation looks like it's all over now, they've reached the edge and can't go any
further. Duke leaves the town at once, and leaves a massive hotel bill behind: "We never
knew the total, but --just before we left--my attorney figured we were running
somewhere between $29 and $36 per hour, for forty-eight consecutive hours."36
Again, another situation, where Duke could get caught from is when he leaves the

32 FLLV, page 93
33 FLLV, page 18
34 Lacerda is a photographer, which Duke and Gonzo are supposed to meet. He is the example of a "good"
journalist, wanting to cover the whole event.
35 FLLV, page 40
36 FLLV, page 69

hotel with this massive bill on his room:

"´I've been calling your room,` he said. ´Then I saw you standing outside.`
I nodded, too tired to resist. By now the Shark was beside me, but I saw no
point in even tossing my bag into it. The game was up. They had me. The
clerk was still smiling. ´This telegram just came for you,` he said. [...] I
felt dizzy. It was too much to absorb all at once . From freedom, to prison,
and then back to freedom again--all in thirty seconds."37

Luck seems to be on Duke's side, and he is able to continue this reckless experiment

37 FLLV, page 76

4. Conclusion
So, after all this excess and disregard, the big question stays: Is the American Dream
still alive? Thompson's book guides the reader to one single answer, which he already
knew, before he wrote the book: No, it is not. The American Dream is dead!
But, this answer only relates to the definition given within this work, the definition
according to Horatio Alger, where one can reach material wealth by hard work. What
Duke and Gonzo showed with their experiment is, that this is not working in Las Vegas,
since nobody does the hard work anymore. It is kind of like somebody stole the social
component from the American Dream. Social component meaning, that people know
why they work, and that they have to work hard, to achieve their goals. The American
Dream got raped and abused, and what's left of it is just one part of the former idea. In
fact, the Dream does not work anymore with only half of it left. What Thompson and
Duke demonstrated is, that people can go there, behave like monkeys and still live like a
king, nobody stops them.
And personally I think, that last point is the deeper meaning of this fantastic book:
critic on the American society, which developed from a strong community, where people
did not judge each other by their race, to a lazy and atavistic society, which accepts and
votes for fake politicians like George W. Bush or Richard Nixon. This covers
Thompson's personal meaning, regarding book titles such as "Generation of Swine: Tales
of Shame and Degradation in the '80's" or "Fear and Loathing in America". But still, if
Thompson was still alive in 2010, I would bet, that he would have found another perfect
example for people he criticizes in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas": reckless managers,
which were inflicted in the big economy crisis from 2008/2009. The pattern stays the
same, these bad people just change their business. Now maybe they switched from
politics, which they infiltrated maybe over the last 50 years to economy, which will be
their new resort for another 50 years.
The End of this work can only be one of Hunter S. Thompson's numerous great
quotations, which always sum it up better than any high language text:
"In a nation ruled by swine, all pigs are upwardly mobile—and the rest of
us are fucked until we can put our acts together: not necessarily to win,
but mainly to keep from losing completely. We owe that to ourselves and
our crippled self-image as something better than a nation of panicked

38 GSH, page 109


5. Bibliography

5.1. Primary Sources

• Thompson, Hunter S.: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the
Heart of the American Dream. Vintage Books. New York 1998 (FLLV)

• Thompson, Hunter S.: The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time;
The Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1. Summit Books. New York 1979 (GSH)

• Thompson, Hunter S.: Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the
American Dream; The Gonzo Papers, Vol. 3. Summit Books. New York 1990

• Thompson, Hunter S.: He Was a Crook. Kicking Nixon while he’s up. From:
Rolling Stone, Issue 684, 16.6.1994.

5.2. Secondary Sources

• McBride, David: Book Review on Hunter S. Thompson's Kingdom of Fear.

University of Nottingham, Nottingham 2003.

• Knox, Peter W.: A Savage Journey into Hunter S. Thompson’s American Dream:
A Critical Investigation Into the Theme as Found in His Writing and Lifestyle.
Senior Thesis. Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland 2006.

• Rolfsen, Bruce: Writer Hunter S. Thompson commits suicide. From: Air Force
Times, 21.2.2005.

• Torrey, Beef; Simonson, Kevin: Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson.

University Press of Mississippi, Mississippi 2008

• Weil, Martin; Lengel, Allan: Hunter S. Thompson dies at 67. From: The
Washington Post, 21.2.2005.

• Woods, Crawford: The Best Book on the Dope Decade. From: The New York

Times, 23.7.1972.


• Wikipedia on the following topics:

• Hunter S. Thompson
Date of Revision: 31.12.09

• Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (novel)
Date of Revision: 24.12.09

• Movie: Gibney, Alex: Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

6. Author's Declaration of Originality

Herewith I, Moritz Stückler, ensure that I am the only author of this work, and that all
used sources are correctly listed in my bibliography.

____________________, the__________ _____________________

(Unterschrift des Verfassers)