Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe are fated to be forever linked by the rubric “New Journalism,” a loose category of non-traditional, narrative-oriented writers forging a more subjective, personal, and obstreperous style of reporting that emerged in the mid- to late 1960s, a group that included Wolfe, Thompson, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and Gay Talese. The linkage of Thompson and Wolfe as primary avatars of this new form may have been cold comfort at best for HST, the rebellious and angry individualist par excellence.
In 1973 Wolfe, in an attempt to define and assume leadership of the group, published an anthology called The New Journalism, which book included an excerpt from HST’s 1966 book Hell’s Angels as well as his 1970 article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” Wolfe had already used the phrase a year earlier in the title of a piece for New York Magazine, which was still being edited by the great Clay Felker at that point.
But in actuality, the term New Journalism had been bandied about quite a bit even before Wolfe’s 1972 pieces for Felker. Always a consummate self-promoter, Wolfe had been using the phrase in 1971 and earlier, as a letter from Thompson conclusively establishes (as do many other sources, most likely.
Wolfe wrote Thompson from Rome on February 25, 1971, and the letter seems innocuous (you can read it on this page). Wolfe indicates that the Italians think Wolfe is weird, “as if I were a new Oldsmobile, nothing more & nothing less.” He discusses the preparations of the New Journalism anthology, praising the Hell’s Angels piece as well as “one of your superb Scanlan’s pieces (too uproarious for words, man).” In the event, Wolfe was true to his word, the Kentucky Derby piece mentioned above did first appear in Scanlan’s.
In a letter dated March 3, HST angrily denounces Wolfe for bad-mouthing him in Rome, which destination HST had plans to visit a year later on a book tour. In the letter Thompson expresses annoyance for linking Thompson with “that horrible ‘new journalism’ shuck you’re promoting”—so even by 1971 Wolfe’s use of the phrase was becoming old hat. (Both of these letters, by the way, can be found in Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, vol. 2.)
Quite simply, Thompson, a writer famed for his use of invective, really outdoes himself in this particular missive—it may very well be the funniest letter I have ever read, full stop.
Here it is:
March 3, 1971
Woody Creek, CO
You worthless scumsucking bastard. I just got your letter of Feb 25 from Le Grande Hotel in Roma, you swine! Here you are running around fucking Italy in that filthy white suit at a thousand bucks a day laying all kinds of stone gibberish & honky bullshit on those poor wops who can’t tell the difference . . . while I’m out here in the middle of these goddamn frozen mountains in a death-battle with the taxman & nursing cheap wine while my dogs go hungry & my cars explode and a legion of nazi layers makes my life a goddamn Wobbly nightmare…
You decadent pig. Where the fuck do you get the nerve to go around telling those wops that I’m crazy? You worthless cocksucker. My Italian tour is already arranged for next spring & I’m going to do the whole goddamn trip wearing a bright red field marshal’s uniform & accompanied by six speed-freak bodyguards bristling with Mace bombs & when I start talking about American writers & the name Tom Wolfe comes up, by god, you’re going to wish you were born a fucking iguana!!
OK for that, you thieving pile of albino warts. You better settle your goddamn affairs because your deal is about to go down. “Unprofessorial,” indeed! You scurvy wop! I’ll have your goddamn femurs ground into bone splinters if you ever mention my name again in connection with that horrible “new journalism” shuck you’re promoting.
Ah, this greed, this malignancy! Where will it end? What filthy weight in your soul has made you sink so low? Doctor Bloor was wright! Hyenas are taking over the world! Oh Jesus!!! What else can I say? Except to warn you, once again, that the hammer of justice looms, and that your filthy white suit will become a flaming shroud!
As far as Thompson’s disavowal of the term “New Journalism” goes, the writer William Kennedy, author of Ironweed, isn’t so sure, saying in the oral history Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson that HST “liked the idea of being part of the New Journalism ... but Hunter wanted more; he wanted to transcend it, and he did. He wanted to be singular, and he was.”
Lest you imagine that animosity represented the alpha and omega of the relationship between Wolfe and Thompson, consider this passage from William McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson relating to Thompson’s unceremonious departure from the National Observer in 1965:
Hunter always told a different story about how he left the Observer. “My final reason for leaving was because I wrote this strongly positive review of [Tom] Wolfe’s Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. The feature editor killed it because of a grudge. I took the Observer’s letter and a copy of the review with a brutal letter about it all to Wolfe. I then copied that letter and sent it to the Observer. I had told Wolfe that the review had been killed for bitchy, personal reasons.” (As Hunter explained to a friend, “Somebody on the Observer—in a reject position—had worked with Wolfe on the Washington Post and hated the air that he breathed.”)
Thompson ends that letter to Wolfe, which is available in Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, as follows: “If it does you any good in the head to know that it caused the final severance of relations between myself and the Observer, then at least it will do somebody some good. As for myself I am joining the Hell’s Angels and figure I should have done it six years ago.”
But that was written in 1965, and the two men were just beginning to know each other. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that six years of exposure to the white-suited dandy had the effect of souring HST on Wolfe…....