The Kentucky Derby will be run this Saturday in Louisville. The thoroughbred horse race, now 140 years old, is one of the country’s legendary sporting events, but it also played a major role in spawning a new kind writing style, created by another Louisville product, the late Hunter S. Thompson.
As Rick Howlett of Here & Now contributing station WFPL in Louisville reports, there’s a new appreciation for the founder of Gonzo journalism in his native city and state.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
And, you know, the Kentucky Derby isn't just one of the country's most legendary sporting events. It also played a major role in spreading a new writing style created another product of Louisville, the late Hunter Thompson.
As Rick Howlett of HERE AND NOW contributing station WFPL reports, there's a new appreciation for the founder of gonzo journalism in his native home.
RICK HOWLETT, BYLINE: Hunter Thompson was long associated with his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. But nine years after his suicide there at age 67, Thompson is getting some mainstream recognition back in the Bluegrass.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hunter S. Thompson was born in Louisville in 1937. He died in...
HOWLETT: This week, Thompson was inducted into Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: His first gonzo story was the "Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" in June 1970 Scanlan's Monthly.
HOWLETT: It was a scathing, bourbon-soaked first person account of the derby scene and includes this somewhat exaggerated description of the Churchill Downs infield.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 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.
HOWLETT: Thompson's reporting on the Derby was also the Gonzo cornerstone for his later works like "Hell's Angels," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," and "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail." Thompson left Louisville as a teenager after a run-in with the law that friends and family say left him with some lingering bitterness about the city. But he never let go of his Kentucky roots and the people back home. That was evident in some of his personal correspondence. This is from a letter to his mother.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If I could think of a way to do it right now, I'd head back to Louisville, sit on the porch drinking beer, drive around Cherokee Park for a few nights and try to sink back as far as I could into the world that did its best to make me.
HOWLETT: Now Louisville is bolstering Thompson's legacy.
HOWLETT: Thompson has joined the ranks of famous Louisvillians like Muhammad Ali and Diane Sawyer, who've been honored with giant murals placed on prominent buildings. Thompson's likeness is a sketch by his longtime collaborator, Ralph Steadman. It's just a few blocks from his boyhood home.
His mural campaign was spearheaded by a Louisville poet and friend, Ron Whitehead, who says Thompson came along at a time when literature had become mundane.
RON WHITEHEAD: He made it exciting again, just like punk music did The Clash and the Sex Pistols did in the mid-'70s for rock 'n' roll, which was about dead at that time.
HOWLETT: Whitehead also organizes Gonzofest, a weeklong party celebrating all things Thompson. Mayor Greg Fischer was there this year to read a proclamation crediting Thompson with inspiring a generation of writers, musicians, and other kindred souls.
MAYOR GREG FISCHER: It is in that spirit, that sense of community pride and appreciation for the gifts and legacy he left behind that we proclaim Louisville to be Gonzoville March 31 through April 6. Great job...
HOWLETT: So what would Hunter Thompson make of all this establishment attention? This is his wife, Anita.
ANITA THOMPSON: People are surprised to hear me say this, but yes, I think he would be pleased with the attention from the establishment. He believed that people are the establishment, we make the establishment.
HOWLETT: Hunter Thompson wrote: I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me. That gonzo persona is often cited as the reason some in Louisville have been slow to acknowledge Thompson's literary talents, and his connection with the city. But that seems to be changing.
Journalist Michael Lindenberger is a Louisville native, now with the Dallas Morning News, who has written extensively about Thompson. He says Thompson cultivated the gonzo image, but deserves to be taken seriously by those who might be put off by it.
MICHAEL LINDENBERGER: If you strip away all the talk about guns and drugs, you still have tremendous accomplishment as a writer, you know, three major works that really do survive and are worth rereading, and I think will be reread for many years to come.
THOMPSON: As crazy as Hunter was, I can say, being his wife, he was a Southern gentleman to the poor. I mean, he was a beautiful man.
HOWLETT: Anita Thompson says she hopes his literary respect will extend to her husband's legacy as a person.
THOMPSON: One of the definitions of gentleman is making people comfortable around you. And although he could make people uncomfortable in his writing, you know, by design, in person, Hunter made people that he loved very comfortable and welcomed.
HOWLETT: There's more to come from Hunter Thompson's literary estate. Anita Thompson says another group of her husband's letters will be published within the next few years.
For HERE AND NOW, I'm Rick Howlett in Louisville.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
I think, did you guys say this is Chet Atkins? Perfect, Chet Atkins giving a little nod to the Derby.
PFEIFFER: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Sacha Pfeiffer.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.