“Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.”
A major feature of Hunter S Thompson’s work is his fascination with bizarre American legends and urban myths. Typically they appear as ideological landmarks, story locations, character histories or the subjects of dogmatic flights of fantasy. Senior political figures are secretly revealed to be in the thrall of Nazi physicians or Californian bikers are transformed into Viking hoards raiding homesteads in the Old West, while Hawaiian gods speed around the Pacific wielding deep sea fishing rods and downing quarts of cheap whisky. Unfortunately, in critical circles these references are often cited as purely technical gimmicks, a consequence of Hunter’s need to generate new historical context to lend a viable framework to his various outlandish presentations of American culture. This may be partly true. But, as is the wont of most modern literary criticism, it is also an observation that’s painfully removed from the reader’s experience of his work, and misses the broader point quite spectacularly.
I’d posit a much simpler perspective on Hunter’s impressionistic rants. When he was enjoying his writing he was a great prose stylist and a great satirist. When he wasn’t, he was a good journalist. And the leap from the one to the other, from great writer to journalist, is best characterised by these explosively creative trips into his mythic America.
Anyhow…here’s the first of some of the myths, legends and fantastical locations visited by Hunter on his various sojourns.
Aztlan was the mythical home of the Aztec people. In Aztec legend it is represented in much the same way as the Garden of Eden. With the significant difference being that it was ruled by a tyrannical godlike caste of murderous plutocrats, which in western mythological terms seems rather masochistic. Maybe it makes a little more sense viewed alongside Aztec culture, who knows?
Regardless, the Chicano movement insisted that Aztlan was the birthright of the Mexican people. And went on to identify this mythical territory as the southern American states that were annexed during the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848. In a nut the Chicanos laid tentative claim to a portion of land that included New Mexico, California, Arizona, Texas, Utah and Colorado.
And here’s the police response. This photo was taken minutes before a policeman murdered a Latin American journalist named Ruben Salazar. Hunter covered the story for Rolling Stone with the aid of Oscar Acosta.
As a mythic piece of American folklore this Aztlan connection became Hunter’s symbol for a disenfranchised people. A hallucinatory land of cruel gods and splintered tribes… well, in Hunter’s words…
“This is Aztlan, more a concept than a real definition… a colourful tomb.”
On a lighter note here’s a picture of Hunter in Mexico, relaxing with a beer:
If not maybe you’ll find ‘The Imaginary Worlds of Dr Hunter S Thompson: Part 2’ more interesting. I’ll be looking at Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and some other stuff too. Till then…