Reading Other People's Mail

I love reading published collections of letters. You get to see people at their frankest and most unguarded moments. And depending on when the letters were written, they provide a window into the past, how what we now call history looked to people as it happened.

Of the many such collections we have in the Minuteman Library Network, here is one of my favorites:

The journalist Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) (left) was an outrageous presence on the American political and literary scene during the twentieth century. He was often a news item in his own right.  In Fear and Loathing in America: the Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976, we have an epistolary portrait of a journalist at a critical juncture in his career and in American history. He was struggling to finish what would become his breakout work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, constantly worried about money, and dismayed by the corruption of the US political establishment. He witnessed  events that were national traumas when they occurred. He was at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago where police attacked political protesters: "I witnessed at least ten beatings in Chicago that were worse than anything I ever saw the Hell's Angels do." And during the 1968 presidential primaries, he was prophetically cynical about the ultimate outcome: "McCarthy is the only human being in the race, so naturally he's doomed."

But what really stands out in this book is not Thompson as a journalist or Thompson as a political observer, but Thompson as a man who was never afraid to say exactly what he thought. In one letter Thompson asks the manager of a local CBS station: “Is it too much to ask of you to provide even one hour a week of something above the level of simian or senile entertainment?”  And when running for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, he wrote to a friend about the firm public stand he took on illegal drugs: “I dismissed marijuana as a low-level ‘stupor drug’ and said I preferred…mescaline, and occasionally, Acid.” And his response to a fundraising letter from a veterans’ association that publicly supported the war in Vietnam is classic Thompson: “abandon this vicious, demented hypocrisy and look for honest work.”

If this sounds appealing, you'll be interested to know we have an earlier collection of Thomspon’s letters in the network: The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967.

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