Tuesday, March 01, 2005


The Weekly Standard’s Web site has an odd bit of invective directed at Hunter S. Thompson that, in a good indication of its quality, begins by saying his suicide “may definitively mark the conclusion of the chaotic ‘baby-boomer’ rebellion.” May definitively, indeed, and definitively may not. It’s the very definition of something that’s possible.

The writer, Stephen Schwartz, writes mainly for conservative publications, and “The End of the Counter-Culture: Hunter S. Thompson: 1939-2005” shows it.

It’s an insulting piece — calling Thompson’s writing “mainly noise” and “incoherent scribblings” — riddled with logical dead-ends, nonsequiturs, inaccuracies and pettiness. Nearly every sentence contains a clunker. Many have more than one, and the cumulative effect is impressive, especially because where Schwartz is not simply wrong, he is frequently incoherent.

The key passage, which found its way into The New York Times’ Week in Review section, runs as follows:

Thompson had much in common with Burroughs and Ginsberg. First, their products were mainly noise. Their books were reissued but now sit inertly on bookstore shelves, incapable of inspiring younger readers, or even nostalgic baby boomers, to purchase them. Thompson claimed credit for the invention of “gonzo journalism,” epitomized by his great success, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” published in 1972. He will inevitably be hailed by newswriters as the creator of a genre. But if his work is taught to the young, it is as an exemplar of the madness of the ’60s, not as literature or journalism. Aside from his own later works, including such trivia, bearing his signature, as “The Great Shark Hunt,” “Generation of Swine,” and “Songs of the Doomed,” of what did “gonzo” journalism consist? Thompson left no authorial legacy.

It has long been argued that lasting literature is an impossibility without imitation and emulation, and that although young authors often produce works ridiculously imitative of their idols, real writers grow out of such mimesis to gain recognition for their own, individual abilities. But who can imagine a youthful talent beginning with an exercise in the gonzo style? Thompson produced no others like him, for the same reason Burroughs and Ginsberg generated no schools of novel-writing or verse. One may go further and say they had nothing to teach the young, except to emit a cacophony.

Schwartz’s piece is a prime example of “consider the source” criticism that fails even the most cursory test of common sense: The written media have been overwhelming in their acknowledgment and adulation of Thompson and his writings, with many such appreciations written by people who began their careers inspired by Thompson, if not outright imitating him.

This points to the primary problem of Schwartz’s complaint: To prove that Thompson, William S. Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg and their ilk left an “authorial legacy,” Schwartz seems to insist there be equally famous writers and poets who are indistinguishable from the countercultural icons. Where else does this test apply? Must there be painters whose works are indistinguishable from Picasso’s to prove Picasso was great? Are there works that echo Proust so well they prove Proust deserving of legend? Where are the clones of Sylvia Plath toasted for their works?

In fact, real writers — whatever that means — do grow out of imitation to “gain recognition for their own, individual abilities,” making it nearly impossible to track, without their own testimony, talents sparked by Thompson. (Real bad writers keep imitating Thompson and deservedly fade into obscurity.) This doesn’t lessen the greatness of Thompson in the slightest; it’s the impossibility of copying him, especially in light of his immense personal and professional success, that proves his greatness. The same goes for Burroughs, Ginsberg and many others.

Schwartz’s standard of success is a paradox, and impossible to reach. Consider the source, though: Schwartz has written for a few newspapers, preaches to the converted in conservative publications and has produced a couple of books, one on “The Two Faces of Islam,” the other a “Balkan Jewish Notebook.” Chances that his work has inspired youth, meeting his standard as lasting literature, are slim. This is a flea vengefully biting the corpse of Lassie.

Nowhere is this more clear than the passage in which Schwartz gratuitously snipes that Thompson’s “enablers included ... pop huckster Jann S. Wenner, the grand ayatollah of Rolling Stone, a tabloid which began as a pop music paper, then tried to make itself over as a serious journal, and is now read by ... who?”

In addition to this being irrelevant, Rolling Stone has a steady, audited circulation of 1.27 million throughout North America and Europe. The Weekly Standard boasts of having a circulation of “more than 60,000.”


I am, by the way, perfectly aware my own criticisms of Schwartz’s criticism can be used against me, including the comparative size of my audience and that I’m preaching to the converted. The difference, of course, is the quality of the criticism. Fans of Schwartz are invited to consider the source — and then try to knock my arguments down as easily as I can knock down his.

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