Hunter S. Thompson: The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved – Critique

This was written as a part of my Features & Storytelling class, within my Journalism course.

Hunter S. Thompson directly places himself within the story in what is now known as the first example of gonzo journalism – his coverage of the 1970 Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly.

The subjective, personal nature of the piece, written “under duress”, ensures that it is uniquely manic and authentic, as Thompson is more storyteller than reporter here. Somewhat akin to Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’, this piece marked the beginnings of a brand new style of writing.

Thompson places a larger focus on the days surrounding the Derby rather than the day itself. From the outset, the reader is presented with a clear image, as Thompson conveys an air of familiarity through a detailed arrival into the airport. His portrayal of people hugging within the terminal with “big grins and a whoop here or there” depicts a sense of humanity and realism that would be quite familiar to readers.

Thompson is illustrating – perhaps accidentally, – the mindset of a typical Derby punter, through his discussion with “Jimbo”. Furthermore, the fact that he continually places his writing into context – almost grimly citing “no mention of any trouble brewing at a university in Ohio called Kent State” as well as “the market, meanwhile, continued its grim slide” – conveys inklings of reportage and reinforces his belief that the Derby is not necessarily the most important thing in the world… in a direct contrast to Jimbo.

His lack of press credentials almost comes across as slightly farcical… yet, his description of the events following, amongst his claim that “one way or another we’ll get inside” underpins the hallmarks of gonzo journalism. The introduction of British illustrator Ralph Steadman is a depiction of an outsider’s perspective on the Derby, as Thompson recalls him looking “worried” following his description of Louisville as a “weird place”.

One of Steadman’s illustrations within the piece. This one was used as the article’s header photo. 

Within the piece’s structure certain sentences are emboldened, to place a greater emphasis upon them. They aren’t chosen randomly – these sentences tend to underpin key motifs of the piece. One example pertains to Steadman’s search for “the mask of the whiskey gentry – a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis”, as the “special face” he sought to capture the essence of the event.

Eventually, Thompson shifts his focus to the Derby. Yet once this starts, the flow of the piece is somewhat interrupted, as Thompson turns to his notes alongside “sporadic memory flashes” – it becomes much more of a stream of consciousness, littered with one-word sentences and elongated descriptions of patrons. The writing becomes crazed, as although there is “no way to see the race, not even the track…nobody cares.”. The scattered, frenetic style here again masterfully illustrates the gonzo style, in a way that seemingly only Thompson himself is able to achieve.

The decadent and depraved nature of the Derby, the “special face” Steadman sought to illustrate, ends up residing much closer to home. Prior to the disjointed final section – which I found somewhat difficult to understand – Thompson rounds out the piece in an interesting cyclical fashion, as the outsider Steadman himself is aware that “we came down here to see this teddible scene… and now, you know what? It’s us…”.

(‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’, written by Hunter S. Thompson with illustrations from Ralph Steadman, can be read here.)

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