What is Gonzo?

In an effort to get away from the Bush Tax Cut Exemption Blues, this columnist hiked to Moe’s Bookstore, in Berkeley, last week, to hear a talk by Benjamin Griffin, one of the associated editors of the recently published first volume of Mark Twain’s three volume autobiography.  The book has had Berkeley’s intellectual community all agog for the second half of this year.  We had a pen and our official Ampad 4 inch by 8 inch Reporter’s Notebook in the left back pocket of our jeans (just in case) and then, wouldn’t ya know it, just when we settled back to enjoy a night off, it seemed like we had to get to work because the speaker offered tidbits of evidence we could use in a continuing argument in the employee lounge at the World’s Laziest Journalist headquarters that pitted the editorial department against the legal department.

Griffin mentioned that Twain wrote everything in longhand except the Autobiography, which he dictated to a secretary.  The jumbled result has for years caused extensive discomfort to a continuing series of editors because they wanted to take the rambling, free association, stream of consciousness material and put it into a different order other than the chronological one in which it was delivered by Twain.

Which of the two methods of composing is better?  Editorial argues for direct to the paper and legal makes the case for dictating the words.  Do dictators write better novels?

In the Q and A session after the talk, Griffin was asked if a Twain scholar, hearing a passage for the first time, could tell if it had been written in longhand or dictated, replied:  “I can” and got a good laugh.  He then noted that Joseph Conrad, for whom English was a second language, dictated his novels.  According to very old anecdotal evidence, Errol Stanley Gardner used the dictation method for his Perry Mason courtroom drama novels.

In “James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor and Himself (Edited by Michael J. Rosen Harper Perennial 1989 page 5),” readers are informed:  “I still write occasionally – in the proper sense of the word – using black crayon on yellow paper and getting perhaps twenty words to the page.  My usual method, though, is to spend the morning turning over the text in my mind.  Then in the afternoon, between 2 and 5, I call in a secretary and dictate to her.”  

Griffin also informed the audience that most of Twain’s stories came from first hand experience and observation and they often involved some distortion of the situation.

Fictionalizing and including the writer as part of the scene sounded like a very familiar formula.  Where had we heard that about a writer using that modus operandi?

Wow!  Now we were closing in on a doubleheader column as a bonus for working instead of taking it easy.  Hadn’t Griffin just outlined the Gonzo style of writing?  Could it be that Mark Twain was Gonzo before Hunter Thompson was born?

The first thing such a column would need is a definition of the word Gonzo.  In the book Gonzo: the Life of Hunter S. Thompson (An oral Biography by Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour Little Brown and Company 2007) the origin of the word is outlined by Doug Brinkley on pages 125 and 126 but he doesn’t give a definition of the word itself.

Online, at the Owl Farm blog we found <a href =http://www.owlfarmblog.com/blog/2007/04/what_is_gonzo_journalism.html>Hunter Thompson’s definition</a> from the Great Shark Hunt.  It boiled down to firsthand observations, quick composition, and some storyline streamlining via fictionalizing.

This week, we’ve been rereading parts of William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary.  He wanted to record history as he saw it happening.  In the Foreword he says:  “The only justification in my own mind was that chance, and the kind of job I had, appeared to be giving me a somewhat unusual opportunity to set down from day to day a first-hand account of a Europe that was already in agony and that, as the months and years unfolded, slipped inexorably towards the abyss of war and self-destruction.”  It is a great book but none dare call it Gonzo Journalism.

How much fictionalizing is an acceptable level?  Where does Gonzo journalism stop and tall tales begin?  Online we found that tall tales involve “a story with unbelievable elements related as if it were true.”  Works such as the Singular Travels, Campaigns and Adventures of Baron Munchausen (written by Rudolf Eric Raspe?) would be disqualified from being called Gonzo Journalism because the humor is in the extreme exaggeration of reality.  An example would be the Baron’s encounter with a frightful wolf:  “ . . . I laid hold of his intrails, turned him inside out like a glove and flung him to the ground where I left him.” 

Richard Trageskis managed to participate in the Battle for Guadalcanal and keep a (forbidden?) diary of the experience.  It was turned into a bestselling book and movie during World War II. 

Don Lattin, in a review of two new books (Page E 1 and E 6 of the December 2, 2010 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle) confuses things even further by trying to rechristen the Gonzo style.  Lattin wrote:  “ . . . an overheated speedy prose style, one that has come to be known in some circles as ‘<a href =http://articles.sfgate.com/2010-12-02/entertainment/25002888_1_merry-pranksters-leary-and-kesey-psychedelic/2#loopbegin>hysterical realism</a>.’”  He drolly adds:  “This irreverent in the moment tone may have once work for Wolfe or Hunter S. Thomason, but it quickly becomes tiresome when chronicling something that happened half a century ago.”

The fact that the official version of Twain’s autobiography has been held off the market for 100 years and is now selling well (No. 3 on the New York Times Nonfiction Best Sellers list for December 12, 2010) is all that is needed to invalidate Lattin’s judgment on the topic of Gonzo Journalism and discourage any additional sour grapes attempts to rename it “hysterical realism.”

Jane Stillwater is a friend and blogging colleague and also she is a veteran Berkeley activist and grandmother.  She has written a book, Bring Your Own Flak Jacket, which describes her experiences being embedded with Marines in Iraq and freelance traveling in and reporting from Afghanistan.  On page 358, she reports:  “The helicopter ride back to the Green Zone was spectacular because our Blackhawk didn’t have doors.”  Doesn’t that sound very Gonzo? 

Can anyone deny that editor Julian Assange has become part of the story?  It seems that an editor shouldn’t be eligible to become the new Hunter Thompson. 

Perhaps William L. Shirer would say that any writing that permits fictionalizing isn’t journalism at all.  If one admits that true journalism has zero tolerance for fabrications, should Fox News be permitted to refer to itself as a member of the journalism media?  Could they claim to be purveyors of Gonzo entertainment?

In the December of 1934 issue of Esquire magazine Ernest Hemingway wrote:  “But the bad luck for the customer is that your correspondent was a working newspaper man and as such used to envy the way columnists were allowed to write about themselves.”  Hemingway overcame that reluctance but can the Gonzo label be applied to his work? 

The topic of what is the precise definitive definition of Gonzo and who, other than Hunter S. Thompson, can wear the mantle of Gonzo is fertile ground for a book project.  The topic of journalistic tolerance for fictionalization belongs in the classrooms at various J-schools. 

Stirring up something and then walking away from it worked for George W. Bush, so we’ll give it a try.  Here’s a question for those scholars who like the debates about the possibility that <a href =http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A2577206>Christopher Marlowe wrote one, some, or all of Shakespeare’s plays</a>:  Did Mark Twain hire Ambrose Bierce to do some ghost writing work?

Sir Winston Churchill wrote:  “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”

Now the disk jockey will play James Booker’s 1960 piano instrumental titled “Gonzo,” Jerry Lee Louis’ song “I wish I was 18 again”  (listen to the words and tell me that isn’t Gonzo journalism set to music), and Ted Nugent’s 1978 Double Live Gonzo album. 

We have to go to the Hiller Aviation Museum to cover their celebration of the DC-3’s seventy-fifth birthday.  Have a “when the going gets weird; the weird turn pro” type week.

This column has been cross-posted on



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