Saturday, November 18, 2006

Hunter S. Thompson: Carey's Creature


I heard Ralph Steadman on "Fresh Air" last night; his illustrations famously appeared with Hunter S. Thompson's writings. But how many HST fans know who made him famous? If you guessed Carey McWilliams, you get a happy face next to your name.

As editor of The Nation, McWilliams suggested that Thompson write a story on the Hell's Angels. HST was living in San Francisco and needed the $100. He replied to McWilliams, "Your cycle idea came this morning & was a pleasant surprise ... I'm surprised anybody in an editorial slot would be interested in a long look at this action."

That story--"The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders"--came out in 1965. Then McWilliams introduced Thompson to his editor friends in New York, and HST got the book deal for Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, his first bestseller.

Thompson famously abused his editors as well as drugs and alcohol, but when it came to McWilliams, he was a marshmallow. In 1966, he wrote to a friend, "Writing for Carey McWilliams is an honor ... So what if he doesn't pay much ... When your article appears in The Nation you feel clean." And in the 1999 Modern Library reprint of his first big book, Thompson was even more explicit about his debt to McWilliams: "More than any other person, Carey was responsible for the success of Hell's Angels."

Pretty rare sentiments, really, which is why Douglas Brinkley concluded that "throughout his long literary career there was one editor whom Thompson unhesitatingly admired: Carey McWilliams of The Nation."

I rest my case.

You can check out HST's correspondence with and about McWilliams in The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, edited by Brinkley. Highly recommended.

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