Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and the American Dream

Thesis (M.A.), 2007

69 Pages, Grade: 1,3

Free online reading


1. Introduction

2. Basic Concepts of the American Dream

3. City upon a Hill: The Puritans
3.1 Road to Salvation: The Combination of Success and Virtue
3.2 The Moral Example: A City upon a Hill

4. The 1950s
4.1 Suburban Bliss: The American Dream in the 1950s
4.2 Cold War Reality
4.3 The Rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the Beat Generation
4.4 The end of the decade

5. The 1960s
5.1 John F. Kennedy
5.2 The Port Huron Statement
5.3 The Renewal of the Nation
5.4 Martin Luther King
5.5 A Decade of Disillusion
5.6 The Hippies
5.7 Vietnam
5.8 Violence
5.9 Paranoia

6. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
6.1 The writing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
6.2 Gonzo Journalism
6.3 The end of the Sixties

7. Las Vegas
7.1 The history of Las Vegas
7.2 The landscape of Las Vegas
7.3 Duke and Dr. Gonzo in Las Vegas

8. Horatio Alger

9. Searching for the American Dream
9.1 The Reality of 1971
9.2 Impact of the Vietnam War
9.3 Remembering the Sixties
9.4 The District Attorneys’ Conference
9.5 Standing on the Main Nerve of the American Dream

10. Conclusion

11. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This thesis examines Hunter S. Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream and the American Dream. In order to do so there will be first given a quick introduction to the constituent parts of the concept of the American Dream and the influence of the first Puritan settlers on them. Then, a comparison between the 1950s and the 1960s shows the change of values in American society during these two decades and tries to explain the increasing degree of disillusion, violence and paranoia which had a determining influence on the American Dream of the late Sixties and early Seventies when Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was published. Finally, Thompson’s novel will be the focal point.

2. Basic Concepts of the American Dream

The concept of the American Dream is hard to grasp. Mainly, because the concept of the American Dream does not exist. Although most people claim to be able to define the American Dream it always turns out that there are considerable variations if not complete contradictions in their statements.

It seems almost impossible to pin down the essence of the American Dream in one clear statement or definition. Even if one just concentrates on the most obvious basic ideals represented by the American Dream, one cannot ignore the variety of aspects and the various possibilities of interpretation that lie even within them: freedom, equality, prosperousness, chance, new-beginning, opportunity, advancement, spontaneity, purity, individual fulfillment, unity and diversity, to name only a few. Jennifer Hochschild points out that the “idea of the American Dream has been attached to everything from religious freedom to a home in the suburbs, and it has inspired emotions ranging from deep satisfaction to disillusioned fury.” It generally depicts, she continues, “a good world where anything can happen and good things might” (Hochschild 1995: 15). Fossum and Roth note that “the Dream is and has always been comprised of many dreams; no single vision has ever totally dominated the American imagination. (...) Whatever unity it possesses is delicate, its diversity undeniable” (Fossum & Roth 1981: 6). And it may be just this variety of content which makes the American Dream so successful – its paradoxical essence.

On the one hand, the fact that the American Dream is “not bound to a single doctrine” is what gives it its “greatest charm,” as Parrington argues (Parrington 1947: 5). This vagueness, on the other hand, which leaves an open space for interpretation, can also turn the American Dream of one person into the American Nightmare of another: “Americans still disagree on the prescription for an ideal life, and ‘utopia’ is still ‘nowhere’” (Parrington 1947: 5). Accordingly, the concept of the American Dream concerns almost every single aspect of American society.

Still, there are of course various approaches that try to define this complex and diffuse concept and to get to its essence. The term ‘American Dream’ has been coined as late as 1931 by the historian James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America. Giving an account of the history of the United States, in his epilogue he evokes the “vision of something nobler” (Adams 1931: 414) which in his opinion the people of the United States had not yet lost during their struggle to build their nation, and introduces the American Dream as a “distinctive and unique gift [of America] to mankind.” He defines it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” Yet, he admits, it is a concept not without flaws: “(...) too many of ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it.” And he concludes, making a stand against the reduction of the American Dream to its materialistic aspects, that

it is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position (Adams 1931: 414).

For all his annoyance of some aspects which – to his mind – have been attributed incorrectly to the American Dream, Adams presumes that the quintessential conditions for the fulfillment of the promises the American Dream has given over the last centuries are still existent in the United States. He claims that the repressive class structures of other, older nations makes a full development of people towards becoming better persons, with better moral values, impossible.

(...) No, the American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtless counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class. And that dream has been realized more fully in actual life here than anywhere else, though very imperfectly even among ourselves.

It has been a great epic and a great dream. What, now, of the future? (Adams 1931: 414-415).

In regard this future, Adams demands that his fellow Americans must not only focus on economical improvement but that they need to strive for an improvement of inner values:

(...) if the American dream is to be reality, our communal spiritual and intellectual life must be distinctly higher than elsewhere, where classes and groups have their separate interests, habits, markets, arts, and lives. If the dream is not to prove possible of fulfillment, we might as well become stark realists, become once more class-conscious, and struggle as individuals or classes against one another. But if the dream is to come true, those on top, financially, intellectually, or otherwise, have got to devote themselves to the “Great Society,” and those who are below in the scale have got to strive to rise, not merely economically, but culturally. We cannot become a great democracy by giving ourselves up as individuals to selfishness, physical comfort, and cheap amusements. The very foundation of the American dream of a better and richer life for all is that all, in varying degrees, shall be capable of wanting to share in it (Adams 1931: 422).

Peter Freese (1994: 94 ff.) classifies the main ingredients of the American Dream into six different subgroups which complement each other:

The first and most important constitutive element to him is the notion that everything advances, i.e. the belief in progress. Instead of deterioration or stagnation the American Dream promises “a steady improvement” of the situation, be it “personal, communal or societal.”

As a consequence the second fundamental aspect of the American Dream is the firm belief in success: people can reach whatever they aim for, if only they put enough effort into it. Equal opportunity for all. There is no such thing as predestined unhappiness; if somebody is willing to improve, and willing to work hard for it, he will succeed.

The third belief which constitutes the American Dream according to Freese is based on the Puritan belief that God has selected them as his chosen people, a notion that was later transferred to the entire country and its inhabitants. Freese refers to this concept as the belief in manifest destiny. It establishes a certain self-perception which puts the American people on top of the world order:

[…] it is part and parcel [the American] national self-image, […] and it has always affected the way in which [the American] nation “does business” with the rest of the world. The Superpower. The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. One nation under God. […] The leaders of the free world. Champions of democracy (Fyfe 1993: 13).

The idea of frontiers that need to be reached and overcome is the fourth vital aspect in the interpretation of the American Dream. This notion can refer to the frontier in the west as well as to more abstract frontiers of individual development – important is the “idea of the continual challenge of respective frontiers.” This is closely connected to the ideas of progress and success and adds the concept of new-beginning.

Liberty and equality are established in fifth place in order to explain “the belief in the American form of government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Even though the political and economical reality of the United States has often been contradictory to these beliefs, they have been a part of the American Dream from the very beginning. Liberty can be explained from the belief in the manifest destiny of the American people, and both are of course indispensable prerequisites for a person’s ability to progress and succeed.

The notion of equality calls for the promise of the American Dream that the people of America, wherever they may come from “can live peacefully together;” whereas in this regard there are two different strands that one can believe in: either the idea “that immigrants of different nationalities, different ethnic stock and different religious affiliations can be fused into a new nation,” which would make up the American melting pot, or the hope that despite the cultural, ethnic, or religious differences there is a unity in diversity in the American Dream. (Freese 1994: 108)

In their pamphlet The American Dream, Robert H. Fossum and John K. Roth claim the aspect of a new-beginning to be the most outstanding one: “This belief exemplifies better than any other the optimism – some would call it naivety – of Americans and the fundamental reason why rhetoric about the Dream caught on in the United States” (Fossum & Roth 1981: 6). The myth of a new-beginning in a land of endless possibilities and the promise of reformation that this notion contains can be traced back to the Puritans.

3. City upon a Hill: The Puritans

All the basic elements of the American Dream adduced above can it their origins be ascribed to the Puritan settlers coming to America in the 17th century – with the probable exception of the melting pot/ethnic diversity/multiculturalism aspect – these notions evolved later in American history, and it should be fair to say that the Puritans have always considered themselves as an elitist class, God’s chosen exception. “The American dream is the Puritan dream; watered down and individualized, over the centuries, the American dream is a Puritan legacy” (Fyfe 1993: 14). Success and moral virtues, and the progress following from that; the belief in a manifest destiny and the task to reach and overcome frontiers, i.e. the notion of a new beginning; all of these ingredients that make the American Dream can be found in the earliest Puritan writings.

The vision of a “mundus novus,” a new world in the west, behind the horizon, which stood for innocence and purity – far from the decadence and decay that had been inflicted upon the “old” sinful Europe – has inspired European thinkers and writers before and especially ever since the discovery of the new continent. There have been utopian images of El Dorado, the golden country, presumed to be in South America, or of a new Atlantis, the legendary island; of the Shakespearean brave new world. “From a very early period America seemed almost a creation or extension of Europe – in a way which Asia and Africa could never be. And with time this relationship became ever more involved as Europeans tended to see in America an idealized or distorted image of their own countries, onto which they could project their own aspirations and fears, their self confidence and sometimes their guilty despair” (Honour 1975: 3).

The Puritans who left England saw themselves as God’s chosen people. Protesting against what they considered to be a too lax and too degenerated interpretation of religious duties and a depraved way of life, they saw the opportunity to start a new life in America, with a clean record, undisturbed from the sinful and bad influences of the old country. America consequently was seen as the future of devout mankind, the chance for redemption, the Promised Land. Comparing themselves to the ancient Israelites (Winthrop 1630: 22), the Puritans established an “Exodus mythos” (Peterson 1997: 5). As the only “pure” people on this earth they were granted a new beginning by their God; they were meant to create the ideal state. It was a new beginning in a new country, on a new continent in the west. This is the theoretical foundation for the notion of the New Beginning which constitutes part of the American Dream.

3.1 Road to Salvation: The Combination of Success and Virtue

Also, the Puritans felt that it was upon them to prove to God that the human race was worth saving. Its destiny was in their hands. If they failed in their endeavors not only they were going to be lost, but so was the rest of the world. This makes the matter of surviving the first years on the new continent not only a question of personal interest for the pilgrims: it put considerable pressure upon them to prove themselves worthy of the grace of God. The effect of this pressure has two sides to it: a material and a spiritual.

The Puritan ideology follows the doctrine of an individual’s predestination in life. Principally, because of the original sin, the soul of every man is condemned and will have to suffer throughout life and death. The ultimate supremacy and authority of God wills his followers into a humble and obedient existence. During his life on earth, man has to fulfill certain tasks and duties which have been imposed on him by God. Yet, he can try to mitigate the doomed fate by living an exemplary life, both spiritually and economically. The Puritans followed their religious conviction that working hard and striving for success was a way to praise God, to please him and to live according to his will. Their firm belief was that this would increase the glory of God on earth. Max Weber analyses this in great detail in his essay Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus and concludes: “(...) es bleibt, mit steigendem Nachdruck betont, der Hinweis darauf, daß die Erfüllung der innerweltlichen Pflichten unter allen Umständen der einzige Weg sei, Gott wohlzugefallen” (Weber 1920: 71). Thus, leading a successful life was considered as a road to salvation, and thus the notion of success through hard work and profit is implanted into the American Dream.

But, the striving for success had to be combined with a high set of moral values in order to avert a sinful and depraved way of life. Asceticism, contemplation and prayer added to the glorification of God. And in their position of God’s chosen people, the Puritans also had the responsibility to act as a model to the rest of the world.

It is necessary (...) to think of this Great Migration not as some merely human act, undertaken with whatever motives, but to think of it as a necessary step leading to nothing else than the redemption of the entire world. Should they fail, their failure too would radiate outward, and the human race would know that a divine opportunity had been lost, that a chance for progress toward God had been missed. (Baritz 1964: 17-18)

3.2 The Moral Example: A City upon a Hill

Exemplary for the high moral demands the Puritans imposed on themselves is the perception of their new home, America, as a “Citty upon a hill,” introduced by John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company in his sermon “A Modell of Christian Charity.” It was held in 1630 on board of the Arbella, one of the ships which took the first Puritan settlers to Massachusetts. In this sermon, Winthrop preached to his fellow settlers that

wee shall finde that the God in Israell is among us, when tenn of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the lord make it like that of New England.” For wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon Us, soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evil of the wayes of god, and all professours for God’s sake. Wee shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are goeing (Winthrop 1630: 23).

Winthrop wanted the pilgrims to set a moral example to the rest of the world. To him, America represented a “seemingly mythical landscape wherein the Puritan patriarchs could attempt to reinvent themselves as Biblical patriarchs” (Fyfe 1993: 17).

4. The 1950s

4.1 Suburban Bliss: The American Dream in the 1950s

The American Dream of the 1950s comprised for the majority of the United States citizens a retreat into the safety of a home, a small “nuclear” family and a steady job. After the end of World War II, the American people longed for certainty, rest and peace; for Happy Days. The ideal of a suburban home, two kids, television and a car flourished so that “by 1960, suburban residents of single-family homes outnumbered both urban and rural dwellers and the detached house had become the physical embodiment of hopes for better life” (Foner 1998: 264).

4.2 Cold War Reality

The concept of a universal enemy was worked out plainly through the propaganda of the Cold War. The world had two super powers emerging from the war: the Soviet Union and the United States. The general feeling was a fear of losing freedom to communism. The Truman Doctrine of 1947 emphasized the need to defend freedom against slavery which would befall the American people if they did not defend their moral values and rights (Foner 1998: 252-254). But it was exactly this defensive attitude and the fear of giving in to the alleged communist plan to take over the world that forced the United States into a rigid system of distrust towards new development and new ideas. Additionally, the fear of a recurrence of inflation and mass unemployment, which American society had lived through after World War I, created an atmosphere of intolerance towards anything strange or unknown. Civil liberties were restricted for anyone who was deemed communist. Conformity was patriotic, diversity a threat. There was either friend or foe. Also, this much conjured up freedom did not include African-Americans or other ethnic minorities in the United States.

After the republican Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, had declared in February of 1950 that he knew of more than 200 communists working for the state department, an unprecedented sense of hysteria and paranoia spread through the country. Communists were suspected to have infiltrated all important offices of the United States which led to a general repression of all things considered ‘anti-American’ – amongst others liberal body of thought, homosexuality, and ethnical parity. Civil rights organizations were considered suspicious because of their liberal attitude. The malicious campaigns of the McCarthy era subsided after the end of the Korean War and of McCarthy’s political career in 1954, but moral cowardice, mediocrity and conformity marked the general attitude of the average American citizen in the Fifties anyway (Wynn 1977a: 385-386). Under his presidency from 1953 to 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower and his vice president Richard Milhous Nixon wanted the United States to become a nation which followed a “dynamic” and “modern” conservatism (Wynn 1977a: 387). Eisenhower’s government was composed entirely of conservative and influential leading industrialists, commonly known as the eight millionaires and the plumber; the latter being Martin Durkin, official representative of the plumbers’ union, who resigned after only eight months of government (Wynn 1977a: 388). Eisenhower’s government gave the impression of being reactionary and shutting off towards new concepts or ideas, especially to those of a younger generation.

4.3 The Rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the Beat Generation

The ongoing discrimination of African-Americans and other minorities throughout the country promoted the rise of civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), and the Students Non-violent Co-ordination Committee (SNCC). Citizens fought against their discrimination with bus boycotts (for example 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama) and sit-ins (the first one noticed nationwide took place 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina). The news coverage of these non-violent forms of protest via television for the first time turned the nationwide attention to the segregation through southern Jim Crow laws as well as to those individuals who stood up to fight against it, most notably Martin Luther King (Finzsch 2007: 106-107). This was the beginning of the movement of a counterculture that would develop to its full extent in the Sixties. Other developments of emancipation concerned the rights of women and homosexuals. The writers of the beat generation – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs – intellectually challenged the conformity and the consumerism which prevailed. By the mid-Fifties they slowly found their audience in students and young people who rejected the conservative values of their parents and longed to fill the inner emptiness. They felt the need to overcome their alienation from the materialistic thinking society. The beat poet Gary Snyder said in 1969 about the atmosphere before 1955: “[today] there are more of them. I can remember at one time we thought it was the life style of only three people” (Charters 1973: 240).

Hence, the end of the Fifties saw an America that superficially lived in an anonymous suburban bliss of conformity while under the surface people organized themselves – despite repression and persecution – in order to overcome social injustice and discrimination. They fought for redemption of the promises the American Dream had given about equality and freedom. The American Dream of the 1960s was implemented in the ideals of the civil rights organizations and the beat generation of the Fifties, yet it only came to full rise in the mid-60s, when the beatnik lifestyle began to take over a whole generation not only of students or intellectuals, but of the whole youth movement: “Commitment, idealism, and dissent had come to replace the patriotic apathy of the 1950s” (Clavir Albert & Albert 1984: 13).

4.4 The end of the decade

American students in the beginning of the 1960s were said to become ideal employees of whom the future employers, and consequently the whole older generation, would not have to expect anything out of order or extravagant (Anderson 1995: 39). At the same time, the idea of freedom was deemed to be the highest American value, becoming “an inescapable theme of academic research, popular journalism, mass culture, and official pronouncements” (Foner 1998: 260). How did this rigid compliance to rules dictated by society on the one hand and this upholding of freedom on the other hand go together? It seems to be a complex delimitation against the states belonging to the Eastern bloc compared to which the United States aspired to present themselves as the moral example, the proverbial city upon a hill (Anderson 1995: 5) that guaranteed freedom from the communistic uniformity, while at the same time this delimitation did not allow individual freedom or extravagant behavior within American society. The Sixties brought a change to that attitude; during this decade the counterculture celebrated the delimitation from the older generation and the freedom of difference and diversity within America. The idea was to give a moral example by showing tolerance and establishing a world without a fixed concept of an enemy. To rebel against the presentation of the world in black and white, against the unquestioned premise that America was always right, against the self-conception of the United States as the World Police.

The massive rise in birth rates after World War II resulted in what was to become known as the generation of the baby boomers. This generation emphasized the development of individual freedom as opposed to the uniformity imposed on them by the older generations. They essentially shaped the decade of the Sixties.

5. The 1960s

5.1 John F. Kennedy

The notion that a new decade had begun not only literally but figuratively came with the election of John F. Kennedy for president in 1960. Kennedy embodied all the hopes and wishes that the younger baby boomer generation put into the future. He was – a well-known fact – the youngest president in American history so far, and he seemed to believe in the future, instead of being stuck in the past. To many he was an icon for the promise that America could do better than it did then. Hunter S. Thompson, trying to define the era of the Sixties in a letter to his editor at Random House, Jim Silberman, in 1970 sums up the hope of the younger generation ten years earlier:

[It was] that night in September, 1960, when I [...] watch[ed] the first Kennedy-Nixon debate on TV [...]. That was when I first understood that the world of Ike [Eisenhower] and Nixon was vulnerable ... and that Nixon, along with all the rotting bullshit he stood for, might conceivably be beaten. I was 21 then, and it had never occurred to me that politics in America had anything to do with human beings. It was Nixon’s game – a world of old hacks and legalized thievery, a never-ending drone of bad speeches and worse instincts. My central ambition, in the fall of 1960, was to somehow get enough money to get out of this country for as long as possible – to Europe, Mexico, Australia, it didn’t matter. Just get out, flee, abandon this crippled, half-sunk ship that A. Lincoln had once called “The last, best hope on earth.”

In October of 1960 that phrase suddenly made sense to me. I’m not sure why. It wasn’t Kennedy. He was unimpressive. His magic was in the challenge & the wild chance that he might even pull it off. With Nixon as the only alternative, Kennedy was beautiful – whatever he was. It didn’t matter. The most important thing about Kennedy, to me and millions of others, was that his name wasn’t Nixon. [...] he hinted at the chance of a new world – a whole new scale of priorities, from the top down. Looking at Kennedy on the stump, it was possible to conceive a day when a man younger than 70 might enter the White House as a welcome visitor, on his own terms. That was a weird notion in those days. After eight years of Ike, it was hard to imagine anyone except a retired board chairman or a senile ex-general having any influence in Government. They were the government – a gang of rich, mean-spirited old fucks who made democracy work by beating us all stupid with a series of billion-dollar hypes they called Defense Contracts, Special Subsidies, and “emergency tax breaks” for anybody with the grease to hire a Congressman (Thompson 2000: 260-261).

Kennedy seemed to promise a change in national and international politics, moving and modernizing stuck structures, while Richard Nixon, vice president under Eisenhower, who ran for president as the candidate of the Republican Party emphasized the accomplishments of the Eisenhower government; an era which the younger generation came to consider to be repressively reactionary (Wicker 1991: 234 ff.). The division of the United States concerning the future of the country at the beginning of the Sixties can be gauged by the extremely narrow victory of John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon: He won by a majority of only 112,881 votes (Wynn 1977b: 407).

With the young president there came a change into the White House as Kennedy sought the advice not only of representatives of the economy, but also of representatives of the academic world and of the civil rights organizations. He met with Martin Luther King and promised to take measures against the discrimination of African-Americans. Although Kennedy de facto missed the opportunity to change the legislative discrimination of African-Americans because of the resistance in congress, he nevertheless had chosen the opportunity to address the problems the United States were facing instead of ignoring them (Wynn 1977b: 406-410). The general atmosphere was one of change. Thousands of young Americans had the feeling that they were meant to improve their country and in the long term reform the world.

The American Dream of the 1960s as envisioned by the counterculture emphasized the aspects of freedom and equality, of individual fulfillment and unity in diversity. The pursuit of happiness did not necessarily ask for prosperousness and materialistic success like it had done in the Fifties. The priorities had changed. The climate was a very idealistic one, and young people believed that it was in their hands to make a difference by engaging themselves for instance in civil rights organizations, students’ organizations like the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), or the newly established Peace Corps, “the love child of his [Kennedy’s] administration” (Anderson 1995: 59).

Kennedy had [...] catalyzed a youthful desire for change that was itself a political power, as yet only dimly recognized, destined to transform the nation later in the decade. Before Kennedy gave it mainstream political meaning, that emerging force had been foreshadowed only in the alienated sullenness of a James Dean, the anarchic sensuality of an Elvis Presley, the restless adventuring of a Jack Kerouac (Hellmann 1986: 73).

5.2 The Port Huron Statement

The Port Huron Statement stands representatively for the ideals of the new generation. It was written in 1962 by one of the founders of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Tom Hayden, as a manifesto in order to express the dissatisfaction about the hypocrisy of the United States concerning civil rights and individual freedom. Hayden considered it an “Agenda for a Generation,” i.e. his generation: the students at the universities and their coevals. The Port Huron Statement ultimately states a utopian vision of a country that would try to live up to ideals like racial and social equality, a better education, civil liberties and freedom of speech and opinion; ideals, Hayden argued, which were already grounded in the in the very nature of the United States, but were ignored in the reality of the 1950s.

The protest was also directed against poverty in an affluent society, against the bureaucracy and corruption of institutions, and against the allegedly peaceful attitude of the United States in international politics while the nation really was amidst the military frenzy of an arms race with the Soviet Union:

We began to see complicated and disturbing paradoxes in our surrounding America. The declaration "all men are created equal..." rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and the big cities of the North. The proclaimed peaceful intentions of the United States contradicted its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo (Hayden 1962).

The previous generation was deemed apathetic and ignorant. The generation of today was to take action and better the conditions of life in America. Hayden wrote:

We seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims – that the individual share in those social distinctions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for common participation (Hayden 1962).

The distinctively new approach of this manifestation of the so-called New Left was the implication that had been given by John F. Kennedy before: That a social change was not only possible, but that it was happening right now, and that the post war generation of baby boomers were both capable and responsible to take part in it. Social commitment, awareness for political developments and a concern for injustice superseded the apathy and lack of interest that had governed the 1950s. Hunter S. Thompson describes the state of the country at the end of the fifties as an “uneasy vacuum in American life” against which parts of the younger generation – that came to be labeled as ‘hippies’ – rebelled. He argues further that

[the] hippies threatened the establishment by dis-interring some of the most basic and original ‘American values,’ and trying to apply them to life in a sprawling, high-pressure technocracy that has come a long way, in nearly 200 years, from the simple agrarian values that prevailed at the time of the Boston Tea Party. The hippies are a menace in form of an anachronism, a noisy reminder of values gone sour and warped ... of the painful contradictions in a society conceived as a monument to ‘human freedom’ and ‘individual rights,’ a nation in which all men are supposedly “created free and equal” ... a nation that any thinking hippy [sic] will insist has become a fear-oriented “warfare state” that can no longer afford to tolerate even the minor aberrations that go along with ‘individual freedom’ (Thompson 2000: 7).

This “anachronism” Thompson describes brings back the values of the American Dream which were not exclusively concerned with the increase of riches and status, which were less superficial and more idealistic.

5.3 The Renewal of the Nation

The idealism of the beginning of the Sixties caused a profound and radical change in American society. After the Fifties decade of apathetic adjournment or ignorance of the burning issues the United States were facing domestically, these conflicts were bound to erupt in the Sixties (Wynn 1977a: 404).

The integration of African-Americans and the end of race segregation, especially in the South, was one of the major objectives of the civil rights movement which in the beginning of the Sixties adhered to non-violent protests like sit-ins and freedom marches. In order to overturn the segregation of black and white, activists joined for concerted actions against the hypocrisy of a society which officially declared all of its citizens to be free and equal, but de facto denied a great part of it humane treatment. The participants in those nonviolent actions encountered threats and brute force; they were abused and denigrated, menaced, beaten up, and killed. But they set the tone for the beginning of the decade and lived the example of successful actions through non-violence. They gave hope to many people that something was about to change in America, and that everybody could take part in these changes. The renewal of a nation that had been caught in deadlocked structures for the past decade also aroused admiration: “In sitting down they are standing up for the American dream,” said the former senator and president of the University of North Carolina, Frank P. Graham, in 1961 (quoted in Anderson 1995: 51). The Kennedy administration had given a lot of hope to the young generation at the beginning of the Sixties but in practice failed to keep a lot of promises about a far-reaching improvement of the situation of the African-American population (Finzsch 2007: 113). In spite of the fact that several African-Americans were appointed for important offices within government and administration (e.g., Thurgood Marshall, legal advisor of the NAACP, served as the first African-American on the Circuit Court of Appeals of the United States), the situation for the majority changed only very slowly and tardily. Kennedy could not assert a change of the legislation in congress. His bill which intended an extensive broadening of civil rights by abolishing the segregation in everyday life, in education and at work did not pass the congress until after the President’s murder in 1963. Kennedy instead sent in executive authorities in order to enforce civil rights: Thus, the national guard had to oversee the matriculation of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in 1962, and in 1963 the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, had to be forced to allow African-American students to register at the University of Tuscaloosa (Wynn 1977b: 409 ff.).

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Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and the American Dream
University of Cologne
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Hunter, Thompson, Fear, Loathing, Vegas, American, Dream
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Katharina Axmann (Author), 2007, Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and the American Dream, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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