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SONS OF KENTUCKY: Two remarkable biographies highlight lives of Bluegrass State natives Edgar Cayce and Hunter S. Thompson

A.R.E. Press / Public Affairs Books
"There Is a River" (left) was released in 1942; and "Freak Kingdom" was released in 2018.
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SONS OF KENTUCKY: Two remarkable biographies highlight lives of Bluegrass State natives Edgar Cayce and Hunter S. Thompson – There Is a River: The  Story of Edgar Cayce by Thomas Sugrue and Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism by Timothy Denevi (A.R.E. Press, 1942) and (Public Affairs Books, 2018)

A couple of years ago, my father and I went on a trip to Kentucky. In the mid-1960’s he had worked in a bank in Louisville, the state’s largest city, and had fond memories of his time there. I was particularly interested in seeing Louisville, a dynamic, Ohio River city and the hometown of one of my favorite writers - gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were native Kentuckians. So are Loretta Lynn and  the late world champion boxer Muhammad Ali, who was also from Louisville.

But it was Thompson (1937-2005) and "sleeping prophet" and psychic Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) who are among the most fascinating "Sons of Kentucky" I have ever come across. Both were remarkable men, their lifespans only sharing Thompson's earliest years and Cayce's final years of life. In fact, Cayce gave a reading just three days before Thompson's birth in Louisville on July 18, 1937, where Cayce - who was not a trained medical doctor - told the patient to get a more alkaline diet to help with joint pain and muscle inflammation. 

But there is something in the Bluegrass State water, something in the rocks and soil that produced two profoundly important American men such as Thompson and Cayce, as different as they are in personality and approach from one another.

Thomas Sugrue's classic biography on Edgar Cayce is absolutely remarkable in its depth and coverage of a simple man from Hopkinsville, Kentucky (a town that would attain notoriety in 1955 as a family in that community reported being terrorized by creatures thought to have been alien beings - indeed, the center of Christian County, Kentucky has a decidedly weird history). 

Cayce had not sought out his unique ability to go into a trance and be able to offer holistic medical advice to ailing folks seeking his help, or be able to talk about historical events - or future events - 

When it became clear to Cayce's family that their boy had a special talent, particularly when he would sleep with a book under his pillow and awake knowing everything in it, they finally took notice.

"Is there anything to that sleeping business you told me about?" his father asked a young Cayce.

"That's all I do, I just sleep on them. When I wake up I know everything in the book. I don't know how it happens, but it works," Cayce replied.

And as a committed and pious Christian, Cayce would become concerned about the origins of his clairvoyance. Talking to a friend about it, he is reminded that the Bible talks of "spirits and visions" and to have the discernment of whether it is coming from a positive or negative place. 

Later, he would get a confirmation, via Psalm 46 in the Bible, that his ability is from a postive source. Interestingly, it reads: "Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling therof., Selah. There is a river, the stram whereof shall make glad to the city of God ..." As a side note, in letters written years after Cayce's death, Thompson would conclude his letters with the term "Selah" which is used a number of times in the Old Testament and thought to mean "breathe" and "contemplate what was just written and/or said." In the case of both Cayce and Thompson, an apt word in light of their abilities and positive impact on American society.

It was strange how long it took me to read There Is A River. I took it with me on several trips last autumn, never quite finishing it. I finally wrapped it up earlier this year, with Cayce's life and experiences and unique abilities really inspiring me as a person who is a spiritual seeker, and one who wants spirituality to somehow benefit all of humankind. I think Edgar Cayce was most definitely tapping into that, from his early years in Kentucky, and through the time he spent in Selma, Alabama and Dayton, Ohio and up to the establishment of his Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach, Virginia, this, at a time when Cayce - now a professional psychic - was heading into a more occult and esoteric direction as the 1930's marched on. 

"Virginia Beach, (the psychic readings told Cayce) was the place to build," writes Sugrue. "(Cayce) should live near large bodies of water. It was best for his health and for his psychic abilities. It was also best for psychic work of any kind to be carried on near water. It was best that people, coming for readings, travel over water to get them. It would put them in the right vibration and healp them to cooperate in the 'experiment.' The attitude of the person asking for the readin gwas of great importance.

A lot of people today may dismiss Cayce's abilities, but Pres. Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Edison were among his clients during his lifetime. If anything, I was impressed with Cayce's humility over the years, never seemingly letting his fame and unique abilities get in the way of him being kind and considerate and that may be what the spirit world was seeking out when it found young Edgar Cayce of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, all of those years ago. (5/5 Rusties)

AND ONWARD TO THE "FREAK KINGDOM"

And while I have written about Thompson's life and work in the past, Freak Kingdom by Timothy Denevi really captured the essence of Thompson's strong sense of justice and what America should be about. Thompson - who served in the U.S. Air Force - was a patriot to the core and used his writing gifts to be a frank and sincere scribe who found himself living and working in a society where lies are often confused as truth, particularly as the Vietnam War and Watergate churned on during this particular time period Denevi addresses.

As the author says in the “Author’s Note,” The book you’re about to read is, among other things, an attempt to reevaluate Thompson’s role as a political writer – as a literary journalist in the essayistic tradition whose activism remains underappreciated.

Thompson, he adds, fought tirelessly to defend American ideals and institutions like the Constitution, the independent press and participatory democracy.

Denevi begins his story in November 1963. President John F. Kennedy has been assassinated in Dallas, Texas. And this, Denevi says of Thompson, “was nothing short of a challenge to the soul of the Republic itself.” JFK’s murder that autumn day seemed to almost radicalize Thompson, who was at that time not the nationally-known figure he would become a decade later.

But it was those years, roughly from 1964 to 1974 – and the eventual downfall of his archnemesis Richard M. Nixon – that proved to be Thompson’s most exciting and relevant years of political writing for various publications, including, most prominently, the counterculture flagship publication Rolling Stone magazine.

It was Thompson’s take-no-bullshit style and forthright approach to what is good and right about America that the American Left really noted. And while Thompson's quick-witted and razor-sharp intellect and writing style wins over many fans, it isn't enough in the face of creeping fascism on the American scene. In a sense, through his time spent with the restless, rudderless Hell's Angels, Thompson essentially predicts the rise of Trumpism, way back in the mid-1960’s when he was covering the Hell’s Angels for The Nation, his shocking coverage later appearing in book form.

By 1968, Thompson's coverage of America's political scene was getting more attention. Covering the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago - complete with shocking levels of police brutality - further radicalized young Hunter, already radicalized five years earlier following JFK's assassination. His writing got sharper during this period, particularly as he was embraced by the counterculture and the antiwar and youth movements of the lat 1960's and going into the early 1970's when he ran an unsuccessful campaign to be sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado (Aspen) where he lived the rest of his life. He was on the Freak Power ticket, of course.

All the while, the specter of Richard Nixon hung over Thompson's life and Denevi includes the coverage of the Kentucky Derby in 1970, the Las Vegas material in 1971-72 with Latino activist Oscar Acosta, and  leading up to Thompson's spot-on coverage of the '72 presidential campaign, and his not-so-veiled support of Democratic candidate George McGovern.

Writes Denevi: "For Hunter Thompson, McGovern was the perfect candidate to support and write about. Because of his honest he was the only challenger who could survive Thompson's blisterning critiques; someone whose real faults - his lack of charisma, his refusal to break completely the Democratic old guard, his naivete when it came to dirty politics - in the end made him a more favorable option, especially in contrast to his opponents. He was the candidate the country had been deprived of during hte last cycle: a genuine alternative to Richard Milhous Nixon."

Gripping stuff. And Thompson's larger-than-life personality is captured effectively by Denevi's writing, which demonstrates - to me - that he also truly admires this Big Man and Doctor of Journalism, gone now, lo, these 14 years.

Nixon was the journalistic target. It always was. And Thompson always knew this. He saw him as the head of the snake that had allowed the creeping rise of fascism to sneak into America, via the back door. And look at where we are in 2019. It's too bad that Hunter S. Thompson is no longer with us. But he paved the way for advocacy journalism, for writers who give a shit about their country and who is running it and what is best for all of us. If that's gonzo, count me amongst the freaks. (4.5/5 Rusties)

The Bluegrass State should be proud to embrace these two sons of Kentucky. 

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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