Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's apparent suicide in Colorado on Sunday is a tragedy—for Thompson's family and fans, but also for Journalism, the patient the Doctor treated.

No, his recent writing does not match his best. That does not change the Truth: the Doctor seared an indelible brand into American culture. Not a reporter in any sane sense, he was still the most recognizable journalist of his age. At the height of his powers, he redefined every subject he wrote about—Nixon, Hell's Angels, the Kentucky Derby—in prose that burned with extraterrestrial intensity. The sheer blast-force of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas rearranges God-knows-how-many young minds every year; thus he'll be remembered not as a self-parodying maniac woodsman, but rather as a pure-hearted pirate, hoisting the Black Flag over the nation's letters.

The Doctor hailed from an old and dying breed: the American as violent original, stylish brigand, true son of Liberty. No less than Walt Whitman, he wrote about what his country is supposed to be. In a cynical age, with screwheads ascendant, it's worth remembering that writing—even journalism—can do that.