Thompson was born in Chicago in 1938, but moved to Southern California in 1945, where he grew up to graduate from Los Angeles High School in 1957 and Pomona College in 1962. He received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study at Cornell in 1962 and a Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship to do his doctoral research in Dublin in 1964. He received his doctorate from Cornell in 1966 and published his first book, The Imagination of an Insurrection: Dublin, Easter 1916 in 1967. In 1972, his second book At the Edge of History was a finalist for the National Book Award. In 1986 he won the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award for his novel, Islands Out of Time.
Thompson has taught at Cornell, MIT, and York University in Toronto. His interdisciplinary interests are indicated in that he studied anthropology, philosophy, and literature at Pomona, and literature and cultural history at Cornell. He has served as visiting professor of religion at Syracuse University (1973), visiting professor of Celtic Studies at St. Michael's College, the University of Toronto (1984), visiting professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (1985), Rockefeller Scholar at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco (1992-1995), and Lindisfarne Scholar-in-Residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in the autumn of each year from 1992 to 1996. In 1995 he designed an evolution of consciousness curriculum for the Ross School in East Hampton, New York and serves as a Founding Mentor, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ross_School). Thompson founded the Lindisfarne Association in 1972 and served as its Director until 1997. He has now retired from Lindisfarne and teaching and lives in Maine and devotes himself to writing essays and poetry; he often contributes to the Wild River Review.