Herbert Huncke (January 9, 1915 – August 8, 1996) was a rare blend of sub-culture icon, writer, homosexual pioneer (he participated in Alfred Kinsey's studies), drug addict, common criminal, friend and enemy to America's most important social movements of the 20th century. He lived a remarkable, and yet all-too-human life, spending decades incarcerated and decades more writing and contributing to the Beat Generation among other artistic endeavours.
Born in Greenfield, Massachusetts and reared in Chicago, Herbert Huncke was a street hustler, high school drop out and drug addict who lived the lifestyle described by Jack Black in his autobiography You Can't Win. The book—and Huncke's life—was centered around living as an outlaw hobo, jumping trains across the vast expanse of the United States, bonding through a shared destitution and camaraderie with other hoboes of all walks of life. Although Huncke later came to regret his loss of family ties, in his autobiography, Guilty of Everything, he states his lengthy jail sentences were a partial result of his lack of family support. Huncke left Chicago as a teenager after his parents divorced. Despite the fantasies the largely college-educated beat generation had about Huncke, he was from as much of a middle-class background as they were.
New York City & Times Square Edit
Huncke arrived in New York City in 1939. He was dropped off at 103rd and Broadway, and he asked the person from whom he had hitched a ride how to find 42nd Street. "You walk straight down Broadway", he was told, "and you will find 42nd Street". Huncke, always a good dresser, bought a boutonniere for his jacket and headed for 42nd Street. For the next ten years Huncke was a 42nd Street regular and became known as the "Mayor of 42nd Street".
At this point, Huncke's regular haunts were 42nd Street and Times Square, where he associated with people of all kinds including prostitutes (both male and female) and sailors. During World War II, Huncke shipped out to sea as a United States Merchant Marine to ports in South America, Africa and Europe. He landed on the beach of Normandy three days after the invasion.
Aboard ships, Huncke would kick his drug habit or keep it up with morphine syrettes supplied by the ship medic. When he returned to New York, he returned to 42nd Street, and it was after one of these trips where he met then-unknown writer William S. Burroughs, who was selling a sawed-off shotgun and a box of morphine syrettes. Huncke took an immediate dislike to Burroughs and thought he was "heat," slang for undercover police or FBI. Assured that Burroughs was all right, Huncke bought the morphine and, at Burroughs' request, immediately gave him an injection.
Thus began a long career of drug use by Burroughs, and Huncke became a lead character in William Burrough's first pulp novel, written under the pseudonym Bill Lee, JUNKIE: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. After Huncke first exposed Burroughs to both jive talk and morphine, these elements became central to Burroughs' writing. Huncke was a close friend of Joan Adams Vollmer Burroughs, William's common-law wife, sharing a fondness for amphetamines with her. In the late 1940s Huncke was invited to Texas to grow marijuana on the Burroughs farm.
Huncke was a bisexual hustler, drug user, thief and burglar. His autobiography, titled Guilty of Everything, was lived in the 1940s and 1960s but published in the 1990s. He was a non-violent man and an exceptionally good story teller.
During the late 1940s, Huncke was recruited to be a subject in Alfred Kinsey's research on the sexual habits of the American male. He was interviewed by Kinsey, and recruited fellow addicts and friends to participate. Huncke was a writer, unpublished, since his days in Chicago and oscillated toward literary types and musicians. In the music world, Huncke visited all the jazz clubs and associated with Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon (with whom he was once busted on 42nd Street for breaking into a parked car). When he first met Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, they were interested in writing and also unpublished. They were inspired by his stories of 42nd Street life, criminal life, street slang and Huncke's vast experience with drugs. Huncke told them stories of life on 42nd Street, his life on the road prior to New York City and, obligingly, turned them on to drugs.
Although it was his passion for thievery, heroin use and the outlaw lifestyle which fueled his daily activities, ultimately, when he was caught, he never ratted out his friends. In the late 1940s, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Melody and "Detroit Redhead" flipped a car in Queens, New York, while trying to run down a motorcycle cop. Although Huncke was not at the scene of the crime, he was picked-up in Manhattan because he lived with Ginsberg, and Huncke received the heavy prison sentence.
"Someone had to do the bit." Huncke said years later.
Writing career Edit
Huncke himself was a natural storyteller, a unique character with a paradoxically honest take on life. Later, after the formation of the so-called Beat Generation, members of the Beats encouraged Huncke to publish his notebook writings, which he did with limited success in 1964 with Diane DiPrima's Poet's Press. (Huncke's Journal) Huncke used the word "Beat" to describe someone living roughly with no money and few prospects. Huncke was considered to have coined the phrase that eventually came to describe an entire generation. Jack Kerouac later insisted that "Beat" was derived from beatification, to be supremely happy. However, it is thought that this definition was a defense of the beat way of life, which was frowned upon and offended many American sensibilities.
Huncke died in 1996. He had been living for several years in the basement of a building on East 7th Street near Avenue D in New York City, supported financially in old age by his friends, David Sands, Jerome Poynton, Tim Moran, Gani Remorca, Raymond Foye and many others. Prior to this, his rent at the Chelsea Hotel came from financial support from Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, whom Huncke never met.
Quote on Huncke Edit
Jack Kerouac described Huncke in his "Now it's Jazz" reading from Desolation Angels, chapter 77:
- Hunky, whom you'll see on Times Square, somnolent and alert, sad, sweet, dark, holy. Just out of jail. Martyred. Tortured by sidewalks, starved for sex and companionship, open to anything, ready to introduce a new world with a shrug.
Admired by David Wojnarowicz in his personal diaries, "In the Shadow of the American Dream," where their meetings/dates are documented.
- Guilty of Everything: The Autobiography of Herbert Huncke (New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1990), Edited by Don Kennison, foreword by William S. Burroughs. ISBN 1-55778-044-7.
- Guilty of Everything (excerpt) Edited by Raymond Foye. (New York & Madras: Hanuman Books, 1987), ISBN 0-937815-08-X
- The Evening Sun Turned Crimson (Cherry Valley, NY: Cherry Valley Editions, 1980), ISBN 0-916156-43-5.
- Huncke's Journal (Poets Press, 1965). Out of Print. Edited by Diane DiPrima, foreword by Allen Ginsberg.
- The Herbert Huncke Reader edited by Ben Schaeffer (New York: Morrow, 1997), ISBN 0-688-15266-X. (Includes the complete texts of The Evening Sun Turned Crimson and Huncke's Journal).
- Again–The Hospital (White Fields Press, Louisville, 1995). 1/50 copies. (Broadside; single sheet, measuring 12 by 22 inches, illustrated with a photograph of Huncke.)
- Herbert E. Huncke 1915-1996 (New York: Jerry Poynton 1996). (Limited edition of 100 copies of the program for the Herbert Huncke memorial at Friends Meetinghouse, New York City. Includes original texts.)
- Charters, Ann (ed.). The Portable Beat Reader. Penguin Books. New York. 1992. ISBN 0670838853 (hc); 0140151028 (pbk)
- Essays by Huncke collaborator Joe Ambrose on the Chelsea Hotel, Tangier Beat Generation, William Burroughs; plus photographs of Huncke, Burroughs, etc.
- Metroactive.com article, Herbert Huncke, the unsung Beat, finally gets his due, by Harvey Pekar
- Lit Kicks Bio
- Huncke and Louis A Video Documentary by Laki Vazakas
- Blue Neon Alley Bio and Directory
- Herbert Huncke interviewed by Johnny Strike
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