Huncke, Herbert

Huncke, Herbert
   Herbert Huncke introduced the Beats to the term “beat.” “Huncke was a crucial figure,” writes Ted Morgan in Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs, “a sort of Virgilian guide to the lower depths, taking [the Beats] into a world that provided an alternative to the right-thinking banality of Columbia and its so-called teachers. Huncke was the first hipster, who had been on the street since age twelve, and who was basically the victim of police persecution . . . an antihero pointing the way to an embryonic counterculture, which would arise from this Times Square world of hustlers.” Huncke was born in Greenfield, Massachusetts, in 1915. The family moved to Chicago where his father, Herbert Spencer Huncke, ran a precision tool shop. His mother, Marguerite Bell Huncke, was the daughter of a prosperous rancher in Laramie, Wyoming. Huncke was less interested in his father’s tools than he was with wandering the streets of Chicago. He felt rejected by his father, even though late in life he wrote his father a letter (never sent) in which he told his father that he always loved him and that he understood the reasons behind his harsh discipline. Huncke was sexually molested as a boy, a story he first revealed to Alfred Kinsey as part of his sex survey in 1946 (see Guilty of everytHinG). When his parents were divorced in 1927, Huncke fell into a wild life-style of free sex, of drug and alcohol abuse, and of hoboing around the country. He had a particularly open relation with his mother, with whom he lived after the divorce, admitting his homosexuality as well as his heroin addiction to her. He taught her how to smoke marijuana and gave her tips about sexual techniques. He first learned about heroin from reading a book called The Little White Hag, and through his Aunt Olga’s connections in Chicago’s Chinatown, he learned where he could easily keep supplied in high-quality drugs. Huncke also had a close relationship with his maternal grandmother, who was wealthy, and it was through her influence that he acquired a refined sensibility about the finer things in life, evidenced in his writings. In the 1930s Huncke traveled to the West. He also traveled to New Orleans and Detroit, learning about jazz. In 1939 Huncke moved to New York City and decide to live in the Times Square area simply because it was the only part of New York about which he had ever heard anything. He would live there for the rest of his life. In the New York of the 1930s and early 1940s, he lived as a male hustler, picking up sexually frustrated businessmen in Bryant Park. He also picked up his heroin and morphine habit again. He was a friend and associate of many of the Times Square grifters, con men, and prostitutes at the time, including Vickie Russell, Little Jack Melody, Phil White, and Bob Brandenberg.
   It was through Brandenburg, a want-to-be gangster who worked at a drugstore soda fountain, that Huncke first met William S. Burroughs. Burroughs had acquired a machine gun and several cases of morphine syrettes, and Brandenburg told him that White and Huncke would know how to dispose of them. Huncke was initially suspicious of Burroughs, who dressed conservatively and did not know the language of the underworld. However, when Burroughs allowed Huncke to shoot him up with morphine, he was convinced of Burroughs’s trustworthiness. Burroughs introduced Huncke to Allen Ginsberg, jack kerouac, gregory corso, neal cassady, and many other members of the Beat group. In Kerouac’s case, Huncke with his “beat” lifestyle of living on the street, came to represent a whole generation’s attitude toward society. The Huncke of these years is captured as Junky in Kerouac’s The town and tHe city, Burroughs’s Herman in junky, and in John Clellon Holmes’s Go as Albert Ancke. Huncke is also the figure Ginsberg had in mind when he wrote, “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” the second line of “howl.”
   Huncke, in turn, introduced these writers to the underworld, and Burroughs’s hardboiled style and subject matter of Junky and queer can be attributed in large part to this association. In this regard, Jack Kerouac is often quoted as saying (in a letter he wrote to Neal Cassady on September 13, 1947), “[Huncke] is the greatest storyteller I know, an actual genius at it, in my mind.” Huncke, as Jerome Poynton concludes, was “remarkably apt at contributing to the intellectual growth of his friends.” In fact, and in spite of his sense of being intellectually inferior to the Beats, Huncke not only continued to inspire these artists but also, during this period, began to write the sketches and keep the notebooks that would eventually be published as The eveninG sun turned crimson and Huncke’s journal.
   On and off during the 1940s Huncke worked as a merchant seaman. At one point, he and Phil White shipped out to kick their junk habits (see The Evening Sun Turned Crimson). In 1947 Huncke lived as Burroughs’s farmhand near New Waverly, Texas, where they attempted to grow opium poppies and had some success growing marijuana (see Guilty of Everything). A few years later, Huncke was also involved in the crime that led to Ginsberg’s stay at the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute, which is where he met Carl Solomon and the inspiration for “Howl” began (see Guilty of Everything).
   Huncke spent most of the 1950s in jail for possession and for burglary charges: He probably committed more than 100 burglaries in the New York area in the 1940s and 1950s. Many of his best writings describe his experiences in various prisons. While he was in jail, his Beat friends became famous, and Huncke would read about them in the newspapers. He appears to have been genuinely happy that they had reached the potential he had always seen in them. None of the Beats wrote Huncke in prison, nor did they visit him, a fact he did not hold against them.
   When he returned to the “outside” in the early 1960s, his social life revolved around Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky’s apartment on Avenue C in what was being called the East Village. Here he met the poet janine pommy vega and the visual artist Bill Heine, inventor of the tie-dye process (see Huncke’s Journal). When Ginsberg and Orlovsky went to India for an extended stay in 1961, this methamphetamine-fueled scene in the Village fell apart. By 1964, when Burroughs returned to New York a world-famous author, Huncke began to be able to trade on his literary association with the famous Beats. He was paid simply to tell stories about them and throughout the rest of his life was able to more or less live off his storytelling abilities. Irving Rosenthal, who had published parts of naked luncH in Big Table in 1959, worked with Huncke on revising his work for publication, and in 1965 Huncke’s Journal came out with The Poets Press, started by diane di prima. Perhaps the best portrait of Huncke appears in Rosenthal’s novel from a few years later, Sheeper (1967). In 1968 Huncke became an overnight media celebrity by appearing on the David Susskind television show and openly discussing his addiction to heroin and use of other illegal drugs. Out of this appearance came his first mainstream publication when “Alvarez” was published in Playboy.
   By this point in his life, Huncke was no longer a criminal and was on a methadone maintenance program (his 100-milligram daily dose a lethal one for most people). His constant companion beginning in these years was photographer Louis Cartwright, who was murdered in 1994. More of Huncke’s work was published in the 1970s, including two of his best-received stories, “Elsie John” (a hermaphrodite he knew as a young man) and “Joseph Martinez,” which were published in a limited edition by Huncke’s Chicago friend, R’lene Dahlberg. In 1980 his work was collected in the classic The Evening Sun Turned Crimson. Guilty of Everything (1990) is a transcript of interviews with Huncke, although there is very little difference discernible between his written style and his oral style of storytelling. Unpublished and fugitive pieces are gathered together in the final section of The Herbert Huncke Reader (which also includes the texts of his previous books) published to wide acclaim and very positive critical reception in 1998.
   Huncke died at the age of 81 in 1997. In the latter years of his life, his rent at the Chelsea Hotel was paid by the Grateful Dead, and he was surrounded by a group of young admirers who more or less traded off the responsibility of his care. By then, he was not only a link to the Beats but also to a bygone era of hobo jungles, prohibition, New York before the war, and the Village before it was “The Village.” Huncke’s most profound influence on the Beats was similar to Neal Cassady’s—as a muse, as a picaresque “character” who gave the mostly middle-class Beats a view of a world that-at the time—they could only observe but to which they could never fully belong. Unlike Cassady, however, Huncke did apply himself more or less seriously as a writer, and his three books are essential reading for fans and scholars of the Beat Generation. In fact, Huncke must be considered one of the dozen or so key personalities and writers in the whole Beat movement.
■ Huncke, Herbert. The Herbert Huncke Reader. Edited by Benjamin G. Schafer. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997.
■ Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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