Huncke’s Journal

Huncke’s Journal
by Herbert Huncke
   This is one of the more important memoirs by a male writer from the Beat Generation. diane di prima first published Huncke’s Journal in 1965 as the second book to appear on her Poet’s Press list. herbert huncke, who always liked di Prima, had run into her on the street the year before, and she asked him if had anything she might be able to publish. He went home and gathered up odd essays and fragments of a memoir dating from 1948 to 1964 and gave them to her. They were written-scrawled—in loopy handwriting in a school notebook. The first edition of 1,000 copies sold quickly. A second edition, published in 1968 with a brief introduction by allen ginsberg, ended up being distributed for free along Haight Street in San Francisco, where di Prima had moved. Although the book was assembled from Huncke’s “journal,” it is less a diary of Huncke’s life than a series of character sketches and pointed anecdotes drawn from his experience. He is conscious that his strength as a writer lies in the storytelling of the bizarre nature of many of these experiences and that he has lived in a way that few do who are ever able to bring back the stories alive. As William S. Burroughs says in his foreword to The Herbert Huncke Reader, “Huncke had adventures and misadventures that were not available to middle-class, comparatively wealthy college people like Kerouac and me.”
   Huncke’s own selection for his “strangest” experience—and he qualifies this by saying many others would equal it—is the story “In the Park,” drawn from his teenage years when he liked to wander through Chicago’s Olmsted Park. There he is abducted at knifepoint by a degenerate who forces him to watch him masturbate as he looks at a picture of a naked young girl. This is a terrible story, dangerous and sad. Huncke can sympathize, though, with even the lowest, most maniacal of human beings: “He was unquestionably an excellent example of just what can happen to a human being in a society geared to greed and power where the human element is almost entirely ignored except in lip service to man as an individual.” In other words, “the human element” needs to be restored to our relations with each other to better understand—and prevent—the kind of terrible human he encounters. This story is not just a shocking one, though: It is expertly told, dramatically paced, and not nearly as sensational as the events it describes.
   Huncke’s range is not limited to the bizarre, though. “Ponderosa Pine” is a beautiful description of the mountains and forests of Idaho, one of the many places he passed through in his hoboing years during the late 1920s and early 1930s. In this story he takes a ride in a Model T with the 17-year-old son of a forest ranger. The drive is spectacular, but they are caught in a storm and the car is wrecked. Huncke tries to tell the boy’s father of the beauty of what they had seen, but the forest ranger is unimpressed by Huncke’s rhapsodizing over the scenery and the sublimity of the storm that they rode through in the high mountain passes. “I guess he had decided I wasn’t a very stable kind of person,” says Huncke. Huncke’s honesty leads him to discover a meaning in the story that was very similar to the feeling Wordsworth reveals in “The Prelude” when he realizes that he has crossed the Alps without even knowing it, missing a longed-for experience. Here, in retrospect, Huncke is not quite sure if there “really wasn’t any Ponderosa there at all.” But it doesn’t matter: The image of these pines has stirred the beautiful memory years later in a self-described “old drug-soaked city character like myself.”
   An aspect of Huncke’s Journal that makes it almost unique among the writing of the Beats—with the possible exception of a few episodes in Kerouac’s novels—is his close and sympathetic documentation of the lives of the women he knew. Countless women whose lives would have otherwise gone unrecorded appear in these pages. Huncke listened to them and can still see them in his mind’s eye—down to very specific details of the kinds of clothes they wore. “Cat and His Girl” is one of Huncke’s sensitive and detailed portraits of girls and women in the scene. This is the story of an interracial romance. The girl’s father has her institutionalized because she wants to marry a black man: “You see my mother and father think I am insane. They have had me locked up twice.” Even when she and her boyfriend are both holding down jobs and trying to succeed in their lives, the father manages to break them up: “I know how to handle niggers,” he threatens the young man. Such pressures lead Cat into drugs, and she becomes a prostitute to support her habit. Her ex-boyfriend sees her around occasionally; often she is bruised from the beatings that her clients give her. The young man confides in Huncke that they never really had a chance: “All she really wanted was love.” Huncke’s moral applies generally to the lives of the free-spirited young women (and men) he knows: “I could only think of how tragic the story was and of the vast amount of stupidity and cruelty inflicted on the two of them and how little chance she ever had of discovering any kind of happiness.”
   For many of the young people in his stories, Huncke hovers about as a kind of guardian angel, an observer who has seen it all and wishes he could protect the vulnerable young men and women who were going through the kinds of experiences he had in the 1920s and 1930s. In “Frisky,” he is part of the Bleecker Street methamphetamine scene that has attracted “unusually beautiful” girls, some as young as 14 years old. When one of them is about to shoot up, he has a premonition, but fails to act on it. The girl dies of an overdose. Several sections of the book record Huncke’s memories of the early 1960s East Village methamphetamine scene, and describe the lives of his roommates on Ave C—janine pommy vega, Bill Heine, and Elise Cowen. Vega is one of Huncke’s favorites. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky hold this scene together with their influence, but when they sail for India, the scene falls apart. Huncke’s description of all-night, sometimes three-or-fourday-long meth sessions, in which they “were assembled with minute attention to detail,” are probably the best record available of this early 1960s drug subculture. Huncke’s own reaction to the drug is that it is as if his “whole self was imbued with all that was happening around—the scene, the people, and many layers of consciousness just awakened.” Here and elsewhere Huncke says of the use of speed, heroin, marijuana and other drugs that they are directly responsible for expanding his consciousness. jack kerouac often credited Huncke with introducing him to the word beat as it applied to a particular kind of person on the scene, and Huncke’s Journal captures that quality of “beatness” throughout. Huncke himself turns to thievery even though he “didn’t like the idea of being a thief-but neither did I like the idea of being respectably a slave.” Huncke was “beat” when the writers of that generation were still in childhood, and when the Beats themselves were becoming prominent writers in the 1950s, Huncke, their former companion, spent the decade mostly in various prisons. There he read about the furor over Ginsberg’s “howl” and of Kerouac’s success with on tHe road. The Beats did not visit him nor write him in prison, but Huncke did not hold this against them. “Halowe’en” describes his return from prison to New York and being welcomed back by the intellectuals and artistic community of East Village, including Ginsberg, Orlvosky, Vega, and many other Beats: “They—those of them—creative and basically honest—at least as they understood honesty-had moved forward and had started speaking aloud—and had written great poems and books-and the world had made a place for them—because of their beauty and fineness, and because they are beautiful and good they were kind in their knowledge of me and welcomed me back and—now part of Bohemia—asked me to join them attending several Hallowe’en parties and I accepted.” He captures the special quality of his bohemian friends by saying how good it was to be back among spiritual people—“inner value in this instance referring to God and love and openness and a search for peace—both individually and collectively.” Beat, argued Kerouac, meant “beatitude,” and Huncke’s observations here support his claim. Huncke returned to the East Village at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, and reading his time capsule account of 1961 illustrates how the ideas of the peace and love movement of the 1960s were already very much in the air: “Yesterdays headlines-our great American president states, ‘We now have sufficient bomb power to blow Russia off the face of the earth.’ . . . Enough of hate—breeding hate-resenting each other—we need more love.” Many of the ideas expressed by Huncke in this book will move from the margin to the center very quickly, resulting in widespread protest against the Vietnam War, the establishment of the nuclear-freeze movement, and the emergence of a strong environmental movement around the world.
■ Burroughs, William S. Foreword. The Herbert Huncke Reader, by Herbert Huncke, edited by Benjamin G. Schafer. New York: William Morrow, 1997, ix.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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  • Huncke, Herbert — (1915–1996)    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… …   Encyclopedia of Beat Literature

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  • Beat generation — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Beatnik (homonymie). La Beat Generation est un mouvement littéraire et artistique née dans les années 1950, aux États Unis. Le terme de « Beat Generation » fut employé pour la première fois en 1948 par… …   Wikipédia en Français

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