I have to say, Herbert Huncke is one of the most fascinating characters associated with the so-called Beat Generation. He came from a middle-class family in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and was raised in Chicago, but left all that behind when his parents divorced to live the life of a hobo. He jumped trains across America and then hitched a ride to New York City. When he got dropped off on the Upper West Side, he bought himself a boutonniere and hoofed it to Times Square. It was through Huncke that the word “beat” made it into Jack Kerouac’s lexicon.
Despite his influence and his own writing, there wasn’t a book devoted to this incredibly fascinating fellow until last year when Hilary Holladay published American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Movement. Here’s the synopsis from Barnes & Noble:
American Hipster: The Life of Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Movement tells the tale of a New York sex worker and heroin addict whose unrepentant deviance caught the imagination of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. Teetering between exhaustion and existential despair, Huncke (rhymes with “junky”) often said, “I’m beat, man.” His line gave Kerouac the label for a down-at-the-heels generation seeking spiritual sustenance as well as “kicks” in post-war America.
Recognizable portraits of Huncke appear in Junky (1953), Burroughs’s acerbic account of his own heroin addiction; “Howl” (1956), the long, sexually explicit poem that launched Ginsberg’s career; and On the Road (1957), Kerouac’s best-selling novel that immortalized the Beat Generation. But it wasn’t just Huncke the character that fascinated these writers: they loved his stories. Kerouac called him a “genius” of a storyteller and “a perfect writer.” His famous friends helped Huncke find publishers for his stories.
Biographies of Kerouac and the others pay glancing tribute to Huncke’s role in shaping the Beat Movement, yet no one until now has told his entire life story. American Hipster explores Huncke’s youthful escapades in Chicago; his complicated alliances with the Beat writers and with sex researcher Alfred Kinsey; and his adventures on the road, at sea, and in prison. It also covers his tumultuous relationship with his partner Louis Cartwright, whose 1994 murder remains unsolved, and his idiosyncratic career as an author and pop-culture icon.
Written by Hilary Holladay, a professor of American literature, the book offers a new way of looking at the whole Beat Movement. It draws on Holladay’s interviews with Huncke’s friends and associates, including representatives of the literary estates of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Huncke; her examination of Huncke’s unpublished correspondence and journals at Columbia University; and her longtime study of the Beat Movement.
It’s good to see Herbert Huncke finally getting remembered.
Huncke passed away on this day in 1996. He was still residing in New York City.