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representatives of the literary estates of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Huncke; her examination of Huncke’s unpublished correspondence and journals at Columbia University; and her longtime study of the Beat Movement.
Author & Professor of English Literature Hilary Holladay has written us to say that her Huncke bio has finally been released. If you buy it through our link (or if you buy anything on Amazon through our portal) we get a small kickback which will be used to hasten the re-release of Huncke's writing - both previous released but out-of-print material as well as additional unreleased writings & The Letters.
One summer day in 1927, a rebellious twelve-year-old boy climbed aboard a Chicago trolley car. Although his mother had given him a dime and dispatched him to his father’s apartment, he had no intention of getting off the trolley near there. He wanted to leave both of his troublesome parents behind and see a little bit of the world. After a series of streetcars took him to the outskirts of the city, he continued east. His first destination was his birthplace of Greenfield, Massachusetts; his second was New York City. Decades later, he said of his youthful journey, “I felt so free and light; all my shackles were suddenly dropped. I didn’t want to see anybody I knew ever again.”
Herbert Huncke (pronounced Hunky), who would provide Jack Kerouac with the word “beat” and show up in works by all of the primary Beat authors, was on the road.
With his roving hazel eyes and precocious interest in new acquaintances, the runaway attracted sexual predators. A hundred miles from home, he had oral sex with a stranger. “When that happened, the guy got scared, because he realized that I was very young. He shoved a ten-dollar bill in my hand, stepped on the gas, and took off—leaving me in some little town. Here I was with a whole ten-dollar bill.” The adult Huncke recalled not an assault but a serendipitous intervention. People’s appetites, sexual or otherwise, never surprised him.
* * *
The adolescent boy now knew exactly what it meant to be “beat” in the sense that he later used the word: down and out, exhausted, hopeless. Although he had impetuously defied the social mores that say children don’t travel halfway across the country just because they feel like it, he had also been caught, humiliated, and returned home. Still, the transcendent joy he had experienced when he walked past the onion field was real, and the whole escapade had whetted his appetite for adventure.
Herbert had always dreamed of becoming an artist of one kind or another. “I started out wanting to be a writer as a young boy among other things; at one time I intensely wanted to be a dancer. I wanted to be an actor and I wanted to write and travel all over the world.” At twelve, it all seemed possible, and even after his father brought him back to his divided home in Chicago, he knew that he would not stay there. His relationship with his mother was no less fraught with pain and emotional upheaval than that with his father. “My family background was sort of strange, it was middle-class and bourgeois except that my mother and father were divorced,” he said. “One thing about it is that I broke away from the family as often and as quickly as possible; I just didn’t want to be involved. I fought furiously and angrily with my mother all the time, we screamed at each other, I’d really go out of my mind.”
Two decades later, Huncke seemed to have completely bottomed out at the age of thirty-four. A failed hustler and sickly heroin addict, he scraped by on money he borrowed from friends and possessions he stole from friends and strangers alike. Yet the artistic fires still burned within him. One cold February day in 1949, he sat on a toilet in New York’s Penn Station and propped a notepad on his knee. He wrote, “Herbert E. Huncke.” Below that he began a meandering annotation: “My name; although I’m known generally as Huncke and by a few as Herbert and in the past as Herbie. It’s seldom I’m referred to as Mr. Huncke and when formal introduction is required it is usually—Herbert Huncke.” It was an unusual name, but “any name I might have had by its very utterance creates an almost weary and loathsome feeling in me. When I say it myself and frequently I say it to myself—I am immediately aware of a sense of disgust as though the sounds I make were significant of not only me but of a new and strange disease, and I am sure for at least the instant, I am at last slipping into an insanity from which there is no escape.”
The creative but directionless boy had grown up to be an eloquent writer and tormented man. “Sometimes I feel as though I must force—almost drive myself—to come out from behind a closed door when new people have entered an apartment I am in or I will wait until the last minute before leaving a place because I know I must meet people’s glances on the street.” He believed that his “more intimate acquaintances” regarded him with pity: “I am sure they explain me to their friends slightly apologetically on occasion and always with an air of tolerance. Huncke’s idiosyncrasies, his eccentricities, or perhaps—his mother complex. Sometimes I am sure they even attempt to allow for the unhealthy pallor of my skin. He takes Benzedrine—in fact he lives on it.”
He saw no reason to dispel bad impressions:
Among a large percentage of those who know me casually or only know of me it is commonly understood I am completely saturated with narcotics. It is also believed I am unscrupulous and a completely rotten sort. I believe I am rotten in my entire being. My skin is unhealthy and serves merely as an excellent breeding territory for all the fungus and parasitical creatures in contacts. It itches constantly and I can sit for long periods scratching and picking odd-shaped black and sometimes white and frequently very darkened (like specks of dried blood) specks or flakes from my arms and legs and above my penis. The palms of my hands and also my fingers produce hairs some fully an inch in length. I have become conscious of this condition to so great an extent I am frequently sure it is evident to people I pass on the street.
Huncke’s problems went deeper than his infected flesh. Covered in sores and subject to hallucinations, he believed he was a plague on all right-thinking men and women: “I think I should remain away from everyone because perchance I may infect people, pollute them with my corruption and leave them with a diseased soul as mine is diseased. Leave them—weary—listless—horrified of themselves and longing to escape the world—to die.”
With these notes recorded in his looping, rather childlike script, Huncke left the Penn Station men’s room and forced himself to face the world. At some point—probably fairly soon—he ran into Jack Kerouac, an energetic young writer who had recently finished his first novel, The Town and the City, which Harcourt Brace would publish in 1950. Kerouac had met Huncke through their mutual friend William S. Burroughs, a Harvard graduate of dazzling intellect and completely amoral sensibilities. Although Kerouac, unlike Burroughs, was not looking to immerse himself in Huncke’s world of drugs and crime, he was intrigued by the ghostly specter he often encountered on Times Square. In a letter to the young poet Allen Ginsberg, another mutual friend, Kerouac had written, “Incidentally, Huncke is brooding again, and it seems that Huncke is never so great as when he’s beat down and brooding and bitter.”
After Kerouac had a look at what Huncke had written that day in Penn Station, he took it upon himself to make his own copy. Printing neatly, he filled up three and a quarter pages and inserted quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph to indicate that these were Huncke’s words, not his own. At the top of the first page, in parentheses after Huncke’s name, he wrote “Junkey” in quotation marks; this was the none-too-subtle name he used for the Huncke character in The Town and the City. Below that, he wrote “Huncke’s Famous Penn Station Notes,’” and in the right margin he added, “Written in Pennsylvania Station, ‘Killing Time’ Feb.—1949.”
On the final page, below a line drawn to signal the end of Huncke’s notes, he appended a quote from a letter Ginsberg had written when Ginsberg was sharing his apartment with Huncke: “The most depressing thing is to get up to go to school and wake him, and see him lift up his head, staring blankly, dumb, biting his lips, for half an hour at a time.” Little did Ginsberg, then a Columbia University undergraduate, know that he would soon be arrested, thanks to his not entirely unwilling entanglement with Huncke and his criminal friends.
Yet Herbert was more than a crook and a depressed addict. Somehow he found the energy and resolve to write a good deal, and his Penn Station notes show that he did so with grace and conviction, despite a complete lack of formal tutelage. Kerouac was quick to pick up on this. Not only did he see Huncke as a ready-made character he could insert into The Town and the City; he believed his actual words might come in handy as well. Like many a writer before and after him, Kerouac was in the habit of copying down conversations that might animate his fiction, and he saved his friends’ letters in hopes that those, too, might be useful source material. He knew that Huncke’s lyrical musings could instill authenticity in his writings about the truly beat.
The future author of On the Road (1957) saw things in Huncke’s writing that he wanted to emulate. Much has been made of Huncke as “a Virgilian guide to the lower depths” introducing Burroughs and company to the Angler Bar, the Pokerino arcade, and other Times Square joints that they might not have explored on their own, but his friends also recognized him as a storyteller par excellence. Kerouac called Huncke “the greatest storyteller I know, an actual genius at it, in my mind.” Several years after he had copied down Huncke’s pages, he began using a long dash in his “spontaneous prose” novels. All of Huncke’s handwritten stories and sketches, including the notes Kerouac copied, make frequent use of a long dash (appearing twice the length of a regular dash). The long dash allows for ...