Huncke Blog

HAPPY 100th BIRTHDAY HERBERT HUNCKE !

Here's a little of what's happening around the web regarding Huncke's Centennial Year.  More as it comes in.

 

Mirrored from our friends over at The Allen Ginsberg Project:

January 9 1915, the birthday of Herbert Huncke, original Beat - yes, today marks the day, the official day of the Herbert Huncke Centennial. There'll be a film-showing, as we mentioned last week, of Laki Vazakas' extraordinary documentary, Huncke and Louis,  (in Lowell, not so far from his birthplace, in Greenfield, Mass), tonight, to mark the occasion, and, next week, a big gathering in San Francisco at the Beat Museum featuring Laki Vazakas, Hilary HolladayBen SchaferDennis McNally, Brenda Knight, Regina Marler and Tate Swindell 

Meantime, Huncke on the Allen Ginsberg Project -
There's some invaluable resources. Don't miss our four previous birthday postings
  - herehere, here and here 

His memorable 1982 workshop at the Jack Kerouac Conference at Naropa is available (with transcription)  here

Our note on Hilary Holladay's 2013 biography, American Hipster - here
 

    ["Old-timer & survivor, Herbert E Huncke, Beat Literary Pioneer, early decades thief, who introduced Burroughs, Kerouac & me to floating population hustling & drug scene Times Square 1945. From '48 on, he penned remarkable musings, Collected as autobiographical vignettes, anecdotes & storyteller's tales in the classic  The Evening Sun Turned Crimson  (Cherry Valley, 1970) and later  Guilty of Everything . Here age 78 in basement back-yard, his apartment East 7th Street, near Avenue D, New York, May 18, 1993" - (Photograph and Inscription by Allen Ginsberg)]     

 

["Old-timer & survivor, Herbert E Huncke, Beat Literary Pioneer, early decades thief, who introduced Burroughs, Kerouac & me to floating population hustling & drug scene Times Square 1945. From '48 on, he penned remarkable musings, Collected as autobiographical vignettes, anecdotes & storyteller's tales in the classic The Evening Sun Turned Crimson (Cherry Valley, 1970) and later Guilty of Everything. Here age 78 in basement back-yard, his apartment East 7th Street, near Avenue D, New York, May 18, 1993" - (Photograph and Inscription by Allen Ginsberg)]  
 


    Celebrate centennial of Herbert Huncke’s birth with a special screening of Laki Vazakas's     Huncke and Louis   at   The Luna Theater  .   From the 1998 Cucalorus Film Festival Guide:  “Huncke and Louis” is an honest, sometimes harrowing glimpse of Herbert Huncke’s final years, the culmination of a life lived without compromise. Never straying from the life he chose to live, Vazakas’ camera is witness to Huncke bravely keeping on even after his dear friend Louis Cartwright was murdered in 1994, and as his own life slowly winds down. In a society full of growing religious fervor that is evermore vitriolic for it s self-righteous and oft-vindictive moralizing, Huncke seems more and more the anachronism. Herbert Huncke died on August 8, 1996, unrepentant at 81, shown in the film as a man who in his honest non-conformity and gentle repose is, even after death, an anecdote, an antidote, a shot in the arm, so to speak, for anyone who refuses to be bullied into accepting the forced “virtues” of those that feel they need to save us from ourselves.    

 

Celebrate centennial of Herbert Huncke’s birth with a special screening of Laki Vazakas's Huncke and Louis at The Luna Theater.

From the 1998 Cucalorus Film Festival Guide:

“Huncke and Louis” is an honest, sometimes harrowing glimpse of Herbert Huncke’s final years, the culmination of a life lived without compromise. Never straying from the life he chose to live, Vazakas’ camera is witness to Huncke bravely keeping on even after his dear friend Louis Cartwright was murdered in 1994, and as his own life slowly winds down. In a society full of growing religious fervor that is evermore vitriolic for its self-righteous and oft-vindictive moralizing, Huncke seems more and more the anachronism. Herbert Huncke died on August 8, 1996, unrepentant at 81, shown in the film as a man who in his honest non-conformity and gentle repose is, even after death, an anecdote, an antidote, a shot in the arm, so to speak, for anyone who refuses to be bullied into accepting the forced “virtues” of those that feel they need to save us from ourselves.

 

Mirrored from Reality Studio:

The Writer’s Notebooks of Herbert Huncke

Tags: Herbert Huncke

 

by Marcus D. Niski

 

“Whatever one might say of him [Huncke], he was unmistakably a writer.”
– Raymond Foye

“I want to see what makes the world tick, naturally. God, I’ve spent so many years grinding it out, the least I can do is to try to look for something along the way…”
– Herbert Huncke

” … Is Huncke still in the can? No, last time I saw him on Times Square…”
– Allen Ginsberg

Herbert Edwin Huncke undoubtedly ranks amongst one of the most fascinating yet underestimated figures of the ‘Beat’ world.

Born into a middle class family in Greenfield, Massachusetts, Huncke’s colourful life was shaped early on. A restless child and “chronic runaway,” Huncke hit New York City permanently in 1939 at the age of 24, immediately gravitating to Forty-Second Street where he began hustling for sex.

Widely immortalized in the literature of his confrères — William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and John Clellon Holmes — Huncke served as a model for literary characters such as Elmo Hassel in Kerouac’sOn The Road and Herman in Burroughs’ Junky. As Herman, Huncke’s portrait appeared thus:

Waves of hostility and suspicion flowed out from his large brown eyes like some sort of television broadcast. The effect was almost like a physical impact. The man was small and very thin, his neck loose in the collar of his shirt. His complexion faded from brown to a mottled yellow, and pancake make-up had been heavily applied in an attempt to conceal a skin eruption. His mouth was drawn down at the corners in a grimace of petulant annoyance.

As a “Virgilian guide,” Huncke would skillfully guide Burroughs into the subterranean world of junk as well as provide a great degree of source material for his literary adventures. Yet Huncke’s own creative endeavors have often taken a back seat to those of his contemporaries. Throughout his long and often tumultuous life, Huncke wrote his observations, reflections, and vignettes in a series of notebooks. This stock of tales undoubtedly underpinned the Huncke mythology. As longtime friend and confidant Raymond Foye recollects:

There remains an indelible image of Herbert Huncke the writer, frozen forever in time: homeless and alone, couched in a Times Square pay toilet with notebook on knees, furtively composing his latest tale from the underground.

Huncke’s notebooks are an evocative record of his trials and tribulations as a sage and survivor on New York’s often brutal and unforgiving streets. Indeed, Huncke’s fondness of the notebook as a medium in itself is also directly recorded in a devotional piece on Kerouac. In a rice-paper notebook given to him by a friend, the poet Zachary Wollard, Huncke wrote:

TO BEGIN –
I am pleased to receive this beautiful notebook as a gift … notebooks have always pleased me. This notebook suits Jack’s personality as I saw it … a very serviceable book of an unusual appearance…

In a brilliant essay on the notebooks of Albert Camus, Susan Sontag suggests that a writer’s notebooks “have a very a special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself.” Undoubtedly, the notebooks of Huncke — thief, storyteller, junky, street sage, muse, mentor, raconteur and Beat icon — bear this very quality: a writer’s struggle to create a sense of identity amidt the tumult and turmoil of everyday life. Indeed, his notebook writings also serve as an example of what Michel Foucault termed self-writing: a reflective process whereby the writer explores his inner universe in an attempt to mediate the often unsettling nature of the forces around him.

Huncke’s notebook revelations also provide an insight into “a way of life, a vocabulary, references, a whole symbol system” (as Burroughs put it in Junky) that has now largely disappeared. The world of “crash pads, speakeasies, [and] all-night jam sessions with Charlie Parker or Dexter Gordon” was a part of the “carnie” world that informed Huncke’s reflections on an often chaotic, always kaleidoscopic culture.

While eventually Huncke’s collection of notebook writings and stories would be gathered together by friends in The Herbert Huncke Reader (edited by Benjamin Schafer with an introduction by Raymond Foye and biographical note by Jerome Poynton), the notebooks appear to have received little attention from literary scholars.

Having had the privilege of examining Huncke’s cache of notebooks in the Butler Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University, I was able to engage personally with the handwritten entries that chart the course of Huncke’s extraordinary life journey.
Characterized by such themes as alienation, depression and sometimes-acute despair, the notebook writings delineate Huncke’s constant struggle with a triangle of forces — self, junk, and the law — that he felt were closing in on him. As an undated entry reflects:

I think I am going insane. I almost hope so. Thoughts rush at one. I am beginning to lose the thread of my story. This happens frequently. Mad thoughts keep occurring to me… All happening to me is unnecessary. It is not important to any cause beyond my own and I am unimportant. Of course it is happening and it is what it is as things are. [Undated MS.]

The frustrations of Huncke’s itinerant existence are expressed in this entry:

lost to the streets — lost completely to a life I once knew — stealing — junk– all night wandering– thru the streets — lost completely to a life I once knew – — stealing — junk all night wandering thru the city — no pads– no friends — no way of life– almost convinced prison is a solution — shriveling within at the mere thought — wishing for death — willing death… [Untitled MS Page, Notebook and Diary excerpts, 1959-1960]

Huncke answers in his notebooks the question why he became a junky in the first place:

I have been asked many times as is always asked of users of narcotics what a fix does to me — how it feels etc…it helps me to believe in life again at the same time to accept it calmly and with peace. [1948]

For Huncke, the process of writing offered a cathartic sense of solace. At times he reflected upon the process and what it meant to be a “writer”:

Perhaps I am writing — but I have come to believe — writing is not a matter of diligent application but rather the result of the will left free… also — one cannot write greatly — or should I say actually coherently — at simply any time — one should be almost guided to it… [Thoughts about Writing, 1948]

Huncke’s fondness for writing as a creative medium is captured in the observations of filmmaker Laki Vazakas. His extensive documentary footage of Huncke provides a glimpse into Huncke’s world in the years shortly before his death. As Vazakas vividly recollects of Huncke sitting writing –

I used to visit Herbert at the Chelsea [Hotel] and he would have a yellow legal notepad and he was always writing in longhand as he never learned to type. It was his way of putting down on paper an internal monologue and obviously it was his way of exploring and examining some of the raw emotions that he had experienced…. Herbert’s style of writing was far more influential than has been acknowledged.

In their physical form, Huncke’s notebooks consisted of a number and variety of forms that included gifts from other writers; composition books such as those commonly used by American school and university students; stenographer notebooks; “memo” books; a mix of different diaries used as notebooks; and notepaper gathered spontaneously from sources such as the YMCA.

The notebook entries range from fully composed stories to mundane notes, sketches, observations and doodles, and both hand-drawn and painted embellishments.

Huncke’s style is “confessional,” direct and highly observant in nature. As Raymond Foye suggests in his introduction to the Herbert Huncke Reader, Huncke’s writing, “…is deceptively simple in its plain spoken style” –

To write as one speaks is one ideal of literature and Huncke’s prose accomplishes just that, to such a degree that reading him is akin to sitting across from him in one of those famous all-night sessions, where tales were unraveled and the human condition examined into the early hours of the morn…

While Herbert Huncke’s literary output was modest in comparison with his Beat contemporaries, it is nevertheless a significant fragment of the overall picture of the Beats as a global literary force. Huncke’s “lifestyle” undoubtedly provided the very model of what it meant to be Beat and to struggle against a system that stymied any alternative phenomenon that deviated from the mainstream. To be an outsider was what “being Beat” came to represent.

The man who set the Beats going

(reblogged from Tony O'Neill's post on Guardian Book Blog  August 2007.) 

Herbert Huncke is little remembered these days, but he set the template for the Beats in both art and life.

Recently, I was lucky enough to see a rough cut of Huncke and Louis, Laki Vazakas' documentary on Beat godfather Herbert Huncke. It's a truly powerful piece of filmmaking, and one that got me thinking about Huncke's neglected place in the Beat canon. The man whom William S Burroughs called "an actual genius", the man who introduced the Naked Lunch author to his greatest muse (opiates), the man who inspired Jack Kerouac to use the term "Beat" in the first place - he is too often the forgotten face of the Beat Generation. Hiss biography is a vivid one: a teenage runaway who landed in New York's Times Square in the late 30s and became a heroin addict, hustler, petty criminal - and writer.

Huncke lived to a ripe old age without ever applying the brakes. He supposedly turned up to his appointment at the methadone clinic the day after his 81st birthday, and tested positive for heroin, marijuana, cocaine, methadone and Valium. "Why did you do it?" his frustrated doctor demanded. "I've been doing it my whole life," Huncke replied. "Why can't you just let me be?"

Unfortunately - but perhaps unsurprisingly - Huncke's work often exists in the shadow of this lifestyle. As Laki Vazakas said to me when we discussed his work, "Many people are dogmatic about drug taking, and this has led to Huncke's unfair pigeonholing as 'Huncke the Junkie' or 'the Junkie Muse' [the second phrase lifted from Huncke's New York Times obituary], two terms which show more about the prejudices of those who said them than the quality of the man's writing."

Later developments in the Beat canon - William Burroughs's cut-ups and sexually charged surrealist sci-fi, Allen Ginsberg's epic poetry, and the automatic writing of Jack Kerouac - often seemed deliberately obtuse. But the earliest examples of Beat literature - the early novels of both Burroughs and Kerouac - were wonderful examples of clarity and focus. Queer was probably Burroughs's most emotionally naked writing, while On The Road can still be easily read and digested in a way that Visions Of Cody cannot. It is with these books that Huncke's writings should sit.

In his lifetime he produced four books, Huncke's Journal, Elsie John and Joey Martinez, The Evening Sun Turned Crimson and Guilty Of Everything. In each of these works he mined the field of autobiographical writing, but - like Burroughs in Junky, or Kerouac in On The Road - elevated the form into high art. He was also capable of truly beautiful prose:

"Lay out the binding gauze - row upon row - mix the jellied fluids. Cleanse the injectors - open sacks of formaldehyde - rubber tubings - red rubber gloves. Hone the scalpels. The first slice is important and should be clean and true. Basins to catch the freshets of red blood - soon to pale and turn pale hue - wads of cotton to stuff the asshole - the nostrils - puff the cheeks - fill out the hollows."

Huncke's real skill lies in the place were art and life meet. His lifestyle WAS his art: the drugs, the prostitution, the homelessness, the years spent in jail - it all bled onto the page and created a new kind of poetry. He was the American Genet: a man with one foot firmly in the criminal underworld and one in literature. When taken as a whole, his writings (collected in The Huncke Reader, 1997) provide a blueprint for the origins of the Beat Generation, the writers that would open up the world of literature to the poetry of the street. They also contain some of the most beautiful, vital and thrilling writing to come out of post-war America.

While academia still argues about the relative worth of the Beat canon, those of us who do not see literature as a butterfly to be pinned, mounted and left to rot in a display case know what we know. While the likes of Ginsberg and Kerouac were tied to an ideology that turned into the 60s movement - the idea that the world COULD be changed, that LSD, meditation, and free love could somehow topple the powers that be, it was Huncke, with his saint-like simplicity, who really hit the nail on the head. Raymond Foye recalls Herbert talking to him during the final weeks of his dizzying, exhilarating life, and musing: "I wish I could say I'd hit upon the answers to the great mysteries of life. But it doesn't make any more sense to me than it did on day one."