Huncke Blog

American Hipster: The Life of Herbert Huncke

 “Although Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs have a more definitive place in literary history, Huncke’s brief but moving tales deserve to endure. He wrote with grace, candor, and clarity about people and situations unknown to most, and had an intimate, early knowledge of the subcultures that became so important to the more famous Beat authors,” Holladay writes. “His unaffected style and insider’s knowledge give his stories an authenticity that his friends recognized and at times tried to replicate.”

 American Hipster: The Life of Herbert Huncke  @ The Beat Museum on July 26th 2013.


Huncke's NYTimes Obit

Herbert Huncke, the Hipster Who Defined 'Beat,' Dies at 81

Herbert Huncke, the charismatic street hustler, petty thief and perennial drug addict who enthralled and inspired a galaxy of acclaimed writers and gave the Beat Generation its name, died yesterday at Beth Israel Hospital. He was 81.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said Jerry Poynton, his friend and literary executor.

Mr. Huncke had lived long enough to become a writer himself and a hero to a new generation of adoring artists and writers, not to mention a reproach to a right-thinking, clean-living establishment that had long predicted his imminent demise.

In an age when it was hip to be hip, Mr. Huncke (whose name rhymes with junkie) was the prototypical hipster, the man who gave William S. Burroughs his first fix, who introduced Jack Kerouac to the term beat and who guided them, as well as Allen Ginsberg and John Clellon Holmes, through the nether world of Times Square in the 1940's.

They honored him in turn by making him an icon of his times. He became the title character (Herbert) in Mr. Burroughs's first book, ''Junkie'' (1962). He was Ancke in Mr. Holmes's 1952 novel, ''Go.'' He appears under his own name in innumerable Ginsberg poems, including ''Howl'' (1956) with its haunting reference to ''Huncke's bloody feet.''

And if it was the fast-talking, fast-driving Neal Cassady who became Mr. Kerouac's chief literary obsession, as the irrepressible Dean Moriarty in Mr. Kerouac's 1957 breakthrough classic, ''On the Road,'' Mr. Huncke (who was Elmo Hassel in ''On the Road'') was there first.

As Junkey, he was the dominant character in the urban half of Mr. Kerouac's first book, ''The Town and the City,'' and made later appearances as Huck in ''Visions of Cody'' and ''Books of Dreams.''

All this for a teen-age runaway who said he was using drugs as early as 12, selling sex by the time he was 16, stealing virtually anything he could get his hands on throughout his life and never once apologizing for a moment of it.

''I always followed the road of least resistance,'' he said in a 1992 interview. ''I just continued to do what I wanted. I didn't weigh or balance things. I started out this way and I never really changed.''

Actually, he didn't quite start out that way. Born into a middle-class family in Greenfield, Mass., on Dec. 9, 1915, he moved with his family to Detroit when he was 4 and two years later to Chicago, where his father ran his own machine-parts distributing company.

By his own accounts he seems to have had an uneventful early childhood, but his parents divorced, and by the time he was in his early teens he was on the street, acquiring a lifelong passion for drugs and discovering the joys -- and lucrative possibilities -- of sex with men. He was also beginning a life of crime, first as a runner for the Capone gang and later as a burglar and thief.

Hitting the road early, he served for a time with the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. He traveled around the country until 1939, when he arrived in Manhattan and found a psychic home in Times Square.

Making his base of operations the Angle bar at 42d Street and Eighth Avenue, he sold drugs at times and himself at others, not always with notable success. Mr. Huncke once confided to a friend that he had not been a successful hustler: ''I was always falling in love,'' he said.

It was in 1945 that an elegantly dressed man in a Chesterfield coat knocked on the door of an apartment where Mr. Huncke was living. The visitor, who was in search of Mr. Huncke's roommate in the hope of selling him a sawed-off shotgun, was Mr. Burroughs. Mr. Huncke would recount that he took one look and told his roommate to get rid of him. ''He's the F.B.I.,'' he said.

Mr. Burroughs proved anything but, and within days Mr. Huncke had introduced him to heroin and sealed a lifelong friendship that included a 1947 visit to a marijuana farm Mr. Burroughs had started in Texas.

It was through Mr. Burroughs that Mr. Huncke soon met Mr. Ginsberg, then a Columbia undergraduate, and Mr. Kerouac, a recent Columbia dropout who became so enchanted with Mr. Huncke's repeated use of the carny term ''beat,'' meaning tired and beaten down, that he later used it as his famous label for the Beat Generation. (Mr. Kerouac later clouded things by suggesting it was derived from ''beatific.'')

An aspiring, Columbia-centered literary crowd was soon learning at Mr. Huncke's feet. Among other things, he introduced them to the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who after meeting Mr. Huncke at the Angle had interviewed him about his colorful sex life and hired him to recruit other subjects.

Though it seemed strange to some people that such a wide array of literary figures found Mr. Huncke so enchanting, he was always more than he seemed. For all his disreputable pursuits, he had elegant, refined manners and a searing honesty. He was also uncommonly well read for someone who had never been to high school, and such a natural and affecting storyteller that he could keep a table of admirers enthralled until the wee hours.

He also had a code of honor. Yes, he might steal from his friends if he needed a fix, but did not inform on them, something he proved on a number of occasions when the police sought his help in developing charges against his celebrity friends.

Mr. Huncke, who spent a total of 11 years in prison, including almost all of the 1950's, was unrepentant, a man whose acceptance of crime as his fate bolstered his friends' views that he was a victim of a rigid, unfeeling society.

If his friends saw him as fodder for their literary work, Mr. Huncke, as he later claimed, saw them as marks. There is, perhaps, a certain paradox in Mr. Huncke's use of his literary friends as literary fodder. Mr. Huncke himself began writing in the 1940's, locking himself in a stall in the men's room in the subway. He described it as the only place he could work in peace, scribbling away in his notebooks.

Taking the Kerouac idea of writing nearly automatic prose even further than Mr. Kerouac did, Mr. Huncke turned out a series of memoirs that have been praised for their unaffected style. Those who heard him regale listeners say his books read as if he were telling a spontaneous anecdote around a table at the Angle.

''Huncke's Journal'' (1965) was followed by ''Elsie John and Joey Martinez'' (1979), ''The Evening Sun Turned Crimson'' (1980) and ''Guilty of Everything'' (1990, Hanuman Books).

The books and Mr. Huncke's role in a brash new literary movement made him famous to a younger generation, and he had several successful lecture tours in recent years.

His books did not make much money, but they didn't need to. Friends contributed willingly to the upkeep of Mr. Huncke, who seemed proud that he had no talent for regular work.

It was a reflection of his continued standing among self-styled counterculturists that one of his most generous benefactors was a man who had never met him: Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who is said to have helped with his rent at Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel, where Mr. Huncke lived for the last several years.

Mr. Huncke, whose longtime companion, Louis Cartwright, was killed in 1994, is survived by his half brother, Dr. Brian Huncke of Chicago.

 (as it appeared on August 9, 1996)

Review of Unrequited Records 'Guilty of Everything'

(Repost via: UrbanGraffiti)
Guilty of Everything: Herbert Huncke in Amsterdam
Reading at Ins & Outs Press
review by Mark McCawley
“Hunke, whom you’ll see on Times Square, somnolent and alert, sadsweet, dark, beat, just out of jail, martyred, tortured by sidewalks, starved for sex and companionship, open to anything, ready to introduce new worlds with a shrug.”
~ Jack Kerouac, “Now it’s Jazz”, Desolation Angels, Chapter 77.
Hobo, narcotics addict, merchant marine, gay hustler, petty thief, convict, storyteller, writer — Herbert Huncke began living an underground life after dropping out of high school in his sophomore year in Chicago, drawn to the underbelly of city life, and quickly began learning how to support himself as a professional drifter and small time grifter.
An autodidact, and primarily anti-academic, Herbert Huncke, whose lifestyle and easy manner of speaking influenced so many, (eventually famous authors and poets, e.g. Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg) coined the term “beat” to name a generation.
Huncke, who led a life much in common with Jean Genet’s, had an original style which combined rather formal and colloquial elements reflecting both his middle-class Chicago background and his later days as a New York Bohemian. In addition to his direct, straight-ahead prose, Huncke often experimented with fragmented automatic-writing which was never more clearly illustrated than during his public readings when, at times, his prose achieved an almost trance-like quality in its depictions of underground life.
For Herbert writing was a visceral release. He liked the sensation of putting pen to paper. He wrote in small notebooks, or on paper bags garnered at Greyhound Bus rest stops en route to a detox hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.
Herbert’s aim was to produce a ‘living document.’ To describe a scene as it happened, without adding his opinions. “It’s harder than you think,” he told me. He was aided by an excellent memory and a great eye for detail.
~Jerome Poynton, Wheeling, West Virginia, Spring 2012 (Guilty of Everything, liner notes)
Huncke never wrote for the market-place. This did not mean that there was not a market for Huncke’s uniquely raw and unpretentious underground post-realist stories of urban decay and social disintegration.
Which brings me to Guilty of Everything: Herbert Huncke in Amsterdam, a Double CD of Huncke’s November 6th, 1987 live reading at Ins & Outs Press, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Co-production released by Unrequited Records, San Francisco 2012, and Eddie Woods‘ Ins & Outs Press.
Not many people can hold an audience’s attention for two solid hours, especially with prose. Herbert did just that. He was 72 at the time. And still on fire. This recording, the only one ever made of a Huncke reading in Europe, has waited 25 years to get released.
~Eddie Woods, Amsterdam, 2012 (Guilty of Everything, liner notes)
Disc One consists of a brief introduction followed by three tracks: “Meeting Bill Burroughs”, “Biographical Sketch”, and “First Love Affair” outlining Huncke’s early formative years living, in his words, “in a household of frustrated women and an angry, confused, frustrated man…” (Biographical Sketch), “a first encounter with love” (First Love Affair), and how Huncke’s place within New York Times Square 1940s drug and sex subculture made him the hub of contact among a burgeoning beat movement:
(Audio Excerpts on Urban Graffiti)
 Disc Two consists of two thirty-plus minute tracks: “Guilty of Everything” and “Whitey” which are the absolute gems of Huncke’s two hour Amsterdam reading, and I recommend anyone purchase the entire 2CD package to get them. “Whitey” originally appeared in the 1980 Cherry Valley Editions book, The Evening Sun Turned Crimson, and is the only audio available of Huncke reading this seminal story of junkies taking the methadone cure in a New York City hospital ward. “Guilty of Everything” covers Huncke’s younger years when he lived in Chicago learning to fix and score with his pal Johnny. One particularly rich scene describes Huncke’s introduction to heroin by the gorgeous and gigantic hermaphrodite Elsie, who supported herself by working the circus freak show — which is an expanded, extended, and sometimes hypnotic version (albeit earlier version) to the version of the story “Elsie” which appeared in the 1994 Neptune Music CD, From Dream to Dream:
With yet another reissue from Amsterdam’s Ins & Outs Press poetry readings, Unrequited Records captures Herbert Huncke in true story teller form in this excellent archival recording. One thing is certainly true — the old Times Square may only exist now in Huncke’s evocative stories and these wonderful recordings, but once you hear them, 42nd Street is not very far away.
Herbert Huncke was a writer and poet, and active participant in a number of emerging cultural, social and aesthetic movements of the 20th century in America. He was a member of the Beat Generation and is reputed to have coined the term. Born in Greenfield, Massachusetts in January 9, 1915, Huncke’s life was centered around living as a hobo, jumping trains across the vast expanse of the United States, bonding through a shared destitution and camaraderie with other vagrants. Huncke died on August 8, 1996, at the age of 81. He had been living for several years in a garden apartment on East 7th Street near Avenue D in New York City, supported financially by his friends David Sands, Jerome Poynton, Tim Moran, Gani Remorca, Raymond Foye and many others. In his last few years, he lived in the Chelsea Hotel, where his rent came from financial support from Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, whom Huncke never met.

 Guilty of Everything on Unrequited - he says there'll be a vinyl version soon.  CD here.

Download HH on iTunes

Another reading of Herbert's is available on ubuweb here.  We'll mirror these recordings here soon.  We're in the process of transcribing cassettes to digital - hours of readings, interviews & phone conversations with Herbert.  Shitload of material to come.  All good.



"Hobo, drug addict, merchant marine, street hustler, storyteller, writer. The man whose lifestyle and easy manner of speaking influenced so many eventually famous authors and poets, e.g. Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Not many people can hold an audience's attention for two solid hours, especially with prose. Herbert did just that. He was 72 at the time. And still on fire. This recording, the only one ever made of a Huncke reading in Europe, has waited 25 years to get released."  - Eddie Woods  from his intro to  this release

"Hobo, drug addict, merchant marine, street hustler, storyteller, writer. The man whose lifestyle and easy manner of speaking influenced so many eventually famous authors and poets, e.g. Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Not many people can hold an audience's attention for two solid hours, especially with prose. Herbert did just that. He was 72 at the time. And still on fire. This recording, the only one ever made of a Huncke reading in Europe, has waited 25 years to get released."

-Eddie Woods from his intro to this release

Huncke Bibliography (in process)

Huck, whom you'll see on Times Square, somnolent and alert, sad, sweet, dark, holy. Just out of jail. Martyred. Tortured by sidewalks, starved for sex and companionship, open to anything, ready to introduce a new world with a shrug.

- Jack Kerouac describing Huncke in his "now it's Jazz" reading from Desolation Angels


Principal Works (as described in 'Beat Culture: Lifestyles, Icons & Impact'):

Huncke’s Journal, 1965

Elsie John and Joey Martinez, 1979

The Evening Sun Turned Crimson, 1980

Guilty of Everything, 1987

Guilty of Everything: The Autobiography of Herbert Huncke, 1990

The Herbert Huncke Reader, 1997.


Bibliographical References:

Alfred Hackensberg’s “I am beat”: das Leben des Hipsters Herbert Huncke—und seine Frunde Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, 1998 (In German)

excerpts from an interview with Huncke appear in Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac, 1978

John Tytell’s interview is in the unspeakable visions of the individual 3.1–2 (1973): 3–15

Ted Morgan’s biography of Burroughs, Literary Outlaw, 1988, contains a portrait of Huncke 

in the essay “‘Why Do We always Say Angel?’: Herbert Huncke and Neal Cassady,”

in The Beat Generation Writers, ed. A. Robert Lee, 1990, Clive Bush analyzes Huncke’s relation to the other Beats

in The Herbert Huncke Reader, 1997, Jerome Poynton’s “Biographical Sketch” and Raymond Foye’s “Introduction

Hilary Holladay's entry for Huncke in 'Beat Culture: Lifestyles, Icons & Impact' - (pdf version here).  Here's an excerpt from the Huncke entry:

When Huncke used the word “Beat,” he always maintained that he meant down and out, exhausted—and he knew what that felt like—but his trademark word could be used in so many ways that it is no wonder Kerouac appropriated it. Always attuned to people who could teach him some- thing, Kerouac admired Huncke’s talent as a story- teller and recognized his psychological complexity. Huncke was a true hipster, as Beat as people come, but his genuine compassion for his friends and his pained awareness of life’s fleeting nature were equally important to his makeup. These character- istics found their way into Kerouac’s expanded notion of “Beat” as sympathetic and spiritual as well as tired and broken down.
With his haunted gaze and velvet voice, Huncke appeared, virtually unretouched, in many of his friends’ novels and poems. Kerouac called him Junkey in The Town and the City (1950) and Elmer Hassel in On the Road (1957), and Burroughs re- named him Herman in Junky (1953). Ginsberg immortalized Huncke and his blood-soaked shoes in “Howl” (1956). Huncke also surfaces in John Clel- lon Holmes’s novel Go (1952) and Irving Rosenthal’s novel Sheeper (1967) and in poems by John Wieners, Janine Pommy Vega, and Marty Matz.
Huncke himself finally published a book at age fifty. Diane di Prima published Huncke’s Journal (1965) through her Poet’s Press. The collection contains stories and vignettes that Huncke scooped up and handed to her when she asked him for a manu- script. Less affected than Jean Genet, an obvious influence, Huncke is a storytelling shaman who evokes his own and other people’s feelings with great skill and delicacy. His next publication was a limited-edition chapbook, Elsie John & Joey Martinez (1979), which his friend Rlene Dahlberg published through her Pequod Press. The following year, Cherry Valley Editions published a collection of stories, The Evening Sun Turned Crimson (1980). Raymond Foye’s Hanuman Press published a short version of Huncke’s autobiography, Guilty of Everything (1987), as a miniature book. Paragon House released an expanded edition of the autobiography in 1990. The most comprehensive collection of his work to date is The Herbert Huncke Reader (1997).
In the 1980s and 1990s, Huncke was buoyed by the Beat renaissance. At the Rare Book Room, a small bookstore on Greenwich Avenue owned by Roger and Irvyne Richards, he and Gregory Corso held forth for young men in love with all things Beat. In 1982, Huncke attended the Naropa Institute’s conference marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of On the Road’s publication. Jerome Poynton, a new acquaintance who later became one of Huncke’s close friends, recalled his conference interview with the wizened cult figure: Asked about the writing workshop he was supposed to lead, Huncke quipped: “I don’t know what a writing workshop is, but I don’t like the sound of that word ‘work.’”

Huncke's bibliography as it appears on Wikipedia:


  • Guilty of Everything: The Autobiography of Herbert Huncke (New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1990), Edited by Don Kennison, foreword by William S. Burroughs. ISBN 1-55778-044-7.
  • Guilty of Everything (excerpt) Edited by Raymond Foye. (New York & Madras: Hanuman Books, 1987), ISBN 0-937815-08-X
  • The Evening Sun Turned Crimson (Cherry Valley, NY: Cherry Valley Editions, 1980), ISBN 0-916156-43-5.
  • Huncke's Journal (Poets Press, 1965). Out of Print. Edited by Diane DiPrima, foreword by Allen Ginsberg.
  • The Herbert Huncke Reader edited by Ben Schafer (New York: Morrow, 1997), ISBN 0-688-15266-X. (Includes the complete texts of The Evening Sun Turned Crimson and Huncke's Journal).
  • Again–The Hospital (White Fields Press, Louisville, 1995). 1/50 copies. (Broadside; single sheet, measuring 12 by 22 inches, illustrated with a photograph of Huncke.)
  • Herbert E. Huncke 1915-1996 (New York: Jerry Poynton 1996). (Limited edition of 100 copies of the program for the Herbert Huncke memorial at Friends Meetinghouse, New York City. Includes original texts.)
  • From Dream to Dream (Netherlands, 1994, cd)
  • Herbert Huncke - Guilty of Everything. Double-CD of Huncke's 1987 live reading at Ins & Outs Press, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Co-production released by Unrequited Records, San Francisco (2012).

Both are missing a couple of pieces that I can think of offhand - We'll update as we notice.   

Don McNeill's Moving Through Here (1970) has a piece he wrote for the Voice called 'Huncke the Junkie'.  In full here.  Ginsberg (already myth-making & describing Herbert as 'the oldest living junkie in NYC' - remember this is the mid-1960s (! ? !)) says to McNeill:  

“He’s the oldest living junkie in New York,” Ginsberg said, “and an old sidekick of Burroughs and Kerouac.  He turned Burroughs on to junk and he’s waiting in line at Manhattan General to get in so he can cut down on his habit.  He’s been waiting for four days and he thinks he can get in in about twenty minutes, and he needs his suitcase which is in his hotel room, so can you go up to the hospital and get his key, and go to the hotel and get his suitcase and take it to him?  He’s wearing a white sweater.  Hurry!”






‘The Burning Ghat’: Short Film Starring Original Beat Herbert Huncke




The Burning Ghat is a strange, yet revealing short film that reveals something of the relationship between original Beat, Herbert Huncke, and his long-time companion and room-mate, Louis Cartwright.
Huncke was a petty crook and junkie, who hustled around Times Square in the 1940s, where he met William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. It was Huncke who originally introduced these 3 young writers on the “Beat Life,” and became a major inspiration to their writing.
Not long after meeting him, Ginsberg wrote in his journal:
Who is Herbert Huncke? When I first knew him I saw him in what I considered the ‘glamorous’ light of a petty criminal and Times Square hustler who was experienced in the ways, thoughts, and activities of an underground culture which is enormously extensive. The attempt to dismiss him because of his social irresponsibility is something that I was never able to conceive as truthful or productive. I saw him as a self-damned soul—but a soul nonetheless, aware of itself and others in a strangely perceptive and essentially human way. He has great charm. I see that he suffers, more than myself, more than anyone I know of perhaps; suffers like a saint of old in the making; and also has cosmic or supersensory perceptions of an extraordinary depth and openness.
Louis Cartwright was a photographer (he took the portrait of Huncke above), drug addict and alleged pimp. According to Huncke, he was also someone not to be trusted. In 1994, Cartwright was stabbed to death, and his murder still remains unsolved.
The Burning Ghat was directed by James Rasin (Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy DarlingAndy Warhol Superstar) and Jerome Poynton, and was filmed in Huncke’s apartment on Henry Street, New York.
Allen Ginsberg wrote of the film, “O Rare Herbert Huncke, live on film! The Burning Ghat features late-in-lifetime old partners Huncke & Louis playing characters beyond themselves with restrained solid self-awareness, their brief masquerade of soul climaxing in an inspired moment’s paradox bittersweet as an O’Henry’s tale’s last twist”.
Harry Smith said of the film, “It should have been longer”.
The Burning Ghat was featured at the 53rd Venice Biennial, and included in the Whitney Museum’s “Beat Culture and the New America” show of 1996. It won the Gold Plaque Award for Best Short Film at the 1990 Chicago International Film Festival.
Made the same year Huncke published his autobiography Guilty of Everything, this was to be his only on-screen, acting performance.


Bonus: Out-takes from ‘Original Beats’ featuring Herbert Huncke
Previously on Dangerous Minds

‘Original Beats’: A film on Herbert Huncke and Gregory Corso

(reposted from: Dangerous Minds

American Hipster:


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 ...




Particularly Little Jack

This blog & site is a work in progress - documenting the somewhat clumsy process of sorting through the archives of Herbert Huncke - by co-editors Jerry Poynton & Leslie Winer - & preparing Herbert's work for re-publication.  There is a mountain of material including archives from Stanford, Columbia & private papers, film, letters & various ephemera held in private collections.  This is That.

We'll post bits & pieces of what we're doing here - as well as some anecdotal material.  Requests for anything you might want to see taken.  Ask & we'll look for it.   & Please, if you have any stories or memories of Huncke feel free to leave them in the comments or you can contact us at




Allen Ginsberg:

An Inventory of His Collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center

"In 1949 Ginsberg moved out of East Harlem and into downtown Manhattan where Herbert Huncke and several of his friends began storing stolen goods. The police raided the apartment and Ginsberg served eight months in the New York Psychiatric Hospital where he met Carl Solomon who offered further challenges to his convictions about poetry. Ginsberg continued to write the collection of poems later published in 1972 as The Gates of Wrath."


Dear Leslie,

This paragraph--it is amazing a university library would have this written in this way.  While it is true the Jack Melody, Vicki Russell, Herbert Huncke and Allen Ginsberg were storing goods in Allen's place--downtown from East Harlem--I believe East 68th, 58th Street--the implication here is way wrong.  ("downtown Manhattan," 58th Street?)

Allen was quite interested in Vickie and Little Jack.  (I suspect, particularly Little Jack.)

Allen participated as a look-out for heists and went off with Vickie and Little Jack, excluding Herbert, who was beginning to feel left out as the three of them would go out with out him. Herbert told me he was looking to move out because Allen had taken such a strong interest in Little Jack and Vickie, Herbert was beginning to feel like a fifth wheel.

The police arrived at Allen's door after Allen, Vickie, and Little Jack had, unsuccessfully, tried to run over a New York City motorcycle policeman who noticed Little Jack driving the wrong way on a one way street in Queens.

Taking pursuit, Little Jack flipped the car, making a fast turn.  Occupants fled.  The car had stolen goods in it, and Allen's notebooks.

Allen had been detailing his crime sprees in his notebooks. Burroughs learned of this and told Allen to get the notebooks out of the apartment. It was Allen's intent to bring the notebooks to a safe place.  This is what he was doing--taking goods to a "new" pawn shop and his notebooks to a safe house in Queens--when Little Jack screwed-up.

When the car flipped, Allen lost his glasses, fled with the others and left his notebooks which detailed the crimes and had Allen's contact information. This is how the police found Allen's apartment.  He left his address at the scene of the crime.

After Allen fled, he immediately phoned Herbert who was at the apartment.  Allen told Herbert to "clear the place out" as the cops would be arriving.

Herbert looked around and decided he could not singlehandedly clear the apartment out--there was a cigarette machine in the living room--and decided to make the place look as "neat" as possible.  (Herbert didn't know about the notebooks now in police hands.)

When the cops arrived, they were not interested in Herbert. He was not in the car that tried to run over one of New York finest. They almost didn't arrest him but did in the end because he was in the apartment.

Once at the station, they found Herbert had "a screamer" (arrest warrant) from Detroit.

Once in jail--Allen retreated to a corner of the cell, wept and began reciting Jewish prayers. Herbert told me he lost respect for Allen when he saw that.

Allen's brother, a lawyer, visited Herbert a few days later and asked Herbert if he would mind if they postpone the trial for as long as possible--as Allen's name as Columbia student--was blazed in the press. Herbert agreed.

Little Jack's mother was a mafia doyen in Brooklyn. Vickie Russell's father (I think this is true) was a Detroit judge. They were both released to their family. Allen was put in the psych ward for six months and Herbert sent to prison for five years.