Born in Greenfield, Massachusetts and reared in Chicago, Herbert Huncke was a street hustler, high school dropout and drug user. 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. Although Huncke later came to regret his loss of family ties, in his autobiography, Guilty of Everything, he states that his lengthy jail sentences were a partial result of his lack of family support. Huncke left Chicago as a teenager after his parents divorced. Despite the fantasies the largely college-educated Beat Generation had about Huncke, he was from as much of a middle-class background as they were.
Huncke hitchhiked to New York City in 1939. He was dropped off at 103rd and Broadway, and he asked the driver how to find 42nd Street. "You walk straight down Broadway," the man said, "and you will find 42nd Street." Huncke, always a stylish dresser, bought a boutonnière for his jacket and headed for 42nd Street. For the next 10 years, Huncke was a 42nd Street regular and became known as the "Mayor of 42nd Street."
At this point, Huncke's regular haunts were 42nd Street and Times Square, where he associated with a variety of people, including prostitutes (both male and female) and sailors. During World War II, Huncke shipped out to sea as a United States Merchant Marine to ports in South America, Africa and Europe. He landed on the beach of Normandy three days after the invasion.
Aboard ships, Huncke would overcome his drug addiction or maintain it with morphine syrettes supplied by the ship medic. When he returned to New York, he returned to 42nd Street, and it was after one such trip where he met the then-unknown William S. Burroughs, who was selling a sub-machine gun and a box of syrettes. Their first meeting was not cordial: from Burroughs' appearance and manner, Huncke suspected that he was "heat" (undercover police or FBI). Assured that Burroughs was harmless, Huncke bought the morphine and, at Burroughs' request, immediately gave him an injection. Burroughs later wrote a fictionalized account of the meeting in his first novel, Junkie. Huncke also became a close friend of Joan Adams Vollmer Burroughs, William's common-law wife, sharing with her a taste for amphetamines. In the late 1940s he was invited to Texas to grow marijuana on the Burroughs farm.
During the late 1940s, Huncke was recruited to be a subject in Alfred Kinsey's research on the sexual habits of the American male. He was interviewed by Kinsey, and recruited fellow addicts and friends to participate. Huncke was a writer, unpublished, since his days in Chicago and gravitated toward literary types and musicians. In the music world, Huncke visited all the jazz clubs and associated with Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon (with whom he was once busted on 42nd Street for breaking into a parked car). When he first met Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, they were interested in writing and also unpublished. They were inspired by his stories of 42nd Street life, criminal life, street slang and Huncke's vast experience with drugs. Huncke was immortalized in Kerouac's "On the Road" as the character Elmer Hassel.
Although it was his passion for thievery, heroin use and the outlaw lifestyle which fueled his daily activities, ultimately, when he was caught, he never informed on his friends. In the late 1940s, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Melody and "Detroit Redhead" flipped a car in Queens, New York, while trying to run down a motorcycle cop. Although Huncke was not at the scene of the crime he was arrested in Manhattan, because he resided with Ginsberg, and Huncke received a heavy prison sentence.
"Someone had to do the bit," Huncke said years later.
Huncke himself was a natural storyteller, a unique character with a paradoxically honest take on life. Later, after the formation of the so-called Beat Generation, members of the Beats encouraged Huncke to publish his notebook writings, which he did with limited success in 1964 with Diane DiPrima's Poet's Press. (Huncke's Journal) Huncke used the word "Beat" to describe someone living with no money and few prospects. "Beat to my socks," he said. Huncke coined the phrase in a conversation with Jack Kerouac, who was interested in how their generation would be remembered. "I'm beat," was Huncke's reply, meaning tired and beat to his socks. Kerouac used the term to describe an entire generation. Jack Kerouac later insisted that "Beat" was derived from beatification, to be supremely happy. However, it is thought that this definition was a defense of the beat way of life, which was frowned upon and offended many American sensibilities.
His autobiography, titled Guilty of Everything, was lived in the 1940s and 1960s but published in the 1990s.
Huncke died in 1996 at age 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.
Huncke was featured in several documentaries about the Beat generation, including Janet Forman's "The Beat Generation: An American Dream," Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams' "What Happened to Kerouac?" and John Antonelli's "Kerouac, the Movie." He also starred in his only acting role in James Rasin and Jerome Poynton's "The Burning Ghat."
Further Readings :
The Herbert Huncke Reader by Herbert E. Huncke & Benjamin G. Schafer
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (September 16, 1998)
Amazon: The Herbert Huncke Reader
Herbert Huncke was the original Beat. A hustler, carny, addict, petty thief, street philosopher, and chronicler of the demimonde, he was the archetype on which a generation modeled itself. In the 1940s, Huncke befriended the young William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, guiding them through New York's underground and introducing them to a world of volatile experience they had never imagined. His extraordinary ability to relate his life story in pared-down, unaffected prose inspired them to create a new type of literature, free of constraint and self-consciousness.
Huncke's work is a vital part of Beat literature, but until now has remained relatively unknown. The Herbert Huncke Reader includes the full texts of Huncke's long out-of-print classics; Huncke's Journal and The Evening Sun Turned Crimson; excerpts from his autobiography, Guilty of Everything; and a wide selection from his unpublished letters and diaries.
Guilty of Everything: The Autobiography of Herbert Huncke by Herbert Huncke
Hardcover: 210 pages
Publisher: Paragon House Publishers; 1st edition (May 1990)
Amazon: Guilty of Everything: The Autobiography of Herbert Huncke
Drug addict, thief, and writer ( The Evening Sun Turned Crimson ), Huncke figures prominently in the legend of the Beat Generation; he appears as a character in several Beat works, including Jack Kerouac's On The Road, William Burroughs's Junkie, and John Clellon Holmes's Go. Here, in an easy, conversational style, Huncke recounts his life as an addict, his prison experiences, and his friendships with Burroughs, Ginsberg, and others. His memoir includes interesting views of Times Square and the East Village and documents the changing New York City drug scene since the 1940s. Huncke is a natural storyteller. His account of his life is sincere and authentic, unmarred by apology or sentimentalism. An important literary and sociological document, Guilty of Everything belongs in all research-level collections and would be a fine addition to many public library collections.
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