Herbert Huncke was born on January 9, 1915 in Greenfield, Massachusetts. He grew up in Chicago where his father owned a manufacturing business, and became a drifter, thief, and drug addict as a teenager. He moved to New York permanently in 1939. He met William Burroughs five years later, when Burroughs was trying to sell a gun and some morphine syrettes. Burroughs later wrote about meeting Huncke in his book Junky, as a character named Herman.
Burroughs and his friends thought he embodied such an honest-criminal ethic that they had deep admiration for him. It was Huncke that first introduced Burroughs to heroin. Burroughs soon introduced him to his friends Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who encouraged him to become a writer. Kerouac would write about Huncke in On the Road, as the character Elmer Hassel.
Ginsberg shared his New York City apartment with him, even though he knew Huncke and his friends were hiding stolen goods there. But this ended when there was a police bust in the Utopia Parkway in Queens, and Ginsberg frantically called home and told Huncke to "clean out the place" before the cops arrived. Ginsberg arrived a few minutes before the cops, and found that Huncke had taken him literally. He'd tidied up the place and swept the floors, but the stolen goods were still in place. Ginsberg was not amused at the time.
It was Huncke that was said to have introduced Kerouac to the term "beat," which Kerouac would later use to describe his generation to John Clellon Holmes.
Huncke did make some attempts at writing, mainly short, honest character sketches about people he had met. Ginsberg described his work as "literal storytelling, just talking--for that reason it is both awkward and pure."
Huncke would eventually even teach some writing workshops at Ginsberg's Naropa Institute poetry school.
He spent his last years living in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. In his last year, he performed live with Patti Smith at the annual Kerouac Festival in Lowell. He died August 8, 1996.