Herbert Huncke

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Born: January 9, 1915
Place of Birth: Greenfield, Massachusetts
Died: August 8, 1996
Place of Death: New York City

  Texts from Levi Asher - Literary Kicks  

In his autobiographical 'Junky,' William S. Burroughs introduces himself into New York's heroin underworld by selling a gun and a supply of morphine to two men named Roy and Herman. He describes Herman:

    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.

This was Herbert Huncke, who grew up in Chicago and became a drifter and small-time thief as a teenager. A small and unthreatening lawbreaker, he embodied a certain honest-criminal ethic so purely that Burroughs and his friends came to love him for it. Jack Kerouac wrote adoringly of him (as Elmer Hassel) in On The Road, and Allen Ginsberg shared his New York City apartment with him, even though he realized Huncke and his junkie friends were storing stolen goods there. This phase ended in a dramatic police bust on Utopia Parkway in Bayside, Queens, during which Ginsberg frantically phoned Huncke and told him to "clean out the place" before the cops got there. Ginsberg arrived at his apartment moments ahead of the cops to find that Huncke had taken him literally. He'd tidied up and swept the floor, but the stolen goods were not moved. Ginsberg might not have been amused at the time, but there's a certain Zen purity to this kind of thing that makes it clear why Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac all liked Huncke so much.

Huncke was said to have introduced Kerouac to the term 'beat,' which Kerouac then used to describe his generation to John Clellon Holmes. Huncke does seem to have a way with words, because he later attempted to become a writer, and a story called 'Elsie John,' reprinted in 'The Beat Reader,' is surprisingly good. Still, I think it's pushing it a bit that Huncke taught writing workshops at Ginsberg's Naropa Institute poetry school. Who wants to learn about writing from Herbert Huncke?

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. Here's the poster from the event, from the Hanuman web site.


You can see some interview footage of Huncke in the film documentary 'Kerouac.'

See also the BEAT STORE for sales copies of HUNCKE AND LOUIS videotape containing some of the last footage of Huncke.

A superb collection of Huncke's best writings, 'The Herbert Huncke Reader,' was published by William Morrow in September 1997 .

Literary Kicks
by Levi Asher