Huncke, Herbert Edwin

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Huncke, Herbert Edwin

(b. 9 January 1915 in Greenfield, Massachusetts; d. 8 August 1996 in New York City), writer, outlaw, and legendary storyteller who introduced the writers of the Beat Generation to New York’s underworld of sex, drugs, and crime, and whose use of the word “beat” lent the literary movement its name.

Huncke was the oldest of two sons born to Herbert Spencer Huncke, an apprentice machinist at the Greenfield Tap and Die Company, and the sixteen-year-old Marguerite Bell, a homemaker. In 1919 the family moved to Detroit where Huncke’s younger brother was born; two years later they settled in Chicago, where Huncke’s father founded H. S. Huncke and Company, a machine-parts distributorship.

Raised in a middle-class household along Chicago’s fashionable lakefront, Huncke’s childhood was marred by his parents’ constant arguments, which ultimately led to divorce as Huncke entered adolescence. He attended the local public schools but found Chicago’s street life more alluring. He spent his sophomore year in high school in continuation school (a program that allowed students to drop out of the regular school program and attend school during evenings and weekends) while working as a messenger at the Union Trust and Savings Bank. A year later he quit school for good. He began hanging around Rush Street, consorting with hustlers, drug addicts, and petty criminals connected with the Al Capone mob. Inspired by Francis Beeding’s novel about drug smugglers, The Little White Hag (1926), he began using drugs himself and soon acquired a heroin habit.

A drug addict who had disgraced his family, Huncke left Chicago in the early 1930s, hitchhiking and riding freight trains all over the country. He stopped in New Orleans, Memphis, Tennessee; Galveston, Texas; East St. Louis, Illinois; and towns in California, hustling, stealing, and working odd jobs, including a brief stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Finally, in 1939, he arrived in New York City.

Huncke wound up in Times Square dead broke, but before long he was selling sex, dealing drugs, and stealing suitcases in the All American Bus Depot—doing whatever it took to survive. Caught breaking into a car on Thirty-fourth Street, he served six months as a prisoner on Hart’s Island, where one of his jobs was to dig mass graves for persons whose families could not afford proper burial. Upon his release he returned to Times Square. Often homeless, he haunted the all-night cafeterias—Chase’s, Bickford’s, the Horn & Hardart automats—and the seedy bars along Eighth Avenue. He soon attracted the attention of the local police who dubbed him “The Creep.” Alfred Kinsey, the sex researcher, also noticed Huncke. Meeting with him in the Angler bar at 674 Eighth Avenue, he recruited Huncke for his survey and agreed to pay him $2 for any acquaintances he might refer. In this way Beat authors William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac became part of Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948).

World War II put a damper on Huncke’s activities in Times Square. Motivated by high wartime wages and a romantic desire to go to sea, he joined the merchant marine. Ironically, while classified 4-F, Huncke served in the most dangerous of occupations and saw action in a war zone, supplying the troops at Normandy shortly after the Allied invasion.

In 1945 Huncke was living on Henry Street in lower Manhattan. One day his roommate Bob Brandenburg brought a distinguished-looking gentleman in a Chesterfield coat to their apartment. It was William S. Burroughs, seeking to dispose of a gun and some morphine Syrettes. He and Huncke became friendly and, when Burroughs moved into Joan Vollmer Adams’s apartment at 419 West 115th Street, he brought Huncke around to meet Ginsberg and Kerouac, who were also living there. Huncke introduced the Columbia University intellectuals to a gritty underworld of drugs and criminality that seemed more authentic than academic life on Morningside Heights. They, in turn, provided Huncke, a gifted storyteller, with an appreciative audience.

Around Christmas 1946, Burroughs and Adams moved to New Waverly, Texas, where Burroughs hoped to grow marijuana. Huncke joined them in February 1947 and remained until October, when Neal Cassady drove Burroughs and Huncke back to New York with a jeep full of inferior pot. Except for a brief trip to Detroit, Huncke drifted around Times Square for the next fourteen months. The winter of 1948 was particularly harsh, as Huncke recalled in his autobiography: “I only wanted a place to live or die in out of the cold, not to be found a corpse crouched in the doorway.” In February 1949, sick and exhausted, he arrived at Ginsberg’s apartment at 1401 York Avenue.

Taking advantage of Ginsberg’s hospitality, Huncke recovered his health. He soon teamed up with two friends, Jack Melody and Priscilla Arminger (also known as Vicki Russell), on a series of burglaries. The trio used Ginsberg’s apartment to store their loot. On 21 April 1949, Melody and Arminger offered to drive Ginsberg to his brother’s house on Long Island in a stolen car. Stopped by police after making a wrong turn in Queens, Melody attempted to run down an officer. After a hectic chase, the car turned over on 205th Street. Ginsberg and Arminger escaped, but Melody was apprehended, and he led the police to Ginsberg’s apartment, where everyone was arrested on charges of burglary and grand larceny. The others avoided jail time, but Huncke, with a prior record and little influence, was sentenced to five years in prison.

During the 1950s, when Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs were publishing books, becoming famous, and launching the Beat Generation, Huncke was doing time in such notorious New York State prisons as Sing Sing, Dannemora, and Riker’s Island. By his own estimate, he spent about a dozen years of his life behind bars.

Paroled in 1959, Huncke found work in a glass-importing company on Seventeenth Street, off Fifth Avenue. After locating Ginsberg at 170 East Second Street, he moved into the building. Encouraged by Ginsberg, he gave his first reading at the Seven Arts Coffee Gallery at 596 Ninth Avenue. It was a good time. Friends were supportive of his writing and, although he continued to take drugs, he had enough money to support his habit. In 1964, arrested again for drug possession, Huncke spent six months on Riker’s Island, but he was out in time to see the publication of his first book, Huncke’s Journal (1965). In 1968 he appeared on the David Susskind show and published his story “Alvarez” in the October Playboy.

Around 1970, Huncke met Louis R. Cartwright, an aspiring photographer. Huncke, who considered himself to be bisexual, served as both lover and father figure to Cartwright. They took an apartment at 276 Henry Street in Brooklyn and remained together on and off for nearly twenty-five years. Huncke lived quietly in the 1970s and 1980s, entering a methadone treatment program, doing readings, and giving interviews to Beat Generation scholars. As a result, his work received more attention. In 1979 Pequod Press published Elsie John and Joey Martinez, a handsome edition of the Huncke stories “Elsie John” and “Joey Martinez.” A year later, Cherry Valley Editions issued a collection of stories, The Evening Sun Turned Crimson. Finally, Paragon House released Guilty of Everything (1990), the autobiography Huncke had worked on for more than twenty years.

The 1990s saw Huncke back in Manhattan, first at an apartment at 269 East Seventh Street, then at the Chelsea Hotel, where he was supported by friends and admirers, including the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. In January 1994 he fell and broke his shoulder and was hospitalized briefly at Cabrini Medical Center. Another blow came on 6 June 1994, when Cartwright was murdered on Second Avenue. Huncke was too grief-stricken to attend the funeral. Although his health was deteriorating, he read at the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival on 6 October 1995 in Lowell, Massachusetts, and at the University of Connecticut on 7 December 1995. At the age of 81 he died of congestive heart failure at Beth Israel Hospital. By his own request, Huncke was cremated without any formal rites.

Huncke’s fame rests primarily on his appearance in numerous works by Beat Generation authors: He was Ancke in John Clellon Holmes’s Go (1952), Herman in Burroughs’s Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (1953; 1977 edition was retitled junky), and Elmo Hassel in Kerouac’s On The Road (1957). A picaresque antihero, he represented an alternative to the conformist middle-class values the Beats heartily rejected. Since his writings appeared mostly in small-press publications, Huncke was less influential as an author than he was as a literary character. The publication of the Herbert Huncke Reader (1997) by William Morrow, however, may make his own writings more accessible and better appreciated.

Columbia University’s Rare Books and Manuscript Division holds thirty notebooks and some early correspondence dating from 1946. The University of California, Berkeley, has corrected proofs of Guilty of Everything: The Autobiography of Herbert Huncke (1990), along with a transcript of a conversation between Huncke and his editor, Don Kennison. This autobiography is the most complete record of Huncke’s life. Interviews containing biographical information are in unspeakable visions of the individual, 3, nos. 1–2 (1973): 3–15 and Catching Up With Kerouac (1984): 67–92. A profile by Michael T. Kaufman is in the New York Times (9 Dec. 1992). A tribute, edited by Benjamin Schäfer and produced by Jerome Poynton, Huncke’s literary executor, was published in connection with a memorial service held on 30 November 1996 at the Friends Meeting House at 221 East Fifteenth Street, New York City. Obituaries are in the New York Times (9 Aug. 1996) and the London Independent (16 Aug. 1996). Huncke and Louis (1999), a video documentary by Laki Vazakas, focuses on Huncke’s relationship with Louis Cartwright. Huncke also appears in video clips in Kerouac (1985); Burroughs: The Movie (1985); The Beat Generation, an American Dream (1987); and The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg (1993).

William M. Gargan