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Herbert Huncke, heretofore a footnote in biographies of the Beats, has long deserved his own biography, and in American Hipster (Magnus Books), Hilary Holladay, a renowned Kerouac scholar, has given us a fascinating portrait of the man who gave the Beat movement its name. Born in 1915, Huncke was raised in Chicago by ill-matched middle-class parents who separated in the 1920s. His childhood was marked by anxiety, and an understandable compulsion to escape from home where his mother burdened him appallingly with complaints about her sex life with his father. The one adult who appreciated Herbert was his maternal grandmother. Huncke recalled that they “loved each other and were happy together but my father resented the idea—telling her she was making a goddamned sissy out of me—to leave me alone.’”
All his life, Herbert Huncke was drawn to outsiders, “night people” who congregated in Chicago parks, using illegal drugs. At twelve he ran away to New York, only to be hauled back on the train by his outraged father. But the die had been cast. Huncke already felt an ineluctable affinity with people on the margins of society, especially drug addicts, and they would make up his chosen cohort and literary subjects for the rest of his life.
In 1939 Huncke moved to New York City, where he would find enough drugs and deviant characters to satisfy him until his death in 1996 at the age of 81. He became a gay hustler in Times Square, but he had serious friendships with women, and he resisted being categorized as a homosexual, telling an interviewer in 1987, “I hate labels.” He was addicted to heroin and other drugs all his adult life. It is impossible to say what more he might have achieved in his scant literary career had he not been preoccupied with getting and ingesting heroin. He published two collections of stories and the wonderfully named 1990 autobiography, Guilty of Everything.
He was curious about all of the downtrodden people he met, and unlike the Beat writers he would befriend and mentor, he portrayed them in his stories without any condescension. In many ways he comes across as a sympathetic figure, easily the nicest of the group of writers that would include William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Holladay contrasts his empathy with that of Kerouac: “Unlike Huncke who made a point of getting to know the people he regularly ran into, he could not see beyond types.” We find a similar observation in her remarks on William Burroughs. “Burroughs’s cold reportage on the denizens of Times Square stands in stark contrast with Huncke’s delicate delineations.”
The heart of the book concerns Huncke’s relationships with and influence on the major Beat writers, and the book would be well worth reading for this alone. The Beats, who embraced nonconformity in religion, art, and sex, rejecting post-war materialism, would invent a cultural movement whose heirs would include Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. The Beats adopted Huncke as a kind of mentor and mascot in the 1940s, sensing that he was the most genuine example of the genus hipster they were ever likely to encounter. “What Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg had seen through a glass darkly was what Huncke had lived and breathed. No matter how hard the others tried, they could never convey the beat essence with Huncke’s authority or his peculiar delicacy.”
He showed them around Times Square, where he was known as “The Mayor,” and taught them hipster patois. He helped them find drug connections. He appears as a character in all the major Beat texts. He is Elmer Hassel in Kerouac’s On the Road, the unnamed “angelheaded hipster” in Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and the addict Herman in Burroughs’ Junky.
Only Ginsberg would continue to support and champion Huncke after the 1940s, writing an introduction to one of his story collections, and providing him with homes and financial support. Huncke operated without the safety net of supportive parents the other Beats relied on. His 1949 arrest with Ginsberg and two others illustrated this painfully. Ginsberg’s father rescued him, as did the parents of two other people in the car. Out of the four, only Huncke was sent to prison, after his father wrote to his parole officer condemning him as “a weak sister.” Huncke would spend nearly all of the 1950s behind bars, forgotten by his old associates.
When the Beats began receiving renewed critical and academic interest in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, Huncke was poised for a satisfying comeback as a cultural icon of the period. He gave readings at universities and coffee-houses, and enjoyed his own status as a literary celebrity. A new generation of young men entranced with the Beats sought him out, and he cherished nothing more in his old age than his friendships with these admirers.
Holladay spent years researching and writing this biography, and the book is full of quotations from Huncke’s hundreds of friends and detractors. Her meticulous documentation of these sources make the biography authoritatively convincing. She backs up all her assertions about Huncke’s significance for the Beat movement’s origins with written evidence, published and unpublished. The writing is well-paced and suspenseful, with alluring cliffhangers at the endings of chapters, such as, “In less than two years, he would appear penniless, on Ginsberg’s doorstep with his shoes oozing blood.” Her style is refreshingly plainspoken, free of academic jargon, making this an accessible introduction to the world of the Beats for readers new to the subject. Infelicitous sentences are quite rare, but they do occur on occasion, such as this one from the Prologue, “So often arrested, Huncke was also strangely arresting.” My only other criticism is that the book needs an index. But these are quibbles about a timely and affecting biography.
American Hipster. A Life of Herbert Huncke, the Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Movement
by Hilary Holladay
Paperback, 9781936833214, 400 pp.