Huncke’s New York City

Huncke began to rap.  Huncke raps beautifully, the sound of his magnificent voice—all that seems intact in his devastated body—as tantalizing as the content.  He has so much to rap about, the days with Burroughs, the trials and woes of Ginsberg, the gilded gossip about the beats a decade ago and last week.  It is all that he has, his memories and a talent for recalling them.  It is not quite enough, but he gets by.
– Don McNeill, Huncke The Junkie  (from Moving Through Here) cited at: www.huncketeacompany.com

 

Herbert Edwin Huncke undoubtedly ranks amongst one of the most fascinating yet underestimated figures of the ‘Beat’ world.

Street urchin, raconteur, hustler, and chronicler of New York’s street life, Huncke was a unique figure in New York’s literary scene whose presence was reluctantly – but ultimately – acknowledged as a testament to the power and simplicity of his storytelling. Huncke’s notebooks also serve as a testimony to his attempts to document his many encounters at street level and are indeed fascinating original chronicles that capture elements of his often turbulent but always colourful life.

Born into a middle class family in Greenfield, Massachusetts, Huncke’s colorful life was shaped early on. A restless child and “chronic runaway,” Huncke hit New York City permanently in 1939 at the age of 24, immediately gravitating to Forty-Second Street where he began hustling for sex.

Widely immortalized in the literature of his confrères — William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and John Clellon Holmes — Huncke served as a model for literary characters such as Elmo Hassel in Kerouac’s On The Road and Herman in Burroughs’ Junky (amongst many other literary characterizations).

As a “Virgilian guide” to New York’s underworld, Huncke would skilfully guide Burroughs into the subterranean world of narcotics, as well as provide a great degree of source material for his literary adventures. Yet Huncke’s own creative endeavors have often taken a back seat to those of his contemporaries.

Throughout his long and often tumultuous life, Huncke wrote his observations, reflections, and vignettes in a series of notebooks [1]. This stock of tales undoubtedly underpinned the Huncke mythology. As long time friend and confidant Raymond Foye recollects:

There remains an indelible image of Herbert Huncke the writer, frozen forever in time: homeless and alone, couched in a Times Square pay toilet with notebook on knees, furtively composing his latest tale from the underground.

– Raymond Foye in The Herbert Huncke Reader, William Morrow & Co, New York.

Huncke’s notebooks also form an evocative record of his trials and tribulations as a sage and survivor on New York’s often brutal and unforgiving streets. Huncke’s notebook revelations also provide an insight into “a way of life, a vocabulary, references, a whole symbol system” (as Burroughs put it in Junky) that has now largely disappeared. The world of “crash pads, speakeasies, [and] all-night jam sessions with Charlie Parker or Dexter Gordon” were part of the “carnie” world that informed Huncke’s reflections on an often chaotic, always kaleidoscopic culture. Indeed, the frustrations of Huncke’s itinerant existence are eloquently expressed in this entry in his notebooks:

lost to the streets — lost completely to a life I once knew — stealing — junk– all night wandering– thru the streets — lost completely to a life I once knew – — stealing — junk all night wandering thru the city — no pads– no friends — no way of life – almost convinced prison is a solution — shriveling within at the mere thought — wishing for death — willing death… [Untitled MS Page, Notebook and Diary excerpts, 1959-1960] [2]

A master storyteller, raconteur and polished performer, Huncke would often use his considerable verbal skills to cadge money, drinks and other necessities from his often wary and weary friends. In this vivid passage from Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, McCourt describes a typical encounter with Huncke on one of his visiting rounds cadging whatever spare change he could towards his version of what he saw as ‘the necessities of life’:

I stepped into the hallway for one of our brief occasional conferences where he explained he happened to be in this neighborhood and he was thinking about me and wondered how is was doing. Also, he happened to be caught short for necessities and wondered if I might have any spare change about me. He appreciated past kindnesses and even though he saw little possibility of repayment he would always remember me warmly. It was such a pleasure to visit me here and to see the youth of America, these beautiful children, in such capable and generous hands. He said thanks and he might see me soon at Montero’s Bar in Brooklyn, a few blocks from his apartment. In a few minutes the ten dollars I slipped him would be passed to a Stuyvesant Square drug dealer.

That’s Huncke, I told them. Pick up any history of recent American writing or the Beat Generation and in the index you’ll find Huncke, Herbert.

Alcohol is not his habit but he’ll kindly allow you to buy him a drink at Montero’s. His voice is deep, gentle and musical. He never forgets his manners and you’d rarely think of him as Huncke the Junkie. He respects law and obeys none of it.

He’s done jail time for pickpocketing, robbery, possession of drugs, selling drugs. He’s a hustler, a con man, a male prostitute, a charmer, a writer. He is given credit for coining the term Beat Generation. He uses people until he exhausts their patience and money and they tell him, Enough Huncke. Out, out already. He understands and never carries grudges. It’s all the same to him. I know he’s using me, but he knew everyone in the Beat movement and I listen to him talk about Burroughs, Corso, Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg. R’lene Dahlberg told me that Ginsberg once compared Huncke to St. Francis of Assisi. Yes, he’s a criminal, an outlaw, but he steals only to sustain his drug habit and makes no profit out of his activities.

– Frank Mc Court’s portrait of Herbert Huncke in Teacher Man, Scribner, New York, 2005 (p 250-251).

Huncke’s literary legacy lives on in a number of works that were published in his lifetime [3] as well as a definitive collection of writings – The Herbert Huncke Reader – collected together by Benjamin G. Schafer with an Introduction by Raymond Foye as well as a superb Biographical Sketch of Huncke written by Huncke’s Literary Executor Jerome Poynton. [4]

William S. Burroughs acknowledged the “extraordinary” nature of Huncke’s experiences that were “quite genuine” in his Forward to The Herbert Huncke Reader in the following brief remarks –

In ‘The Thief’s Journal’, Genet says there are very few people who have earned the right to think.  Huncke had adventures and misadventures that were not available to middle-class, comparatively wealthy college people like Kerouac and me:  “Some write home to the old folks for coin.  That’s their ace in the hole.”  Huncke had extraordinary experiences that were quite genuine.  He isn’t a type you find anymore.

– William S. Burroughs in The Herbert Huncke Reader, William Morrow & Co, New York.

Huncke was undoubtedly a unique character in the history of Times Square lore [5]: a “genuine” character of the streets who wielded far more influence over the imaginations of the founding fathers of the American Beat movement than he is often given credit for.

Marcus D. Niski, August 2017


 

[1] In 2010, I had the privilege of visiting the Columbia University’s Butler Library in New York to view their deposit of Huncke’s papers and notebooks. My analysis of Huncke’s notebooks, as well as selected images of them can found in my realitystudio.org article –  ‘The Writer’s Notebooks of Herbert Huncke’ by Marcus D. Niski at: ‘http://realitystudio.org/criticism/the-writers-notebooks-of-herbert-huncke/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Huncke’s Writings: A Select Bibliography

Guilty of Everything: The Autobiography of Herbert Huncke (New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1990), Edited by Don Kennison, foreword by William S. Burroughs. ISBN 1-55778-044-7

The Evening Sun Turned Crimson (Cherry Valley, NY: Cherry Valley Editions, 1980), ISBN 0-916156-43-5.

Huncke’s Journal (Poets Press, 1965). Edited by Diane Di Prima. Foreword by Allen Ginsberg.

The Herbert Huncke Reader Edited by Benjamin Schafer (New York: Morrow, 1997), ISBN 0-688-15266-X

Again–The Hospital (White Fields Press, Louisville, 1995). 1/50 copies. (Broadside; single sheet, measuring 12 by 22 inches, illustrated with a photograph of Huncke.)

Herbert E. Huncke 1915-1996 (New York: Jerry Poynton 1996). (Limited edition of 100 copies of the program for the Herbert Huncke memorial at Friends Meetinghouse, New York City. Includes original texts.)

From Dream to Dream (Dig It! 567912-2, Music & Words, Netherlands, 1994, CD)

Herbert Huncke – Guilty of Everything. Double-CD of Huncke’s 1987 live reading at Ins & Outs Press, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Co-production released by Unrequited Records, San Francisco (2012).

[4] The full text of Jerome V. Poynton’s biographical sketch of Hunkce can be found at http://huncketeacompany.com/about/ which celebrates Huncke’s life and Centennial Year (1915–2015).

[5] Huncke’s Obituary in The New York Times by Robert McG. Thomas Jr. (Aug. 9, 1996) can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/1996/08/09/arts/herbert-huncke-the-hipster-who-defined-beat-dies-at-81.html

Huncke’s Dirty Seedy New York

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