Herbert Huncke

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Herbert Huncke
Huncke in 1985
Huncke in 1985
BornHerbert Edwin Huncke
(1915-01-09)January 9, 1915
Greenfield, Massachusetts, US
DiedAugust 8, 1996(1996-08-08) (aged 81)
New York City, US
Literary movementBeat Generation

Herbert Edwin Huncke (January 9, 1915 – August 8, 1996) was an American writer and poet, and an active participant in a number of emerging cultural, social and aesthetic movements of the 20th century in America. He was a member of the Beat Generation and is reputed to have coined the term.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7]

Early life[edit]

Born in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and raised in Chicago, Herbert Huncke was a street hustler, high school dropout, and drug user. He left Chicago as a teenager after his parents divorced and began living as a hobo, jumping trains throughout the United States and bonding with other vagrants through shared destitution and common experience. Although Huncke later came to regret his loss of family ties, in his autobiography, Guilty of Everything, he states that his lengthy jail sentences were a partial result of his lack of family support.

New York City and Times Square[edit]

Huncke hitchhiked to New York City in 1939. He was dropped off at 103rd and Broadway, and he asked the driver how to find 42nd Street. "You walk straight down Broadway," the man said, "and you will find 42nd Street." Huncke, always a stylish dresser, bought a boutonnière for his jacket and headed for 42nd Street. For the next 10 years, Huncke was a 42nd Street regular and became known as the "Mayor of 42nd Street."

At this point, Huncke's regular haunts were 42nd Street and Times Square, where he associated with a variety of people, including prostitutes (male and female) and sailors. During World War II, Huncke shipped out to sea as a United States Merchant Marine to ports in South America, Africa, and Europe. He landed on the beach of Normandy three days after the invasion.

Aboard ships, Huncke would overcome his drug addiction or maintain it with morphine syrettes supplied by the ship medic. When he returned to New York, he returned to 42nd Street, and it was after one such trip where he met the then-unknown William S. Burroughs, who was selling a sub-machine gun and a box of syrettes. Their first meeting was not cordial: from Burroughs' appearance and manner, Huncke suspected that he was "heat" (undercover police or FBI).[8] Assured that Burroughs was harmless, Huncke bought the morphine and, at Burroughs' request, immediately gave him an injection.[citation needed] Burroughs later wrote a fictionalized account of the meeting in his first novel, Junkie. Huncke also became a close friend of Joan Adams Vollmer Burroughs, William's common-law wife, sharing with her a taste for amphetamines. In the late 1940s he was invited to Texas to grow marijuana on the Burroughs farm. It was here he renewed his acquaintance with the young Abe Green, a fellow train jumper and much later on in the early beatnik scene, a regular reciter of his own enigmatic brand of spontaneous poetry. Despite his comparative youth, Green was often referred to by Huncke as "Old Faithful." Huncke valued loyalty and it is thought that Abe Green was of "inestimable assistance" to Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac when it came to the concealment of the weapon used to kill David Kammerer some years later.

During the late 1940s, Huncke was recruited to be a subject in Alfred Kinsey's research on the sexual habits of the American male. He was interviewed by Kinsey, and recruited fellow addicts and friends to participate. Huncke had been an unpublished writer since his days in Chicago, and gravitated toward literary types and musicians. In the music world, Huncke visited all the jazz clubs and associated with Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Dexter Gordon (with whom he was once busted on 42nd Street for breaking into a parked car). When he first met Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs, they were interested in writing and also unpublished. They were inspired by his stories of 42nd Street life, criminal life, street slang, and his vast experience with drugs. Huncke was immortalized in Kerouac's On the Road as the character Elmo Hassel.

In the late 1940's, Huncke was arrested on a stolen goods charge and sentenced to a term in the New York State Prison System. Ginsberg was arrested along with Huncke and others, and was sent to a mental hospital as a result.[9]

Writing career[edit]

Huncke himself was a natural storyteller, a unique character with a paradoxically honest take on life. Later, after the formation of the so-called Beat Generation, members of the Beats encouraged Huncke to publish his notebook writings (Huncke's Journal), which he did with limited success in 1965 with Diane DiPrima's Poet's Press. Huncke used the word "Beat" to describe someone living with no money and few prospects. "Beat to my socks," he said. Huncke coined the phrase in a conversation with Jack Kerouac, who was interested in how their generation would be remembered. "I'm beat," was Huncke's reply, meaning tired and beat to his socks. Kerouac used the term to describe an entire generation. Jack Kerouac later insisted that "Beat" was derived from beatification, to be supremely happy. However, it is thought that this definition was a defense of the beat way of life, which was frowned upon and offended many American sensibilities.

His autobiography, titled Guilty of Everything, was lived in the 1940s and 1960s but published in 1987.

In 1991, Herbert Huncke was crowned King of the Beaux Arts Ball.[10] He presided with Queen Fay Wray.

Huncke died in 1996 at age 81. He had been living for several years in a basement apartment on East 7th Street near Avenue D in New York City, supported financially by his friends. In his last few years, he lived in the Chelsea Hotel, where his rent came from financial support from Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, whom Huncke never met.

Quotes on Huncke[edit]

Jack Kerouac described Huncke in his "Now it's Jazz" reading from Desolation Angels, chapter 77:

Huck, whom you'll see on Times Square, somnolent and alert, sad, sweet, dark, holy. Just out of jail. Martyred. Tortured by sidewalks, starved for sex and companionship, open to anything, ready to introduce a new world with a shrug.

John Clellon Holmes described Albert Ancke, his representation of Huncke in Go in Chapter 14 of part 2:

A sallow, wrinkled little hustler, hatless and occupying a crumpled sport shirt as though crouched in it to hide his withered body.

Admired by David Wojnarowicz in his personal diaries, In the Shadow of the American Dream, where their meetings/dates are documented.

Frank McCourt mentions knowing Huncke in Chapter 16 of Teacher Man:

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.

Huncke in film[edit]

Huncke was featured in several documentaries about the Beat generation, including Janet Forman's "The Beat Generation: An American Dream," Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams' "What Happened to Kerouac?", John Antonelli's "Kerouac, the Movie", and Howard Brookner's documentary about William Burroughs, Burroughs: the Movie. He also starred in his only acting role in "The Burning Ghat" by James Rasin and Jerome Poynton.


  • Huncke's Journal (Poets Press, 1965). Out of Print. Edited by Diane Di Prima, foreword by Allen Ginsberg.
  • The Evening Sun Turned Crimson (Cherry Valley, NY: Cherry Valley Editions, 1980), ISBN 0-916156-43-5.
  • Guilty of Everything (excerpt) Edited by Raymond Foye. (New York & Madras: Hanuman Books, 1987), ISBN 0-937815-08-X
  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • The Herbert Huncke Reader edited by Ben Schafer (New York: Morrow, 1997), ISBN 0-688-15266-X. (Includes the complete texts of The Evening Sun Turned Crimson and Huncke's Journal).
  • 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).


  1. ^ Thomas, Robert McG. Jr. (9 August 1996). "Herbert Huncke, the Hipster Who Defined 'Beat,' Dies at 81". The New York Times.
  2. ^ Herman, Jan (10 June 1990). "THE BEATNICK'S BEATNICK". The New York Times.
  3. ^ Ginsburg, Allen (29 December 1996). "THE HIPSTER'S HIPSTER". The New York Times.
  4. ^ Charters, Ann (ed.). The Portable Beat Reader. Penguin Books. New York. 1992. ISBN 0-670-83885-3 (hc); 0140151028 (pbk)
  5. ^ Holladay, Hilary. American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Movement. Magnus Books. New York. 2013. ISBN 978-1936833214 (pbk)
  6. ^ McCourt, Frank. Teacher Man. Scribner. New York. 2005.
    • Mahoney, Denis; Martin, Richard L.; Whitehead, Ron (ed.). A Burroughs Compendium: Calling the Toads. New York. 1998. ISBN 0-9659826-0-2.
  7. ^ Mullin, Rick, Huncke: A Poem by Rick Mullin. Illustrated by Paul Weingarten. Seven Towers, Dublin, Ireland. 88 pgs. 2010. ISBN 978-0-9562033-7-3
  8. ^ Huncke interviewed in Arena documentary on Burroughs, BBC TV 1983.
  9. ^ "Obituary:Herbert Huncke," The Independent, James Campbell, reprinted 23 October 2011
  10. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-12-15. Retrieved 2014-02-24.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

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