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One summer day in 1927, a rebellious twelve-year-old boy climbed aboard a Chicago trolley car. Although his mother had given him a dime and dispatched him to his father’s apartment, he had no intention of getting off the trolley near there. He wanted to leave both of his troublesome parents behind and see a little bit of the world. After a series of streetcars took him to the outskirts of the city, he continued east. His first destination was his birthplace of Greenfield, Massachusetts; his second was New York City. Decades later, he said of his youthful journey, “I felt so free and light; all my shackles were suddenly dropped. I didn’t want to see anybody I knew ever again.”
Herbert Huncke (pronounced Hunky), who would provide Jack Kerouac with the word “beat” and show up in works by all of the primary Beat authors, was on the road.
With his roving hazel eyes and precocious interest in new acquaintances, the runaway attracted sexual predators. A hundred miles from home, he had oral sex with a stranger. “When that happened, the guy got scared, because he realized that I was very young. He shoved a ten-dollar bill in my hand, stepped on the gas, and took offleaving me in some little town. Here I was with a whole ten-dollar bill.” The adult Huncke recalled not an assault but a serendipitous intervention. People’s appetites, sexual or otherwise, never surprised him.
• * *
The adolescent boy now knew exactly what it meant to be “beat” in the sense that he later used the word: down and out, exhausted, hopeless. Although he had impetuously defied the social mores that say children don’t travel halfway across the country just because they feel like it, he had also been caught, humiliated, and returned home. Still, the transcendent joy he had experienced when he walked past the onion field was real, and the whole escapade had whetted his appetite for adventure.
Herbert had always dreamed of becoming an artist of one kind or another. “I started out wanting to be a writer as a young boy among other things; at one time I intensely wanted to be a dancer. I wanted to be an actor and I wanted to write and travel all over the world.” At twelve, it all seemed possible, and even after his father brought him back to his divided home in Chicago, he knew that he would not stay there. His relationship with his mother was no less fraught with pain and emotional upheaval than that with his father. “My family background was sort of strange, it was middle-class and bourgeois except that my mother and father were divorced,” he said. “One thing about it is that I broke away from the family as often and as quickly as possible; I just didn’t want to be involved. I fought furiously and angrily with my mother all the time, we screamed at each other, I’d really go out of my mind.”
Two decades later, Huncke seemed to have completely bottomed out at the age of thirty-four. A failed hustler and sickly heroin addict, he scraped by on money he borrowed from friends and possessions he stole from friends and strangers alike. Yet the artistic fires still burned within him. One cold February day in 1949, he sat on a toilet in New York’s Penn Station and propped a notepad on his knee. He wrote, “Herbert E. Huncke.” Below that he began a meandering annotation: “My name; although I’m known generally as Huncke and by a few as Herbert and in the past as Herbie. It’s seldom I’m referred to as Mr. Huncke and when formal introduction is required it is usuallyHerbert Huncke.” It was an unusual name, but “any name I might have had by its very utterance creates an almost weary and loathsome feeling in me. When I say it myself and frequently I say it to myselfI am immediately aware of a sense of disgust as though the sounds I make were significant of not only me but of a new and strange disease, and I am sure for at least the instant, I am at last slipping into an insanity from which there is no escape.”
The creative but directionless boy had grown up to be an eloquent writer and tormented man. “Sometimes I feel as though I must forcealmost drive myselfto come out from behind a closed door when new people have entered an apartment I am in or I will wait until the last minute before leaving a place because I know I must meet people’s glances on the street.” He believed that his “more intimate acquaintances” regarded him with pity: “I am sure they explain me to their friends slightly apologetically on occasion and always with an air of tolerance. Huncke’s idiosyncrasies, his eccentricities, or perhapshis mother complex. Sometimes I am sure they even attempt to allow for the unhealthy pallor of my skin. He takes Benzedrinein fact he lives on it.”
He saw no reason to dispel bad impressions:
Among a large percentage of those who know me casually or only know of me it is commonly understood I am completely saturated with narcotics. It is also believed I am unscrupulous and a completely rotten sort. I believe I am rotten in my entire being. My skin is unhealthy and serves merely as an excellent breeding territory for all the fungus and parasitical creatures in contacts. It itches constantly and I can sit for long periods scratching and picking odd-shaped black and sometimes white and frequently very darkened (like specks of dried blood) specks or flakes from my arms and legs and above my penis. The palms of my hands and also my fingers produce hairs some fully an inch in length. I have become conscious of this condition to so great an extent I am frequently sure it is evident to people I pass on the street.
Huncke’s problems went deeper than his infected flesh. Covered in sores and subject to hallucinations, he believed he was a plague on all right-thinking men and women: “I think I should remain away from everyone because perchance I may infect people, pollute them with my corruption and leave them with a diseased soul as mine is diseased. Leave themwearylistlesshorrified of themselves and longing to escape the worldto die.”
With these notes recorded in his looping, rather childlike script, Huncke left the Penn Station men’s room and forced himself to face the world. At some pointprobably fairly soonhe ran into Jack Kerouac, an energetic young writer who had recently finished his first novel, The Town and the City, which Harcourt Brace would publish in 1950. Kerouac had met Huncke through their mutual friend William S. Burroughs, a Harvard graduate of dazzling intellect and completely amoral sensibilities. Although Kerouac, unlike Burroughs, was not looking to immerse himself in Huncke’s world of drugs and crime, he was intrigued by the ghostly specter he often encountered on Times Square. In a letter to the young poet Allen Ginsberg, another mutual friend, Kerouac had written, “Incidentally, Huncke is brooding again, and it seems that Huncke is never so great as when he’s beat down and brooding and bitter.”
After Kerouac had a look at what Huncke had written that day in Penn Station, he took it upon himself to make his own copy. Printing neatly, he filled up three and a quarter pages and inserted quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph to indicate that these were Huncke’s words, not his own. At the top of the first page, in parentheses after Huncke’s name, he wrote “Junkey” in quotation marks; this was the none-too-subtle name he used for the Huncke character in The Town and the City. Below that, he wrote “Huncke’s Famous Penn Station Notes,’” and in the right margin he added, “Written in Pennsylvania Station, ‘Killing Time’ Feb.1949.”
On the final page, below a line drawn to signal the end of Huncke’s notes, he appended a quote from a letter Ginsberg had written when Ginsberg was sharing his apartment with Huncke: “The most depressing thing is to get up to go to school and wake him, and see him lift up his head, staring blankly, dumb, biting his lips, for half an hour at a time.” Little did Ginsberg, then a Columbia University undergraduate, know that he would soon be arrested, thanks to his not entirely unwilling entanglement with Huncke and his criminal friends.
Yet Herbert was more than a crook and a depressed addict. Somehow he found the energy and resolve to write a good deal, and his Penn Station notes show that he did so with grace and conviction, despite a complete lack of formal tutelage. Kerouac was quick to pick up on this. Not only did he see Huncke as a ready-made character he could insert into The Town and the City; he believed his actual words might come in handy as well. Like many a writer before and after him, Kerouac was in the habit of copying down conversations that might animate his fiction, and he saved his friends’ letters in hopes that those, too, might be useful source material. He knew that Huncke’s lyrical musings could instill authenticity in his writings about the truly beat.
The future author of On the Road (1957) saw things in Huncke’s writing that he wanted to emulate. Much has been made of Huncke as “a Virgilian guide to the lower depths” introducing Burroughs and company to the Angler Bar, the Pokerino arcade, and other Times Square joints that they might not have explored on their own, but his friends also recognized him as a storyteller par excellence. Kerouac called Huncke “the greatest storyteller I know, an actual genius at it, in my mind.” Several years after he had copied down Huncke’s pages, he began using a long dash in his “spontaneous prose” novels. All of Huncke’s handwritten stories and sketches, including the notes Kerouac copied, make frequent use of a long dash (appearing twice the length of a regular dash). The long dash allows for extended, even hyper-extended, patterns of thought. Though Kerouac admired the poetry of Whitman and Dickinson, both of whom made distinctive use of the dash, Huncke was his friend, and Kerouac always delighted in learning from people close to him.
Both Huncke and Kerouac advocated spontaneous composition. Huncke outlined his philosophy of writing in an unpublished 1948 essay:
Writing is not a matter of diligent application but rather the result of the will left freealsoit is not necessarily a matter of concentrationinstead it flowsif one but takes pen in handproviding of coursethe controlling impulse exists. [B]y more or less constant practiceone can put oneself in way of being a more responsive mediumso that the elemental urge will grasp more frequently and certainly with greater ease.
Huncke’s voluminous journals and correspondence reveal that he consistently followed his own precepts. He was not going to publish nearly as much Kerouac or any of the other prominent Beat Movement authors, but he wrote a lot (much of it lost in his frequent moves), paid attention to craft, and used the long dash so distinctively that it became a hallmark of his writing.
After Kerouac composed The Subterraneans in three days and three nights on a manual typewriter, he wrote “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” in 1953 in Ginsberg’s kitchen. Kerouac’s description of his creative technique echoes what Huncke had written five years earlier. Soon, Ginsberg would also be preaching the virtues of spontaneity and even Burroughs would welcome compositional impulses of all kinds.
Huncke first found his way into print as a character in his friends’ books. In The Town and the City, Junkey is a humorous parasite of a fellow who scuttles from one friend’s apartment to another in search of food and shelter. In On the Road, Kerouac returns to Huncke, now named Elmer Hassel, a pun on the innumerable hassles that Huncke created and endured. Hassel is an absent presence, a Times Square habitué whom Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty pretend to look for just as they pretend to look for Dean’s father. In Go, John Clellon Holmes’s 1952 novel, Huncke appears as the sniveling Ancke, a crooked chorister on the sidelines of the main action. In Junky (1953) Burroughs gives us Herman, a mistrustful homunculus who helps introduce the narrator to drugs. In Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956), Huncke is the prototype for the “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection” and those “who walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks waiting for a door in the East River to open to a room full of steamheat and opium.”
Kerouac and the other Beats loved to write about Huncke. Like the irrepressible and equally unrepentant Neal Cassadythe oversexed car thief who gave Kerouac the impetus to write On the RoadHuncke was representative of the suffering souls the Beat Movement sought to elevate and eulogize. So often arrested, Huncke was also strangely arresting. He stuck in the minds of all the Beat writers and seemed to embody both the sorrows and possibilities of their post-World War II existence. Kerouac described him as “somnolent and alert, sad, sweet and dark, holy,” and “open to anything, ready to introduce a new world.”
His hipster’s vocabulary beguiled them. Kerouac, with his excellent ear, plucked one particularly useful word straight from Huncke’s mouth and fashioned a whole cultural movement around it:
When I first saw the hipsters creeping around Times Square in 1944 I didn’t like them ... One of them, Huncke of Chicago, came up to me and said, “Man I’m beat.” I knew right away what he meant somehow. [The hipsters] looked like criminals but they kept talking about the same things I liked, long outlines of personal experience and vision, nightlong confessions full of hope that had become illicit and repressed by war, stirrings, rumblings of a new soul ... And so Huncke appeared to us and said “I’m beat” with radiant light shining out of his despairing eyes ... a word perhaps brought from some midwest carnival or drunk cafeteria.
The irresistibly elastic “beat” beckoned to Kerouac jst as the imagined pearl hovers before On the Road’s Sal Paradise. Taut as a drum, quick as a poke in the eyethe word provided Kerouac with both a unifying principle and the verbal equivalent of a Roman candle exploding in the night sky. To his credit, Kerouac acknowledged Huncke’s role in the movement as progenitor and avatar.
Street drugs and alcohol saturated the Beat Movement. Because so many of his compatriots used drugs and drank to excess, Huncke’s addiction problems distinguished him only in degree, not in kind. What did set him apart was his way of integrating drug use into his identity. No matter how far down he wentand Huncke knew many dark nights of the soulhe never viewed drugs as the enemy. Not everyone who met him could see it or believe it, but being an addict actually imbued his life with direction and ritual. He was a man on a difficult quest. His desire to transcend the quotidian through drugs was all of a piece with his “elemental urge.” He was frequently high when he wrote. Drugs were not, in his view, an impediment to living and writing but rather a way to do both with less pain and more satisfaction.The fact that he never hid his drug addiction meant that he was always at risk of being arrested, sent off to a mental institution, or ostracized in all the other ways that a law-enforcing society has at its disposal. It was a steep price to pay. The impoverished Huncke paid it again and again.
If his literary friends could not trust himand he gave them no reason to think that they couldthey could still learn from and be entertained by him. Huncke had a unique way of connecting with anyone who came near. He had it as a kid thumbing his way east. He had it as a young man taking a long drag on a cigarette and proclaiming to whomever happened to be around, “I’m beat, man.” He had it as an unrepentant burglar who presented his friends with pawn tickets for the typewriters he’d stolen from them. He had it as an old man befriending much younger men who would then do almost anything to ease his troubles. He was in his own words “a wastrel, a thief, a bum, a chiseler.” He was also a gentle soul who knew the value of love. He epitomized all that was crooked, maddening, comical, and tender about the Beat Movement.
Huncke was arrested, along with Ginsberg, in 1949 and ended up serving two substantial prison sentences in close succession. When he emerged from Sing Sing in 1959, he had changed little in the eyes of his friends who were now enjoying the fruits, both sweet and bitter, of their newfound fame. Herbert was as beat as ever, still beset by the same problems related to drugs, poverty, and depression that had bedeviled him a decade earlier. Smartly dressed and given to endearingly formal turns of phrase, he seemed stuck in the 1940s even as the Sixties glimmered on the horizon.
Huncke had decided early on that he would encourage others to succeed as writers. Unconvinced of his own talents and perennially distracted by drugs, he set out to be a catalyst urging the others on. Having fallen in with Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, he achieved his goal in spectacular fashion. He never changed, as he himself insisted, but the Beat Movement still changed his life.