In his autobiographical novel ‘Junky,’ William S. Burroughs introduces himself into New York’s heroin underworld by selling a gun and a supply of morphine to two men named Roy and Herman. He describes Herman:
Waves of hostility and suspicion flowed out from his large brown eyes like some sort of television broadcast. The effect was almost like a physical impact. The man was small and very thin, his neck loose in the collar of his shirt. His complexion faded from brown to a mottled yellow, and pancake make-up had been heavily applied in an attempt to conceal a skin eruption. His mouth was drawn down at the corners in a grimace of petulant annoyance.
This was Herbert Huncke, who was born into a middle-class family in Greenfield, Massachusetts on January 9, 1915 and grew up in Chicago. As a teenager he was drawn to the underbelly of city life, and quickly began learning how to support himself as a professional drifter and small-time thief. A small and unthreatening lawbreaker, he embodied a certain honest-criminal ethic so purely that Burroughs and his friends came to love him for it. Jack Kerouac wrote adoringly of him (as Elmer Hassel) in On The Road, and Allen Ginsberg shared his New York City apartment with him, even though he realized Huncke and his junkie friends were storing stolen goods there. This phase ended in a dramatic police bust on Utopia Parkway in Bayside, Queens, during which Ginsberg frantically phoned Huncke and told him to “clean out the place” before the cops got there. Ginsberg arrived at his apartment moments ahead of the cops to find that Huncke had taken him literally. He’d tidied up and swept the floor, but the stolen goods were not moved. Ginsberg might not have been amused at the time, but there’s a certain Zen purity to this kind of thing that makes it clear why Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac all liked Huncke so much.
Huncke was said to have introduced Kerouac to the term ‘beat,’ which Kerouac then used to describe his generation to John Clellon Holmes. Huncke does seem to have a way with words, because he later attempted to become a writer, and a story called ‘Elsie John,’ reprinted in ‘The Beat Reader,’ is surprisingly good. Still, I think it’s pushing it a bit that Huncke taught writing workshops at Ginsberg’s Naropa Institute poetry school. I wouldn’t go to Herbert Huncke to learn how to write anymore than I’d go to Allen Ginsberg to learn how to be a thief.
But his prose can be effective and fascinating, and there has been an increasing interest in Huncke as a writer in recent years. A superb collection of Huncke’s best writings, ‘The Herbert Huncke Reader,’ was published by William Morrow in September 1997, and filmmaker Laki Vazakas’s cinema verite documentary ‘Huncke and Louis‘ records for history the paradoxical life of a celebrated literary drug addict in old age. This film includes some heartbreaking scenes of the breakdown and death of Huncke’s longtime friend and companion Louis Cartwright, who was unable to walk the line of the addict’s life as gracefully as Huncke, and dies a lonely death. Huncke, the survivor, sits on the edge of a bed and sobs — and then goes on surviving.
I was never introduced to Herbert Huncke but I did see him “around town” a bit before he died on August 8, 1996 in a New York City hospital. Whenever I saw him, the first thought that would come to my mind was always “this is Elmer Hassel”.