For those craving more than the usual fix of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, when it comes to Beat Generation lore, consider Hilary Holladay to be holding.
The author of American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Generation, Holladay builds the case for Huncke’s recognition as a major influence on the Beats, through his storytelling, writing and his genuine, beat lifestyle.
“Although Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs have a more definitive place in literary history, Huncke’s brief but moving tales deserve to endure. He wrote with grace, candor, and clarity about people and situations unknown to most, and had an intimate, early knowledge of the subcultures that became so important to the more famous Beat authors,” Holladay writes. “His unaffected style and insider’s knowledge give his stories an authenticity that his friends recognized and at times tried to replicate.”
Huncke’s early days were spent running the North Side streets of Al Capone’s Roaring Twenties Chicago, including the neighborhood Towertown, which Holladay calls “a Midwestern version of New York’s Greenwich Village.”
He eventually found his way down to the jazz clubs on the South Side, a place where most whites would not venture, nor gain admittance. Huncke says of these excursions, “I was accepted, and managed somehow or another to always be there when something was happening. Life fascinated me, just any part of living—it didn’t matter where. To be able to go over into the Black Belt in the South Side of Chicago; there wasn’t anything then that knocked me out more.”
Feeling that Chicago had nothing more to offer—especially as his father had abandoned the family and his mother was in hysterics, Huncke spent the latter part of the 1930s on the road. Some writings from this period find their way into his three published works: Huncke’s Journal, The Evening Sun Turned Crimson, and his aptly titled autobiography Guilty Of Everything.
Huncke found refuge among the junkies, hoods, hustlers and whores of New York’s Times Square in the 1940s, where Ginsberg and his cohorts were slowly burgeoning on the literary scene.
Alfred Kinsey, the visionary sex researcher observed the action in the gay bars of Times Square and singled out Huncke as a conduit to the crowd from which he sought information. Holladay informs us that Kinsey would pay two dollars for every person Huncke sent his way.
Huncke was integral in Ginsberg’s development from Burroughs’ acolyte to a poet in his own right, a fact that Holladay vividly illustrates, “The Beat Movement’s publicity engine, fueled by Ginsberg, had given him a platform. But without Huncke there in the beginning to push him out of his middle-class myopia, prod his conscience, and puncture his ego, Ginsberg would have lacked the impetus to craft a movement.”
Huncke had a gift of connecting with people, acquired from years spent reading the streets, and prisons, which rather than hardening his heart, allowed him to be vulnerable with strangers.
Holladay explains that, “even as a child, he knew how to have a real conversation, and he considered conversation, not sex, the essence of human contact.”
Huncke was a thief with a code, who could take the rap, do the time and keep his mouth shut. He refused the government’s offer to entrap Ginsberg with cannabis and tipped Ginsberg off to the scheme. Huncke was a solid partner in crime even if his friend’s were occasionally the victims.
Spending most of the 1950’s incarcerated, Huncke was released as his friends in the Beat Generation were gaining notoriety and infamy.
He continued to develop his writing style, though it was his ability to step aside and tell a tale without judgment that stood him apart.
It was not just Huncke’s connection to the underside of life but his empathetic view of these people that resonates in his writing, a point that Holladay drives home in her book.
“For his whole life, Herbert was alert to tenderness. No matter how hardened they seemed, he could discern beauty and vulnerability in his downtrodden friends,” she writes.
Holladay reminds us that Huncke’s definition of “Beat”, meant, “down and out, exhausted, humiliated.”
An unabashed drug user until the day he died, Huncke was the inspiration for characters in the works of Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac.
As Holladay perceptively understands, “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.”
Even within such altered states, Kerouac wrote, in 1947, a letter to Neal Cassady that, “Huncke is the greatest storyteller I know.”
His hypnotizing baritone voice, with which he employed carefully chosen words, kept early 20th Century slang alive well into the 1990s. “Hot bum kicks,” is just one of his many gems.
Huncke was not merely a sidekick, he was a divine afflatus, well-read and spoken and an endearing confidante.
He was Keith to Ginsberg’s Mick. King Oliver to Pops—Strayhorn to the Duke. He played Virgil to Dante.
Crucial to his survival and longevity were Huncke’s easy manner and his engulfing warmth, which drew younger generations into his life until the final days. Holladay shares many of these friend’s recollections, through her exhaustive research, which enrich this portrait.
Herbert Huncke lived a life on the edge of society’s outcasts that he documented to bring to life the results of such marginalization.
In American Hipster, Hilary Holladay complements these vivid stories with the gritty existence of Huncke’s unique journey, providing a unique view of one of the richest periods in American arts.
One of her best lines perfectly sums up the life of Herbert Huncke, “He was a sort of fallen angel who knew about heaven but trafficked in hell.”