by Marcus D. Niski
“Whatever one might say of him [Huncke], he was unmistakably a writer.”
— Raymond Foye
“I want to see what makes the world tick, naturally. God, I’ve spent so many years grinding it out, the least I can do is to try to look for something along the way…”
— Herbert Huncke
” … Is Huncke still in the can? No, last time I saw him on Times Square…”
— Allen Ginsberg
Herbert Edwin Huncke undoubtedly ranks amongst one of the most fascinating yet underestimated figures of the ‘Beat’ world.
Born into a middle class family in Greenfield, Massachusetts, Huncke’s colourful 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, 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. As Herman, Huncke’s portrait appeared thus:
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.
As a “Virgilian guide,” Huncke would skillfully guide Burroughs into the subterranean world of junk 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. This stock of tales undoubtedly underpinned the Huncke mythology. As longtime 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.
Huncke’s notebooks are an evocative record of his trials and tribulations as a sage and survivor on New York’s often brutal and unforgiving streets. Indeed, Huncke’s fondness of the notebook as a medium in itself is also directly recorded in a devotional piece on Kerouac. In a rice-paper notebook given to him by a friend, the poet Zachary Wollard, Huncke wrote:
TO BEGIN —
I am pleased to receive this beautiful notebook as a gift … notebooks have always pleased me. This notebook suits Jack’s personality as I saw it … a very serviceable book of an unusual appearance…
In a brilliant essay on the notebooks of Albert Camus, Susan Sontag suggests that a writer’s notebooks “have a very a special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself.” Undoubtedly, the notebooks of Huncke — thief, storyteller, junky, street sage, muse, mentor, raconteur and Beat icon — bear this very quality: a writer’s struggle to create a sense of identity amidt the tumult and turmoil of everyday life. Indeed, his notebook writings also serve as an example of what Michel Foucault termed self-writing: a reflective process whereby the writer explores his inner universe in an attempt to mediate the often unsettling nature of the forces around him.
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” was a part of the “carnie” world that informed Huncke’s reflections on an often chaotic, always kaleidoscopic culture.
While eventually Huncke’s collection of notebook writings and stories would be gathered together by friends in The Herbert Huncke Reader (edited by Benjamin Schafer with an introduction by Raymond Foye and biographical note by Jerome Poynton), the notebooks appear to have received little attention from literary scholars.
Having had the privilege of examining Huncke’s cache of notebooks in the Butler Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University, I was able to engage personally with the handwritten entries that chart the course of Huncke’s extraordinary life journey.
Characterized by such themes as alienation, depression and sometimes-acute despair, the notebook writings delineate Huncke’s constant struggle with a triangle of forces — self, junk, and the law — that he felt were closing in on him. As an undated entry reflects:
I think I am going insane. I almost hope so. Thoughts rush at one. I am beginning to lose the thread of my story. This happens frequently. Mad thoughts keep occurring to me… All happening to me is unnecessary. It is not important to any cause beyond my own and I am unimportant. Of course it is happening and it is what it is as things are. [Undated MS.]
The frustrations of Huncke’s itinerant existence are expressed in this entry:
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]
Huncke answers in his notebooks the question why he became a junky in the first place:
I have been asked many times as is always asked of users of narcotics what a fix does to me — how it feels etc…it helps me to believe in life again at the same time to accept it calmly and with peace. 
For Huncke, the process of writing offered a cathartic sense of solace. At times he reflected upon the process and what it meant to be a “writer”:
Perhaps I am writing — but I have come to believe — writing is not a matter of diligent application but rather the result of the will left free… also — one cannot write greatly — or should I say actually coherently — at simply any time — one should be almost guided to it… [Thoughts about Writing, 1948]
Huncke’s fondness for writing as a creative medium is captured in the observations of filmmaker Laki Vazakas. His extensive documentary footage of Huncke provides a glimpse into Huncke’s world in the years shortly before his death. As Vazakas vividly recollects of Huncke sitting writing —
I used to visit Herbert at the Chelsea [Hotel] and he would have a yellow legal notepad and he was always writing in longhand as he never learned to type. It was his way of putting down on paper an internal monologue and obviously it was his way of exploring and examining some of the raw emotions that he had experienced…. Herbert’s style of writing was far more influential than has been acknowledged.
In their physical form, Huncke’s notebooks consisted of a number and variety of forms that included gifts from other writers; composition books such as those commonly used by American school and university students; stenographer notebooks; “memo” books; a mix of different diaries used as notebooks; and notepaper gathered spontaneously from sources such as the YMCA.
The notebook entries range from fully composed stories to mundane notes, sketches, observations and doodles, and both hand-drawn and painted embellishments.
Huncke’s style is “confessional,” direct and highly observant in nature. As Raymond Foye suggests in his introduction to the Herbert Huncke Reader, Huncke’s writing, “…is deceptively simple in its plain spoken style” —
To write as one speaks is one ideal of literature and Huncke’s prose accomplishes just that, to such a degree that reading him is akin to sitting across from him in one of those famous all-night sessions, where tales were unraveled and the human condition examined into the early hours of the morn…
While Herbert Huncke’s literary output was modest in comparison with his Beat contemporaries, it is nevertheless a significant fragment of the overall picture of the Beats as a global literary force. Huncke’s “lifestyle” undoubtedly provided the very model of what it meant to be Beat and to struggle against a system that stymied any alternative phenomenon that deviated from the mainstream. To be an outsider was what “being Beat” came to represent.
Snapshots of Huncke Journals
Letter from Psychiatrist to Huncke in The Tombs (alias Michael Ranall), 1961, Loose attachments, Huncke Papers, Columbia University, Butler Library RBML Collection
Loose Letterhead Notepaper (William Sloane House YMCA), Loose attachments, Huncke Papers, Columbia University, Butler Library RBML Collection (circa 1959)
Written by Marcus D. Niski and published by RealityStudio on 26 March 2012. Marcus D. Niski is a writer and freelance journalist based in Melbourne, Australia.
Acknowledgements. I would like to record my sincere thanks to filmmaker Laki Vazakas for his most generous contribution in providing me with copies of the documentary footage of the life of Herbert Huncke which captures Herbert’s life in all his richness, as well as making his time available to discuss the making of the documentary and his personal recollections of Herbert E. Huncke. Thanks also to Benjamin Schafer, Editor of The Herbert Huncke Reader for generously making his time available for interview. My sincere gratitude is also recorded here to Gerald W. Cloud, then Curator of Literature, Butler Library Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York for his knowledge of the collection and his hospitality during my visit on 9 February 2010 and to Anne Garner at the Berg Collection within The New York Public Library for her most generous assistance in guiding me through their material on Herbert Huncke during my visit in February 2011.
All images from the Huncke Papers (1946-1971), Columbia University, Butler Library RBML Collection. Grateful appreciation also to Jerome Poynton, Literary Executor of the Herbert Huncke Estate, for his kind permission to reproduce images of Huncke’s Notebooks.