American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Movement by Hilary Holladay (New York: Magnus Books, 2013).
The cover of Hillary Holladay’s biography of Herbert Huncke, published last summer, features a well-known photo, taken by Allen Ginsberg. In it, Huncke looks rather tired (for the moment I should like to avoid the word “beat”), with one arm leaning on a white wash basin in one of the many cheap hotel rooms he occupied in the course of his long life. Although one cannot be sure, that picture (or the rights to it) will probably not have been the reason why the publication of Holladay’s book was postponed a number of times. What could have caused some delay may have been doubt on the part of the publisher regarding the question how best to present a book like this. Because Huncke is likely to be a complete unknown to the general reader, the publisher may have felt that it was not enough to give the book the title it now has, American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, and that those unfamiliar with him should be given a helping hand. In any case, Holladay’s biography has become a book with no less than two subtitles, the second one being “The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Movement.” In fact, this second subtitle is the only one used on the spine, where Huncke’s name is not mentioned and where he has become once again the nameless “American hipster” he was for the first thirty years of his life.
Unlike the general reader, most readers of this review do of course know who Herbert Huncke is. Some time before Jack Kerouac, in the autumn of 1948, came up with the term “Beat Generation” in a conversation with John Clellon Holmes, it was Huncke’s use of the word “beat,” in the sense of feeling defeated or worn out, which had caught Kerouac’s attention. Those same readers will probably also have come across Huncke as a fictional character in work by some of the most prominent Beat writers. As Junky and Elmer Hassel, respectively, Huncke features in Kerouac’s The Town and the City and On the Road. In William S. Burroughs’s Junky he plays an even more prominent role, because in that book it is a character based on Huncke, a man simply called Herman, who introduces the narrator, William Lee, to drugs. Equally prominent, and in a more negative way, is John Clellon Holmes’s version of Huncke in Go; in that book Albert Ancke comes to represent much of what in Holmes’s view was destructive about the Beat Generation. And, as Holladay points out, some of Allen Ginsberg’s descriptions of persons associated with the Beat Generation in “Howl” can be traced back to experiences Ginsberg had with Huncke in the late 1940s.
Of course Huncke should also be remembered as the author of a body of work that may be small but which is clearly a valuable contribution to the Beat canon. Already harboring vague dreams of becoming a writer at the age of fourteen, Huncke began to pay more serious attention to his writing after having met William Burroughs in 1944 and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in 1945. It was then, in particular, that he began to write down his memories and impressions, usually not more than a few pages in length, of his experiences on the fringe of American society and of the people he met there: addicts, minor criminals and occasionally, often only in passing, Beat and Beat-related figures like Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Elise Cowen and Janine Pommy Vega. A first collection of these texts, most of them written in the course of the 1950s and the early 1960s, was published as Huncke’s Journal by Diane di Prima’s Poets Press in 1965. A second and larger collection of Huncke’s work, containing mostly texts from the early to mid-1960s, was put together in the course of the 1960s but only came out in 1980, under the title The Evening Sun Turned Crimson. According to the editor of the posthumously published Herbert Huncke Reader (1997), Benjamin G. Shafer, some of the stories in Huncke’s Journal reappeared in The Evening Sun Turned Crimson. Shafer mentions eight of these stories, two of which were retitled and all of which were to some extent revised. To complicate matters further, “elements” of both versions were “combined” in The Herbert Huncke Reader (Shafer, 1997: 3). Equally unclear is how exactly the fragments from Huncke’s autobiography, Guilty of Everything, in The Herbert Huncke Reader relate to the original book; published in 1990 by Paragon House, this was put together from various sources, including what Holloday refers to as “Huncke’s voluminous interviews with the sociologist Michael Agar in the mid-1970s” and Huncke’s own “handwritten notes” (Holladay, 2013: 290). In The Herbert Huncke Reader, Benjamin Shafer adds that Guilty of Everything was “padded with passages from earlier stories to fill gaps in chronology,” and then goes on to explain (if that is the right word here) that the excerpts from Guilty of Everything in the Reader “utilize elements of Paragon House’s version and earlier drafts, and feature several ‘outtakes’ that have never been published before” (Shafer, 1997: 227).
On the whole, Hilary Holladay makes a convincing case for the literary merits of Huncke’s work. She stresses his ability to empathize with those who are down and out, his keen eye for the transcendental qualities of nature, as well as the poetic quality of his writing and his idiosyncratic use of dashes. Unfortunately, she does not fully do justice to the complicated publishing history of Huncke’s work. It is true that she points out some of the striking differences in mood and style between the way particular characters and events are presented in some of the early stories and how they are rendered in Guilty of Everything. However, as she puts it at the end of her book, “[f]or ease of reference, quotations from Huncke’s published works come primarily from The Herbert Huncke Reader, which includes his previously published story collections, a lengthy excerpt from Guilty of Everything, and a selection of previously unpublished works” (Holloday, 2013: 340). But as we saw, The Herbert Huncke Reader contains versions of Huncke’s works that are sometimes different from the original texts. While Holladay is aware of this in the case of Guilty of Everything, quoting sometimes from the 1990 book version and sometimes from the version in The Herbert Huncke Reader, she completely overlooks the fact that the Reader combines various versions of stories that were published in Huncke’s Journal and The Evening Sun Turned Crimson. If Huncke really is the important writer Holladay makes him out to be, she should have paid more attention to the alterations Huncke’s work seems to have been subject to over the course of time. A case in point is the longer story (by Huncke’s standards), “Beware of Fallen Angels.” In her discussion of this piece, Holloday quotes the text that was printed in The Herbert Huncke Reader, and which in the following passage is similar to the text that can be found in The Evening Sun Turned Crimson:
Sitting to one side, always stoned, my whole self was imbued with all that was happening around — the scene, the people, and many, many layers of consciousness just awakened. I watched Bill and Elise, Bill and Janine, Eline, Janine, Bill — and I was unable to understand the overwhelming goodness and the almost devastating evidence of possible evil. (Holloday, 2013: 208)
Compare this with the passage as it was first printed in Huncke’s Journal:
Sitting to one side — always stoned — my whole self — imbued with all happening around — the scene — the people — and many — many layers of consciousness just awakened — I watched Bill and Elise — Bill and Janine — Elise — Janine — and I was unable to understand — the overwhelming goodness and the almost devastating evidence of possible evil. (Huncke, 1965: 53)
Apart from the fact that “Bill” is mentioned only twice in the original version, it is especially the abundant use of long dashes in the original which leads to salient differences between the first and the second version of the text, grammatically but also as far as the atmosphere of the story and the speaker’s mood are concerned. It is hard to see why Holloday in this case prefers to disregard the differences between the original and the later version of “Beware of Fallen Angels.” These differences also constitute, as Holloday herself puts it in reference to Guilty of Everything, “a departure from Huncke’s lingering, poetic expression” (Holloday, 2013: 293-294).
In spite of the disparity between various renderings of similar events pointed out by Holloday, on the whole Huncke’s work is clearly autobiographical. Still, it does not tell the complete story of his life. Building on the biographical information that had already been provided by Jerome Poynton in his “Biographical Sketch” in The Herbert Huncke Reader, Holladay aims to give a more complete description of Huncke’s life. Consequently, she follows Huncke’s sometimes stumbling steps from Chicago, where he was born in 1915, to the West and later to New York, where he would ultimately team up with the Beats. Relying on both published and unpublished sources, Holladay has been able to unearth many aspects of Huncke’s life which deserve more attention. This is especially true for Huncke’s later years, which did not get much notice in Poynton’s brief biography and which included an unsuccessful reading tour to England and Belgium in 1994, various half-hearted attempts to kick his equally various habits, the tragic death of his close friend Louis Cartwright, and ultimately his decline in the Chelsea Hotel, in a room partly paid for by The Grateful Dead during the last years of his life, which ended in August 1996. While some of these events are shocking, especially those relating to Huncke’s struggle with drugs and addiction lead to descriptions which tend to repeat themselves. However, Huncke’s everyday life was also characterized by a certain amount of repetition and boredom, so one can hardly hold Holiday responsible for what at first sight seems a structural flaw of the book.
In fact, Holloday is a good writer. She wields a lively pen and as a consequence her findings are presented in a highly readable manner. Still, there are moments when the book’s very readability almost becomes a problem. At times the writing is rather too flashy. How helpful is it, in a description of Huncke’s friendship with the poet John Wieners, to claim that the latter’s “attire often matched his startling poems” (Holloday, 2013: 205) and to leave it at that? Of course, we are reading a biography of Huncke and not an – eagerly awaited – biography of Wieners, but his often highly moving poems deserve more than the adjective “startling” and a comparison with his clothes. Elsewhere, too, Holloday’s tendency to come up with eye-catching phrases is not always helpful. While one can admire her comparison of the pleasures of addiction to “the balm of pharmaceutical oblivion” (Holloday, 2013: 39) and agree with her claim that Holmes’s Go “got the Beat Movement simmering but didn’t quite bring it to a boil” (Holloday, 2013: 151), things become a little problematic when she starts to generalize (“Like most marriages, the Bells’ was a flawed and complicated one”; Holloday, 2013: 17) or when she starts inventing details she cannot know about. This happens, for instance, in a description of Huncke’s grandmother Clara. Awaiting her husband, Edwin Jasper Bell, one day in the early 1890s, she is depicted as sitting on the front porch of the family homestead in Millbrook, “perhaps twisting a curl of hair around her finger and gazing out at the fields” (Holloday, 2013: 16). Here it is clear that what we are reading is not fact, but fiction.
In other places, too, one sometimes wonders whether Holloday’s book is always faithful to the facts. As far as her research is concerned, it is striking that she often only has Huncke’s words or those of his friends to rely on. It is true that she has been able to look at various collections of papers relating to Huncke’s life and work, including those of Ginsberg and Huncke himself, but a brief glance at the endnotes reveals that her only source often was either a text by Huncke himself or a statement by one of Huncke’s friends or acquaintances, given in an interview, or sometimes in a letter or email. It is not always clear how trustworthy some of these sources are – in many cases they clearly could not be checked. In an effort to illustrate Huncke’s affinity for nature, there is for instance a description of Huncke as an itinerant teenager, who, at a given moment, had been overcome by the beauty of nature to such an extent that he had masturbated into a sunflower. This description obviously echoes Ginsberg’s Blake experience, and while it may be true to fact, one wishes that it was based on more than just a telephone conversation Holloday had with one of Huncke’s acquaintances. (One also wonders why Holloday is rather derogatory about what happened to Ginsberg in 1948. In her view, Ginsberg’s “frequent retelling of this tale made his private act one of the most famous acts of self-pleasuring in American literary history, alongside the assault on a piece of raw liver in Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth”; Holloday, 2013: 146.)
To some extent Holloday’s rendering of this moment in Huncke’s life is typical of her approach throughout the book. From the very beginning it is clear that her main aim is to give Huncke the more prominent place among the Beats which, in Holloday’s view, he clearly deserves. In the early chapters of the book she does this by presenting Huncke as a person who in essential ways prefigured what would become ways of living (and even writing) that would only be associated with the Beats much later. When Huncke first escapes from his Chicago home and family, Holloday cannot resist the temptation to call this an early case of going “on the road” (Holloday, 2013: 1). What happens along the road, from Huncke’s brushes with the law to transcendental moments like the one involving the sunflower, is also linked to the Beats in ways which sometimes seem a little strained. To some extent this also applies to Holloday’s attempt to present Huncke as a fore-runner of Kerouac’s stylistic innovations. While we should be thankful to Holloday for having unearthed, among many other interesting documents, an unpublished 1948 essay in which Huncke advocated writing which is “not a matter of diligent application but rather the result of the will left free” (Holloday, 2013: 6), it again seems somewhat forced to see Huncke as someone who practiced spontaneous writing long before Kerouac had even thought of the term.
Equally misleading is Holladay’s discussion of Huncke’s story “Ponderosa Pine,” published in both Huncke’s Journal and The Evening Sun Turned Crimson. In that story, according to Holloday, Huncke’s love of “the western countryside, which twinkles with mystery and romance,” anticipates “Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise in On the Road” (Holloday, 2013: 65). A little bit further on, she claims that, “[l]ike Kerouac after him, Huncke understood the appeal of sensuous detail” (Holloday, 2013: 65). What Holloday omits to mention is that, while Huncke (along with how many others?) may well have had these feelings before Kerouac had them, “Ponderosa Pine” itself was in all likelihood written a long time after Kerouac had completed On the Road. In a summing-up of Huncke’s contribution to the Beat movement, especially in relation to Allen Ginsberg’s development as a poet, Holloday even goes so far as to claim that “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” (Holloday, 2013: 321-322). That is really giving Huncke too much credit.
What is also surprising, especially for someone who has shown herself to have a strong affinity with the Beats (Holloday is for instance the co-editor, with Robert Holton, of an excellent collection of essays on On the Road), is that in her attempt to move Huncke more towards the middle of the Beat Generation, she is at times downright negative about Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs, regarding both aspects of their personalities and their work. Burroughs in particular is attributed a kind of callousness one does not immediately associate with him. During his stay at Burroughs’s ranch in Texas in 1947, for example, Huncke apparently once commented on the beauty of the day, saying that it felt “great to be alive,” only to be taken aback by Burroughs rejoinder: “Well, you won’t feel that way when the niggers come out of Harlem, coming down Fifth Avenue, burning and killing everyone” (Holloday, 2013: 130). Even more disturbing to Huncke was Burroughs’s suggestion to his wife Joan to drop her baby Judy in a well or otherwise leave her somewhere to die, the way Spartan women did in the past. It should be added that in this case Holloday refers to reliable sources – and of course it is not necessarily a bad thing to question or modify the image we have of some of the Beat elders. It is also possible, as Holloday claims, that Huncke was “more genuinely sympathetic to other people’s ideas than either Kerouac and Ginsberg,” and that, aiming for “a real communion of souls” (Holloday, 2013: 173), he practiced what the others could only preach. However, even more so than in her passing remark about Ginsberg’s Blake experience, Holloday again arguably overshoots the mark when, after stressing that Huncke may have lacked his friends’ “dazzling showmanship,” she concludes that “sometimes that very showmanship made the others tedious to read” (Holloday, 2013: 173).
American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke is definitely not tedious to read. It offers
much interesting information on aspects of Huncke’s life that until now have remained in the dark. To a great extent the book is also successful in highlighting the artistic qualities of Huncke’s prose. However, one wishes that the author had been more discerning as far as the various versions of Huncke’s stories are concerned and that, in her attempt to make more room for Huncke in the Beat pantheon, she would have tried less hard to move some of the larger figures out of the way.
Holladay, Hilary. American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Movement. Nw York, Magnus Books, 2013.
Huncke, Herbert. Huncke’s Journal. New York: The Poets Press, 1965.
Schafer, Benjamin G., ed. The Herbert Huncke Reader. New York: William Morrow, 1997.