Obituary: Herbert Huncke

James Campbell
Friday 16 August 1996 00:02 BST

Herbert Huncke was the Jean Genet of the Beat Generation. A homosexual poet-thief, he was once as familiar with Times Square dives and New York prisons as he was later to become with fashionable salons and literary landmarks.

Huncke was the author of some slim books of stories, including Huncke's Journal (1965) and The Evening Sun Turned Crimson (1980), and a memoir engagingly entitled Guilty of Everything (1990). His prose was that of a natural raconteur, telling weird stories, such as the tale of his friendship with the hermaphrodite Elsie-John, in a deadpan, unaffected voice. But his true function in the Beat Generation was to act as a muse to those such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, with more sophisticated talents but far less knowledge of the below-street-level "beat" world. Indeed, it was from Huncke (pronounced to rhyme with "junkie") that Kerouac and his friends first heard the term in the mid-1940s. The nuances of "beat" have been debated ever since, but to a man of Huncke's experience the sense was unpretentiously clear: "I meant beaten, the world against me."

Born to a respectable, middle-class family in Greenfield, Massachusetts, in 1915, and raised in Chicago, Huncke was regarded by his father as "the weak sister". He first ran away at the age of 12 and, although he was returned home, it was not before he had served an apprenticeship in the world of hustlers, prostitutes, pickpockets and drug pedlars that later accommodated him when he ran off again, to New York.

There, in 1944, he met William Burroughs, a Harvard graduate and heir to the Burroughs Machine Corps (makers of the adding machine), who had an interest in low life that was almost scientific. Huncke was alarmed at Burroughs' unhip outfit - Chesterfield overcoat, spectacles, hat and tie - and put him down as "heat" (police). Modifying this impression slightly later, Huncke wrote, with his characteristic baroque elegance, "Certainly his appearance was not indicative of anything suggesting nefarious activity."

Burroughs was turned on to hard drugs by Huncke, who thereafter served the author of Junkie (1953) and Naked Lunch (1959) as a "sort of Virgilian guide to the lower depths". At the end of the 1940s, he was partly responsible for taking another Beat Generation figure down to the lower depths, when Allen Ginsberg was arrested with Huncke and others for harbouring stolen goods. At the Long Island precinct house where the police took the suspects, Huncke caught sight of Ginsberg "peering around with a woebegone expression . . . he was saying Jewish prayers. I felt so sorry for him."

The incident surely stretched Ginsberg's tolerance to the limit - he was sent to a mental hospital for treatment, while Huncke received a five- year prison term - but, like Burroughs, he remained loyal to the proto- hipster, even investing him (rather as Sartre did with "Saint Genet") with "holy creephood". Later, Ginsberg edited Huncke's writings and found him a publisher.

But long before he became a writer himself, Huncke had attained a place in literature, featuring as a character in the three seminal Beat novels: Go by John Clellon Holmes (1952), Burroughs's Junkie (1953), in which he appears as "Herman", and the early Bildungsroman by Kerouac, The Town and the City (1950), where he is described as "a small dark, Arabic-looking man, with an oval face and huge blue eyes that were lidded wearily always . . . he had the look of a man who is sincerely miserable."

Huncke gained his place in American socio-cultural history in another way, too. In the mid-1940s, he earned money by supplying information about his sex life to Dr Alfred Kinsey, with whom he got along well, and to whom he introduced other members of the Beat Generation: "I became a pimp for Kinsey," he wrote.

Earlier this year, the novelist Iain Sinclair interviewed Huncke while researching a programme about the Beats for radio. He found the 80-year- old lifetime chain smoker and drug user existing in a hot-house temperature in his tiny room at the Chelsea Hotel, but strong of voice and "untroubled by expectation of death".

James Campbell

Herbert Huncke, writer: born Greenfield, Massachusetts 9 December 1915; died New York City 8 August 1996.

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