While the name Herbert Huncke may not be well-known among the general population, it is certainly familiar to readers of the Beat Generation. You simply cannot tell the life story of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, or Jack Kerouac without it, and he appears quite obviously in some of their most important works, including Junky, On the Road, and “Howl.” These three writers, among the most important in American literature, each befriended Huncke, learned from him, and came to be known by a label that was coined by him – “beat”.
What is amazing is that until now, Huncke’s own story has gone largely untold. Ask most Beat readers about him and they’ll tell you a few repeated phrases: “career criminal,” “hustler,” “drug addict.” He has become a perennial footnote in Beat history, despite having played such a significant role that one would expect his name to be on the tip of as many tongues as Neal Cassady’s. The two men appear to have played similar roles – as deviant muses, unexpected sources of literary material, and also seemingly morally-challenged nuisances.
Yet while Cassady has long been known as Dean Moriarty, the wildman with the motor-mouth, inspiration behind one of the great American novels, Huncke has been sidelined until now. American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired The Beat Generation is the first biography of Huncke, who died in 1996. He managed to write an autobiography, which was posthumously published by friends with the 1997 Herbert Huncke Reader, but this is the first serious effort to examine his life, and as such is an important addition to the Beat literary canon.
From the start, it feels odd reading about Huncke as you would any other important figure in literature. He is so commonly presented as a device – the hip bad guy who turns the real writers onto his mischievous underground ways – it is strange to read about his family history, and his childhood. Indeed, imagining Huncke as a child with a mother and father is quite jarring. This effect is perhaps exaggerated thanks to the author’s choice of introducing the twelve-year old runaway Huncke first and foremost, in the Prologue. She tells the story of Huncke’s attempt at running away, giving someone a blowjob in exchange for money, and then finally being arrested and returned home. This is the tragic Huncke to whom we are to be introduced later.
We are presented with a short description of his childhood, during which time it seems that both Huncke and the writer are keen to get on the road, to get away from being tied down to parents and school. There is the sense that he is meant for the big city, be it Chicago or New York, and always the idea that he will later turn into the man who has been kindly described as a “career criminal” with his own questionable moral compassing. Of particular interest is a charming story of his obsession with a Native American legend that foreshadows his own hobo wanderings.
Altogether, American Hipster is a welcome addition to Beat studies. Well researched and written at a good pace, it really brings light to the life of a pivotal character in American literature.
 The book appears sometimes to be titled “the life of”, which sounds better, but this reviewer’s copy says “a life of”