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JMU Professor Writes About Herbert Huncke's Life And The Beat Generation

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Some names are repeated and remembered, like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Other names seem to fade away. To the uninitiated, Herbert Huncke is one of those names. But to people like Hilary Holladay, a professor at James Madison University, Herbert Huncke stands out.

The Virginia scholar has published a book tracing Huncke's life. It's called American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Movement.

"In many ways he's the essence of what it is to be Beat," says Holladay.

In fact, it was Huncke who inspired Jack Kerouac to call himself and his friends the Beat Generation. He was born in Chicago in 1915, and raised in a household with parents who fought frequently.

"The essence of Huncke was the kid who stuck out his thumb and wanted to get away," says Holladay. "Someone who was born a little bit rough around the edges and wanted to be rougher still. I think most people want to smooth those edges, he wanted to rough his up."

In the streets of New York, he was well known as a drug addict, a hustler, and a thief. It was that roughness that drew in artists like Kerouac and Ginsberg.

"Huncke was a thief, and he didn't mind stealing from his own friends. He certainly stole belongings from Allen Ginsberg, for instance, and over the years it actually got to be a joke among Herbert's friends, and one of those, a poet named Janine Pommy Vega, used to say, 'when someone claimed to be a good friend of Herbert's, well how many times did he steal your typewriter?'"

Holladay wants to make it clear that Huncke wasn't all street-toughness — he was also known as a sympathetic listener and conversationalist. "For his Beat friends, they admired the fact that he could be soulful and deep in ways that didn't actually come that naturally to them."

Characters based on Huncke flit through the pages of major Beat writers and poets, but Huncke himself also had a great deal of talent. He was a published writer and Jack Kerouac used to read Huncke's notes for inspiration.

"Huncke tried so hard to be downwardly mobile, and to fail in life, and instead, because he captured people's imaginations and because he did have genuine talent, he somehow bubbled his way up to the top."

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