American Hipster: The Surprising Inspiration for the Beat Movement

Posted on November 30, 2013
Filed Under Book Review, Strong Recommendation | Comments Off on American Hipster: The Surprising Inspiration for the Beat Movement

He gave the Beat Movement its name, witnessed its history from beginning to end and was an accomplished author in his own right, but you probably haven’t heard of him.  Certainly this queer reader hadn’t heard of Herbert Huncke until he read Hillary Holladay’s biography of him.  Yet Ms. Holladay makes the convincing case that Herbert Huncke was the heart and soul of the Beat Movement.  It is a literary coincidence that his name rhymes with “junkie.”  Because, perhaps above all else, Mr. Huncke was a heroin addict.  As one of his friends observed early on:

I sensed that not only would he cheat or deceive, but moreover he would do so on general principles…To befriend Herbert was to enter into a consent agreement in which all rules of conduct collapse, save those of acceptance and style.

What was it about this queer, hustler, junkie that made him a pivotal player in the Beat Movement? Why did all of these authors–including Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg and William Burroughs–reference him in their works?  Why did they maintain contact with him until the end of his surprisingly long life?  Ms. Holladay answers this complex question in the most traditional fashion.  Indeed American Hipster is the most traditional of biographies–including meticulously researched details about Mr. Huncke’s lineage.  She is wise to approach her subject this way.  For it is through this approach that the reader can come close to answering these questions.

Perhaps Allan Ginsberg put it best:

“His shrewd estimates based on his own experiences on the street cut through a lot of bourgeois stupidity and enlightened us all.”

To read Ms. Holladay’s book is to share some of that surprising enlightenment.

American Hipster: A Life of of Herbert Huncke The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Movement is published by Magnus Books.

UPDATE 3/6/14:  Today it was announced that American Hipster was nominated for Lambda’s Gay Memoir/Biography Award.

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