One evening in October of 1995, I attended a reading by Herbert Huncke in Lowell, Massachusetts. From where I sat in the cavernous old auditorium, the eighty-year-old Huncke looked exceedingly vulnerable. Standing alone under a spotlight, he was a small man with a bony forehead and wide, haunted eyes. He held a little notebook.

He was there to talk about Jack Kerouac, Lowell’s most famous native son, and read a short essay he had composed in Kerouac’s honor.

He began by describing the notebook in which he’d written the essay and was now reading from. The notebook, made of Tibetan rice paper, was a gift from a young friend named Zachary. Then he got around to Kerouac:

This notebook suits Jack’s personality as I saw it. Here is a very serviceable book of unusual appearance—sturdy and distinctive—made by hand and of a subtle shade of plain purple cover binding—soft, tan pages—suggesting a touch of the Eastern or Mideastern culture—earthy in texture and handsome. And Jack—with his rich flow of language, his eyes—filled with a look of tenderness, innocent wonder of all they beheld but affected deep inside, beneath his conscious knowledge of a wondrous world filled with awesome and bewildering beauty constantly stressed by the varying degrees of disintegration—much of his belief about the strength of purity died with his spirit flooded with sadness. Purple has always seemed a trifle unhappy color.

It would have been so easy, in Kerouac’s hometown, to talk about what a wonderful writer he was, what a great guy. But instead, Huncke said he wished Kerouac “had been as loyal to himself … as I believe he tried being to his mother.” He also said that when he was first getting to know Kerouac he never would have guessed “what a strong influence he would have on the literary history of the world.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement. Yet Huncke’s lyrically meandering remarks have substance. He had glimpsed Kerouac’s tender spirit but also his sadness and psychic pain. That’s what mattered. As for Kerouac’s fame, Huncke couldn’t have cared less. Huncke wanted to remember the man he knew, not the cult of personality that grew up around him.

After his reading, he took questions. There was no raising of hands, no moderator deciding who got to speak first. Instead, the questions just sailed out of the darkness toward Huncke, a frail twig wavering in a circle of light.

Suddenly a man’s voice called out: “What’s the most important thing in life, Huncke?” “Love!” Huncke answered, his melodious voice rising. “Love is the most important thing.”

The audience cheered.

That was one of Huncke’s last public appearances before his death the following August. If I had known that someday I would write his biography, I would have lingered afterwards to meet him and talk with him. But I didn’t know, so when the time came to write the book, I got close to Huncke through his writing and his friends.

The friend I got to know first and best was Jerry Poynton, who gave me a copy of The Herbert Huncke Reader, the posthumous collection of writings that convinced me Huncke’s story deserved to be told. (This volume includes his sketch about Kerouac.) Through Jerry, Huncke’s executor and now the driving force behind the Huncke Tea Company website, I met countless friends and acquaintances of Huncke’s, all of whom were willing to share their recollections of this unusual man—a fine writer, superb listener, and consummate storyteller.

For Huncke was all those things, not just a kooky heroin addict who went around saying “I’m beat, man.” Impoverished, extraordinarily sensitive to slights, well acquainted with despair, he parted the darkness when he set words to paper.

Stories like “Elsie John” and “Song of Self” and “Detroit Redhead” light the path connecting him with Genet and Kafka and Dostoyevsky.

Today, on his 100th birthday, I salute Herbert Huncke: the man with the notebook and the beautiful voice. He, too, has had an impact on the literary history of the world.

Herbert Huncke in the Chelsea Hotel, NYC, by Jerry Poynton

Herbert Huncke in the Chelsea Hotel, NYC, by Jerry Poynton