If Herbert Huncke were alive today, he would be eagerly following the story of Richard Matt and David Sweat, the two convicted murderers who recently burrowed their way out of maximum-security Clinton Prison in upstate New York.

Huncke knew the place well. A burglar with a long rap sheet and no one to vouch for his character, he served time there in the mid to late 1950s. Given his record, he was grateful to the judge who listened to his plea for leniency and gave him five to six years instead of a decade or longer. But when he thought of his pals Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac, gratitude was the last thing on his mind.

As I document in my biography of Huncke, these ambitious writers loved Huncke’s meandering, darkly nuanced tales. When he described a sunset that had terrified him as a young boy alone for the first time or the impoverished black prostitute he encountered in New Orleans in 1938, they listened with rapt attention.

Huncke was not only an adept storyteller but also an excellent specimen of the beat life that the emerging authors wrote about so memorably. The character Herman in Burroughs’s Junky is based on Huncke, as is Elmer Hassel in Kerouac’s On the Road. Huncke is the figure behind Ginsberg’s “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection” in “Howl.”

All three writers knew that the heroin-addicted Huncke could be an annoying, whining gobbler-upper of their time and money, but he was too interesting to lose sight of altogether.

Except when he was in prison. As day after day passed without word from anybody, Huncke stared at the walls of his cell  and thought of his friends with furious resentment:

Once I did over four years, closer to five, and never received so much as a penny post card of greeting from my so-called friends. Man, I got so it didn’t hurt me or make me regret. Fuck them I paid my dues I went along my way—when it was all over. And when it came time to kick—I kicked on the floor—cold and alone and more dead than alive.

Despite his occasional claims to the contrary, it seemed that he never entirely forgave his prolific writer-friends who didn’t bother to write to him:

I was cut off completely from the outside world I knew. It was a funny feeling not hearing from anyone. I admit I felt very bitter when I came out, I really did.

When Huncke was finally released from Dannemora in 1959, he walked into a literary movement well underway. Kerouac’s inspired naming of the Beat Generation owed its glistening keyword to Huncke, who so often said, “I’m beat, man, beat down to my socks.” Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs had fulfilled their literary promise while Huncke was festering behind bars.

Suppressing his anger as he sought his footing in a changed world, Huncke found a place in Ginsberg’s ever-widening circle of friends. He reacquainted himself with Burroughs as well. Kerouac was more elusive, but Huncke had never felt particularly close to him anyway.

Huncke wrote about Dannemora in a harrowing story called “Cuba” and a jaggedly upbeat prose poem called “Dancing in Prison.” He continued to use heroin and other street drugs and stole TVs and other relatively small items, but he had sense enough to retire from large-scale burglary.

I picture Huncke shaking his head in wonder over Matt and Sweat. With their gruff, apt names and their ingenious escape from a place no one has ever escaped from before, they would have fascinated him.

If their time at Dannemora had coincided, who’s to say that Huncke wouldn’t have slithered underground right along with them? A great lover of nature as well as freedom, he might have risked his curiously resilient life for a chance to run through the woods and smell the wildflowers in the fresh June air.


Read more about Huncke in my biography: Herbert Huncke: The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, due out very soon from Schaffner Press. On Amazon here and on BN.com here.

Dannemora map