Hilary Holladay, PhD [Interview]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor many years now, I have been obsessed with the Beat Generation and the characters that made up such a powerful movement.  But, much like so many profound writers and artists of so many different times, it is actually their own lives that are even more interesting than even the work they produced.  Of course this is not to discredit the beauty so many of these great folks have brought to this earth as it is crucial to this world.  But, I will be damned if I didn’t admit that what has always interested me the most about this cast of characters was the life they lived outside of their work, which ironically was almost directly reflective of their real lives anyway.
I get this.  But even better, an person of actual intelligence and sound mind seems to believe the same.  Hilary Holladay is one of today’s most brilliant minds in the world of literature.  She has taught the growing minds for several years at James Madison University, as well as giving the rest of us so much more.  She has written on Kerouac and his importance in American literature.  But, as an even greater feet, she wrote to us about a man that seems to be forgotten at times.  I am speaking of the late great Herbert Huncke.  The man who is ultimately almost as responsible, possibly even more so than, Lucien Carr in being the side characters that made the Beats in to the legends they are today.
Of course I could go on, but I think it is best to stop right here and let Hilary explain a bit more for the noobs and new Beat fans out there.  Also it is about time we get to know Hilary a bit more and get to know a woman who has contributed so much to the world of literature and writing that we should all bow and praise such a wonderful human being.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Hilary Holladay…..
For those of us who are unilaterally misinformed, who is Herbet Huncke, and why did you decide to profile this man in your book American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke?
Herbert Huncke (1915-1996) was a young hustler from Chicago who arrived in New York City in 1939. Intuitive, curious, hooked on drugs, and haunted by a difficult childhood, he spent much of his time on 42nd Street getting to know fellow crooks and addicts. In 1944, he met William S. Burroughs and, through Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He showed these young apprentice writers the gritty underside of New York, spoke in a jazzy hipster style that bemused and fascinated them, and told stories (many of which he later wrote down) that convinced Kerouac that Huncke was a “genius of a storyteller.” In time, all of the major Beat writers included a Huncke-based character in their writings, and Huncke’s use of the word “beat” (as in “I’m beat, man”) inspired Kerouac’s coinage of the label Beat Generation. Huncke went on to publish several books, including a memoir titled Guilty of Everything, and The Herbert Huncke Reader appeared in 1997, a year after his death at age 81.
As to why I wrote American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, I was just deeply curious about this guy. He always showed up as a footnote, an anecdote, or a thumbnail sketch in the bios of major Beat authors, and I wanted to know his whole story or as much of it as I could track down. When I read the Huncke Reader, furthermore, I discovered that he was a truly unusual and talented writer. There is a pared-down eloquence and honesty to his stories and sketches that Kerouac and Ginsberg aspired to do but rarely achieved in quite the same way that Huncke did. If he hadn’t been a good writer as well as a key catalyst for the Beat Movement, I probably would not have pursued the project.
HilaryHolladayWhat was it that initially interested you in the members of the illustrious folks known as the Beat Generation?
They were fun, maddening, sexy, irreverent, bold, candid, and so different from most of the authors I read in school. As fate would have it, my first job out of grad school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell–Kerouac’s hometown. So I was literally on a Beat path, and that path led me to teach the Beats, run a conference on them, and sweat it out for many years writing American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke.
In your expert opinion, how do you see the Beats being perceived today?  What do you believe is their ultimate impact?
Every generation seems to discover the Beats and embrace them in its own way. This time around, we are seeing a lot of movies inspired by the lives and writings of the Beat authors. These movies may lead some people to read Kerouac, Ginsberg, Huncke, et al., who would have overlooked them otherwise–so, yay for that. Also, I think the level of Beat scholarship is on the rise, and that is good news for everybody who wants to go beyond reading these authors just for pleasure. There is still much research to be done, of course, on the women of the Beat Movement, the overlap between the Beats and the Black Arts Movement, and the larger landscape that includes the musicians, painters, and other artists who hung out with the writers we know so much about. Ph.D. students looking for dissertation topics might want to explore these subjects if they are into the Beats.
As for impact, it’s hard to imagine the counterculture of the 1960s without the Beat Movement as foreshadowing and partial impetus. The Beats had some influence on the punk scene of later years and, especially through Gary Snyder, on environmental activism. They also helped bring Buddhism into the public eye. Because so many of the Beat writers were gay or bisexual, and were very open about sex in their writings, they continue to liberate readers who are just coming to terms with their own sexual identities. Finally, though the Beat preoccupation with street drugs has never interested me very much–not so long as I can get my hands on wine and chocolate–it is an important dimension of the Beat Movement, and some enterprising soul could possibly stitch a thread connecting the Beats’ drug use with the current trend toward legalizing marijuana in the U.S.
How we perceive the Beats’ lasting impact depends so much on our individual perceptions that I hesitate to generalize. However, they don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. There are plenty of good writers–much better writers, even–who don’t get all the fanfare and discussion this particular gang gets. The Beats have a continuing charisma that we may as well call sex appeal. They are not for everybody, but everybody feels some kind of buzzy attraction or frantic annoyance upon encountering them for the first time.
What are you most proud of when you look back on all the time you have spent as director of the Kerouac Center of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell?
I’m still just thrilled to my toes that we were able to bring the On the Road scroll (the 120-foot long, single-spaced draft of the novel that Kerouac typed in three weeks in 1951) to Lowell National Historical Park. It was so great working with the curator, the historians, and the park superintendent in putting the exhibit together, and the rocking, wall-shaking opening night reception was the best party I’ve ever been to.
In your expert opinion, how has the world of blogging and tweeting changed the world of writing as profession?  Are uneducated hacks such as myself destroying the medium?
Well, I have no reason to believe you are an uneducated hack, and I’m not an expert on blogging or tweeting. However, I think as professional writers we need to be very careful to limit our time on the web so that we don’t exhaust ourselves with the trivial and the banal–and by that I mean what we write as well as what we read. We would all do well to heed the advice a woman once yelled at John McEnroe when he threw a tantrum at Wimbledon: “Shut up and play your bloody game!”
Can you tell us a bit about The Poetry Foundation?
My interviews with Lucille Clifton and W.D. Snodgrass appear on the Poetry Foundation website, and the Poetry Foundation is an excellent resource for anyone seeking poems and bios on poets. I use its website all the time as a resource when I teach poetry classes.
Do you have any other books in the works?  If not, is there anything you are interested in profiling?
I have a novel coming out in 2014 from Knox Robinson Publishing called Tipton.It’s about a group of teenaged orphans coming of age in rural Oklahoma in the years leading up to World War II. Several of these orphans go off to war and eventually make their way to Orange County, Virginia, where they seek out the former orphanage housemother they were all, to varying degrees, infatuated with. I recently moved back to Orange County, where my family roots are, so I’m living right where much of the book takes place. In mood and subject matter, Tipton is about as far from the Beats as I could get.
What was the last thing that made you smile?
I’m going to revise the question to the last thing that made me laugh: a hawk that chased my cat and me across the lawn. But there was a lot of yelling and running before the laughing. 
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About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

One Response to Hilary Holladay, PhD [Interview]

  1. Congratulations! A suggestion for some future class assignment; a “mini-Kerouac” – Charmin Ultra-strong should do the trick!

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