How Doc Humes became the foremost burnout of his literary generation.

How Doc Humes became the foremost burnout of his literary generation.

How Doc Humes became the foremost burnout of his literary generation.

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Dec. 9 2008 1:39 PM

Coulda Been Faulkner

The foremost burnout of the Paris Review generation.

H.L. Humes in Greenwich Village, shooting the film Don Peyote. Click image to expand.
H.L. Humes in Greenwich Village, shooting the film Don Peyote

Harold Louis Humes Jr.—H.L. Humes on the jackets of his two novels, Doc to peers and pals—is the man standing just left of center in Cornell Capa's famous Life photo of a swell party at George Plimpton's place. There's a calabash pipe in his lips as he leans forward into whatever scrumptious gossip or merry slander Truman Capote is squeaking. The photo was taken in 1963, 10 years after Humes had co-founded the Paris Review, a time when he was cutting an eccentric figure in the middle of many good parties. Two years later, he cracked up flamboyantly. By the end of decade, Humes was an acid casualty, a paranoid freak who'd inaugurated a habit of crashing with college students. In 1969, he commandeered the apartment of Columbia senior Paul Auster for a nonstop salon where, styling himself a philosopher king, he riffed on the true nature of the cosmos for hairy undergraduates. "I could no more ask him to turn them away than I could ask the sun to stop shining," Auster writes in the memoir Hand to Mouth. "Talk was what he lived for. It was his final barrier against oblivion."

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

Plimpton and Auster are among the authors and scenesters who laugh, frown, and goggle their eyes over Humes in the highly entertaining Doc (PBS, Tuesday; check your listings), an Independent Lens number shot by his daughter Immy Humes over many years. The documentary makes a persuasive case for Humes, who died in 1992 at age 66, as the first hipster of Quality Lit, as a proto-Yippie and avant-garde Zelig, and as the foremost burnout of his literary generation, a kind of Brian Wilson of the backlist.

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Less persuasively, it states that Humes was the equal of Faulker and Hemingway, or would have been without the burning-out business. His reputation rests on two novels, The Underground City (1958, about the French underground and World War II) and Men Die (1959, about the destruction of a Navy munitions base). Of The Underground City, critic Alan Cheuse here says, "It's an authentic novel of ideas. Certainly in American literature, there are very few authentic novels of ideas." First, it must be said that there actually aren't few enough. Second: The Underground City, which runs 755 closely printed pages, is a ropy-muscled and fine-nerved thriller, and its principal pleasures are sensual. When you can describe the rush and dust of an airfield as well as Humes can, philosophy is only going to get in the way. For a novel of ideas, you'd do better with Men Die, which, being laced with ragged fake Beat poetry, is not entirely readable. In any event, Humes is the sort of literary figure whose work is peripheral to his glamour. For the purposes of mythmaking, it suffices that he put a rich voice—a wine-dark shade of prose—to use in one book of daunting scope.

Humes enrolled at MIT at age 16, left early to join the Navy, and by 1949 was continuing his education in Paris, where he discovered Bohemianism in flower and a lax attitude toward the public consumption of hashish. He founded a rag called the Paris News Post—"sort of a fourth-rate version of the New Yorker," he drolly croaks here. He got Plimpton very, very high on Easter Sunday in 1952, and it is worth tuning in to Doc just to hear Plimpton's voice rise when he imitates his own stoned giggle of that afternoon. Somewhere in there, the Paris Review started. Humes claims that the magazine evolved from "a conversation between Jimmy Baldwin and myself." George, Being George, the new oral history of Plimpton's life, suggests that Peter Matthiessen nudged Humes toward the idea partly because Matthiessen was working for the CIA and needed a good cover. Everyone agrees that Humes was too wild actually to manage a publication. Still, it was poor form for them to knock him down the masthead, where, for a time, he dwelled ridiculously as the advertising manager.

Doc, the film, might have slowed down a bit at this point to sort out some chronology and tell us more fully about its subject's cafe-society rambles, his labor-rights and free-speech agitations, and his Buckminster Fuller-lite scheme for utopian housing. It's a touch sloppy that way, and its production values can be downright homely—unforgivably bad lighting, weird framing choices, ill-chosen camera angles. (The audience is very interested in what William Styron has to say but somewhat less compelled by his wattle.) At points, however, the willful DIY quality and intimate home-movie vibe yields serendipitous results. When Immy Humes goes in search of a lost movie her father shot in the early '60s—Don Peyote, a psychedelic take on Cervantes meant to be scored by Ornette Coleman—she follows a false lead to filmmaker Jonas Mekas. This scene is, structurally speaking, pointless, but it's an utter delight to see the awesome stacks and shelves of film canisters in Mekas' endless basement archive. Immy, sharing this pleasure, turns the camera on herself and giggles like George Plimpton on hash.

The bad trip began in 1965, when Timothy Leary delivered a quantity of LSD to London, taking Humes' consciousness in the other direction. His paranoia acquired heaviosity, and his universe started making rather too much sense, as demonstrated by the notes and spiraling diagrams the documentary spookily shows us over a plaintive horn. He was beating his wife. When his family and friends had had enough of it, they told him that Queen Elizabeth wanted to see him, and his agent arranged a limousine to ferry him to a mental hospital. The wife and kids went back to the States. After Doc cooled out a bit, he did, too. His daughters found out that he was still alive after reading a New York Times story about a guy who was hanging around Morningside Heights, dispensing his inheritance to strangers $50 at a time.

Doc Humes spent the next long chapter of his life making mischief and holding forth, mostly in college towns, where there was always a fresh supply of young people eager to audit his freelance lectures—"his own floating university of Humesism" says one Oliver Trager, Bennington '79. None of them minded too much when he now and then accused them of being CIA agents. He seems to have met his second wife at a food co-op/massage academy/open classroom in Cambridge, Mass. Then he unraveled Howard Hughes-style for a while, and then got medicated and approachable, and then moved on.

In closing, Doc offers, a touch too triumphantly, the revelation that Humes was not entirely as crazy as everyone had thought. "It turned out that the U.S. government was keeping tabs on Doc for at least 30 years," goes the voice-over as snippets of his FBI file scroll past. (It's like an epitaph reading, "He was paranoid … but also important enough that they were after him!") Humes, in all his charm and madness, might have been served better by an anecdote relayed earlier by his friend Russell Hemenway. One day in Paris, Doc walked onto the terrace of the Brasserie Lipp and joined a group. "Somebody ask me a question," he said. "I feel like explaining something."