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Doc Humes and 'The Paris Review' Archive: A Literary Summer at the Morgan Library & Museum

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Doc Humes and 'The Paris Review' Archive: A Literary Summer at the Morgan Library & Museum

By Gina DeCagna.


"Queer though it is, an artist's vanity is a delicate thing, a bizarre sort of peacock that feeds on its own droppings, a closed system that obeys its own conservative physics. In the old days, an artist could aspire to being commissioned by pope or king and thus win election to history—which for most doubting mortals is the closest one can come to defeating one's own mortality." —Doc Humes

“Do you know who Doc Humes was?” Christine Nelson, Drue Heinz Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at the preeminent Morgan Library & Museum asked me one afternoon. We were discussing the Morgan’s capacious holdings of the now over fifty-year-old iconic American literary journal, The Paris Review. “No,” I responded honestly. “Who was he?” 

Under the Department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts and working closely with Assistant Curator Carolyn Vega, I spent ten weeks during the summer mining this question of Doc’s identity. I helped the curators prepare for future consultations with researchers by manually going through, reorganizing, and summarizing the museum’s materials related to, by, or about Doc—including his involvement with The Paris Review—in an internship sponsored by RealArts@Penn. Though Doc’s name remains murky in academic circles and nearly forgotten in the mainstream literary culture that The Paris Review wades in, he is not an individual that scholars of the bohemian hippie culture of the 1960s should overlook. Doc was a flagship leader of his time, gaining great influence starting in the late 1950s.

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    • Covers of Humes’ two novels and the first issue of The Paris Review.

Born in 1926 as Harold Louis Humes, Jr., he became known as the distinguished novelist “H.L. Humes,” but more commonly as “Doc” among friends and acquaintances. “Doc” was an epithet first given by peers in grade school after the mad scientist Dr. Huer in the Buck Rogers comic. Regarded as a rising literary star by the dozens of book reviewers who showered critical acclaim on his sociopolitical novels, The Underground City (Random House, 1958) and Men Die (Random House, 1959), he is also significantly remembered as the co-founder of The Paris Review—initiated in 1951 when he worked as a publisher and art dealer in Paris.

The glitz and glamour of The Paris Review were not a large part of Doc’s life, however. He invented the journal together with Peter Matthiessen, but the magazine’s socially elite and influential editor, George Plimpton, kept it afloat throughout the decades. Aside from its conception, Doc’s essential contribution to the founding of The Paris Review was his gusto and charisma; he was the first managing editor, but he prioritized his own writing —whereas the publication was a main activity of Matthiessen, who needed a cover for his activity as a CIA agent in Paris (a job he did not reveal to the other editors until fifteen years later in 1966), and Plimpton, who eagerly filled the shoes of such a leadership position after completing a masters at King’s College, University of Cambridge. Doc was embarrassingly demoted to “advertising manager” at the first issue’s release in spring 1953—a slight that prompted him to stamp his name onto the masthead of as many copies of the first issue as he could. In future issues, Doc was restored to the masthead as a founding and contributing editor, in spite of his laissez-faire style.

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    • A cocktail party organized by Doc Humes in 1963 in George Plimpton’s New York City apartment for Filmwrights International. Doc is standing to the left of the couch in conversation with the seated Truman Capote. Doc’s wife, Anna Lou, is standing, second from bottom left. Photo by Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos.

In sifting through twelve large boxes of the H.L. Humes Literary Archive this summer, I quickly learned that Doc was an extraordinary individual too complex and multifaceted to simply be deemed “a novelist.” He wrote prolifically across genres. He was also an inventor of patented projects in engineering and architecture through his company Parametrics, Inc. (such as an alarm system, “The Electronic Watchman,” and a prefabricated “Paper House”); a political activist (in his role as the campaign manager of Norman Mailer’s bid for New York City mayor in 1960; or in his leading the fight against the New York cabaret laws, especially in defense of hipster spoken-word performer Lord Buckley); a compelling commentator on health and society (as an anti-anxiety massage therapist and proponent of medical uses of marijuana, therapies he used in combination to detoxify heroin addicts in Rome in 1967 in a pop-up clinic); a filmmaker (though most of his films remained in developmental stages, his most finished one was Don Peyote, an alter-ego spin-off of Don Quixote); and a leader of numerous organizations. A fervent intellectual whose mind was curious about everything, Doc was, for some time, a Thoreauvian doer who explored his findings from one place to the next.

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    • Doc on set of his film Don Peyote. Photo courtesy of the H.L. Humes Estate.

    • Doc Humes – 3000 Beatniks
    • Media coverage of Doc’s arrest while protesting New York City’s ban on folk singing in Washington Square Park. He was the president of the Citizens Emergency Committee, which sought to fight police corruption. Photos courtesy of the H.L. Humes Estate.

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    • Media coverage of Doc’s arrest while protesting New York City’s ban on folk singing in Washington Square Park. He was the president of the Citizens Emergency Committee, which sought to fight police corruption. Photos courtesy of the H.L. Humes Estate.

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“‘I tell people I write with my feet because it’s very much like that,’ he had said. ‘You just feel like you’re on the fly all the time, but you’re leaving footprints behind which somebody else can read.’” (“Public Eye,” The Boston Phoenix, 21 March 1978).

I followed Doc’s footprints more and more with each day of processing his writings. I unfolded hundreds of them—many punched letter-by-letter on the typewriter with later handwritten edits woven throughout, many penciled in cursive on yellow-lined notebook paper, and some scribbled on disregarded café napkins or letter envelopes. I sorted through musky and coffee-stained drafts of his novels, dozens of short stories in various stages of revision, hundreds of poems and versed ponderings never published, several essays of critical commentary, and some formal academic papers on topics spanning meteorology to the history of cannabis. Doc utilized numbered stacks of index cards for organizing the film scenes that he was either writing or directing. He also used index cards earlier in his life for notes on physics and astronomy while an undergraduate at MIT. Among all other printed matter were Doc’s stories written during his studies at Harvard University, which he attended after dropping out of MIT, serving in the Navy for a year, and living in Paris for four years. My favorite find was a notebook with his chessboard strategy. Doc often played chess in the cafés of Paris with the famed Dadaist Tristan Tzara from 1948 to 1952, and later in New York with perhaps the most legendary chess player of all time, Marcel Duchamp, from 1959 to 1964. In Licks of Love, the writer John Updike recalls the last time he saw Doc, “a writer and conversationalist famous, or bucking for fame, in the Fifties” playing chess with Duchamp at a New York City party, in which, in Updike’s “agitated celebrity-consciousness the board looked like a jumble.”

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    • Doc Humes’ writings, notes, and drawings from the archive. Photos courtesy of the H.L. Humes Estate.

Significantly, I was able to clarify many biographical details through his letters with family members, friends, publishers, editors, business clients, and solicitors. He did not write as frequently as his correspondents wished, but when he did, it was often with full consideration—even warmth and compassion. Throughout his life, Doc resided in Princeton, Boston, Cambridge, Paris, New York, London, and Rome—gaining followers everywhere he went—and later residing as an audacious freewheeling pseudo-lecturer at Harvard, University of Massachusetts, Columbia, and Princeton. He had four daughters with his wife, Anna Lou; later he had a son with a partner in Turin, Italy and a second son with another partner in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Doc was one of two sons himself: he had a younger brother who died from a suspected drug overdose when they were teenagers—a loss that affected and influenced him for the rest of his life, especially in wanting to help drug addicts recover. His parents lived in Princeton, New Jersey and were vital in helping to financially support his family through his ups and downs.

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    • Photo left: Doc on the campus of Columbia University, 1969 | Photo right: Doc at the Café Royale St. Germain, circa 1950, with Leon Kafka, the editor of Doc’s first magazine in Paris, The Paris News Post
      Photos courtesy of the H.L. Humes Estate.

What might be the most crucial in considering Doc Humes’ life, activities, and projects is the role of his mental health and his use of drugs. One of Doc’s psychologists diagnosed him as “a classic paranoid schizophrenic,” as he had breakdowns that impaired his work, home, and family relations. However, these symptoms remain largely undocumented aside from some doctors’ diagnoses and a few brief letters to or from a London psychiatric hospital. He feared that agents of the American government and secret international organizations were following him, and he believed that they had zapped his brain with microwaves. Nevertheless, as FBI records in the collection reveal—again adding more layers of complexity to what might otherwise seem to be the easy classification of his overt “craziness”—Doc had reason to be paranoid. The FBI had indeed tracked him across his international travels for about twenty-nine years, a fact discovered after his death via a FOIA request by his daughter, Immy Humes, a filmmaker who originally collected the items in the archive for Doc, her independent documentary about her father.

While Doc’s belief in governmental microwaves to the brain could seem like a hyperbolized fabrication, it may be more sympathetically understandable when considering the electric shock treatments he likely did not consent to. (In fact, I discovered a medication envelope in the archives with an unswallowed pill, perhaps evidencing some resistance to treatment). However, the additional question of his drug experimentation might place him in the “crazy” category: in 1965, annotated “crazy year” on an index card Doc used to order his own biography, Timothy Leary brought him a large dosage of LSD on a visit to London. Doc’s LSD experimentation may have aggravated his mental instability to a point of destruction (placing him in the psychiatric hospital), harming his abilities and his writing career thereafter. Another of Doc’s more “trippy” interests can be seen through his obsessive photographs of and writings on “lenticular clouds.” These “lens-shaped” clouds might even relate somehow to his early notebook doodles of faces, that, in their randomized yet somewhat systematized line strokes, suggest faces perceived in clouds—a familiar condition known as pareidolia.

    • Humes – Archival photos
    • Photo right: Doc in a favorite t-shirt with George Plimpton in New York City. | Photo left: Doc at the chess tables in Harvard Square, 1992.
      Photos courtesy of the H.L. Humes Estate.

Genius and madness can be difficult to discern, and the line between them impossible to draw with certainty. Doc was a mad genius. Without a doubt he was a unique package—charismatic, insightful, captivating, yet utterly eccentric. He was “a hipster visionary neo-prophet, the legendary forgotten novelist” according to Paul Auster—whose dorm room Doc stayed in at Columbia University—in the memoir Hand to Mouth. Now that the collection has been processed and will be available for use, I hope researchers will further debate how “crazy” Doc was: was his genius ever overlooked or misunderstood? Although some called him a “loonie,” I think this can only be expected about someone who compellingly challenged the conventions of his time in all his loquaciousness and theatricality. With his many arrests (and pleas for habeas corpus) for social and political activism headlined in the newspapers, I contend that his dissident spirit is at least exemplary of admirable integrity in the pursuit of justice.

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    • Doc in Rome, Italy in 1968, detail.
      Photo courtesy of the Fondazione Giulio Einaudi.

Throughout reorganizing these archival materials, I enjoyed employing my critical reading skills in what seemed like a form of literary psychoanalysis—a procedural unearthing of the individual’s obsessions, passions, behaviors, and fascinating intellect from his writings—expanding on skills I had developed in past English literature courses at Penn. I also gained insight into Doc’s arduous writing processes in the notebook and on the typewriter, and I was inspired to think deeply about his captivating ideas. In my work as the founder and editor-in-chief of Symbiosis—a literary and visual arts magazine dedicated to collaborations in art and writing at Penn—I gained valuable knowledge of the challenging history of another little magazine, The Paris Review, along with the study of one of its initial substantial figures. I would be delighted to dive into Doc Humes’ complex mind again and again, and I am thrilled that researchers will now also have the opportunity to do so with greater ease at the Morgan Library & Museum. Living immortally in history and in those archives as the multifaceted artist he was, Doc will continue to inspire minds.

Gina DeCagna is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences double majoring in English and Fine Arts. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Symbiosis, an editorial assistant at Jacket2 Magazine of the Kelly Writers House, and a digital marketing assistant at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia.

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Photo left: H.L. “Doc” Humes. Courtesy of the H.L. Humes Estate | Photo right: Gina DeCagna with the first issue of The Paris Review. Photography by Graham S. Haber © The Morgan Library & Museum, 2015.