Charles Bukowski - Biography

Charles Bukowski, the American poet, short-story writer, and novelist, was born Heinrich Karl Bukowski, Jr. in Andernach, Germany on August 1920. He was the son of Henry Bukowski, a US soldier who was part of the post-World War I occupation force, and Katharina Fett, a German woman. His father, his wife and young "Henry Charles" returned to the United States in 1922, settling in Los Angeles, California, the setting of much of "Hank" Bukowski's oeuvre. With Raymond Chandler, Bukowski is the great chronicler of the City of Angels, and after John Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers, who influenced Bukowski's poetry, he arguably is the most important and certainly one of the most influential writers produced by the Golden state.

Bukowski's childhood was marred by a violent father, who regularly beat him with a razor strop until his teen years, and then by the Great Depression. When Bukowski went through adolescence, he developed an awful case of acne vulgaris which disfigured his face and made him feel like an outsider. His father frequently was out of work during the Depression, and he took out his pain and anxiety on his son. The younger Bukowski took to drink at a young age, and became a rather listless underachiever as a means of rebellion against not only his father, but against society in general, the society his father wanted him to become a productive member of. The young Bukowski could care less.

During his school years, Bukowski read widely, and he entered Los Angeles City College after graduating from high school to study journalism and literature with the idea of becoming a writer. He left home after his father read some of his stories and went berserk, destroying his output and throwing his possessions out onto the lawn, a lawn that the young Bukowski had to mow weekly and would be beaten for if the grass wasn't perfectly cut. Bukowski left City College after a year and went on the bum, traveling to Atlanta, where he lived in a shack and subsisted on candy bars. He would continue to return to his parents' house when he was busted flat and had nowhere else to go.

At City College, Bukwoski briefly flirted with a pathetic, ad hoc, pro-fascist student group. Proud of being a German, he did not feel inclined to go to war against Hitler's Germany. When America entered World War II, Bukowski resisted entreaties from his friends and father to join the service. He began living the life of a wandering hobo and a bum, frequently living on skid row as he worked his way through a meaningless series of jobs in L.A. and other cities across the U.S. He wound up in New York City during the war after his short story, 'Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip,' was accepted by "Story" magazine. He disliked New York and soon decamped for more hospitable climes. He was content to go to public libraries and read -- he discovered the L.A. writer John Fante, whom heavily influenced his own work and whom he would champion when he became famous -- and loaf.

The story, published in "Story" in 1944, was the highlight of the first part of his writing career. He returned to Los Angeles and became a Bottle Baby in his mid-twenties, forsaking the typewriter for John Barleycorn and Janet Cooney Baker, an alcoholic ten years his senior who became his lover, off and on, for the the next decade. They would shack up in a series of skid row rooms until the money and the booze would run out, and Jane would hurt the turf. She was a tortured soul who could match Bukowski drink for drink, and she was the love of his life. They would drift apart in the mid-'50s until coming together again at the beginning of a new decade, before she drank herself to death in 1962.

Bukowski got a temporary Christmas job at the Post Office in 1952, and stuck with his job as a mail carrier for three years. In 1955, he was hospitalized in a charity ward with a bleeding ulcer that nearly killed him. He was told never to drink again, but he fell off the water wagon the day he got out of the hospital and never regretted it.

After recovering from his brush with death -- he would have died if an idealistic doctor hadn't demanded from the nurses that had left Bukowski to die that they give him a massive blood transfusion -- he began to write again: poetry. Bukowski developed into one of the most original and influential poets of the post-War era, though he was never anthologized in the United States (though those that were influenced by him were). Bukwoski, who chronicled the low-life that he lived, never gained any critical respect in America, either in the journals or in academia.

Barbara Frye, a woman born to wealth who published the small poetry magazine "Harlequin," began to publish Bukowski. She sent a letter to him saying she feared no one would marry her because of a congenital conformity essentially leaving her with no neck. Bukowski, who had never met her, wrote back that he would marry her, and he did. The marriage lasted two years. In 1958, he went back to work for the Post Office, this time as a mail sorting clerk, a job he would hold for almost a dozen hellish years.

His first collection of poetry, "Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail" was published as a chapbook in 1959 in a run of 200 copies. The influence of Jeffers is very strong in the early work. One can also detect W.H. Auden, although Bukowski never mentioned him, and he was phlegmatic whereas Auden was dry. But that same sense of an outsider looking in critically at his society was there.

Bukowski's poetry, like all his writing, was essentially autobiographical and rooted in clinical detail rather than metaphor. The poems detailed the desperate lives of men on the verge -- of suicide, madness, a mental breakdown, an economic bust-out, another broken relationship -- whose saving grace was endurance. The relationship between male and female was something out of Thomas Hobbes, and while Bukowski's life certainly wasn't short, one will find in the poetry and prose much that is brutish.

Jon Edgar Webb, a former swindler who became a littérateur with his "The Outsider" magazine, became enamored of Bukowski's work in the early 1960s. Webb, who had published the work of Lawrence Ferlenghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, and William Burroughs, published Bukowski, then dedicated an issue of his magazine to Buk was "Outsider of the Year," and eventually decided to publish, with his own bespoke hand press, a collection of Bukowski's poetry.

Bukowski began to establish a reputation in the small magazines that proliferated with the "mimeograph revolution" of the late 1960s, micro-circulation "magazines" run off on mimeograph and Gestetner machines. Bukowski began moving away from a more traditional, introspection poetry to more expressionistic, free-form "verse," and began dabbling in the short story, a form he became a master of. He also began a weekly column for an underground Los Angeles newspaper, "Open City," called "Notes of a Dirty Old Man." The texts of his column were collected in a collection of the same title published by Ferlenghetti's City Lights press in 1969. (City Lights also would publish his first book of short stories, entitled "Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness," in 1972).

In the column, Bukowski would introduce ideas, vignettes and stories, many of which would be further developed into the short stories that helped make his reputation. The Bukowski of the mid- to late- 1960s' and 1970s became one of the greatest short story writers that America has produced, and his reputation grew steadily in Europe. (Though a literary lion on the West Coast, Buk never was much appreciated in the New York City that he had spurned which was, after all, the arbiter of culture. Since he didn't exist in their ken, he didn't exist at all, with the surprising result for Europeans that the most popular American writer in Europe was little known by Americans.)

There was envy as Bukowski became increasingly popular. Aside from the master of kitsch Rod McKuen, Bukowski was probably the best selling poet America produced after World War II. By the end of the 1970s, he was the most popular American writer in Germany and also had a huge reputation in France and other parts of Europe. Yet, he remained virtually unknown in the United States, except among the core of the Bukowski cult who faithfully bought his books.

Bukowski's success as a writer in the 1970s can be attributed to the patronage of John Martin, a book collector and chap book publisher who offered to subsidize Bukowski to the tune of $100 a month for life. Bukowski took him up on the offer, quit his job at the Post Office in 1969, and set out to be a writer who made his living by the typewriter alone (and an occasional poetry reading). Martin established his Black Sparrow Press to print Bukowski, and Bukowski proceeded to begin his first novel while continuing to write poetry and short stories. The first novel, "Post Office," was published by Black Sparrow in 1971. The Bukowski phenomenon began to gain momentum.

Around the time he quit the Post Office, Bukowski took up with the poet and sculptress Linda King, who was 20 years his junior. They began a tumultuous relationship juiced in equal parts with sadism and masochism that extended into the mid-1970s. In his 1978 autobiographical novel "Women," Bukowski writes about how his alter ego, "Henry Chinaski," had not had a woman in four years. Now, as Bukowski became a literary phenomenon in the small/alternative press world, he became a literary if not literal Don Juan, bedding down his legions of women fans who flocked to his apartment on DeLongre Avenue in the sleaziest part of Hollywood. (It was at this time that Bukowski was friends with a dirty book store manager who was the father of Leonardo DiCaprio.)

Bukowski's alter ego in his novels, Chinaski (who significantly shares Bukowski's real first name, the name he went by; he used his middle name "Charles" for his poetry as it seemed more literary, and possibly to deny his father, who shared the same Christian name), shares an affinity with with the underground denizens of Feodor Dostoyevsky's work and the protagonists of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's novels "Journey to the End of Night" and "Death on the Installment Plan." Celine arguably is the largest influence on Bukowski's prose, aside from Hemingway (who influenced Bukowski's entire generation) and Fante. Like Celine, in World War II, Bukowski flirted with fascism (though Bukowski never descended into the anti-semitism of Celine or any other type of racism in his work); like Celine, he despised America and the brand of capitalism once known as "Fordism," assembly line industrialism and the petty consumer society Bukowski found abominable and which he tried to escape.

Chinaski is a hard-drinking, would-be womanizer who is ready to duke it out with the bums, crooks and assorted low-lives he lives and drinks amongst, though occasionally he visits high society through the ministrations of a woman. Like Bukowski himself, he will accept company but prefers to be alone to drink and listen to classical music on the radio: Beethoven, Mozart, and Mahler among others.

Chinaski was introduced in the autobiographical short-story "Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beats," his first published short story, printed in chap book form in 1965. Chinaski's life is chronicled in Bukowski's novels "Post Office" (1971), "Factotum" (1975), "Women" (1978), and "Ham on Rye" (1982). Bukowski is not naturally gifted as a novelist, and while "Women" is superb and the very short "Post Office" is highly readable, "Factotum" and "Ham on Rye" are not up to the standards of Bukowski's short stories.

As his social situation evolved, Bukowski's works broadened from tales of low-lives and bums and losers; he added to his repertoire meditative and sarcastic accounts of his new life. A constant in his work became poems and short stories about the race track, to which he had been introduced by Jane back in the 1950s. The race track as metaphor suited Bukowski as it represented something more than luck or chance. A horse player had to work at it to be any good and beat the odds, and the odds were definitely stacked against the crowd as the track took its vig right off the top, when it wasn't outright and forthrightly fixing the race.

Going with the crowd was to be avoided in order to improve one's odds, and the track, the establishment, was out to f--- the bettor, but spiritual kin to Camus' Sissyphus, the bettor on nags had to have the wit to at least get the stone to the crown of the hill and avoid getting crushed as it courses its way back. The bettor was hip to the fact that the rock always fell back and would always fall back, but a good living or at least survival could be had by beating the track, beating the establishment, if the bettor knew how to play the horses. It was all a matter of developing his own system, and standing aloof from the crowd, whose dumb, manipulated enthusiasms skewed the odds. And knowing when to change to a new system, to keep ahead of the track, and the crowd. Bukowski was the antithesis of Carl Sandburg and Sandburg's "The People."

Bukowski was and would remain a literary outsider. In 1973, Taylor Hackford presented Bukowski to a wider audience via an award-winning documentary for Los Angeles public television station KCET. "Bukowski" won the San Francisco Film Festival's Silver Reel Award after being voted the best cultural film on public TV. After his relationship with Linda King petered out, Bukowski met Linda Lee Beighle, a health food restaurateur twenty-five years his junior in 1976. They became a couple and Bukowski's life became more balanced. With a stable relationship and steady royalties in the low six-figure range, Bukowski became a home owner, albeit in a middle class neighborhood in San Pedro. He now had a swimming pool, a hot tub, and drove a black BMW he paid cash for to the track. He palled around with Sean Penn and U2 dedicated a song to him at a Los Angeles concert.

The Muse, whom Buk bet on as faithfully as he did the ponies, left him when it came to the short story sometime in the 1980s. The poetry always ran through his head and down into his fingers, but it became less artful, though the powerful voice remained. Buk wrote a screenplay for Barbet Schroeder, which was made into the movie Barfly (1987), and Bukowski became known in the United States at last. He refused to appear on The Tonight Show (1962) with Johnny Carson, but let "People" magazine interview him as in his reasoning, it would be read by normal people at the supermarket checkout lines. It was the "Crowd" he despised but honored in his own way by refusing to be part of the "better" part of society that kept them down.

Always immensely prolific when it came to his poetry, and aided by a personal computer in the '80s, Bukowski generated so much material that originals are still being published 10 years after his death. He finished his last novel, an L.A./Chandler/private detective/noir spoof called "Pulp" shortly before he lost his battle with leukemia; it, like the final poetry collection published in his lifetime, "The Last Night of the Earth Poems," is full of intimations of mortality, and of course, his mordant humor.

On March 9, 1994, in his native Los Angeles, the man Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre called America's "greatest poet" died. In his short story collection "Hot Water Music," Bukwoski wrote, "There are so many," she said, "who go by the name of poet. But they have no training, no feeling for their craft. The savages have taken over the castle. There's no workmanship, no care, simply a demand to be accepted." The remarkable endurance of the man who never asked for acceptance, the endurance that took him nearly forty years beyond the near-death his drinking and despair had brought him in 1955, finally gave out, and not to the booze and the carousing and anomie, but to a cancer. Many of his fans thought it was remarkable that the "Dirty Old Man" had made it to 74, but it was a brave front: they greatly mourned the passing of their favorite writer, a man that could be read by anyone of any class or educational background.

His friend, Sean Penn, dedicated his film Crossing Guard (1995) to Bukowski, with the words felt by many who had loved him: "Hank, I still miss you."

We still do.