(b. 16 August 1920 in Andernach, Germany; d. 9 March 1994 in San Pedro, California), hard-drinking novelist, poet, and short-story writer best known for his autobiographical screenplay Barfly (1987).
Christened Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr., in the Roman Catholic faith, Bukowski was the only child of Henry Charles Bukowski, an American sergeant stationed in occupied Germany, and his wife, Katherine Fett, a German seamstress. The family left for the United States in April 1923, living briefly in Baltimore, Maryland and Pasadena, California, before settling permanently in Los Angeles, where Bukowski, Sr., found work as a milkman.
Bukowski’s childhood was a living nightmare. His father beat him regularly with a razor strop and he was teased and bullied by his classmates at the Virginia Road Elementary School and later at Mount Vernon Junior High. In 1936 Bukowski entered Los Angeles High School, where he continued to feel unpopular and out of place. Living under constant stress, he developed one of the worst cases of acne vulgaris his doctors had ever seen. As a teenager Bukowski discovered two remedies for his pain: alcohol and literature. Along with playing the horses and classical music, they were to remain lifelong comforts.
In 1939 Bukowski enrolled in Los Angeles City College, but he took little interest in his studies and in 1941 dropped out to pursue a writing career. Exempted from military service for psychological reasons, he spent the war years writing and traveling, supporting himself at a variety of menial jobs including stock boy, dishwasher, elevator operator, and Red Cross orderly.
Writing under his middle name, Charles, Bukowski had some early success. “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip” appeared in the March-April issue of Story in 1944, and “20 Tanks from Kasseldown” was published in Caresse Crosby’s Portfolio III (1946), alongside work by Henry Miller, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre. A steady stream of rejection slips discouraged Bukowski, however, causing him to abandon the pen in favor of the bottle. For the next ten years he devoted himself to boozing and barroom brawling.
Back in Los Angeles in 1946, Bukowski met Jane Cooney Baker in the Glenview Bar. The tempestuous love affair that followed was dramatized in the Barbet Schroeder film Barfly (1987), with Faye Dunaway playing Wanda Wilcox (Baker’s role) and Mickey Rourke starring as Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s literary doppelganger. Their constant drinking and carousing proved too much for Bukowski, who in the spring of 1955 awoke one morning in the charity ward of Los Angeles County Hospital, having narrowly escaped death from a bleeding ulcer.
Upon his release from the hospital, Bukowski began writing poetry. After breaking up with Baker, he met Barbara Frye, the editor of Harlequin, who had accepted some of his poems. They married in Las Vegas, Nevada, on 29 October 1955. Following a brief visit with Frye’s relatives in Wheeler, Texas, they returned to Los Angeles, where they published a special issue of Harlequin containing eight Bukowski poems. Temperamentally unsuited for each other, they divorced on 18 March 1958 and had no children. Bukowski found an apartment at 1623 North Mariposa Avenue and began seeing Jane Baker off and on again. Baker’s death on 22 January 1962 inspired his moving poem “For Jane, with all the love I had, which was not enough.”
With the exception of Jane’s death, the 1960s were good to Bukowski. A $15,000 inheritance and a steady, if stultifying, job sorting mail with the U.S. Postal Service gave him financial security. His first collection of poems, Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail, appeared in 1960. In 1963 the Loujon Press edition of It Catches My Heart in Its Hands received high praise from Kenneth Rexroth in the New York Times Book (Review. It was John Martin, however, the founder of Black Sparrow Press, who was to change Bukowski’s life forever. After publishing several books by Bukowski, Martin agreed to give him a stipend of $100 a month if he would leave the post office and devote himself to writing full-time. About to be fired anyway, Bukowski gratefully accepted the offer.
The 1970s and 1980s were Bukowski’s most productive years. In February 1971 Black Sparrow published Post Office, Bukowski’s novel based on eleven grueling years with the postal service. A critical and financial success, it sold 75,000 copies in the United States and more than half a million copies abroad. It was followed by three autobiographical novels in the same vein: Factotum (1975), Women (1978), and Ham On Rye (1982). In 1978, Bukowski read to packed auditoriums in Germany and was lionized by the European media. With the release of the film Barfly in 1987, he became famous at home.
Success changed Bukowski’s lifestyle dramatically. By 1984 he was earning more than $100,000 a year. He bought a BMW 320i and an $80,000 house in San Pedro. He was able to drink expensive wines and spend afternoons at the racetrack in the company of movie stars like Sean Penn and Madonna. On 18 August 1985, he married Linda Lee Beighle at the Church of the People in Los Feliz, California. Beighle, a health-store owner he first met in 1976, proved to be a stabilizing influence on Bukowski, encouraging him to lose weight and drink more moderately. Bukowski’s novel Hollywood (1989) captures the essence of his life at this time.
In the winter of 1987 Bukowski contracted tuberculosis. The disease took its toll on him physically but he continued to work on Hollywood as well as The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems 1946–1966 (1988). These were followed by Septuagenarian Stew (1990), an anthology of new as well as previously published stories and poems, and The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992). Bukowski’s health continued to deteriorate. He had cataract surgery in the summer of 1992 and was diagnosed with leukemia in the spring of 1993. During a brief remission, he finished Pulp (1994), his tongue-in-cheek detective novel. He died in San Pedro Peninsula Hospital on 9 March 1994, attended by his wife and his daughter, Marina, the child he fathered with Frances (”FrancEye”) Smith, a fan whom he lived with from 1963 to 1965. He was buried at the Green Hills cemetery in San Pedro on 14 March 1994, following a Buddhist service. The epitaph on his gravestone reads, “DON’T TRY.”
In spite of his reputation as a drunken brawler, a womanizer, and a gambler, Bukowski was a prolific writer, producing six novels, five collections of short stories, and thirty-two volumes of poetry, most of which were written after his fortieth birthday. At the time of his death two million copies of his books were in print. Bukowski’s detractors charged him with being crude, vulgar and sexist; his fans praised him for his wit, candor, and hard-edged realism. Because his work focused on the lower strata of society, drunks, whores, and manual laborers, the media tended to dismiss Bukowski as the “poet laureate of Los Angeles low life” or “bard of the barroom and the brothel.” Widely translated, Bukowski has received serious scholarly attention abroad but in the United States he remains “the dirty old man of American letters,” a cult figure renowned more for his raucous lifestyle than for his art.
Libraries containing manuscripts and papers relating to Bukowski include the University of California, Santa Barbara; the University of Southern California; the University of California, Long Beach; Temple University; and the University of Arizona, Tucson. Seamus Cooney has edited four volumes of correspondence: The Bukowski/Purdy Letters (1983), Screams from the Balcony: Selected Utters 1960–1970 (1993), Living On Luck: Selected Letters 1960s-1970s (1995), and Reach for the Sun: Selected Letters 1978–1994 (1999). There are two major biographies: Howard Sounes, Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life (1998), and Neeli Cherkovski, Bukowski: A Life (1997), actually a revised edition of his earlier book Hank; The Life of Charles Bukouiski (1991). Both are sympathetic portraits, with Cherkovski having both the advantage and disadvantage of having known Bukowski personally. A profile by Paul Ciotti is in the Los Angeles Times Magazine (22 March 1977). Special issues of journals devoted to Bukowski include The Review of Contemporary Fiction 3 (Fall 1983) and the memorial issue of Beat Scene 20 (1994). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (10 Mar. 1994) and the New York Times (11 Mar. 1994). Audio recordings include Charles Bukowski Reads His Poetry (1980), Hostage (1994), and Bukowski at Bellevue (1998). Barbet Schroeder’s Charles Bukpwskj Tapes is a four-hour video of interviews and readings shot during the filming of Barfly.
William M. Gargan
A prolific and seminal figure in underground literature, Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) is best known for poetry and fiction in which he caustically indicts bourgeois society while celebrating the desperate lives of alcoholics, prostitutes, decadent writers, and other disreputable characters in and around Los Angeles.
Born in 1920 in Andernach, Germany, Bukowski emigrated to Los Angeles in 1922 with his father, an American soldier, and his German mother. As an adolescent he was distanced from his peers by a disfiguring case of acne and he resisted the attempts of his abusive and uncompromising father to instill in him the American ideals of hard work and patriotism. Following high school, Bukowski attended Los Angeles City College from 1939 to 1941 but left without obtaining a degree. He began writing hundreds of unsuccessful short stories while drifting from city to city in a succession of low-paying jobs—including work as a mailman, post office clerk, Red Cross orderly, and laborer in a slaughterhouse and a dog biscuit factory. Although he published his first short story, "Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip," in a 1944 issue of Story magazine at the age of twenty-four, Bukowski virtually stopped writing for a decade, choosing instead to live as an alcoholic on skid row. After being hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer in 1955, Bukowski began writing poetry and resolved to drink less heavily. During this period he discovered the literature of Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and especially Ernest Hemingway, which offered him an alternative to alcoholism and aided in the development of his own concise, realistic prose style.
Bukowski published his first collection of poetry, Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail, in 1960. He quickly produced a series of poetry chapbooks, including Longshot Poems for Broke Players and Run with the Hunted, featuring surreal verse that expresses sentimentality for the West's Romantic past as well as disgust for the vacuousness of modern culture. While these poems garnered him a small but loyal following over the next decade, Bukowski's work in the short story genre first gained him a wide readership and established his literary reputation. Beginning in 1967, when the antiwar and counterculture movements flourished in the United States, Bukowski began contributing a weekly column, "Notes of a Dirty Old Man," to the Los Angeles alternative newspaper Open City, and later, to the Los Angeles Free Press. Combining journalism, fiction, and philosophy in a rambling, disjointed style, these pieces established his philosophy and defiant, anarchic persona. Perceiving American culture as hypocritical, Bukowski censured American films and television as escapist wish-fulfillment, morality as organized hypocrisy, patriotism as conformism, and academic writers, scholars, and intellectuals as self-righteous charlatans who attack American society while reaping its benefits.
Bukowski began his career writing poetry critical of American bourgeois institutions while disclaiming the title of writer: "To say I'm a poet puts me in the company of versifiers, neontasters, fools, clods, and skoundrels [sic] masquerading as wise men." In Longshot Poems for Broke Players, Bukowski introduces his characteristic outsider protagonist: the unstudied, self-exiled poet who provokes public enmity through his apparent rudeness to writers and other socialites, and maintains his freedom and uniqueness as a writer by rejecting the public literary world. In "Letter from the North," for example, the narrator responds to a despondent writer's request for sympathy with the question: "write you? about what my friend? / I'm only interested in poetry." In ensuing collections such as It Catches My Heart in Its Hands and Crucifix in a Deathhand, Bukowski's narrator retains his hostility to the outer world while revealing a paradoxical inner gentleness. In "Fuzz," the unsteady protagonist unexpectedly empathizes with a group of children who are taunting him: "when I go into the liquor store / they whirl around outside / like bees / shut out from their nest. / I buy a fifth of cheap / whiskey / and/3/ candy bars." Much of Bukowski's subsequent poetry, collected in such volumes as Poems Written before Jumping out of an 8-story Window, The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills, and Fire Station, deals in concrete, realistic terms with acts of rape, sodomy, deceit, and violence, particularly focusing on sexual relationships characterized by physical and emotional abuse in which women seek to enslave men through marriage and men attempt to avoid such enslavement through the equally imprisoning pursuit of wealth and material pleasures.
Many of the events described in Bukowski's poetry recur in the autobiographical short stories and novels he began writing in the 1970s. While his earlier stories, many of which were published in men's pornographic magazines, generally employ stock formulas, Bukowski's later fiction, published in Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness and South of No North: Stories of the Buried Life, is more sophisticated, philosophical, and pointedly critical of American society. Many of these stories focus on sexual relationships that feminist and other critics have faulted as misogynistic. Other critics, however, believe these works expose the short-sightedness, pettiness, and spiritual bankruptcy of a dysfunctional society.
During the 1970s Bukowski began writing semiautobiographical novels featuring the first-person narrator Henry ("Hank") Chinaski, a hard-boiled, alcoholic survivor who trades a mediocre, normal life for a position that allows for unromanticized self-awareness in the socially unrestricted environment of the ghetto. Bukowski's first novel, Post Office, contrasts the mindlessness and monotony of Chinaski's work life as an employee of the United States Post Office with the varying degradation and vitality of his unconventional personal life. Factotum chronicles Chinaski's experiences as a young man before the events related in Post Office, while Ham on Rye recounts his adolescent years and conflicts with his tyrannical father. Women details Chinaski's sexual exploits after the events chronicled in Post Office and his eventual desire for a monogamous relationship. Chinaski is also a central character in Bukowski's novel Barfly, which he adapted into a screenplay for the film directed by Barbet Schroeder and starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. Bukowski's encounters with California's film industry are also detailed in Hollywood, another novel featuring Chinaski. Bukowski died of leukemia in Los Angeles in 1994
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 41, 1987.
Contemporary Novelists, 4th edition, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1986.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale, 1980.
A Bibliography of Charles Bukowski, Dorbin, Sanford, Black Sparrow Press, 1969.
Charles Bukowski: A Critical and Bibliographical Study, Fox, Hugh, Abyss Publications, 1969.
Bukowski: Friendship, Fame, and Bestial Myth, Sherman, Jory, Blue Horse Press, 1982.
A Charles Bukowski Checklist, Weinberg, Jeffrey, editor, Water Row Press, 1987. □