Charles Bukowski

now what


Henry Charles Bukowski (1920 – 1994) was a German-American poet, novelist and short story writer.

His writing was influenced by the social, cultural and economic ambience of his home city of Los Angeles. It is marked by an emphasis on the ordinary lives of poor Americans, the act of writing, alcohol, relationships with women and the drudgery of work. Bukowski wrote thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories and six novels, eventually having over 60 books in print. In 1986 Time called Bukowski a ‘laureate of American lowlife.’

Born as Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany, his mother was a native German and his father was an American serviceman with some German and Polish roots who met her after World War I had ended. Bukowski’s parents were Roman Catholic. He claimed to be an illegitimate child; marital records, however, indicate that his parents married one month prior to his birth.

Due to the collapse of the German economy following the end of World War I, the family emigrated to the United States in 1923 and initially settled in Baltimore, Maryland. Wanting a more Anglophone kind of name, Bukowski’s parents began addressing young Heinrich as ‘Henry.’ The family settled in South Central Los Angeles in 1930, the city from which his father’s family originated. During Bukowski’s childhood his father was often unemployed, and Bukowski stated in the autobiographical ‘Ham on Rye’ that, with his mother’s acquiescence, his father was frequently abusive, both physically and mentally.

During his youth Bukowski was shy and socially withdrawn, a condition exacerbated during his teens by an extreme case of acne. Neighborhood children ridiculed his German accent. In his early teens Henry had an epiphany when he was introduced to alcohol by his friend William ‘Baldy’ Mullinax. ‘This is going to help me for a very long time,’ he later wrote, describing the genesis of his chronic alcoholism; or, as he saw it, the genesis of a method he could utilize to come to more amicable terms with his own life.

In the summer of 1944, with World War II ongoing, Bukowski was arrested by FBI agents in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he was living at the time, on suspicion of draft evasion. He later failed a psychological exam that was part of his mandatory military entrance ‘physical’ and was declared unfit for military service.

He began submitting short stories to literary periodicals. His first published story, ‘Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip,’ was published when he was 24.’ Failing to break into the literary world, Bukowski grew disillusioned with the publication process and quit writing for almost a decade, a time that he referred to as a ‘ten-year drunk.’ These ‘lost years’ formed the basis for his later autobiographical chronicles, although the veracity of his accounts has frequently been called into question.

In 1955 he was treated for a near-fatal bleeding ulcer. After leaving the hospital he began to write poetry. In 1957 he agreed to marry small-town Texas poet Barbara Frye, sight unseen, but they divorced in 1959. She later died under mysterious circumstances in India. Following his divorce Bukowski resumed drinking and continued writing poetry.

In 1962, he was traumatized by the death of Jane Cooney Baker, the object of his first serious romantic attachment. Bukowski turned his inner devastation into a series of poems and stories lamenting her passing. Jane is considered to be the greatest love of his life and was the most important in a long series of muses who inspired his writing.

In 1964 a daughter, Marina Louise Bukowski, was born to Bukowski and his live-in girlfriend Frances Smith, whom he referred to as a ‘white-haired hippy,’ ‘shack-job’ and ‘old snaggle-tooth.’

Beginning in 1967 Bukowski wrote the column ‘Notes of A Dirty Old Man’ for Los Angeles’ Open City, an underground newspaper. When Open City was shut down in 1969 the column was picked up by the Los Angeles Free Press .

In 1969 Bukowski accepted an offer from Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin and quit his day job (delivering mail for the USPS) to dedicate himself to full-time writing. He was then 49 years old. As he explained in a letter at the time, ‘I have one of two choices — stay in the post office and go crazy … or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.’ Less than one month after leaving the postal service he finished his first novel, ‘Post Office.’

As a measure of respect for Martin’s financial support and faith in a relatively unknown writer, Bukowski published almost all of his subsequent major works with Black Sparrow Press. As an avid supporter of the small independent presses, however, he continued to submit poems and short stories to innumerable small publications throughout his career.

Bukowski embarked on a series of love affairs and one-night trysts. One of these relationships was with Linda King, a poet and sculptress. His other affairs were with a recording executive and a 23 year-old redhead; he wrote a book of poetry as a tribute of his love for the latter, titled, ‘Scarlet.’ His various affairs and relationships provided material for his stories and poems. Another important relationship was with ‘Tanya,’ pseudonym of ‘Amber O’Neil’ (also a pseudonym), described in Bukowski’s ‘Women’ as a pen-pal that evolved into a weekend tryst at Bukowski’s residence in Los Angeles in the 1970s. ‘Amber O’Neil’ later wrote a book about the affair entitled ‘Blowing My Hero’ which was not published due to the inclusion of several love letters Bukowski had written to her.

In 1976, Bukowski met Linda Lee Beighle, a health food restaurant owner, aspiring actress and devotee of Meher Baba, leader of an Indian religious society. Two years later Bukowski moved from the East Hollywood area, where he had lived for most of his life, to the harborside community of San Pedro, the southernmost district of the City of Los Angeles. Beighle followed him and they lived together intermittently over the next two years. They were eventually married by Manly Palmer Hall, a Canadian-born author and mystic, in 1985. Beighle is referred to as ‘Sara’ in Bukowski’s novels ‘Women and Hollywood.’

In the 1980s he collaborated with illustrator Robert Crumb on a series of comic books, with Bukowski supplying the writing and Crumb providing the artwork.

Bukowski died of leukemia in 1994, in San Pedro, aged 73, shortly after completing his last novel, ‘Pulp.’ The funeral rites, orchestrated by his widow, were conducted by Buddhist monks. His gravestone reads: ‘Don’t Try,’ a phrase which Bukowski uses in one of his poems, advising aspiring writers and poets about inspiration and creativity.

Bukowski explained the phrase in a 1963 letter to John William Corrington: ‘Somebody at one of these places […] asked me: ‘What do you do? How do you write, create?’ You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it.’

Bukowski often spoke of Los Angeles as his favorite subject. In a 1974 interview he said, ‘You live in a town all your life, and you get to know every bitch on the street corner and half of them you have already messed around with. You’ve got the layout of the whole land. You have a picture of where you are…. Since I was raised in L.A., I’ve always had the geographical and spiritual feeling of being here. I’ve had time to learn this city. I can’t see any other place than L.A.’

Bukowski’s fiction has been described as a ‘detailed depiction of a certain taboo male fantasy: the uninhibited bachelor, slobby, anti-social, and utterly free,’ an image he tried to live up to with sometimes riotous public poetry readings and boorish party behavior.

One Comment to “Charles Bukowski”

  1. I bloody love Bukowski’s writing, raw lurid beautiful and utterly true of himself.

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