Charles Bukowski Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany, on August 16, 1920, the only child of a German mother and an American soldier father. Because of social and economic difficulties, his parents brought him to the United States when he was three years old. They settled in Los Angeles, where he was raised and educated. His father spent most of his working life as a milkman until he lost that job during the Depression, a tragedy that turned an already difficult family life into an unbearable one. Bukowski’s father was obsessed with pushing his son into attaining the American Dream to such an extent that young Charles left home after he graduated from high school in 1939. Their relationship was an extremely difficult one, and his father regularly beat him.

Though Ham on Rye (1982) purports to be a novel, it unquestionably documents the early life of Bukowski—his childhood, adolescence, and early manhood. The main character-narrator, Henry Chinaski, is certainly Bukowski himself as he records in vivid detail the poverty and oppression of the Depression years and the damage done to the poor and dispossessed during that bleak period.

Bukowski’s two uncles both died young because of their excessive drinking, though his grandfather lived into old age in spite of an irresponsible life of drinking and womanizing. One of young Charles’s earliest memories is the contrast between his family’s disgust with his alcoholic grandfather and his own memory of him as a warm and generous presence. Bukowski identified with the outcasts early, the isolated and the alienated, and indeed became the writer whose major subject matter documented those empty, wasted lives.

His early family life is a litany of violent beatings from his father, who was unfaithful to his wife and beat her as well when she uncovered the marital infidelities. His grammar school days in the poorest sections of Los Angeles also consisted of endless battles with bigger and stronger boys who mercilessly taunted him because he was awkward, unattractive, and German. He spent much of his time alone, hiding out from the brutality of the daily routine of school.

While his teen years brought more self-assurance on the athletic field, they also brought violent bodily reactions in the form of acne and boils that became so inflamed that he had to be hospitalized. His face was permanently scarred, pitted and ravaged by the skin disease; in the shower room, his fellow athletes cruelly mocked his naked body covered with suppurating boils. During a time following surgery on his face and back, he first felt driven to create an alternate, imaginative world in which he could live outside the agony of reality. He realized that he could become a hero only in his imagination and that within that world nothing could hurt him. In short, he had found a refuge and power within himself that answered only to him, This realization propelled him eventually into the life of a writer.

Several other key incidents reinforced his decision to become a writer. One took place in the fourth grade, when the teacher was asking all the students what their fathers did for a...

(The entire section is 1292 words.)

Charles Bukowski Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The literary quality of Bukowski’s novels progressively improved, principally because each became more refined and sophisticated in terms of its form. The structure of Post Office consisted of a raw chronology of his years in the postal service, while Ham on Rye adhered to the pattern of a Künstlerroman. Hollywood has the advantage of being a full-fledged modernistic work because its form and content are virtually identical: It is a novel about writing a screenplay as it simultaneously records the difficulties that people encounter who drink too much. What saves Bukowski’s work from becoming a dreary record of the hopeless lives of a group of helpless alcoholics is his refreshing sense of humor, his ability to see the irony of his own behavior, and his complete lack of self-pity. His work moved more clearly toward satire with each new novel, demonstrating his ability to see himself and his world in increasingly objective and compassionate terms.

Charles Bukowski Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

One cannot come to terms with the poetry of Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr., without acknowledging the fact that his is an extremely personal and autobiographical poetry; the terror and agony are not merely “felt-life” but life as Bukowski knew it. His survival was a thing of wonder. As Gerald Locklin notes, he “not only survived problems that would kill most men [but] survived with enough voice and talent left to write about it.” He was a practicing alcoholic whose life revolved around the racetrack, women, and writing.

Born Heinrich Karl Bukowski to a German mother and an American soldier father on August 16, 1920, in Andernach, Germany, Bukowski came to the United States in 1922 with his family. They settled in Los Angeles, later the milieu for much of Bukowski’s work. His father, a milkman, was a harsh and often violent man who struggled with his own powerlessness by wielding a razor strap. The resultant hostility and animosity is evident in many of the younger Bukowski’s poems. Coupled with a blood disease that left his face badly pockmarked, Bukowski was predisposed to a life on the fringes of society.

At about the age of sixteen, partly to escape and partly because of a desire to become a writer, Bukowski began to haunt the public library, seeking literary models. His own self-directed reading was far more important in shaping his literary credo than the two years he spent at Los Angeles City College. He was drawn to the works of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, John Fante, Fyodor Dostoevski, Ivan Turgenev, and the early Ernest Hemingway; in later years, he was attracted by Franz Kafka and Albert Camus. Just as the creative writing class in which he had enrolled...

(The entire section is 692 words.)

Charles Bukowski Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr., was born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany, on August 16, 1920. He was the son of a German woman and a German American serviceman who had met at the end of World War I. In 1923, the family moved to the United States, settling first in Baltimore and then in Washington, D.C. Bukowski’s parents started calling him Henry instead of Heinrich, and they altered the pronunciation of the family name. The family moved to suburban Los Angeles in 1926, a decision that would greatly influence Bukowski’s career as a writer. Bukowski has said that he was a shy child with severe acne who was ridiculed by fellow students and abused by his father. His semiautobiographical novel Ham on Rye recounts his boyhood misadventures as a loner and outsider.

Bukowski graduated from Los Angeles High School and attended Los Angeles City College for two years. He took classes in journalism, art, and literature, but his greatest education came from the libraries of Los Angeles, where he discovered writers such as John Fante, Ezra Pound, Robinson Jeffers, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Knut Hamsun, whose works shaped his life and career. Bukowski’s college years are also covered in Ham on Rye, including a controversial period of his life during which he was associated with Nazism. To this day, people often mistake Bukowski as a Nazi sympathizer, though his writing makes it clear that he was not. In Ham on Rye, he attributes his blind flirtation with Nazism to youthful angst and the desire to rage against “the system.”

In his early life, Bukowski traveled often. He failed at jobs and...

(The entire section is 688 words.)

Charles Bukowski Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Transforming ordinary events into monuments of alienation and despair, Charles Bukowski (byew-KOW-skee) transformed his private agony into a poetry with universal implications. At the age of two, Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr., emigrated from Germany with his parents, who settled in Los Angeles. A victim of child abuse, Bukowski started drinking at an early age to escape the pain of his father’s violent discipline and unrealistic expectations. Images of alcoholism pervade Bukowski’s texts and function as a backdrop for all his other subjects. The topic of many of his poems and stories, as well as the novel Ham on Rye, Bukowski’s difficult childhood created in him a disdain for the bourgeois idealism touted by Henry,...

(The entire section is 716 words.)