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 living; young Charles was struck by the fact that virtually everybody in the class lied, as most of their fathers had lost their jobs during the Depression; the teacher seemed to be accepting the lies at face value. The other incident occurred several years later when a sensitive teacher realized that young Charles’s “eyewitness” account of Herbert Hoover’s visit to Los Angeles was an elaborately constructed hoax and, instead of punishing him for lying, rewarded him for how accurately he presented his fiction.
Bukowski became a frequent visitor to the local library and would read a book a night. His early literary heroes were writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Aldous Huxley, and especially D. H. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway. There is certainly little question which of these writers have influenced Bukowski’s...
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