Charles Bukowski Bukowski, Charles (Vol. 108) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Bukowski 1920–1994

(Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr.) German-born American poet, novelist, and short story writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Bukowski's career. For additional information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 5, 9, 41, and 82.

Charles Bukowski appears in many of his own works, in the quasi-anagrammaticalalter ego of Henry Chinaski, who takes on many varied personas. Some of these personas have been labeled by the critic Glenn Esterly in describing Bukowski: "… poet, novelist, short story writer, megalomaniac, lush, philanderer, living legend recluse, classical music aficionado, scatologist, loving father, sexist, physical wreck, jailbird, pain in the ass, genius, finagling horse player, outcast, antitraditionalist, brawler and ex-civil servant…." Others would add a description of a caring, sensitive man with a finely-honed, self-deprecating sense of humor. Chinaski, like Bukowski, is able to step back and poke fun at his drunken, womanizing, excessively macho character. Avoiding maudlin sentimentality, Bukowski nevertheless brings a caring humanity to his characters who are typically outcasts living on the fringes of society. His sympathy comes from a perspective that success and failure are more a result of luck and social injustice than reflections of a person's worth. Bukowski's feelings for these characters is visible in the words of the lead character Belane from his last novel, Pulp (1994): "Of course, there were a lot of good people sleeping in the streets. They weren't fools, they just didn't fit into the needed machinery of the moment."

Biographical Information

Born August 16, 1920, in Andernach, Germany, Bukowski was brought to the United States by his family at the age of two. He grew up in the Los Angeles area, experiencing a brutal, unhappy childhood. His father, Henry Charles Bukowski, Sr., was a strict authoritarian who "disciplined" the young Bukowski regularly with a razor strop. A slight child, scarred by acne and boils, he was also victimized by schoolyard bullies. Bukowski often underplayed the cruelty of his father, suggesting that Charles Sr. helped harden him for survival in a cruel, brutal world. Bukowski began attending Los Angeles City College in 1939, but dropped out at the beginning of World War II and moved to New York with the aspiration of becoming a writer. He spent the next few years working a variety of menial jobs and writing, without publishing success. Some critics have suggested his failure was a result of sending his work to inappropriate markets such as Harper's Magazine. Disgusted, he gave up writing entirely in 1946 and began a ten-year period of heavy drinking. The result, described in the short story collection Life and Death in the Charity Ward (1974), was a bleeding ulcer that nearly killed him. Bukowski took his survival as a sign of purpose and began writing again. Bukowski also credits his drinking with helping provide part of his artistic perspective. He said, "Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of the standardism of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you up against the wall. I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you're allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It's like killing yourself, and then you're reborn. I guess I've lived about ten or fifteen thousand lives now." The critic Loss Glazier alludes to this when he says, "He was able to turn his hand to fiction with a perspective unequaled in contemporary American letters. He had been through a stripping-down that would've killed any ordinary person. And yet Bukowski, rather than being weakened by each successive defoliation, seemed to get stronger with the knowledge of what was necessary."

Major Works

Bukowski was first published in the underground magazines and small presses, gaining a reputation largely by word of mouth. His first book of poetry, Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail (1959), deals with common Bukowski themes of abandonment, desolation, and the absurdities of life and death. The subject matter of drinking, gambling, music, and sex was considered offensive by many critics, but others hailed his crisp, authentic voice. The collection It Catches My Heart in its Hands (1963), a selection of poems written between 1955 and 1963, deals with topics such as rerolled cigarette butts, winning at the races, and high-priced call girls. In a review of the work, the poet Kenneth Rexroth said that Bukowski "belongs in that small company of poets of real, not literary, alienation." Bukowski wrote over forty other books of poetry. In addition to poetry, he wrote several novels, drawing on experiences in his own life for subject matter. Post Office (1971) dealt with his years as a letter carrier and mail sorter, and explored the oppression of petty bureaucracy and the numbing effect of mindless, hard work. The character Chinaski's refusal to go along with the program, to play the game, made the novel an anthem for the oppressed underdog. In Ham on Rye (1982), a younger Chinaski is the protagonist. Bukowski's semi-autobiography deals with Chinaski's early years under the thumb of a brutal, oppressive father, and a painful adolescence, lonely and isolated. It moves on to his brief college experience, then the life of hard jobs and heavy drinking. Although his writing was not well known in the United States, he enjoyed considerable popularity in Europe, and publication of his work there began to give him a measure of financial success. This success was enhanced when he was asked to write a screenplay. The result was the movie Barfly (1987), starring Mickey Rourke as Chinaski at the age of twenty-four. Bukowski's experience with the making of the movie is documented in the novel Hollywood (1989). His last novel, Pulp (1994), was published a few months after his death from leukemia at age 73. On the surface, it is a spoof of the hard-boiled detective genre. But the humorous novel explores questions of identity, the meaning of life, and the interaction of literature and life.

Critical Reception

Throughout his career, Bukowski's reception by the critics was mixed. Many regarded his work as merely a re-hash of the sexual escapade literature of Henry Miller, covering ground that had already been explored, and adding nothing new. He is dismissed by some as a misogynist and sexist. But many critics perceive a tongue-in-cheek aspect behind the macho posturing. Russell Harrison observes, "The effect of Bukowski's depiction of women, chauvinist though it can be, is quite different from what his predecessors and contemporaries produced. Although depicting Chinaski as sexist, Bukowski at the same time, and more tellingly, goes to great pains to undermine this position." Indeed, it would be more accurate to characterize Chinaski as "pseudo-macho." Harrison points out numerous examples in Bukowski's novels where traditional macho roles are reversed, where the woman is the sexual aggressor who wants a man for only one thing and dumps him if he cannot perform to her satisfaction. He says, "… we have an absolute reversal of the scene where the woman (traditionally viewed as the romantic in such situations) falls in love and it is the man who makes (or thinks) the distinction between love and sex." There is also an insight into human weakness that raises Bukowski's work above the gutter it describes. Elizabeth Young observes, "In addition to its acerbic edge, Bukowski's writing always possessed a sense of the frailty of human endeavor … Bukowski's was a lifelong struggle to express himself clearly, honestly and concisely. He has similarities with Henry Miller and, like Miller, has had trouble over his alleged 'sexism.'…" Several other critics also comment on the influences of Hemingway and Miller. Julian Smith says, "Ernest Hemingway, the most accessible modernist, provided Bukowski with a macho role model, an existential material, and an experimental style already pushed in the direction of American 'speech.'" Several critics have commented on the presence of Bukowski's voice in his work. As Smith notes, "The intrusions of the author/narrator into the text are integral to many Bukowski stories, not merely winking to the reader but pointing up the text's artificial, fictive status. A playfulness clearly places Bukowski in the same camp as the postmoderns…." Throughout most of his poetry and fiction, Bukowski's real life is the subject matter. This became more evident as Bukowski began to achieve success and recognition. His persona of a hard-drinking, hard-living, tough guy began to become a burden. In the Barfly screenplay and the novel Hollywood, Bukowski probes the influence of money and fame on his alter-egos. Elizabeth Young, speaking of this transition, says that "Despite his decades of devoted reading and writing, his straightforward, largely autobiographical work received little attention until his middle years, when he was discovered by a disaffected post-Beat audience of younger readers…. His persona became increasingly fixed and near-parodic but he did attempt to write about the cryptic, complex ways of fame with honesty and intelligence." Bukowski dealt with the success of being offered a contract for a screenplay by doing one about his youth when he was an impoverished drunk. The theme of fame and money occurring by chance, and that the successful writer is the same person who was the hopeless drunk became central to much of Bukowski's work. Speaking of Hollywood, Stan Thies says, "Bukowski's foray through tinsel town doesn't produce the easy results we might expect. In a certain sense he sets a trap for the reader. Early on we are on the lookout for some scapegoat, someone who can be blamed for sustaining a world which so magically trades off quality and dealing. We never really find one, and perhaps we never really find the hero-god either." An actor thrives by losing the self while a writer such as Bukowski needs the self in order to record it. And it is this willingness to lay bare his exploration of his private self that many critics find as Bukowski's most valuable contribution to literature. The less autobiographical novel, Pulp, also deals with issues that are impending in Bukowski's life. As Dick Lochte observes, "Pulp was printed only months after his death … Though a few decades younger, [the novel's hero] Belane's sense of his own mortality is acute. Everywhere he looks he sees people and places he knew leaving the scene." The novel is described by some as a parody of the work of Chandler and Hammett, and credited with varying degrees of success on that level. But its exploration of the questions of mortality are more widely praised. George Stade says, "As parody, Pulp does not cut very deep. As a farewell to readers, as a gesture of rapprochement with death, as Bukowski's sendup and send-off of himself, this bio-parable cuts as deep as you would want."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail (poetry) 1959
Run with the Hunted (poetry) 1962
Poems and Drawings (poetry) 1962
It Catches My Heart in Its Hands: New and Selected Poems, 1955–1963 (poetry) 1963
Grasp the Walls (poetry) 1964
Cold Dogs in the Courtyard (poetry) 1965
Crucifix in a Deathhand: New Poems, 1963–1965 (poetry) 1965
The Genius of the Crowd (poetry) 1966
True Story (poetry) 1966
On Going Out to Get the Mail (poetry) 1966
To Kiss the Worms Goodnight (poetry) 1966
The Girls (poetry) 1966
The Flower Lover (poetry) 1966
Night's Work (poetry) 1966
2 by...

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Robert Wennersten (interview date December 1974/January 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Paying for Horses," in London Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 15, December 1974/January 1975, pp. 35-54.

[In the following interview, Bukowski discusses his writing and life.]

Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany. When he was two years old, his parents brought him to the United States; and he was raised in Los Angeles, where, after a long period of bumming around the country, he still lives.

Bukowski, mostly self-educated, began writing in his early twenties. Ignored, he stopped. Ten years later he started again and since then has published about twenty books of poetry, hundreds of short stories and one novel, Post Office....

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Glenn Esterly (interview date 17 June 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Pock-marked Poetry of Charles Bukowski: Notes of a Dirty Old Mankind," in Rolling Stone, June 17, 1976, pp. 28-34.

[In the following interview, Esterly and Bukowski discuss topics such as the author's writing, his life, his relationships with women, and other issues.]

In preparation for tonight's poetry reading, Charles Bukowski is out in the parking lot, vomiting. He always vomits before readings; crowds give him the jitters. And tonight there's a big crowd. Some 400 noisy students—many of whom have come directly from nearby 49rs tavern—are packed into an antiseptic auditorium at California State University at Long Beach on this fourth night of...

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James Kingstone (review date November 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Bukowski/Purdy Letters, in Canadian Materials for Schools and Libraries, Volume XII, No. 6, November 1984, pp. 253-54.

[In the following review, Kingstone questions the wisdom of publishing the correspondence of these two authors.]

The advantage of reading a writer's letters is that one sees, often quite easily, the shape of informal thought that is frequently more revealing than the author's published work. By reading diaries and letters written to close friends, private communication, we see a writer's life focused for us in sharper detail; at least, that is the idea. But I cannot help but think that the private world disclosed for this...

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Loss Glazier (review date Fall 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mirror of Ourselves: Notes on Bukowski's Post Office," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall 1985, pp. 39-42.

[In the following favorable review, Glazier discusses the novel Post Office, in which he sees a cogent macrocosm of the human condition.]

When Post Office, Bukowski's first published novel, came off the press in 1971, an important moment in the history of modern American literature occurred. Bukowski stood like a giant, one foot astride each of two continents: poetry and prose; pornography and belles letters; suicide and sainthood; Europe and America; the underground press and the brackish water of the literati. A...

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Julian Smith (review date Fall 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Charles Bukowski and the Avante-Garde," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall 1985, pp. 56-59.

[In the following review, Smith discusses the humor in Bukowski's short stories.]

What is the avant-garde? A cultural elite, making Advanced or High Art, but it is also a tradition of the untraditional. Precedents exist for virtually every avant-garde eccentricity or innovation. As Roland Barthes puts it, "The avant-garde is never anything but the progressive, emancipated form of past culture." While it may become politicized (during the Vietnam War, even "the gloriously impertinent Bukowski" was temporarily radicalized), it is typically...

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Stan Theis (essay date Summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bukowski's Hollywood," in ENclitic, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1985, pp. 89-93.

[In the following essay, Theis explores the connections between Bukowski's novel, Hollywood, his screenplay for the movie Barfly, and the author's life.]

Even for the artist or writer who silently screams refusals to be caught, coopted, by the lures of commercial culture, the dreams of monetary success are hard to fight off. The big bucks for landing a script at a more upscale studio privy to the points where culture and cash separate and merge together, or for a book contract at one of the major publishing houses, have the power to give artists and writers a dose of...

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Joli Funari (review date February 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Hollywood, in Small Press, Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 36.

[In the review below, Funari provides a brief plot summary of the novel Hollywood.]

The movie-making machinations of the title town are exposed in this thinly veiled roman à clef about a hard-drinking poet-novelist turned screenwriter. Presumably based on his experiences writing the movie, Barfly, Bukowski lays open the absurdity and egotism of the film industry from the worm's-eye view of a screenwriter.

Harry Chinanski has been asked by Jon Pinchot, a French director, to write a screenplay. Pinchot doesn't seem to care what the story is about. Neither does...

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Gary Dretzka (review date 30 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cries of pain from a man of letters," in Chicago Tribune Books, January 30, 1994, p. 7.

[In the following review, Dretzka reviews the collection of Bukowski's letters: Screams from the Balcony.]

Hearse, Gallows, Eros, Scimitar and Song, Harlequin, Coffin, Outsider, Black Cat Review, Wormwood Review, Windfall Press, Ole, Evidence, Choice, Mimeo Press, Klacto, Intrepid, Open City … Black Sparrow.

Such were the names of the little magazines, chapbooks, literary pamphlets and broadsheets that flourished in a purely non-financial sense of the word in the 1960's, before Xerox machines and desktop computers would revolutionize the way...

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George Stade (review date 5 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Death Comes for the Detective," in The New York Times Book Review, June 5, 1994, pp. 49-50.

[In the following review, Stade provides a plot summary of Bukowski's last novel, Pulp.]

Charles Bukowski, ur-beatnik and author of more than 40 volumes of countercultural prose and verse, finished Pulp shortly before he died of leukemia at the age of 73 in March. Pulp is a spoof of the hard-boiled detective novel, especially as perpetrated by Mickey Spillane. It does not, of course, take much to send up the hard-boiled detective novel—all you have to do is write one. The conventions by now seem to mock themselves, if you stand back a bit. But...

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Elizabeth Young (review date 17 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bum steered," in New Statesman and Society, June 17, 1994, pp. 37-38.

[Young provides a favorable review of the Bukowski anthology Run With The Hunted: A Charles Bukowski Reader.]

Any serious reader thinks they know only too well what Charles Bukowski's work will deliver. Wet rings on bar counters; the swish of the barman's dirty cloth. Rotgut whisky and paint-stripper wine. Misanthropy. Despair. Women with big, swaying bottoms and very high heels. A touch of misogyny. Barflies, bums, floozies, the tote, the track and the betting shop. He's typing in his underwear in a low-rent room, with a filthy glass, an empty bottle and an overflowing ashtray beside him....

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Dick Lochte (review date 30 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lady Death and Aliens from the Planet Zaros," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 30, 1994, p. 11.

[In the following, Lochte summarizes and favorably reviews Pulp.]

Private eye Nick Belane sits in his sleazy downtown L.A. office, alone and lonely. It's hot outside and his air conditioner is on the fritz. His rent is overdue. He looks at a fly crawling across the top of his desk. Ever since the prime of Raymond Chandler, and probably long before that, fictional private eyes have been sitting at their desks, sweating and studying flies. But Pulp's Belane is a little different. A woozily parodic creation of the swirling mind of the late writer-poet...

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Russell Harrison (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sex, Women, and Irony," from Against the American Dream: Essays on Charles Bukowski, Black Sparrow Press, 1994, pp. 183-215.

[In the following essay, Harrison challenges the common view of Bukowski as a chauvinist and misogynist. He illustrates his point with several selections from Post Office, Factotem, and Women, in which Bukowski ironically deconstructs the macho male image.]

"Why can't you be decent to people?" she asked.

"Fear," I said.

No aspect of Bukowski's writing has been more sharply criticized than his portrayal of women. In response to his early work, one critic [Len Fulton] wrote (hyperbolically...

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Robert Peters (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gab Poetry, or Ducks vs. Nightingale Music: Charles Bukowski," in Where the Bee Sucks: Workers, Drones, and Queens of Contemporary American Poetry, Santa Maria: Asylum Arts, 1994, pp. 56-66.

[In the following essay, Peters discusses the elements of Bukowski's poetry.]

I once witnessed a Charles Bukowski first: the debut of the great raunchy poet as actor. The vehicle, The Tenant, was a two character drama written by Linda King. Bukowski contributed lines of his own, better developing his own image in the play. This line was his addition, as delivered by Miss King: "You may be the greatest poet of the century, but you sure can't fuck." In a lively...

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Robert Sward (review date March/May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Bukowski/Purdy Letters, A Decade of Dialogue, in American Book Review, Vol. 16, No. 6, March/May 1995, pp. 17-18.

[Sward offers a short, favorable review, including some excerpts from the letters between Al Purdy and Bukowski.]

In 1964, Canadian poet Al Purdy (author of The Stone Bird; Sex And Death; etc.) discovered and reviewed Charles Bukowski's It Catches My Heart In Its Hands for Evidence Magazine. Purdy mailed a copy of his review to Bukowski who responded with a letter and the correspondence that gave rise to The Bukowski/Purdy Letters, A Decade Of Dialogue was underway.

What was in it for...

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William Anthony Nericcio (review date Autumn 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Pulp, in World Literature Today, Autumn 1995, pp. 791-92.

[Nericcio favorably reviews Pulp, citing a poetic essence to the novel that complements and transcends the genre it emulates.]

"It was a hellish hot day and the air conditioner was broken. A fly crawled across the top of my desk. I reached out with the open palm of my hand and sent him out of the game." These lines are from the opening page of Pulp, the posthumous "last" novel by our singular American troubadour of the down-and-out. Charles Bukowski, and his words here encapsulate nicely his general concern in this novel with death. With "Lady Death," to be more specific,...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Cherkovski, Neeli. Hank: The Life and Times of Charles Bukowski, New York: Random House, 1991, 337 pp.

Cherkovski is a widely published writer, critic, and editor. Drawing from numerous interviews with Bukowski and several of the author's friends, he provides a detailed portrait of the writer's life.


Cherkovski, Neeli. "Notes on a Dirty Old Man." Whitman's Wild Children. Venice, CA: The Lapis Press, 1988: 1-38.

In his chapter on Bukowski, Cherkovski combines anecdotes of meetings with the author and criticism of his work....

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