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."
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."
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.
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."