Charles Bukowski Analysis

Discussion Topics

What circumstances of his life show Charles Bukowski to be a real, and not just a would-be, outsider? How are these circumstances mirrored in his fiction?

Is honesty the best policy for Bukowski’s characters?

Is Bukowski’s usual protagonist, Henry Chinaski, more characteristically a victim or an instigator of the afflictions he suffers? Defend your choice by specific references to the novels.

Cite instances that show Chinaski developing as an artist in Ham on Rye.

Determine what is meant by the expression “bardic voice.” Refer to passages in Bukowski’s poetry that illustrate a bardic voice and comment on their effectiveness.

Other literary forms

In addition to poetry, Charles Bukowski (byew-KOW-skee) published stories and novels and first achieved recognition with Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969). This volume brought him to the attention of many who were previously unfamiliar with his work. In conjunction with his first novel, Post Office (1971), and a volume titled Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness (1972), about half of which was reissued in Life and Death in the Charity Ward (1973), Notes of a Dirty Old Man established his reputation as a no-holds-barred commentator, full of rage yet capable of surrealistic farce. In addition to subsequent novels, which include Factotum (1975), Women (1978), Ham on Rye (1982), and Hollywood (1989), there is South of No North: Stories of the Buried Life (1973), which reprints both Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts (1965) and All the Assholes of the World and Mine (1966); a picture narrative of his trip abroad, Shakespeare Never Did This (1979); a screenplay, Barfly (1987); and assorted illustrations. His sketches underscore his farcical tone, especially in You Kissed Lilly (1978), a satire of the comics in which his Thurberesque style complements his prose.


Charles Bukowski was awarded few honors during his lifetime. In 1974, he was given a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and he won a Loujon Press Award and the Silver Reel Award from the San Francisco Festival of the Arts for documentary film. Bukowski was always considered a maverick who was perceived by many academics and literary institutions to be hostile and antipoetic. His frank approach to life and writing is still too often considered simplistic or crude. Although Bukowski’s literary achievements are still widely unrecognized and critically undervalued in the United States, he is already considered a classic American author in Europe. A new era of appreciation seemed to begin in the 1990’s with the publication of several laudatory collections of critical analyses of his works. Few people familiar with Bukowski’s work are indifferent to it. Although he neither won nor curried favor among academic or mainstream poets, he has attained an international reputation and has been widely translated. From the first, he sought to create a “living poetry of clarity,” which defies the proprieties and “cages” established by academics and editors. He has been compared to Henry Miller, Jack London, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Antonin Artaud, François Villon, and Arthur Rimbaud and had an acknowledged influence on Tom Waits, his musical heir.

Bukowski carried the Beat manifesto to its logical conclusion without compromising his vision or pandering...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Charles Bukowski (byew-KOW-skee) was an accomplished novelist, short-story writer, and poet. He was such a prolific poet that collections of his poems have appeared almost every year since his death in 1994. Bukowski also wrote essays on topics including Los Angeles, drinking, literature, and horse racing; thousands of letters; and a screenplay for the film Barfly (1987), directed by Barbet Schroeder. Bukowski’s live performances of his poetry were legendary. These performances are available on the compact disc Hostage (1994) and with the documentary films The Last Straw (2008) and There’s Gonna Be a God Damn Riot in Here (2008).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Charles Bukowski has a cultlike following in the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Iceland, Australia, and other countries, and his books have been translated into more than one dozen languages. Though he has long been rejected by the mainstream literary canon, this rejection has somewhat abated. Writers, singers, and artists as disparate as Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, R. Crumb, Willy Vlautin, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Sean Penn, Nick Cave, the rock band U2, and Vicki Hendricks have acknowledged a debt to Bukowski and embraced him as a mentor. American poet and writer Jim Harrison’s 2007 review of Bukowski’s The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993 (2007) in The New York Times Book Review is considered a first step in the acceptance of Bukowski on a wider scale.

Bukowski is the subject of several songs and films, notably a song by Modest Mouse on its 2004 album Good News for People Who Love Bad News and John Dullaghan’s documentary Bukowski: Born into This (2003). Bukowski’s bungalow at 5124 De Longpre Avenue in Hollywood, California, the place of much of his early writing, was designated a historic landmark by the city of Los Angeles.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Brewer, Gay. Charles Bukowski. New York: Twayne, 1997. A concise and comprehensive critical introduction to Bukowski’s work. Part of the Twayne American Authors series.

Cain, Jimmie. “Bukowski’s Imagist Roots.” West Georgia College Review 19 (May, 1987): 10-17. Cain draws a parallel between Bukowski’s poetry and the work of William Carlos Williams, America’s premier Imagist poet. Cain claims that Bukowski’s rough-and-tumble poetry shows palpable Imagist influences. For advanced students.

Calonne, David Stephen. Charles Bukowski: Sunlight Here I Am—Interviews and Encounters, 1963-1993. Northville, Mich.: Sun Dog Press, 2003. Thirty-four interviews and “encounters” that examine the rise of Bukowski from his life as a drunk to literary icon.

Charlson, David. Charles Bukowski: Autobiographer, Gender Critic, Iconoclast. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford, 2005. Based on the author’s doctoral dissertation, this unique study includes significant discussion of Bukowski’s reputation as a misogynist and his themes of masculinity and violence. A comprehensive work, and an excellent introduction to Bukowski’s life and work.

Cherkovski, Neeli. Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski. New York: Random House, 1991. Written by Bukowski’s longtime friend and collaborator. One of the earliest Bukowski biographies—compassionate and respectful.


(The entire section is 644 words.)