Henry Charles Bukowski (August 16 1920 – March 9 1994), was a German American poet, novelist, and short story writer. Bukowski's writing was heavily influenced by the geography and atmosphere of his home city of Los Angeles, and is marked by an emphasis on the ordinary lives of marginalized poor American Whites, the act of writing, alcohol, relationships with women, the drudgery of work, and horseracing. A prolific author, Bukowski wrote thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories, and six novels, eventually having 110 books in print. He is often remembered as "The Poet Laureate of Skid Row".
Biographer, one-time friend and writer Ben Pleasants claims in his "Charles Bukowski: The Sniper Landscape of L.A. Writers" that Bukowski's maternal grandmother was Jewish.
After the collapse of the German economy following the First World War, the family moved to America in 1923, settling in Baltimore, Maryland. To sound more American, Bukowski's parents began calling him "Henry" and altered the pronunciation of the family name from Buk-ov-ski to Buk-cow-ski (the name is of Polish, Ukrainian or Byelorussian origin). After saving money, the family moved to suburban Los Angeles in 1926, where his father's family lived. During Bukowski's childhood, his father was often unemployed, and according to Bukowski, verbally and physically abusive (as detailed in his autobiographical novel, Ham on Rye).
Bukowski was also subjected to discrimination from Anglo neighbor children who mocked his thick German accent and the "sissy" German-style clothing that his parents insisted he wear. During his youth Bukowski suffered from shyness and alienation - later exacerbated by an extreme case of acne vulgaris.
In his early teens Charles Bukowski had an epiphany when he was introduced to alcohol by his friend William "Baldy" Mullinax, son of an alcoholic surgeon. "This (alcohol) is going to help me for a very long time," he later wrote, describing the genesis of his lifelong love affair with the bottle.
After graduating from Los Angeles High School, Bukowski attended Los Angeles City College for two years, taking courses in art, journalism and literature. While studying there, he briefly associated with a group of Nazis, the German-American Bund, who he made fun of in Ham on Rye. He also discussed his flirtation with the Far Right in the short story "Politics" from the collection South of No North: "At L.A City College just before World War Two, I posed as a Nazi. I hardly knew Hitler from Hercules and cared less. It was just that sitting in class and hearing all the patriots preach how we should go over and do the beast in, I grew bored. I decided to become the opposition. I didn't even bother to read up on Adolf, I simply spouted anything that I felt was evil or maniacal.
On July 22, 1944, with World War II still raging, Bukowski was arrested by FBI agents in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (where he was living at the time) on suspicion of draft evasion and was held for 17 days in Philadelphia's Moyamensing Prison. Sixteen days later he failed a physical and psychological exam and was given a Selective Service Class of 4-F (unfit for military service).
In 1955, he was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer which was nearly fatal. When he left the hospital, he began to write poetry. In 1957, he agreed to marry small-town Texas poet Barbara Frye, sight unseen, but they divorced in 1959. Frye insisted that their separation had nothing to do with literature, though she often doubted his skill as a poet. According to Howard Sounes's "Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life" she later died under mysterious circumstances in India (some said she was decapitated by religious zealots belonging to an obscure cult). Following his divorce, Bukowski resumed drinking and writing poetry.
Jon and Louise Webb, now recognized as giants of the post-war 'small-press movement', published The Outsider literary magazine and featured some of Bukowski's poetry. Under the Loujon Press imprint, they published Bukowski's It Catches My Heart In Its Hands (1963), and Crucifix in a Deathhand, in 1965.
Beginning in 1967, Bukowski wrote the column "Notes of A Dirty Old Man" for Los Angeles' Open City, an underground newspaper. When Open City was shut down in 1969, the column was picked up by the Los Angeles Free Press. In 1969, Bukowski and his friend Neeli Cherkovski launched their own mimeographed literary magazine, Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns. They produced three issues over the next two years. The magazine made no impact whatsoever on their careers or literature, and is only remembered because of Bukowski's association with it.
In 1969, he accepted an offer from Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin and quit his post office job to dedicate himself to full-time writing. He was then 49 years old. As he explained in a letter at the time, "I have one of two choices — stay in the post office and go crazy ... or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve." Less than one month after leaving the postal service, he finished his first novel, Post Office. As a measure of respect for Martin's financial support and faith in a then relatively unknown writer, Bukowski published almost all of his subsequent work with Black Sparrow.
With increasing notoriety and growing fame Bukowski embarked on a series of love affairs and one-night stands. His most important relationships were with Linda King, a poet and sculptress, Liza Williams, a recording executive and "Tammie", a red-headed single mother. All of these relationships provided material for his stories and poems. Another important relationship was with "Tanya", pseudonym of "Amber O'Neil" (also a pseudonym), described in Charles Bukowski's "Women" as a pen-pal that evolved into a week-end tryst at Bukowski's modest DeLongpre residence in L.A. in the 1970s. "Amber O'Neil" later wrote a book about the affair entitled "Blowing My Hero". The book was not published due to inclusion of several love-letters written by Bukowski.
In 1976, Bukowski met Linda Beighle, a health food restaurant owner, aspiring actress and devotee of Meher Baba, leader of an Indian religious society. Two years later, Bukowski moved from the East Hollywood area, where he had lived for most of his life, to the harborside community of San Pedro, the southernmost district of the City of Los Angeles. Beighle followed him and they lived together intermittently over the next 2 years, Bukowski sometimes tiring (he said) of the relationship and sending her on her way. (Souness, pp. 203-204)
After a series of 'hunger strikes' and pleadings on the part of Beighle, (Souness, p. 205) Bukowski relented and took Beighle back in. They were eventually married by Manly Palmer Hall, a Canadian-born author and mystic, in 1985. Beighle is referred to as "Sara" in Bukowski's novels Women and Hollywood.
Bukowski died of leukemia on March 9th, 1994, in San Pedro, California, at the age of 73, shortly after completing his last novel, Pulp. The funeral rites, orchestrated by the widow, were conducted by Buddhist monks. An account of the proceedings can be found in Gerald Locklin's book Charles Bukowski: A Sure Bet. His gravestone reads: "Don't Try", an epitaph that has sparked some speculation over its true meaning.
Bukowski published extensively in small literary magazines and with small presses beginning in the early 1940s and continuing on through the early 1990s, with the poems and stories being later republished by Black Sparrow Press (now HarperCollins/ECCO) as collected volumes of his work.
Bukowski acknowledged Anton Chekhov, James Thurber, Franz Kafka, Knut Hamsun, Ernest Hemingway, John Fante, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Robinson Jeffers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, D. H. Lawrence, Antonin Artaud, e.e. cummings and others as influences, and often spoke of Los Angeles as his favorite subject. In a 1974 interview he said, "You live in a town all your life, and you get to know every bitch on the street corner and half of them you have already messed around with. You've got the layout of the whole land. You have a picture of where you are. ... Since I was raised in L.A., I've always had the geographical and spiritual feeling of being here. I've had time to learn this city. I can't see any other place than L.A."
One critic has described Bukowski's fiction as a "detailed depiction of a certain taboo male fantasy: the uninhibited bachelor, slobby, anti-social, and utterly free", an image he tried to live up to with sometimes riotous public poetry readings and boorish party behaviour. Since his death in 1994, Bukowski has been the subject of a number of critical articles and books about both his life and writings. His work has received relatively little attention from academic critics. ECCO continues to release new collections of his poetry, culled from the thousands of works published in small literary magazines. According to ECCO, the 2007 release The People Look Like Flowers At Last will be his final posthumous release as now all his once-unpublished work has been published. Bukowski: Born Into This, a film documenting the author's life, was released in 2004.
In June 2006, Bukowski's literary archive was donated by his widow to the Huntington Library, in San Marino, CA. Copies of all editions of his work published by the Black Sparrow Press are held at Western Michigan University, which purchased the archive of the publishing house after its closure in 2003.