This Day In Literary History
On August 16th, 1920, the legendary American writer Charles Bukowski was born. He was born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany. His father was an American serviceman, his mother a German woman. They married a month before he was born.
In 1923, just before little Heinrich's third birthday, the economic collapse in Germany compelled his family to emigrate to America. They settled in Los Angeles, where his mother changed his name to Henry Charles Bukowski.
As a young boy, Charles Bukowski grew up with an abusive father who would beat him savagely for the smallest offense. Due to the Great Depression, the elder Bukowski was frequently unemployed, a source of great shame that fueled his psychotic rage.
Charles' mother, who was not only beaten by her husband but cheated on as well, did nothing to stop her husband's abuse of their son - or herself. So it continued.
When he was a young teenager, Charles' shy and introverted nature grew worse, thanks to a case of severe acne that left his face covered with boils. Around this time, his two greatest passions were awakened - his passion for literature and his passion for alcohol.
Bukowski preferred to be alone. He read avidly. He also began writing short stories. His best friend, William "Baldy" Mullinax, introduced him to booze. Of his first experience with intoxication, he wrote, "This [alcohol] is going to help me for a long time."
After high school, Bukowski enrolled in Los Angeles City College, where he studied art, journalism and literature. He dropped out two years later, deciding to move to New York City and become a writer.
In July of 1944, the nearly 24-year-old Bukowski, who had been living in Philadelphia, found himself arrested by FBI agents and charged with suspicion of draft evasion.
Held for over two weeks in Moyamensing Prison, he was then released and taken to be inducted into the military. He failed the psychological exam, was classified 4F, (unfit for military service) and let go.
That same year, Bukowski's first published short story, Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip, appeared in Story magazine. Soon, more of his stories appeared in other literary magazines.
Unfortunately, he racked up far more rejection slips than sales. Discouraged, he quit writing for nearly a decade. He would refer to this period of time as his "ten year drunk."
He took up the life of a drifter and moved from place to place, doing odd jobs and staying at cheap rooming houses. He drank and brawled from bar to bar. He loved to go to the track and play the ponies.
In the early 1950s, Bukowski took a job as a letter carrier for the Postal Service, which would last almost three years. By 1955, he found himself hospitalized, suffering from a severe, nearly fatal bleeding ulcer.
After he was released, while he recovered at home, he decided to give writing another try. He began writing poetry, and within his verse, he found the muse. He continued to write poetry prolifically, and throughout his career, he would author over 1,000 poems.
As he made his rounds drinking from bar to bar, Bukowski would read his poetry to his fellow patrons, dazzling both barflies and bartenders who couldn't believe that a disheveled, boisterous drunk could write such incredible verse.
He became the poet laureate of the lower class, "the Bard of Booze and Broads" who found sublimity on skid row. Soon, his poems began appearing in literary magazines. This time, his rejection slips were few and far between.
By 1960, Bukowski's first poetry collection, Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail, was published. At the time, he had taken another position with the Postal Service, working as a letter filing clerk. The job would last for nine years.
In 1962, he found out that Jane Cooney Baker, (a widowed alcoholic eleven years his senior) the first woman he ever loved - perhaps the greatest love of his life - had died. So, he immortalized her in a series of poems and short stories. He met poet Frances Smith, who became his live-in girlfriend. In 1964, they had a daughter, Marina.
Three years later, in 1967, Charles Bukowski began writing a column for Open City, an underground newspaper based in Los Angeles. Titled Notes of a Dirty Old Man, the column was so popular that it got picked up by the Los Angeles Free Press and the NOLA Express (an underground newspaper based on New Orleans) after Open City folded in 1969.
That year, publisher John Martin of the Black Sparrow Press, now known as Black Sparrow Books, impressed with his poetry collections, offered to provide the financial support for Bukowski to write full time, in exchange for which he would become the author's exclusive publisher.
A lifelong supporter of the independent small press, Bukowski accepted the offer, quit his job at the Postal Service,, and began work on his first novel. Post Office (1971), an autobiographical novel based on his later years, was the first to feature his alter ego, alcoholic writer Henry Chinaski.
Although Bukowski's publisher, John Martin, worried that he wouldn't be able to make the transition from poetry to prose, the novel proved to be a breakout work that made its author's name as a writer.
Bukowski would write more memorable novels, including Factotum (1975), which found Henry Chinaski drifting through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, circa 1944. His most famous novel, Ham on Rye (1982), told the story of Henry Chinaski's unhappy childhood and adolescence as he grows up to become a misanthropic antihero.
Some scholars believe the title is a parody of The Catcher in the Rye, the title of J.D. Salinger's classic novel. Others believe that Ham on Rye refers to some literary critics' negative appraisal of Bukowski, whom they derided as the literary equivalent of a ham actor. Thus, the title refers to a ham writer fueled by rye whiskey.
Bukowski earned extra money by performing live readings of his poetry and prose. His first was a poetry reading performed in 1962 on radio station KPFK in Los Angeles.
When he performed at coffee houses and clubs, he always engaged in banter with his audience, which could be quite combative at times, as he usually performed in various states of intoxication.
In 1970, Bukowski gave a reading at Bellevue Community College in Washington State, which was taped by two students using the college's primitive black and white video cameras. Eighteen years later, the recording, thought long lost, was found.
It would be released on video as Bukowski at Bellevue in 1995, and later on DVD. The rough, grainy, stark black and white video perfectly captured the writer in all his gritty glory.
A 1979 reading given by Bukowski in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, would be released on DVD in 2010 as There's Gonna be a God Damn Riot in Here!
Bukowski's last public reading was given in 1980 at the Sweetwater, a punk rock club in Redondo Beach, California. It would be released on audio CD as Hostage and on DVD as The Last Straw.
In 1987, Charles Bukowski wrote the screenplay for a feature film based on his Henry Chinaski novels. Directed by the great French filmmaker Barbet Schroeder, Barfly starred Mickey Rourke as writer and skid row alcoholic Henry Chinaski.
Chinaski spends his days writing poetry and prose and his nights drinking and brawling at the local bar. He loathes the bartender, Eddie (Frank Stallone), especially after he finds out that Eddie slept with his girlfriend, Wanda (Faye Dunaway).
When Henry's writings begin appearing in literary magazines, they catch the eye of publisher Tully Sorenson (Alice Krige) who seeks Henry out, hoping to become his exclusive publisher.
She pays him a $500 advance and takes him to her home, where they have an affair. He rejoices in his literary success, but ultimately grows disenchanted with Tully's high society lifestyle.
Henry returns to his sleazy neighborhood, his blue collar bar, his bar buddies, and his ex-girlfriend, Wanda. Tully won't give him up without a fight, and actually gets into a fight with Wanda.
The film ends with Tully recognizing that Henry needs to be who he really is and wishing him luck. In the last scene, Henry, who has earned Eddie's respect, fights the bartender in the parking lot one last time, to win Wanda from him once and for all.
Bukowski would base his 1989 novel Hollywood on his experiences making the movie Barfly. He was also the subject of several acclaimed documentaries, including The Charles Bukowski Tapes (1983), directed by Barbet Schroeder, and Bukowski: Born Into This (2003), directed by John Dullaghan.
Charles Bukowski died of leukemia in 1994 at the age of 73. He left behind an impressive body of work that included over 30 poetry collections, six novels, nearly a dozen short story collections including his classic Tales of Ordinary Madness (1983), and several works of nonfiction.
Quote Of The Day
"My beerdrunk soul is sadder than all the dead Christmas trees of the world." - Charles Bukowski
Today's video features a rare recording of Charles Bukowski performing a live reading at San Francisco's City Lights Poets Theater in 1973. Enjoy!