Basking in the euphoria of Charles Bukowski’s cultural eccentricities – a cultural ruckus.
Basking in the euphoria of Charles Bukowski’s cultural eccentricities – a cultural ruckus.

Charles Bukowski was a prolific underground writer who used his poetry and prose to depict the depravity of urban life and the downtrodden in American society. A cult hero, Bukowski relied on experience, emotion, and imagination in his work, using direct language and violent and sexual imagery. While some critics found his style offensive, others claimed that Bukowski satirized the machismo attitude through his routine use of sex, alcohol abuse, and violence. “Without trying to make himself look good, much less heroic, Bukowski writes with a nothing-to-lose truthfulness which sets him apart from most other ‘autobiographical’ novelists and poets,” commented Stephen Kessler in the San Francisco Review of Books, adding: “Firmly in the American tradition of the maverick, Bukowski writes with no apologies from the frayed edge of society.” Michael Lally in Village Voice maintained that “Bukowski is…a phenomenon. He has established himself as a writer with a consistent and insistent style based on what he projects as his ‘personality,’ the result of hard, intense living.”

Born in Germany, Bukowski was brought to the United States at the age of two. His father believed in firm discipline and often beat Bukowski for the smallest offenses, abuse Bukowski detailed in his autobiographical coming-of-age novel, Ham on Rye (1982). A slight child, Bukowski was also bullied by boys his own age, and was frequently rejected by girls because of his bad complexion. “When Bukowski was 13,” wrote Ciotti, “one of [his friends] invited him to his father’s wine cellar and served him his first drink of alcohol: ‘It was magic,’ Bukowski would later write. ‘Why hadn’t someone told me?’”

In 1939, Bukowski began attending Los Angeles City College, dropping out at the beginning of World War II and moving to New York to become a writer. The next few years were spent writing and traveling and collecting numerous rejection slips. By 1946 Bukowski had decided to give up his writing aspirations, embarking on a ten-year binge that took him across the country. Ending up near death in Los Angeles, Bukowski started writing again, though he would continue to drink and cultivate his reputation as a hard-living poet. He did not begin his professional writing career until the age of thirty-five, and like other contemporaries, began by publishing in underground newspapers, especially in local papers such as Open City and the L.A. Free Press. “Published by small, underground presses and ephemeral mimeographed little magazines,” described Jay Dougherty in Contemporary Novelists, “Bukowski has gained popularity, in a sense, through word of mouth.” “The main character in his poems and short stories, which are largely autobiographical, is usually a down-and-out writer [Henry Chinaski] who spends his time working at marginal jobs (and getting fired from them), getting drunk and making love with a succession of bimbos and floozies,” related Ciotti. “Otherwise, he hangs out with fellow losers—whores, pimps, alcoholics, drifters.”

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