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Charles Bukowski
Charles Bukowski in 1988
Charles Bukowski in 1988
Born Heinrich Karl Bukowski
(1920-08-16)August 16, 1920
Andernach, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany
Died March 9, 1994(1994-03-09) (aged 73)
San Pedro, Los Angeles, U.S.
Occupation Novelist, poet, short story writer, columnist
Nationality German-American
Literary movement Dirty realism, Transgressive fiction

Henry Charles Bukowski ( boo-KOW-skee; born Heinrich Karl Bukowski August 16, 1920 – March 9, 1994) was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer. His writing was influenced by the social, cultural, and economic ambience of his adopted home city of Los Angeles. Bukowski's work addresses the ordinary lives of poor Americans.

Bukowski published extensively in small literary magazines and with small presses beginning in the early 1940s and continuing on through the early 1990s. He wrote thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories and six novels, eventually publishing over sixty books during the course of his career.

During his lifetime, Bukowski received little attention from academic critics in the USA, but was better received in Europe, particularly the UK, and especially Germany, where he was born.


Family and early years

Bukowski Geburtshaus
Bukowski's birthplace at Aktienstrasse, Andernach

Charles Bukowski was born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Prussia, Weimar Germany. His father was Heinrich (Henry) Bukowski, an American of German descent who had served in the U.S. army of occupation after World War I and had remained in Germany after his army service.

Bukowski's parents met in Andernach following World War I. His family moved to Mid-City, Los Angeles, in 1930. Bukowski's father was often unemployed.

Young Bukowski spoke English with a strong German accent and was taunted by his childhood playmates with the epithet "Heini," German diminutive of Heinrich, in his early youth. He was shy and socially withdrawn, a condition exacerbated during his teen years. Neighborhood children ridiculed his accent and the clothing his parents made him wear. The Great Depression bolstered his rage as he grew, and gave him much of his voice and material for his writings.

After graduating from Los Angeles High School, Bukowski attended Los Angeles City College for two years, taking courses in art, journalism, and literature, before quitting at the start of World War II. He then moved to New York City to begin a career as a financially pinched blue-collar worker with hopes of becoming a writer.

On July 22, 1944, with the war ongoing, Bukowski was arrested by FBI agents in Philadelphia, where he lived at the time, on suspicion of draft evasion. At a time when the U.S. was at war with Nazi Germany, and many Germans and German-Americans on the home front were suspected of disloyalty, Bukowski's German birth troubled authorities. He was held for seventeen days in Philadelphia's Moyamensing Prison. Sixteen days later, he failed a psychological examination that was part of his mandatory military entrance physical test and was given a Selective Service Classification of 4-F (unfit for military service).

Early writing

When Bukowski was aged 24, his short story "Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip" was published in Story magazine. Two years later, another short story, "20 Tanks from Kasseldown", was published by the Black Sun Press in Issue III of Portfolio: An Intercontinental Quarterly, a limited-run, loose-leaf broadside collection printed in 1946 and edited by Caresse Crosby. Failing to break into the literary world, Bukowski grew disillusioned with the publication process and quit writing for almost a decade. These "lost years" formed the basis for his later semiautobiographical chronicles, and there are fictionalized versions of Bukowski's life through his highly stylized alter-ego, Henry Chinaski.

During part of this period he continued living in Los Angeles, working at a pickle factory for a short time but also spending some time roaming about the U.S., working sporadically and staying in cheap rooming houses. In the early 1950s, he took a job as a fill-in letter carrier with the United States Post Office Department in Los Angeles, but resigned just before he reached three years' service.

In 1955, Bukowski was treated for a near-fatal bleeding ulcer. After leaving the hospital he began to write poetry. That same year he agreed to marry small-town Texas poet Barbara Frye, but they subsequently divorced in 1958.

Several of Bukowski's poems were published in the late 1950s in Gallows, a small poetry magazine published briefly (the magazine lasted for two issues) by Jon Griffith. The small avant-garde literary magazine Nomad, published by Anthony Linick and Donald Factor (the son of Max Factor Jr.), offered a home to Bukowski's early work. Nomad's inaugural issue in 1959 featured two of his poems. A year later, Nomad published one of Bukowski's best known essays, Manifesto: A Call for Our Own Critics.


By 1960, Bukowski had returned to the post office in Los Angeles and began work as a letter filing clerk, a position he held for more than a decade. In 1962, he was distraught over the death of Jane Cooney Baker, his first serious girlfriend. Bukowski turned his inner devastation into a series of poems and stories lamenting her death.

Bukowski Court, 5124 DeLongpre Avenue, Los Angeles
5124 DeLongpre Avenue, Los Angeles, now Bukowski Court, where Bukowski resided from 1963 to 1972

E.V. Griffith, editor of Hearse Press, published Bukowski's first separately printed publication, a broadside titled "His Wife, the Painter," in June 1960. This event was followed by Hearse Press's publication of "Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail," Bukowski's first chapbook of poems, in October 1960. "His Wife, the Painter" and three other broadsides ("The Paper on the Floor", "The Old Man on the Corner" and "Waste Basket") formed the centerpiece of Hearse Press's "Coffin 1", an innovative small-poetry publication consisting of a pocketed folder containing forty-two broadsides and lithographs which was published in 1964. Hearse Press continued to publish poems by Bukowski through the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s.

In 1964 a daughter, Marina Louise Bukowski, was born to Bukowski and his live-in girlfriend Frances Smith.

Black Sparrow years

In 1969, Bukowski 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 relatively unknown writer, Bukowski published almost all of his subsequent major works with Black Sparrow Press, which became a highly successful enterprise. An avid supporter of small independent presses, Bukowski continued to submit poems and short stories to innumerable small publications throughout his career.

In 1976, Bukowski met Linda Lee Beighle, a health food restaurant owner, rock-and-roll groupie, aspiring actress, heiress to a small Philadelphia "Main Line" fortune and devotee of Meher Baba. Two years later he 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 Los Angeles. Beighle followed him and they lived together intermittently over the next two years. They were eventually married by Manly Palmer Hall, a Canadian-born author, mystic, and spiritual teacher, in 1985. Beighle is referred to as "Sara" in Bukowski's novels Women and Hollywood.

In the 1980s, Bukowski collaborated with cartoonist Robert Crumb on a series of comic books, with Bukowski supplying the writing and Crumb providing the artwork. Through the 1990s Crumb also illustrated a number of Bukowski's stories, including the collection The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship and the story "Bring Me Your Love."

Death and legacy

2014-05-13 Henry Charles Bukowski Jr. gravestone, Green Hills, Los Angeles - USA
Henry Charles Bukowski Jr.'s grave in Green Hills Memorial Park

Bukowski died of leukemia on March 9, 1994, in San Pedro, aged 73, shortly after completing his last novel, Pulp. He is interred at Green Hills Memorial Park in Rancho Palos Verdes.

In June 2006, Bukowski's literary archive was donated by his widow to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. 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.

Ecco Press continues to release new collections of his poetry, culled from the thousands of works published in small literary magazines. According to Ecco Press, 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 made available.


Writers including John Fante, Knut Hamsun, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Ernest Hemingway, Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Du Fu Li Bai, and James Thurber are noted as influences on Bukowski's writing.

Bukowski often spoke of Los Angeles as his favorite subject. In a 1974 interview he said, "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."

Bukowski also performed live readings of his works, beginning in 1962 on radio station KPFK in Los Angeles and increasing in frequency through the 1970s.

Selected works


  • 1971 – Post Office
  • 1975 – Factotum
  • 1978 – Women
  • 1982 – Ham on Rye
  • 1989 – Hollywood
  • 1994 – Pulp

Poetry collections

  • Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail (1960)
  • It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963) (title taken from Robinson Jeffers poem, "Hellenistics")
  • Crucifix in a Deathhand (1965)
  • At Terror Street and Agony Way (1968)
  • Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8-story Window (1968)
  • A Bukowski Sampler (1969)
  • The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (1969)
  • Fire Station (1970)
  • Mockingbird Wish Me Luck (1972)
  • Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame: Selected Poems 1955–1973 (1974)
  • Maybe Tomorrow (1977)
  • Love Is a Dog from Hell (1977)
  • Play the Piano .. Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit (1979)
  • Dangling in the Tournefortia (1981)
  • War All the Time: Poems 1981–1984 (1984)
  • You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (1986)
  • The Roominghouse Madrigals (1988)
  • Septuagenarian Stew: Stories & Poems (1990)
  • People Poems (1991)
  • The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992)
  • Betting on the Muse: Poems and Stories (1996)
  • What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire. (1999)
  • Open All Night (2000)
  • The Night Torn Mad with Footsteps (2001)
  • Slouching Toward Nirvana (2005)
  • The Pleasures of the Damned: Selected Poems 1951–1993 (2007)
  • The Continual Condition (2009)
  • On Cats (2015)
  • On Love (2016)
  • Storm for the Living and the Dead (2017)

Short story chapbooks and collections

  • Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts (1965)
  • Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969)
  • South of No North (1973)
  • Hot Water Music (1983)
  • Bring Me Your Love (1983)
  • Tales of Ordinary Madness (1983)
  • The Most Beautiful Woman in Town (1983)
  • Portions from a Wine-stained Notebook: Short Stories and Essays (2008)
  • More Notes of a Dirty Old Man (2011)
  • The Bell Tolls For No One (CityLights, 2015 edition)
  • On Drinking (2019)

Nonfiction books

  • Shakespeare Never Did This (1979); expanded (1995)
  • The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship (1998)
  • On Writing Edited by Abel Debritto (2015)
  • The Mathematics of the Breath and the Way: On Writers and Writing Edited by David Stephen Calonne (City Lights, 2018)
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