Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski (1920–1994) is praised as an underground writer whose works did not gain much mainstream or academic attention until well after his death. He was published in many small, independent newspapers, magazines, and journals. His work provided a voice for the “lowlife,” the poor, the vulgar, and the profane side of urban living. His works are concerned with people who tend to live on the fringes of society, such as drug addicts, sex workers, the homeless, and the impoverished. He wrote about taboo and controversial subjects like sex, promiscuity, and gambling with a gritty and raw presentation. In his particular case, he would often write about his relationship with alcohol and strangers and the savagery of his youth, which fueled his sense of otherness.

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Table of contents

    Charles Bukowski’s Biography

    Charles Bukowski was born to a German-American soldier, Heinrich Bukowski, and Katarina on August 16, 1920, in Germany. While still an infant, his parents moved to the United States and ultimately settled in Los Angeles in 1924.


    His family quickly anglicized their names to fit in with American society. Heinrich Karl Bukowski was Charles Bukowski’s birth name, but he changed it to Henry Charles Bukowski. He published under Charles Bukowski and is referred to as such by readers and fans today. His friends knew him as Chuck or Buk, which Bukowski explicitly clarified “rhymes with puke.”1

    Early Years

    Charles Bukowski had a difficult childhood. He spoke English with a German accent, and kids teased him about it, calling him by the diminutive of his birth name, Heini. World War I had barely ended, and America’s anti-German sentiment was still very strong.

    Bukowski may have had dyslexia, and after being unable to complete an assignment in class, his father beat him with a razor strop. His father, who was frequently and intermittingly unemployed, grew more abusive. His mother would stand by without protest. The young Bukowski would always wonder why he would get beaten. The culture in this family was that the man was the head of the household and never to be challenged. Often the young Bukowski fantasized about them not being his birth parents, spending his childhood feeling completely alienated from them. The theme of a mean, abusive father who failed to achieve the American dream is prevalent throughout Bukowski’s written work.

    The Great Depression was the backdrop of his teenage years, providing the ever-present destitution and desperation in his works. One of his neighbors was caught by his father trying to rob them. Another neighbor tried to burn down their house to collect the insurance. Bukowski’s family would walk further to a grocery store to collect free food when both parents were unemployed to avoid being seen by neighbors. His father would talk about being wealthy and avoiding other poor families despite them being poor themselves.

    Bukowski, in his later teenage years, would take up boxing. While he avoided fights as a child, he often sought them out as a young adult.

    In adolescence, he suffered from severe acne. He qualified for free medical care at a nearby clinic, and for a time, he was allowed time off from school to receive treatment. His skin condition made him feel like a freak. The case was so severe that even the medical personnel were astonished. During this time off, he discovered his local library. He began pouring over books by D.H. Lawrence, Upton Sinclair, and Ernest Hemingway.

    Eventually, a close friend of his introduced him to alcoholic beverages from his parents’ wine cellar. Alcohol consumption would become a prevalent and characteristic theme in his work. He said that drinking helped make his life bearable.

    After graduating from high school, Charles Bukowski enrolled in Los Angeles City College. While in college, he wrote his first short stories, though these would eventually be lost in a fight with his father. After two years, he dropped out. He would move to New York City for a brief stint to jump-start his career as a writer. However, he was only able to pick up odd jobs to pay his bills, so he ultimately moved back to Los Angeles.

    In 1944 while Bukowski was living in the northeast, he was arrested at his home in Philadelphia by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI suspected him of draft evasion from fighting in World War II because of his German ancestry. He spent 17 days in prison until the FBI determined he hadn’t deliberately avoided the draft. A couple of weeks later, he failed the military entrance exam and was deemed mentally unfit to fight in the war.

    Draft evasion: Any attempt to avoid serving in the military in one’s country of residence.

    Writing Career and poems

    Charles Bukowski published his first piece, “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip” (1944), in Story magazine, which was known for publishing short stories by new and emerging authors. This story was based on Bukowski’s initial rejections from publishers. In 1946, a high-profile art publication, Portfolio: An International Review, published his short story “20 Tanks From Kasseldown.”

    While working menial jobs, such as a door person, and dangerous factory jobs like loading globs of rubber into cutting machinery, he spent most of his money on printing manuscripts and stamps to send his work to publishers. He became disillusioned with the publishing industry, and for almost ten years, he wouldn’t write or have another piece published. His experience working various menial and manual jobs would be the basis for many of his characters and perspectives in later written works.

    Around 1946, he nearly gave up on writing entirely. For the next ten years, he focused on maintaining employment and wrote little, if anything. He immediately began writing poetry after a near-death experience due to internal bleeding and massive blood loss. His near-fatal illness changed him, and he began to write thousands of poems. He became known for his simple, straightforward, and unadorned style that contrasted with the flowery and ornate popular image of poetry.

    Charles Bukowski wrote most of his work on a typewriter in a rented single room. Unsplash

    Bukowski began submitting poems to smaller magazines such as Quixote, The Naked Ear, and Harlequin, the latter of which he started a correspondence with then editor and poet Barbara Frye. They agreed to marry in 1955 but ultimately divorced in 1958. After she died in India under mysterious circumstances, he would start drinking heavily again. He continued to write poetry, with these personal experiences often featuring in his work.

    After his father died in 1958, he spent some time going through things at his childhood home but ultimately sold the house. He then heard about the death of his first girlfriend, Jane Cooney Baker, which affected him deeply. His drinking became more severe, according to his girlfriend at the time, Frances Smith. All these events occurring within a few years would prominently feature in and inspire Bukowski to write more poetry.

    After having many poems published in small literary magazines, E.V. Griffith of Hearse publishing noticed and agreed to publish a chapbook titled “Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail” in 1960. This was a monumental occasion for Bukowski, who finally had his first book published at 40 years of age.

    Chapbook: A small book or pamphlet containing prose, poetry, and/or fiction.

    Charles Bukowski would continue to write, producing thousands of poems and several books.

    Death and Legacy

    In total, Charles Bukowski wrote over 4690 unique works, including poems, short stories, and novels. Beginning in May 1992, Bukowski began experiencing a series of medical issues. He was later diagnosed with cancer, specifically leukemia. He would undergo treatment and experience a remission, but ultimately the prognosis was that he had one more year to live. He continued to write, focusing on the themes of old age and mortality.

    Charles Bukowski died on March 9, 1994. He was 73 years old. Many of his last poems, published in Betting on the Muse (1996), were about his last days as he waited for death. Many of his works, including the aforementioned poetry collection, have continued to be published posthumously.

    Charles Bukowski’s signature, Wikimedia Commons

    Charles Bukowski’s Books

    The most notable Charles Bukowski books would be published with Black Sparrow Press.

    John Martin provided support to Charles Bukowski after they met in 1966. A collector of rare books, Martin sold his D.H. Lawrence collection to initially finance Black Sparrow Press. The first published pieces were four poems by Bukowski. All his works would be published thereafter under the tutelage of Martin. He sent him stamps and envelopes, encouraging him to continue submitting works to small magazines and independent papers. When Bukowski’s favorite typewriter broke beyond repair, Martin sent him a new Underwood typewriter – a premier model at the time. Black Sparrow Press would grow to become the foremost independent publisher of poetry and fiction. Nearly all of Bukowski’s major works and poetry collections for the rest of his life and beyond would be published by Black Sparrow Press. The royalties earned allowed Bukowski to finally work and live full-time as a writer.

    Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969) is a well-known collection of columns published in underground newspapers.

    Post Office (1971) is Bukowski’s first novel and semi-autobiographical work. It would mark the first appearance of his alter ego, Henry Chinaski. Much of the plot is based on Bukowski’s life while he worked as a substitute mail sorter at the Post Office. The story revolves around his work, time spent after work drinking alone and at bars, meeting women, and gambling at the race track.

    Ham on Rye (1982) is another semi-autobiographical work featuring Bukowski's alter ego Henry Chinaski. Here the focus is on his childhood growing up during the Great Depression. It tackles the theme of failing the American Dream, the powerlessness of an individual within a system, and the coming-of-age story of the artist himself.

    Charles Bukowski’s Poems

    Despite the majority of his novels and short story collections being published with Black Sparrow Press, Charles Bukowski continued to submit poems to small magazines and newspapers. With thousands of poems written, many have been compiled and published as collections. Below is an overview of a select few poems.

    In “The Laughing Heart” (1996), Bukowski, in typical fashion, deals with the seedy underbelly of life. However, it also maintains optimism despite how bleak life can be. Death is inevitable, but one can “beat death in life,” as he states in the poem. It was first published in the collection Betting on the Muse (1996).

    “The soldier, his wife, and the bum” recounts a time Bukowski spent while in his rented room in San Francisco listening to music on the radio. An angry neighbor pounds on the wall, wanting Bukowski to turn down the volume. Bukowski reluctantly turns down his radio, knowing it’s a soldier trying to spend time with his wife before he goes off to fight in World War II. Often his poems deal with the mundane and frustrating existence of poverty, having to share space, and the invasiveness of sound in such shared spaces. The title refers to him as being perceived as an annoying bum to the couple. The poem was initially published in The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992).

    “Bluebird” deals with how Bukowski feels there’s a vulnerable beauty inside him that he keeps down with alcohol and a hardened exterior. There’s a side to him that threatens to disrupt the stability and comfort zone he has created for himself. The poem was first published in the collection The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992).

    Charles Bukowski Quotes

    What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.

    This quote from the poem collection What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire (1999) is often considered one of his most characteristic quotes. Charles Bukowski continued to write despite challenging setbacks throughout his life. His perseverance isn’t glorified in his writing. Instead, his insistence to keep living how he wanted, betting at racetracks, drinking, and writing is explicitly cataloged throughout all his works. Near-death experiences and the deaths of loved ones didn’t deter him but inspired his writing instead.

    Don't try.

    This epitaph is famously written on his gravestone. It’s taken from a more extended, several-sentence quote from a poetry manuscript.4 It sums up his attitude about writing. Often readers would contact him for advice on becoming a writer. He insisted that the impulse to write should come to you and cannot be forced by effort.

    Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.

    – Love is a Dog from Hell (1977)

    Charles Bukowski was always more interested in people who were considered the “lowlifes” of society. Often these people are ignored by passersby and are seen as failures. He enjoyed spending time with such people in bars and the racetrack. To him, those living the American dream were a boring absurdity. Those confronting bleakness and alienation of their existence were people he could relate to, and they provided him with more interesting conversations.

    Check out “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray, which deals with those living on the margin and death.

    Often the best parts of life were when you weren’t doing anything at all, just mulling it over, chewing on it. I mean, say that you figure that everything is senseless, then it can’t be quite senseless because you are aware that it’s senseless and your awareness of senselessness almost gives it sense. You know what I mean? And optimistic pessimism.

    Pulp (1994)

    Charles Bukowski could be considered a nihilist due to his irreverent and dry style and seemingly random subject matter. However, his closest friends and correspondents insisted he was personally an optimist despite focusing on negative and dark subject matter. This quote reflects his belief that being aware of “senselessness” ultimately gives life meaning.

    Charles Bukowski Controversy

    Charles Bukoski was a controversial figure throughout his life and well into his posthumous publication years that continue to this day.

    As an adolescent to rebel against his dad, who was pro-American despite his German background, Bukowski frequented a local german community center. There he could read about the rise of nazism leading up to the second world war. He ultimately renounced it once World War II started.

    Throughout his work, his subject matter is often focused on the taboo: alcoholism, other drug users, gambling at the racetrack, and a revolving door of lovers. He unashamedly disavowed any responsibility beyond his desire to drink and gamble at the racetrack and write. Many critics accuse him of misogyny and consider his work crude and inappropriate, which is also the reason his fans enjoy his work.

    Charles Bukowski - Key takeaways

    • Charles Bukowski is famous for writing about societal taboos and the everyday life of those living on the fringes of society, including himself.
    • His writing style is simple, straightforward, and unadorned.
    • He received very little academic or mainstream attention during his life for his work.
    • He frequently contributed to small literary magazines and publishers, fueling the growth of Black Sparrow Press, which became one of the most famous independent publishers of poetry and fiction.


    1 Barry Miles, Charles Bukowski, 2005.

    2 Gay Brewer, Charles Bukowski, Twayne’s United States Author Series, 1997.

    3 Charles Bukoski, American Author,

    4 Charles Bukoski, Poem Manuscript (1982),

    Frequently Asked Questions about Charles Bukowski

    Who is Charles Bukowski? 

    Charles Bukowski is a famous writer who gained notoriety for writing about taboo and profane subjects. He received very little mainstream or academic attention during his lifetime.

    How did Charles Bukowski die? 

    Charles Bukowski died from leukemia.

    When did Charles Bukowski die? 

    Charles Bukowski died on March 9, 1994 

    Was Charles Bukowski a nihilist? 

    While much of the subject matter of Charles Bukowski can be read as nihilism, he personally identified as an optimist.

    What is Charles Bukowski known for? 

    Charles Bukowski is known for writing about the seedy underbelly of society in a direct, raw, and gritty manner without flourish.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    At what age did Charles Bukowski publish his first book?

    Which of the following are novels by Charles Bukowski?

    Which of the following are famous poems by Charles Bukowski?


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