Charles Bukowski came to New Orleans in 1942 on his first cross-country trips and returned to the city many times over the years.
Henry Charles Bukowski was an American writer who exposed the seedy underbelly of American society through his prolific and often-profane poetry, prose, screenwriting, art, letters, and essays. Living an unconventional lifestyle himself, he became a poet laureate of the drunk and the downtrodden, and he rendered their lives (and his own) in grim, touching, and hilarious detail. Many critics derided his unrefined style and his themes of sex, alcohol abuse, gambling, drugs, and violence, but the work was so filled with imagination, clever observation, and bawdy storytelling that Bukowski developed a cult-like following that eventually catapulted him to international fame. At one point his missives even gained the attention of FBI agents concerned that Bukowski might be a subversive element; an exhaustive investigation revealed that he was just a shifty character. As Stephen Kessler wrote in the San Francisco Review of Books, “Without trying to make himself look good, much less heroic …Bukowski writes with no apologies from the frayed edges of society.”
A Rough Beginning
Born in Andernach, Germany, on August 16, 1920, the poet’s given name was Heinrich Karl Bukowski, which later was Americanized when he crossed the Atlantic to live in the United States. Bukowski’s father had been a sergeant in the US Army. By the time Bukowski was ten years old, he was residing in Los Angeles and already living a hard-knock life. His father was a strict and abusive disciplinarian, happy to whip the boy for any perceived infraction. Bukowski was also of slight build with a touch of German accent and strange clothes, which made him an easy target for bullies. He struggled in school with what was likely undiagnosed dyslexia. Finally, during puberty, he was stricken with a terrible case of acne that permanently scarred his complexion and made him feel physically repulsive. It wasn’t until a friend introduced him to alcohol at age thirteen that Bukowski finally saw what he perceived as a ray of light in an otherwise bleak landscape. “It was magic,” he wrote of the experience years later. “Why hadn’t someone told me?”
Bukowski finished high school and attended Los Angeles Community College briefly before dropping out to try his hand at the writing life. He had long been drawn to art and literature, and now he made his way across the country, riding from city to city, crawling from bar to bar, and staying in cheap boarding houses. He published a couple of short stories but became disillusioned with the whole publishing process and quit writing for almost a decade—a time he referred to as his “ten-year drunk.”
Back in Los Angeles, an internal hemorrhage (bleeding ulcer) nearly took his life. By the time he was released from the hospital, Bukowski was moved to take up the pen once more, and he began writing the poetry that would finally launch his literary career.
New Orleans: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Bukowski first came to New Orleans in 1942 on his first cross-country trip and returned to the city many times over the years. It was a place that both shocked and comforted him: shocking in its racism with Jim Crow laws and strict codes of conduct rooted in the Deep South tradition, but comforting in the way that a working-class wharf town full of bars and brothels can be to a drunken poet. It was also here that Bukowski had his first run-in with government agents when he was ordered to report before the New Orleans Draft Board during World War II. He refused, citing a conflict with his “personal philosophy,” and eventually he was arrested by FBI agents in Philadelphia and thrown into Moyamensing Prison for seventeen days. He subsequently failed a psychological exam and was deemed unfit for military service.
Years later, Bukowski famously reminisced about being young and broke in the Crescent City when he wrote, “I remembered my New Orleans days, living on two five-cent candy bars a day for weeks at a time in order to have leisure to write. But starvation, unfortunately, didn’t improve art. It only hindered it. A man’s soul was rooted in his stomach. A man could write much better after eating a porterhouse steak and drinking a pint of whiskey than he could ever write after eating a nickel candy bar. The myth of the starving artist was a hoax.”
However, New Orleans was more than just a gritty watering hole for the author; it was also a pivotal point in the development of his career. Despite those undernourished days of eating candy bars, Bukowski completed in the city a great deal of work, including his famous poem “Young in New Orleans.” But it was his relationship with New Orleans-based Loujon Press and The Outsider magazine that changed his life forever. Jon and Louise Webb were the devoted masterminds behind the now-famous independent press, and they recognized the potential in Bukowski’s work. They spent countless hours poring over manuscripts with Bukowski, editing, typesetting, printing, and hand-building two full manuscripts of his poetry; in the process, they helped the obscure “outsider” poet raise his national profile and take the literary world by storm.
Bukowski went on to write more than forty books of poetry, prose, and fiction, many of which earned him significant recognition and opportunity. His thinly veiled alter ego–a character he called Henry Chinaski–became known the world over for “working at marginal jobs (and getting fired from them), getting drunk and making love with a succession of bimbos and floozies.” Bukowski wrote the screenplay for Barfly (1987), based on his autobiographical accounts, and several of his stories, books, and life events were converted to films, both in the United States and abroad. With each success Bukowski came one step closer to being accepted into the literary establishment, but he never fully crossed that threshold, preferring the company of his “fellow losers” even as he flirted with literary celebrity. Bukowski’s hard-earned fame was cut short, however, when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He died on March 9, 1994, and was buried at Green Hills Memorial Park in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, near his home in San Pedro.