Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge

Oct. 9, 2010Feb. 15, 2011
Library, West Hall

“I’m simple, not profound. My genius stems from an interest in whores, working men, street-car drivers – lonely, beaten-down people.” 

Charles Bukowski,  from Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews and Encounters, 1963–1993

One of the most original voices in 20th-century American literature, Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) lived and wrote at the edge of society. With unflinching honesty and strong language, his poems and tales speak of life on the streets of Los Angeles among the prostitutes, drunks, gamblers, and outcasts  struggling to survive in an unforgiving world.  In telling these stories, Bukowski wrote without artifice in simple, natural language, repudiating the formal conventions of the literary establishment. He strove to keep his writing “raw, easy, and simple,” to grasp the “hard, clean line that says it.”

This fall, The Huntington presents a much-anticipated exhibition on the life and works of Charles Bukowski, drawn from the archive of his papers donated to The Huntington by his wife, Linda Lee Bukowski, in 2006. “Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge” opens Oct. 9 in the West Hall of the Library and continues through Feb. 14, 2011.

Born in Andernach, Germany, Bukowski emigrated with his parents to the United States as a child, and the family settled in Los Angeles. A perpetual outsider in school, he escaped the hardships of life with an abusive father and passive mother, dropping out and leaving home in his teens. Wandering from one cheap rooming house to another, and working at an endless series of menial,  dead-end jobs, he lived among those on the fringes of society. All the while, he struggled to make it as a writer, drinking heavily, nearly starving when money ran out, but always capturing his life and the stories of the people around him in his writings. Initially publishing in small poetry magazines, he eventually became a cult writer with an enormous following of fans whose lives he touched.

Among the rare items on view in the exhibition will be first editions of his works, including Ham on Rye (1982), the autobiographical novel about his brutal childhood and young adulthood; Factotum (1975), the fictional account of his succession of low-end jobs; and Barfly (1984), the screenplay he wrote for the 1987 film starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. Corrected typescripts of poems and of the novels Pulp (1984) and Hollywood (1989) will also be on view. There will be original drawings by Bukowski, correspondence and fan mail, and large-format printings of his poems produced by the Black Sparrow Press and other fine printing houses. s.  Scarce, important “little magazines,” which were the first to publish Bukowski’s works, will include such publications as Wormwood Review, The Outsider, The Limberlost Review, and Runcible Spoon. More famous (or infamous) magazines like Oui and High Times will show a more lucrative aspect of Bukowski’s craft. 

In addition, Linda Lee Bukowski is graciously lendng a number of iconic items, including Bukowski’s manual typewriter, an original oil portrait by John Register, and very scarce early books, including Flower, Fist & Bestial Wail (1960) and It Catches My Heart in Its Hand (1963).

Charles Bukowski continues to attract a huge following of readers who feel a deep connection to the writer who spoke for the downtrodden and disaffected.  Writing as an outsider, on the periphery of both society and the literary establishment, Bukowski knew that, for him, “the place to find the center is at the edge.”