The Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens is readying a major exhibition honoring the work of Charles Bukowski, one of the great poets and short story writers of the 20th Century. Outside of his native United States, Bukowski is accorded major author status and is part of the pantheon of American letters. Within his own country, his reception is rather different. The exhibition might change that.
The Huntington, which is located in San Marino, California, not far from Pasadena (and Bukowski’s beloved Santa Anita race track), is a venerable research and educational institution with an extensive collection of one million rare books and 6.5 million manuscripts. It is one of the most respected research libraries in the world. It also features world-class art galleries and botanical gardens.
Antipathy Against The Buk
“The Buk” as he was affectionately known by his legions of fans, was never popular among American literary critics, even those (such as The Village Voice) who claimed allegiance to the avant-garde in the arts. “Avant-garde” as a term was all but meaningless by the 1970s, the time Bukowski experienced his first wave of popularity outside of “underground” literary journals. What had once been transgressive was now mainstream, as Americans collectively went beyond their ability to be shocked culturally.
Charles Bukowski, with his raw language and emotion, still had the ability to shock, and not just blue-noses but those who deemed themselves professionally unflappable. He was a low-life, the Poet Laureate of Skid Row, and deemed beneath contempt by the mainstream critical establishment.
The culture industry, like the critical establishment, is concentrated on the East and Bukowski was a Californian. There has always been bias against the Left Coast in New York, and Los Angeles — Bukowski’s hometown — was not just the setting but was the subject of many of his works.
Another strike against Bukowski was that he often wrote about work: in fact, his first novel Post Office and his second, Factotum, were all about being caught on the treadmill of meaningless, soulless labor. The first novel was a cri de coeur of his being stuck as a postal carrier and then postal clerk for a good part of the 1950s and all of the ’60s while Factoum was an odyssey through an American inferno of dead-end, meaningless jobs.
The jobs Bukowski wrote about were minimum wage drudge work rather than something ethereal like Jay Gatsby’s boot-legging (always secondary to Gatsby’s life as a bon vivant and romantic). They were the type of jobs that were worked and lived with by the kind of people most Americans not only shied away from but actively disdained. The contempt felt between “good society” and the low-lifes chronicled by Bukowski was mutual and unrelenting and unvarnished. It also was stripped of any political commentary, as America was beyond politics due to its “liberal” consensus (liberal in the classic economic sense, i.e. both parties being pro-capitalism, supporters of an economic system in which labor is exploited, the laborer working for poor wages and enriching a plutocracy).
The American Dream
Charles Bukowski was never popular with American critics. That likely is because Bukowski did not believe in the American Dream. Work was necessary to survive, to get money for rent, food, cigarettes and above all, booze. With money, a man could hold on to a woman no other man wanted.
There was nothing enlightening or ennobling about work to Charles Bukowski. There was no ladder of success to be climbed. And unlike the literary work of a committed leftist writer like Theodore Dreiser, work wasn’t a subject to be used as a platform for a specific social critique, such as overhauling capitalism. Bukowski rejected society, he wasn’t there to reform it.
That Bukowski also wrote about life on skid row in the uncompromising, plain language of the working people and social lepers who were his subject matter also made him a pariah among American critics. That he became a major cult writer in his middle age, appealing to legions of readers who otherwise would not read a work of fiction by more mainstream, societally accepted writers, also created a resentment that further embargoed him from the pages of literary journals like The New York Times Book Review as well as the more cutting edge New York Review of Books.
The Huntington Library’s exhibition likely will be a cosmic event in the evolution of Charles Bukoswki’s “above ground” reputation as an artist in America. When he died in 1994, his death was covered as front page news in the major West Coast dailies but was back-page matter in the New York Times. The genteel Grey Lady just didn’t get a writer who rejected not only Mom & Apple Pie & baseball (after all, The Times famously rejected the Beats, too, who were far more wholesome than The Buk), but who questioned the very legitimacy of society itself, from its primal unit — the family — on up to the President of the United States.
It seemed appropriate at the time that the East Coast rags would continue to diss Bukowski, but the lack of critical regard for this great American writer in the academy approaches the asinine as he was one of the most influential poets of the post-World War II era.
One of the great “jokes” of American literature was that Charles Bukowski was not anthologized by the The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, a standard text used in university literature courses. However, a poem by another poet that quoted directly from one of his poems, The Mockingbird, was.
The problem American critics and the literary Establishment had with Charles Bukowski were far beyond the problems it had with his so-called misogyny, his vulgar language, and his outre use of sex and violence. After all, Norman Mailer mined the same territory, and Mailer undoubtedly was not only a major part of the American literary scene but eventually, in his old age, a part of that Establishment.
What seemed to be the rub was that Charles Bukowski was unapologetically a working class writer and the United States is a country that is fearful politically, fearful to admit that it even has a working class. Thus a Norman Mailer, in Barbary Shore, can write about Trotskyites and socialism (Mailer’s novel, his second, was a flop critically and in book stores), but that was about intellectuals, not “real” people. And in the United States, working people aren’t “real” in the sense that they are not given any cognizance as viable, living human beings, unless abstracted through a lens of color or crime.
“Reality is socially defined,” social philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1964 book The Human Condition.
In the United States, most everyone is accorded the status middle class, from the working poor to people that most of us would consider “rich.” That is reality.
What and whom Charles Bukowski wrote about was curiously unreal to American mainstream critic. For it went beyond abstraction into the sweat and grit and hashmarks in your drawers of working life. Of a desperation that could not be redeemed by religions of heaven or earth such Christianity or socialism or “Art” but only by a certain grace in the form of money, such as from a skein of winning bets laid down at the race track.
The United States, like its original mother country, the United Kingdom, has a class system. Literature, as all the arts, once were rigidly characterized as low-brow, middle-brow and high-brow, with the high-brow being accorded more honor for study and reflection.
Some artists, like Charles Dickens, a writer about the poor and downtrodden whom George Orwell said was widely misunderstood as a liberal, breached the barriers between the middle-brow and high-brow, through their “artistry,” in that they were popular but still respected as artists. John Steinbeck, another writer who wrote about working people, on the other hand, is derided as middle-brow and “sentimental” and deficient in artistry, no matter what his gift at elucidating society at a certain time and place. Steinbeck is relegated to high school English courses and not studied at university in the United States. Bukowski is not studied at all.
After the siege warfare of the 1960s, the boundaries between all came tumbling down. Yet, prejudices still remained.
Any Warhol might create high brow (and highly priced) art from a Brillo Box, an example of commercial art, or the lowest of the low-brow, turned into high-brow via the alchemy of great P.R., and Robert Rauschenberg might use a frame from a comic strip (“low brow”) as the basis of a “high brow” art work. Low-brow forms like the detective novel might be appropriated by high brow artists.
Yet, there was something profoundly unsettling about Charles Bukowski to the supposedly hip, supposedly evolved professional cultural product producers and their apparatchiks. This was a man who published stories entitled “Stop Staring at My Tits Mister” in Hustler Magazine, not Vladimir Nabokov making a few extra bucks excerpting a novel in Hugh Hefner’s middle-brow with aspirations Playboy. Bukowski was “too down-market” for the mavens of the culture industry.
In other words, Charles Bukowski didn’t play the game. How could he? He could never be part of the society that coddled Truman Capote (a contemporary who was published by Story Magazine during WWII as the same time as The Buk) and later learned to live with Norman Mailer, who was debagged and as harmless as a cinnamon dancing bear in old age, when he started sucking up to the rich to get contributions for PEN America.
Charles Bukowski was angry, resentful and did not crave success in the terms of the American Dream as Norman Mailer did. Unlike Mailer, he was not a politician.
Bukowski was not sure at times whether he had a soul, but he sure as hell did not go about selling it. This was the man who took up the cultural inheritance of Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and John Steinbeck and James T. Farrell and (just as Mailer did and most writers of the post-World War II era) and stripped it of all sentiment, of all cuteness, and of all tricks, to tell it like it was without adornment. His was a society with no way out, except the bottle and an alcohol-related death.
It was not pretty, but it was true. And although the truth is something that the arts are supposed to get at, they do so via metaphor and allusion, an “art” that Bukowski wasn’t willing to practice. People can best take their “real life” mediated by art, leaving them a comfort zone, some wiggle room; this, Charles Bukowski was unwilling to do.
Ultimately, what the mainstream critics scored Charles Bukowski on was his lack of “art,” for the fact that in his writing, he was not creating “fictions” but was sending us the leaves of a diary of a man trapped in hell.
Despite the lack of official recognition, he managed to create scores of the best American poems, at least a score of the best American short stories, and one wonderful novel, Women, to go with his reams of observations on life, collected as Notes of a Dirty Old Man from his columns for the L.A. underground press.
When the researchers of the future will try to understand the common man (that great subject of the 20th Century, who was lauded by artists who simultaneously despised him as they were frightened of him – this too was one of Bukowski’s subjects, the phoniness of those who hailed the common man), they will turn to Charles Bukowski.
He is the American Villon, Baudelaire, and Celine.
The exhibition begins on October 9, 2010 and will run through February 14, 2011 in the West Hall of the Huntington Library. It is going to be the most comprehensive overview of Charles Bukowski’s career ever undertaken in the world.
For the Bukowski fan and scholar, the exhibition will be a cornucopia of delights: there will be approximately 70 items that will chronicle The Buk’s life, from his childhood until his death.
On display will be original typescripts of poems and prose and his original screenplay for the movie Barfly (1987). There were also be on display various periodicals Bukwoski first published in as a short-story writer and as a poet. He not only got his start in and helped establish many small press publications, but was part of the famed “mimeo revolution” of the 1960s, in which rather than relying on such mainstream, prosaic rags as Poetry (the Chicago-based doyenne of poetry magazines), poets collected a batch of poems from themselves and their acquaintances, mimeographed off some pages that were collated and stapled, and the resulting “magazine” was mailed off to an appreciative audience. The Buk was part of the samizdat revolution that flew beneath the radar of the mainstream literary establishment and changed American poetry.
There will also be about a dozen items of personal memorabilia on loan from his widow, Linda Lee Bukowski. This will include his “typer,” which itself proved the subject of many a Bukowski poem. The Buk loved to draw and paint, and some of his art works will be on display.
Linda Lee Bukowski, who serves as the executor of her husband’s literary estate, donated her archive of his papers to the Huntington in 2006. It promises to be a good match (like their marriage) as it gives Charles Bukowski’s work a proper setting, among the treasures of the Library and art galleries. For the true subject of Bukowski’s work has always been the human spirit, and its capacity for endurance under intolerable strain.
Thus, his work is not just of low lives and the detritus of the street, but of something more, the story of people graced with a capacity for survival. Though the spirit does not soar like the Beethoven sonatas he would listen to on the radio as he typed his poetry, it is this Promethean indomitability of spirit that makes Charles Bukowski endure, where many of his contemporaries that flourished while he seemingly was floundering have crumbled into dust.