Charles Bukowski, King of the Underground (1 Viewer)


"So fuck Doubleday Doran"
I googled "Bill Katz" and I found the Introduction.


Charles Bukowski was a product of the small press movement, an unparalleled phenomenon in the so-called little magazines that proliferated in the United States during the 1960s. His long journey through the "littles" and the small presses was finally rewarded after many a bitter battle in the back alleys of the American literary scene. He was scorned, sneered at, and mocked by countless authors and critics, and he was largely rejected by academic quarterlies. He was seen as an ignorant drunk lecher who could not write poetry. Unconcerned, imperturbable, and possessed by an unstoppable urge to create, Bukowski, far from the madding crowd—paradoxically, in the heart of Los Angeles—slowly edged his way through the literary turmoil of the 1960s and emerged as one of the main iconic figures of the period.

The little magazines were the ideal arena to satisfy Bukowski's hunger for exposure. A hyperprolific author, Bukowski indiscriminately submitted material to all kinds of magazines, including conservative, avant-garde, and "sewing circle" periodicals. He considered the highbrow journals as valid an outlet as any other, and not only did he praise them in print, but he also unremittingly sent his poetry to them throughout the years. His work, including poems, short stories, reviews, essays, manifestos, letters, blurbs, doodles, and drawings, were faithfully reproduced by the little or "mimeo" editors, the underground press, and by different literary movements, such as the Beats, the Black Mountaineers, or the New York Schools, even though Bukowski overtly professed no allegiance to any of them. At first, the littles were reluctant to print his apparently outrageous material, but he began to be widely accepted as the "mimeograph revolution" took over the alternative literary scene in the United States. By then, it was virtually impossible not to run across Bukowski's name in any independent periodical. His work was published everywhere, even in obscure little magazines with very limited circulation that came out only once, regional magazines that have been long forgotten where Bukowski was printed alongside unknown local authors, and magazines that are not even recorded in checklists or bibliographies.

The significance of the littles in Bukowski's literary career remains incomprehensibly overlooked. Yet, they constituted the most logical outlet for his unrelenting creative process because, unlike the subsidized academic journals, they allowed and encouraged experimentation and originality. The littles fearlessly promoted new authors while the quarterlies were restricted to publishing well-established writers. This pattern worked to Bukowski's advantage, who bombarded the little magazines on an almost daily basis during his lifetime. Editors and publishers alike discovered his work in the littles and, realizing the potential of this supposedly new voice, they contributed to his burgeoning popularity by printing his material so frequently that he would eventually become the most published author of the 1960s. Reviews, interviews, his presence in controversial newspaper or magazine issues as well as a series of unfounded statements and infamous endorsements, such as an apocryphal quotation by Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet claiming that Bukowski was "the best poet in America," duly voiced in mainstream periodicals, also contributed, considerably so, to enhance his reputation in American letters. Bukowski's prolific output can only be explained in terms of discipline and perseverance. Despite constant rejection, Bukowski charged the littles in a quixotic effort to be acknowledged. Accent would be an extreme example. From April 1944 to August 1960—totaling 28 submissions—Bukowski sent 44 poems and 30 stories to this little magazine. Accent accepted none of them. Interestingly enough, Hoffman explains that Accent "attempts to avoid ‘a biased viewpoint' and rejects what it calls the ‘stereotyped and the trivial and the unintelligible' from its pages" (350). In all probability, Bukowski's work was discarded for the latter reason. As he confided in a 1987 interview, "[T]he editors wanted the same old poetic stuff and stance and I couldn't, wouldn't do it. There was nothing brave about my refusal to write the same old tripe. It was closer to stubbornness" (Backwords, "The World's" 1). Indeed, that stubbornness was so persistently and methodically cultivated that it would become one of Bukowski's hallmarks. His only goal was to produce new material against all odds, as he eloquently expressed in a 1990 interview: "I like what Ezra [Pound] said. He said, ‘Do your work.' I mean, no matter what's going on, do your work. You have trouble fucking your woman, she's out fucking some guy—do your work. There's a war going on or there's a fire in the forest or somebody took a shot at you on the street and missed, you almost got knifed in an alley, come home, do your work" (Andrews 175). Not surprisingly, Bukowski used to compare his compulsion to write to a disease. A most incurable one, as his massive production attests to.

When I began my research on Bukowski, the academic interest in his work was virtually nil, and the very few articles and reviews written from the unblemished turrets of knowledge were usually disdainful and pejorative, if not worse. Even though Bukowski was intermittently published in the academic quarterlies from the very beginning of his career— The Beloit Poetry Journalin the 1950s, Northwest Reviewin the 1960s, Ohio Review, American Poetry Review, and Chicago Review in the 1970s, Prism International and Antaeus in the 1980s, and Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Sycamore Review in the early 1990s, among others—academia chose not to champion his work. At the other end of the spectrum, his staunch supporters blindly praised both his virtues and his many flaws. There seemed to be no middle ground, and critics and biographers had deemed unnecessary to study Bukowski's output in an unbiased, accurate fashion. To add insult to injury, the relevance of the little magazines and small presses in his career was conspicuous by its absence, and biographies and bibliographies, although helpful on many levels, were ultimately unsatisfactory. With the sole exception of Art, Survival and So Forth. The Poetry of Charles Bukowski, by British author Jules Smith, it was a barren wasteland, and I soon concurred with Michael Basinski's opinion that "the editors, publishers, small presses and magazines that were the mainstay of Bukowski's early career are unrepresented in literary history. This remains an immense arena to explore" ("His Wife" 43). I was faced with the challenge of traveling through a winding road with no signposts pointing in the right direction. But challenges are meant to be tantalizing, and that encouraged me to tread into uncharted territory with renewed energy. The road taken by researchers is a lonely one and, oftentimes, they are so worn out by the endless stops to gather information everywhere that they want to fast-track their way to the finish line to leave behind that part of their lives. Obvious as it may seem, the small findings or the unexpected twists and turns on the road are much more rewarding than the elated feeling of actually reaching the original goal. While I was walking through the majestic, English-like stone buildings of the Princeton campus, I did not know that I would find there one of the infamous, theoretically lost, short stories that Bukowski had handwritten in the mid-1940s, when he was an unknown author. I did not know, either, that I would learn at the Bancroft library in Berkeley, California, that Bukowski and Lawrence Ferlinghetti had discussed Bukowskiana at length, a passionate and brutal volume of stories and poems, which eventually became part of a long list of failed Bukowski projects.

Not all the stops on the road were like finding "gold in the city dump," as Bukowski wrote when recalling the first time he read John Fante at the Los Angeles Public Library (Preface 6). I had hoped to come across unpublished short stories or letters in the New Yorker files at the New York Public Library, but after several frantic days going through dozens of boxes and hundreds of manuscripts, I left the city empty-handed, not having had the chance to even see the Statue of Liberty from afar. Although I did stroll up and down Capitol Hill in Washington DC, I did not turn up any Bukowski-related material at all while researching into the large Harper's records housed in the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. On other occasions, there were awkward situations, bordering on the absurd. At the Huntington Library, where it is not uncommon to bump into an old man in a bow tie walking a dog through the corridors, and where Bukowski is on permanent display in the Main Hall, mischievously looking across the gallery at a life mask of William Blake and a portrait of William Shakespeare, I was surrounded by the best minds of my generation. Armed with gloves and magnifying glasses, they were so absorbed in analyzing incunables and New World maps, tracing invisible lines with their fingers over forgotten places, and, holding their breath, fearfully turning the brittle pages of illuminated manuscripts and ancient Bibles, that they did not seem to realize that I was quickly inspecting the pages of the erotic periodicals where Bukowski had published, alongside many a bushy mons veneri, a large number of his short stories.

Another unsettling, Beckettian situation came about precisely at the Huntington Library. Norma Almquist, an old lady nearing her nineties who had printed a few Bukowski poems in a little magazine in the 1960s, confided to me that she had studied with Bukowski at Los Angeles City College in the late 1930s and early 1940s. She told me that he always sat in the back row, frowning, never mingling with anyone in the classroom. She also maintained that his outsider persona was already evident as he wore an armband with a swastika, more as a provocateur act than as a true belief in the Nazi propaganda taking place before World War II. Suddenly, the 87-year-old lady turned to me, with her face all lit up, and asked: "Do you want to hear a funny story?" "Sure," I replied. "I was sleeping one night when the phone rang. It was early in the morning. I picked it up and I heard this drunken voice saying, ‘I wanna fuck you!' ‘Who's this?' ‘I'm Bukowski, and I wanna fuck you!' ‘Listen, Bukowski, you got the wrong number,' and then I hung up on him." The old lady, who was clutching the latest issue of Poetry, looked at me rather impishly and burst out laughing.

Studying manuscripts in libraries and reading everything ever written about Bukowski was not always enough to elucidate some of the details about the periodicals; hence I began an intense, occasionally maddening, correspondence with most of the editors and publishers who championed Bukowski's work in the 1950s and 1960s. Their memories concerning the significance of their littles and journals both in the literary arena and in Bukowski's growing reputation in the underground scene were unquestionably revealing, passionate and incisive, and seldom, if ever, clouded by the passage of time. Their comments and views were truly insightful, allowing me to find out, for instance, that the elusive "The Priest and the Matador" broadside, which biographers and bibliographers had failed to track down, arguing it had been illegally released, had been actually printed with Bukowski's permission by a student with the help of a priest in the basement of a church in Madison, Wisconsin. Similarly, editor John Arnoldy explained to me the genesis of the 11 Bukowski drawings that he reproduced in his little magazine in 1971, which had been originally intended for a book of illustrations and poems to be titled Atomic Scribblings from a Maniac Age, a rara avis in the bukowskian canon that was thought to be destroyed in the late 1960s.

Nevertheless, all the findings and rediscoveries, all the quaint episodes, each and every one of the stops on the research road paled beside the most unexpected of the situations: exploring the Bukowski archives in his San Pedro home. While I looked around his old studio, with the Mac computer, the beaten dictionary, the balcony overlooking the harbor, and then while I went over the hundreds of magazines yet to be catalogued and donated to the Huntington Library, the reams of unpublished manuscripts with hand corrections by Bukowski, the many gorgeous editions of all his books, and then, finally, while I walked around the roomy, exquisitely designed bright lounge, with cats in every corner, and with a view to the swimming pool and the jacuzzi he jokingly boasted about so much, it was then when I felt that such an unplanned stop did justify all the trials and tribulations, and that reaching the finish line was no longer relevant or necessary. I have deliberately kept the sociocultural and literary context to a minimum. Bukowski, entrenched in his small Los Angeles apartments, lived isolated from the outer world. He was so utterly unconcerned by current events that when he was accused of having missed the 1960s, he wryly replied: "Hell, yes, I was [working] in the post office" ( Reach 278–79). Like his hero-worshiped Robinson Jeffers in Big Sur, Bukowski feverishly created in complete solitude; like Fyodor Dostoevsky's underground man, he fired off his incendiary projectiles from his anonymous den, leaving readers and publishers bewildered, shocked, almost terrified by that unremitting riot of words. Bukowski, in an almost desperate attempt to be out of touch with the Establishment, sent out his ageless missiles against the uptight literary arena, missiles that even today shake the fragile foundations of the sacrosanct temples of higher learning. It is precisely that timelessness that makes his work everlasting and oftentimes memorable. Putting it into context, explaining the whys and wherefores, would strip it of one of its most indisputable qualities.

Bukowski was born in Germany in 1920 and his family moved to the United States when he was two years old. Flattering remarks and backslapping were not part of Bukowski's upbringing; the many trips and falls and the endless hardships did build up his incorrigible, unswerving spirit. As he admitted more than once, being physically abused by his father as a child turned life's misfortunes into a true bed of roses. Nothing was to daunt him from then on. This rockhard stance would shape his individualistic, almost Nietzschean view of the world. Since he was a Depression kid and older than most emerging writers, temporary, fashionable trends such as the counterculture or the skin-deep Flower Power ideology did not appeal to him and, in fact, he viciously criticized them. What Bukowski despised the most was the egregiousness of popular groups such as the Beats, who seemed to believe that the limelight was more important than, paraphrasing Pound, doing their work. Bukowski secluded himself from that brouhaha to devote himself to writing.

It was during the 1970s, when the harsh reality dealt the average American many a severe blow after the hard-to-assimilate defeat of the Vietnam War, and when hippies slowly awakened from their LSD and marijuana-induced dreams to acknowledge the failure of the revolution of the 1960s, that Bukowski appeared on the scene to successfully win the audience's approval with his unvarnished, all-too-direct poetry. Although he did spiritedly exploit his clownish persona onstage with his beer-fueled antics to make a living, he retreated back into seclusion in the 1980s up until his final days. His stubbornness to be left alone was also reflected in his political views; despite being usually associated with leftist movements, he always claimed to be apolitical. The closest he ever felt to communism was when Dorothy Healey paid him a visit in 1966 and he gave her inscribed copies of his most recent books, Cold Dogs in the Courtyard and Crucifix in a Deathhand, and when he signed two books for Fidel Castro in April 1991. Somehow, Bukowski defiantly and doggedly chose to sit down forevermore in that back row that had first contributed to creating his persona as a young man during his brief stint at Los Angeles City College. Bukowski's prolific output was indeed never disrupted by contemporary events. In fact, world affairs hardly ever made it into his work. World War II, for instance, is mentioned only once in passing in his second novel, Factotum, mostly set in the 1940s. The Watts riots, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandals, or Kennedy's assassination are almost conspicuous by their absence throughout his work. Those otherwise crucial events did not increase nor dwindle his production. It is as if they were invisible, even other-worldly. The death of his first true love, Jane Cooney Baker, however, was only too real. The depression that ensued Baker's passing in 1962 translated into the worst year of the decade in terms of production, submissions, and acceptance in the small press.

Arranging as accurately as possible the bio-bibliographical information has facilitated the task of assessing the importance of Bukowski's periodical appearances from 1940 to 1969. I have restricted the chronological journey to his early career for two fundamental reasons. On the one hand, the popularity achieved by the late 1960s was a consequence of the undisputed acceptance of his work by little magazine and underground press editors. Underground newspapers such as Open City were the actual stepping-stones to fame, but the littles had been paving the way for such recognition throughout almost three decades. Nevertheless, success was relative and limited to independent circles. By early 1970, critics expressed opposing views regarding the true scope of his status in American letters; while his friend John Thomas claimed that he was "still virtually unknown" ("Horatio" 31), biographer Barry Miles contended that he was considered "a cult figure" ( C. Bukowski 174). At any rate, his reputation as an important author as well as his ever-growing popularity in his late career (1970–1994) was dramatically enhanced by the Black Sparrow Press and City Lights publications and by the release of the movie Barfly in 1987, when he dined out with such celebrities as Sean Penn or Madonna and gave interviews to People, Interview, and other mainstream periodicals, while his continual contributions to little magazines played a secondary role. Yet, had it not been for his slow journey through the little magazine scene from 1940 to 1969, he would not have been able to subsequently attain worldwide recognition.

On the other hand, as humorously recounted in several short stories and novels, most notably in Post Office (1971) and Factotum (1975), Bukowski was a hard-working man during the 1940–1969 period. Before he resigned from his job at the post office in early January 1970 to become a full-time professional writer, his periodical appearances had not been profitable. In 1959, he claimed that he had earned less than 50 dollars in 20 years; in 1965, the figure was strikingly similar, having made roughly 80 dollars to date. By 1994, however, he had achieved a relative financial success; as his longtime editor John Martin put it, Bukowski's royalties from his writing amounted to circa $250,000 per year. As Gerald Locklin noted, Bukowski became "one of the few poets in America to subsist on literary earnings alone" ("A Remembrance" 4). That Bukowski had managed to solely live off his writing during the 1970–1994 period was the outcome of his decision to become a full-time writer in late 1969, a decision that had been possible due to the popularity and reputation that his unremitting submissions to the little magazines and underground press had brought about.

Remarkably, most, if not all, of the editors and publishers who contributed to this early success first read his work in the little magazines. This is a crucial yet unacknowledged fact. Literary networks were extremely efficient in the 1960s: if a given editor read Bukowski in an obscure magazine and was so impressed by his work as to solicit him to contribute to his own little, then Bukowski's work would appear in a new periodical that would be, in turn, read by other editors and publishers. It was a very common phenomenon during this period, and it helped considerably to spread Bukowski's output in the alternative publishing scene. For instance, The Outsider, edited by Jon and Louise Webb, stands as one of the milestone periodicals in Bukowski's career for several reasons, one of them being that Martin first read his poetry in that little magazine in the early 1960s. Poet Harold Norse, who persuaded Penguin editor Nikos Stangos to include Bukowski in the internationally renowned Penguin Modern Poets Series in 1969, discovered Bukowski in The Outsider as well. Douglas Blazek, who tirelessly championed Bukowski's work, publishing him in all Olé issues and assembling a special Bukowski retrospective titled A Bukowski Sampler, also read him in the Webbs outfit for the first time. Similarly, Robert Head and Darlene Fife, who put out Bukowski's "Notes of a Dirty Old Man" columns regularly in their underground newspaper Nola Express in the early 1970s, first came across Bukowski's poetry in The Outsider.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who released one of the most controversial Bukowski books ever, Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness (1972), discovered his work in the littles. Taylor Hackford, who directed the first documentary about Bukowski in 1973, simply titled Bukowski, first read him in Open City, as did Linda Lee Beighle, his last wife, and David Barker, who wrote a memoir and a bibliography about Bukowski in the 1980s, among many others. Open City was a widely read underground newspaper in the late 1960s; hence many editors, publishers, and artists first noticed Bukowski's unconventional prose columns in that periodical. Likewise, Blazek's Olé was the mimeograph magazine where most emerging editors from that period read Bukowski's poetry and prose for the first time. Steve Richmond, who published him in Earth, Stance, Moxie and other little magazines and who also wrote a memoir about Bukowski, was one of those editors; John Bennett, who printed Bukowski's poetry in several Vagabond issues, even when the magazine came out in Germany in the mid-1960s, first read him in Olé, as did Gregory Smith, editor of Atom Mind, where Bukowski appeared in the early 1970s and 1990s. Marvin Malone, who played a key role in Bukowski's career by publishing him in over a hundred Wormwood Review issues, learned about Bukowski's work in either Hearse or The Naked Ear. Quicksilver was an important little magazine from the late 1950s as well. William Corrington, a professor who promoted Bukowski's poetry in the academic circles, first saw his poetry in that little. Jory Sherman discovered Bukowski in Epos in 1959; Sherman then introduced Bukowski to both Neeli Cherkovski, who published Bukowski in the Black Cat Review and who wrote his first biography, and Stanley McNail, who printed his poems in The Galley Sail Review in the early 1960s. McNail, in turn, introduced Bukowski to Alvaro Cardona-Hine who, years later and under the pseudonym of David Hine, published several Bukowski short stories in "girlie" magazines such as Pix or Adam. Interestingly, the traditional, conservative Epos was the first link of a chain that eventually printed Bukowski's work in those soft-core "skin" magazines in the early 1970s. In the pre-Internet era, editorial networks were undoubtedly efficient.

The little magazines and the underground newspapers were not only the ideal outlet for both his indefatigable outpourings and his hunger for recognition, but they also constituted the launching pad that helped him become a major figure in American letters and the most published author of the period. Poet Todd Moore, a longtime admirer of Bukowski's work, considered that his achievement was nothing short of a feat, especially because it was solely based on Bukowski's literary merits: "He rose from being an absolute nobody, to becoming an internationally famous writer in something like twenty five years. And he did it without the benefit of a college degree, the university buddy system, or the New York publishing mafia" (88). A chronological review of those littles and newspapers that were turning points in his literary career seems appropriate to illustrate their significance—in which ways they rewarded Bukowski's stubborn compulsion to write, his incurable disease.

Preface for the King

The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries
University at Buffalo
Note the nice words about the Webbs. I plan to buzz over to Slidell to see Gypsy Lou. She just turned 98 and has slowed down but is still fiesty.
She lives by herself with her dog "Baby". Her neighbors may not be greatest but he has 3 rooms which are clean and nicely furnished. She is taken care of a social service network. Thanks to Volunteers of America her rent is $25. She is lonely and would love some mail from Buk's fans. Contact me and I'll glady give you her address.
Ed Blair
For those interested in reviews:


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