Charles Bukowski at the Huntington
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The Huntington’s Charles Bukowski exhibit opened Saturday; the library owns both a Gutenberg Bible and the papers of the Los Angeles poet, who died in 1994. ‘The Huntington is perceived as a conservative institution, but it’s really not,’ David S. Zeidberg, Avery director of the library, said at a press preview Friday.
‘The 20th and 21st centuries of American literature are as important as any other century,’ Zeidberg said. Both he and Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, place Bukowski’s work in a centuries-long continuum of humorous, bawdy English literature, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Walt Whitman.
Just a few steps away from the Bukowski exhibit, selections from the library’s permanent collection are on display, including the Ellesmere Chaucer, an illuminated manuscript of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ created from 1400-1405. ‘There’s stuff in there,’ Zeidberg said, pointing to the permanent collection and the Chaucer, then turning back to Bukowski, ‘that’s in here.’
The Bukowski exhibit, which is organized roughly chronologically, includes photos, letters, drafts and redrafts of his writing, first editions, original artwork, foreign translations, movie memorabilia and other ephemera, including a racing form.
‘Santa Anita racetrack was his sanctuary, and this was mine,’ Linda Lee Bukowski, his widow, said of the Huntington. When Bukowski was gambling at the track in nearby Arcadia, she visited the library and gardens.
She arranged for his papers to come to the institution and saw the exhibit for the first time Friday.
‘It’s surrealistic,’ she said. In the foyer, in a class case, sit Bukowski’s typewriter, wine glass, pens and boom box, a little dingy, arranged just as they were in his office. Linda Lee Bukowski explained that she’s left his office just as it was, going in twice a year to dust. ‘It’s like home,’ she said, looking at the case. ‘I’m walking into this room at the Huntington, and it’s like home.’
Charles Bukowski’s first publication, in Story magazine in 1944, was titled ‘Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip.’ That theme -- of the outsider, the loser -- would continue as a thread through his work.
Bukowski was born in Germany in 1920 to an American father and German mother; the family moved to Los Angeles in 1922. The elder Bukowski was, by all accounts, harsh and abusive, and his son suffered. When Charles was a teenager, he had a terrible case of acne and was something of an outcast; he dropped out of high school. Working a series of menial jobs that took him to New Orleans and Philadelphia, he also went to the library to give himself an education. And he began writing.
Fans know the outlines of Bukowski’s life because he mined it for his work. ‘ ‘Factotum’ was very autobiographical,’ Hodson explained, pointing to a first edition on display. ‘As almost all of his writings were.’
While he started off getting rejections from major mainstream magazines, he found acceptance in edgier upstart publications. Bukowski’s poems of drinking, womanizing and trials of everyday life developed an avid following. To some, he wasn’t just an outsider -- he was the outsider. In 1962, he was named Outsider of the Year by New Orleans-based Outsider magazine. The Huntington has that award on display.
When Bukowski was in his 50s and working for the U.S. Postal Service, he was approached by John Martin, a Californian who wanted to start a publishing house to print Bukowski’s work. Martin promised him $100 a week if he would devote himself to writing. He agreed, and that’s when his novels started: ‘Post Office’ (1971), ‘Factotum’ (1975), ‘Women’ (1978) and ‘Ham on Rye’ (1982). He wrote the script for the autobiographical film ‘Barfly’ (1987), directed by Barbet Schroeder and starring Mickey Rourke.
Bukowski wrote more than 40 books of poetry and prose; the Poetry Foundation calls him a ‘cult hero.’ Hodson agrees.
‘To read Bukowski is to understand why he can achieve that connection to people,’ she said. ‘He’s a writer for the common man.’
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photos (from top): The entrance to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times