Exhibition Celebrates Iconoclastic Writer Charles Bukowski
Exhibition Celebrates Iconoclastic Writer Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski has been called one of the most original voices in modern American literature.  Bukowski lived in Los Angeles and wrote about the city's ordinary people and its underside - its prostitutes, pimps and alcoholics.  The writer died in 1994, but, an exhibition at the Huntington Library celebrates his legacy.

The Huntington Library is home to many literary treasures - first editions of Shakespeare, a Gutenberg Bible, Benjamin Franklin's hand-written autobiography, and the Ellesmere Manuscript, an early copy of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The Library is also home to the collected papers of Los Angeles writer Charles Bukowski, and through February 14, it will house an exhibition containing Bukowski memorabilia, first editions and photographs.

Sue Hodson, the curator of literary manuscripts, says that surprises people.

"Bukowski was so rough-edged, and so much of the Huntington, we are staid, we are traditional, we are old-fashioned," said Hodson. "We are a pretty conservative institution, yet he is not as big a stretch as we might think initially.  If you look back at earlier British and American literature, Geoffrey Chaucer, some of the Canterbury Tales are extremely raw.  They are bawdy.  They are great fun.  They're enormously funny.  And they are not that far off from what Bukowski was writing about sometimes."

Hodson reminds listeners that Shakespeare also reveled in low-brow humor in many of his plays.

Bukowski had an abusive childhood, and as an adult, he moved from one menial job to another while devoting himself to writing.  He drank heavily at times, but became a prolific author and recounted his experiences in autobiographical novels and poems.

He was published by small literary presses, but Hodson says Bukowski gradually built a following of readers.

"He wrote about common men and women, people who just wanted to survive in an unforgiving world," she said. "He also wrote about the cast-offs of society, the prostitutes, the pimps, the drunks, the gamblers, the lay-abouts.  Those were his people.  He was among them for much of his life."

Bukowski also found fans in Hollywood, and counted among his friends the actors Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke.  Rourke played the writer in the film Bar-Fly.  Bukowski wrote the screenplay, based loosely on his own life.

Another Hollywood admirer, Matt Dillon, starred in the film Factotum, based on a book by Bukowski that was also partly autobiographical.

The writer's widow, Linda Lee Bukowski, says her husband's legendary love of drinking has been exaggerated.  She says he was shy and disliked speaking in public, so he often drank to get through public readings.  As a result, she says they were often raucous affairs.

Several readings were recorded on videotape, including his last in 1979 in Redondo Beach, California.  It was taped by producer Jon Monday, who has since released the recording on DVD under the title The Last Straw.

Linda Lee Bukowski says the writer liked to gamble and bet at the racetrack, while she spent time at the Huntington Library gardens.

"I would drive up and drop him off at Santa Anita racetrack," said Linda Lee Bukowski. "And then I'd come over here, spend the afternoon in the garden, and then go meet him just before the ninth race, and make a little bet, watch the race and drive on home to San Pedro."

She says this research library, with its literary treasures and just a short drive from the racetrack, is a perfect place for Bukowski's papers.

"This to me is his element, just as much as sitting in his typing room," she said.

Curator Sue Hodson says writer had his soft side.  He once nursed an injured cat to health and wrote a poem about it.

"It is the most beautiful poem," she said. "It is really loving and it is very sweet.  And it shows you a different side of Bukowski."

But while the poem is touching, its title, like much of Bukowski's raw poetry and prose, cannot be repeated on the radio.

Hodson says Bukowski found an international audience.  He once received a letter from an Australian convict who said the author's works were the only books passed from cell to cell.  Bukowski called it the highest praise he could ever earn from one of his readers.