Authors: Charles Bukowski,Edited with an introduction by David Calonne
ESSAYS, VOLUME 2: 1946â1992
Edited and with an introduction by
David Stephen Calonne
CITY LIGHTS : SAN FRANCISCO
Copyright Â© 2010 by The Estate of Charles Bukowski
Introduction copyright Â© 2010 by David Stephen Calonne
All rights reserved
Cover design: Jeff Mellin www.bigblueox.net
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Absence of the hero : uncollected stories and essays, volume 2: 1946â1992 / by Charles Bukowski ; edited, with an introduction, by David Stephen Calonne.
Includes bibliographical references.
I. Calonne, David Stephen, 1953â II. Title.
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Absence of the Hero
is a companion volume to my earlier book of uncollected Bukowski writings,
Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook
, and I am indebted again to many of the same cool humans who sustained me in that earlier effort. I am grateful to Ed Fields, University of California at Santa Barbara, Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library for permission to include the unpublished manuscript “Ah, Liberation, Liberty, Lilies on the Moon!” Claude Zachary of the Doheny Memorial Library, Specialized Libraries and Archival Collections at USC, was helpful in solving last-minute bibliographical mysteries. Thanks to Roger Myers and Erika Castano of the University of Arizona Library, Special Collections, where I discovered the unpublished essay “The House of Horrors.” I thank Julie Herrada, Head of the Labadie Collection, Special Collections, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, as well as the Interlibrary Loan staff at Eastern Michigan University. Bukowski's letter to Curt Johnson is from the Brown University Library. Jamie Boran was a helpful correspondent when I began my work a decade ago. I am grateful to my friend Abel Debritto, whom I finally had the pleasure of meeting last summer in Spain. Abel generously sent me several fine stories and essays and I have also learned a great deal from his pioneering Ph.D. thesis. Roni Braun, head of the
Charles Bukowski Gesellschaft
in Germany helped with my request for
and was a wonderful host during my time in Andernach. Deep gratitude to Henry Corbin, who keeps me straight among the angels. Thanks to my inspiring, courageous, vital, and joyously literary eighty-nine-year-old father, Pierre Calonne, who reads to me from Montaigne, Plutarch, LaRochefoucauld, E.M. Cioran, and Thomas Wolfe and shares with me his latest Chinese recipes. Thanks to my brother Ariel Calonne and his wife Pat and my nephews Alexander, Nicholas, and Michael. Thanks as always for everything to Maria Beye. At City Lights I have received help and encouragement from Elaine Katzenberger, Stacey Lewis, Robert Sharrard, and especially my hip, sensitive, brilliant editor Garrett Caples. Thanks to John Martin for believing in my work and to Linda Lee Bukowski for her thoughtfulness and many kindnesses.
Charles Bukowski composed a sequence of six stories between 1944 and 1948, including “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip” (1944) in
, “20 Tanks from Kasseldown” (1946) in
, and the quartet appearing in
: “The Reason Behind Reason” (1946), “Love, Love, Love” (1946â47), “Cacoethes Scribendi” (1947), and “Hard Without Music” (1948).
“The Reason Behind Reason”âalthough decorated with Bukowski's first published drawing, depicting a baseball player comically reaching out to catch a fly ballâis pervaded by an eerie sense of disquiet. The main character Chelaski is puzzled, enigmatic, muted, withdrawn; he sees no reason to perform his appointed role in the game because, like the game of life, it is an absurd one. Bukowski pays close attention to the oddly-observed disconnected small detail and demonstrates his early mastery of fictional craft: “fire on things sticking in mouths” of the spectators; “the thick veins in the red neck” of Jamison; a rhythmical, lyrical flash of erotic mystery from the girl in the grandstand with “a green skirt, and a pleat in a green skirt, shadow-like, and leaping.”
Like Roquentin in Jean-Paul Sartre's
(1938), who experiences the world as “out there” and is made ill by the chestnut tree's horrible quiddity, so too Chelaski feels “different,” adrift in an indifferent universe where “things don't set right” and “even the sun looked a little sick, the green of the fences too green, the sky much too high” and a weird recurring bird “skipped through the air, up and down, somewhere, very fast.” The title “The Reason Behind Reason” suggests an inscrutable riddle occluded behind the reasons we invent to interpret our experience. Whatever meanings there might be are so unreasonable that they are best passed over in silence. It is the individual, questioning poet who is lost, while the crowd “all hung together in a strange understanding.” This is the solitary mystical zone where nothing and nobody connect; we should remember that one of Bukowski's favorite novels was Carson McCullers'
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
“Cacoethes Scribendi” concerns
an editor/writer who seeks an assistant for his literary magazine.
Again the mood is uncanny, with strange perturbations in the
atmosphere, the abstruse word choice purposely jarring: “suzerain,” “diacritic,” “acephalous,”
“zebu,” “argute.” The title is taken from Juvenal's
and may be translated as “an incurable endemic writer's itch,”
which precisely describes Bukowski himself since he was a hard-working,
ceaselessly productive writer, constantly submitting poems, stories, and essays to
virtually every literary magazine in the United States (and several
Indeed, contrary to the myth fostered by
the author himself, he did not fall silent after 1948,
the period of his infamous “ten-year drunk” when he claimed
to have written nothing. In fact, he submitted poems to
between 1953 and 1956 and published the poems “The Look”
in 1951, “Lay Over” in
1956, “These Things” and “You Smoke a Cigarette” in
1956, “Poem for Personnel Managers” and “As the Sparrow” in
1957, and “Mine” in Wallace Berman's
“80 Airplanes Don't Put You in the Clear” (1957) is noteworthy as the first work in which the narrator is named “Hank,” while in “Love, Love, Love” the main character is “Chuck” and in “The Reason Behind Reason” he is “Chelaski.” Bukowski would finally settle on Henry (“Hank”) Chinaski (derived from his given name Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr.) as his literary alter ego. This story marks a return to the more whimsical tone of “Aftermath” and the tale is built around D.H. Lawrence's biography: his failed attempt to found the colony of
with his friends, his wife Frieda von Richthofen, and her kinship with “The Red Baron,” Manfred von Richthofen. The allusion to the Red Baron returns us to
's literary beginnings; one of the first stories he invented as a child concerned the German World War I fighter pilot.
Richard Aldington, Homer, Shakespeare, Twain, Stevenson, Huxley, Confucius, and Beethoven are all invoked during a night of playful drinking and womanizing.
âwine, women, and song, or alcohol, sex, and poetry/musicâwould become Bukowski's obsessive thematic holy trinity; if one exists in his narratives, the other two will surely be present.
Bukowski's transgressive sexual writing begins with “The Rapist's Story.” Though it was published in
in 1957, Bukowski had actually submitted it to
in 1952, thus predating Vladimir Nabokov's
(1955) by three years.
It is clear from a psychoanalytic perspective that the cycle of stories about violation (“The Fiend” from 1970 is a later example) are replayings of Bukowski's own terrorized childhood at the hands of his violent father. His unpublished essay “Ah, Liberation, Liberty, Lilies on the Moon!” illustrates his compassion for the victims of child abuse as well as his sensitivity to animal cruelty. Later, in his “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” columns, he would continue to experiment with explicit erotic themes, and when he quit his position in the Los Angeles Post Office in 1970 to begin his career as professional writer, he began to consciously create increasingly sexual and violent narratives in order to successfully market his work to adult magazines.
Bukowski alternated between composing fiction and poetry, but when he wrote essays, they were most frequently devoted to literary polemics. He often seemed particularly concerned to distinguish himself as a solitary creator separate from the various “schools” of American poetry: Imagist, Confessional, Objectivist, Black Mountain, Deep Image, New York, Beat. In “Manifesto,” he takes aim at the “university poets,” a familiar target throughout his career. The essay is perhaps a parody (the vocabularyâ“nosography,” “
dictum,” “heuristic,” “steatopygous,” “hierophants”âis obviously outrageous) of the genteel literary criticism of his day, which he enjoyed reading in the
In opposition to the pampered ivory tower boys, Bukowski is at pains to remind us that he lived by the Aeschylean dictum
: through suffering comes wisdom, inspiration, creativity. In “He Beats His Women,” he asserted: “The gods were good to me. They kept me under. They made me live the life. It was very difficult for me to walk out of a slaughterhouse or a factory and come home and write a poem I didn't quite mean. And many people write poems they don't quite mean. I do too, sometimes. The hard life created the hard line and by the hard line I mean the true line devoid of ornament.” A more concise statement of Bukowski's poetics would be difficult to find.
In another of his essays on the writing life, “The House of Horrors,” he makes sarcastic observations about poets who “are quite comfortable with
sets, air coolers, loaded refrigerators, and apartments and houses by the seaâmostly at Venice and Santa Monica, and they sun themselves in the day, feeling and looking tragic, these male friends (?) of mine and then at night, lo, perhaps they have a bottle of wine and a watercress sandwich, followed by a wailing letter of their penury and greatness to somebody somewhere.” It is a Romantic conceit, but for Bukowski many poets were mild-mannered reporters who did not honor Nietzsche's mighty apothegm in
Also Sprach Zarathustra
: “Of all that is written I love only what a man has written with his blood.”
And he would agree with Charles P
guy, who remarked: “Un mot n'est pas le m
me dans un
crivain et dans un autre. L'un se l'arrache du ventre. L'autre le tire de la poche de son pardesssus.” “A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.”
The subject matter of Bukowski's writing is very frequently
itself: his constant effort to define the act of composing in relationship to an authentically lived life, his theories of creativity and poetics, his admiration for other writers, as well as his connections to editors. His essay “The Outsider,” which appeared in 1972 in
The Wormwood Review
, is his tribute to Jon Edgar and Gypsy Lou Webb. Marvin Malone's
, Douglas Blazek's
, and in Germany Carl Weissner's
âall were central in slowly establishing the readership that would launch Bukowski to world fame.
Yet most important of all would be John Martin's Black Sparrow Press; one of Bukowski's several portraits of Martin appears in his 1981 story “East Hollywood: The New Paris.” And Bukowski himself edited two little magazines:
, with his first wife Barbara Frye and later, briefly,
Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns
, with Neeli Cherkovski.
Indeed, Bukowski's involvement with the underground press both as contributor and editor put him in the direct line of combat during the contentious struggle for free speech during the '50s, '60s, and '70s. As early as 1957, Wallace Berman was raided by the Los Angeles vice squad.
In 1966, Steve Richmond, who had published Bukowski in his magazines
, had writings from his bookshop in Santa Monica confiscated.
d.a. levy, the dynamo of the “mimeo revolution,” published Bukowski's poem
The Genius of the Crowd
, which was seized by the police: “levy was arrested and jailed along with Jim Lowell (proprietor of the great Asphodel Bookshop, a welcoming home for new poetry for over thirty years) on charges of distributing obscene material in Cleveland.”
When John Bryan asked Bukowski to edit
in September 1968, he solicited a story by Jack Micheline titled “Skinny Dynamite,” about “a red-haired New York girl who liked to fuck,” which resulted in Bryan's arrest.
Thus as a creature of the
underground and as an advocate of freedom of speech, Bukowski
had always been in sympathy with the ideals of the
counterculture. And as we see from his anti-war essay, “Peace,
Baby, Is Hard Sell” (1962), at the beginning of the
Sixties Bukowski was in accord with pacifism and love, although
he put on the outer mask of the tough guy
misanthrope to hide his essential tenderness. It should come as
no surprise, then, that Bukowski would have deep links with
the Beat writers. Although the nature of his connection to
the Beats has been a matter of some controversy among
literary historians, he read their work closely and appeared with
them in many of the same publications, such as
City Lights Anthology
El Corno Emplumado
. And as the Sixties progressed, an
increasing number of significant writers in Beat circles came to
appreciate his work; Kenneth Rexroth would positively review
Catches My Heart in Its Hands
on July 5, 1964.
Bukowski had corresponded with Harold Norse
and his tribute to him,“The Old Pro,” appeared in 1966
, an important “mimeo revolution” publication edited by
Douglas Blazek. The two poets met when Norse moved to
Venice, California in January 1969.
Bukowski reviewed Allen Ginsberg's
in 1967 and at the beginning
of 1968 encountered Neal Cassady (“Dean Moriarty” in Jack Kerouac's
On the Road
), who became the subject of one of
his “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” columns.
would appear with Norse and Philip Lamantia in
Penguin Poets 13
. City Lights published
Erections, Ejaculations and
Other Tales of Ordinary Madness
in 1972 and Lawrence Ferlinghetti
sponsored Bukowski's first reading in San Francisco at the City
Lights Poets' Theater in September 1972 and also reprinted
Notes of a Dirty Old Man
in 1973 following its initial appearance in 1969 under the
Essex House imprint.
And in November 1974,
with Ferlinghetti, Snyder, and Ginsberg at the Santa Cruz Poetry