This essay first appeared in the chapbook, BUK100: My Old Man (Newington Press).
When you talk about the Beat Generation, it isn’t long before someone brings up Charles Bukowski. At worst, they’ll tell you “Bukowski was my favorite Beat!” and at best they’ll say, “I know he wasn’t a part of the Beat Generation exactly… but he still sorta was… y’know?”
Of course, anyone who really knows about the Beats or Bukowski is probably aware that they were not even close to being the same thing. Bukowski never wanted to be a Beat, was not part of any Beat social circles, and didn’t write like the Beats. So why are people seemingly so determined to lump them in together?
First, let’s explore what the Beat Generation was, which is not as easy as you might imagine. The Beats are primarily thought of as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs – the Beat Triumvirate, as it were. However, there are others like Gregory Corso that came along later and are considered a part of the “movement” (as some would call it). Corso famously said, “Three writers does not a generation make,” and he was right. There are a bunch of second-generation Beat writers who came along through association with the Beat Triumvirate, like Diane di Prima and Gary Snyder, and most of them had a pretty different style of writing. In fact, very few of the Beats shared any real stylistic or thematic connection.
As you can see, defining the Beat Generation is pretty hard. How, then, could one determine whether or not Charles Bukowski was part of it? Well, in terms of being a “generation,” Bukowski was indeed about the same age as Kerouac and Ginsberg, but he did not share in their social circles and did not correspond with them at all. While the Beats were conversing at Columbia and then swapping letters from far-flung locales, Bukowski was following his own lonely path to publication. He loathed spending time with other writers “because all they do is talk about writing.”
It is tempting to lump all outsider artists together, and that’s why you frequently see Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson tossed casually in with the Beat Generation, but they were both very much set apart from the Beats. They made their own art that was utterly distinct from the Beats. Thompson was friends with Ginsberg and – though he often denied it publicly – was hugely influenced by Kerouac, but Bukowski did not share those relationships or feelings. He was vocal in setting himself apart from the Beats, once telling an audience:
They’ll compare me to the Beat Generation: Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso. But they were very different. They preferred jazz while I prefer classical music. Drugs fascinated them; I drink cheap beer.
Another time, he told an interviewer, “I’m not interested in all this bohemian, Greenwich Village, Parisian bullshit… all that romantic claptrap.”
The feeling was probably mutual. Ginsberg supposedly considered Bukowski a “minor” poet and Burroughs snubbed him when a meeting was arranged. “I could push [Burroughs] over with one punch,” Bukowski told fellow poet, Harold Norse. When Bukowski and Ginsberg shared a stage, Allen declined a drink, which enraged Bukowski. “Everybody knows that after ‘Howl’ you never wrote anything worth a shit,” he said.
As we can see, then, there is seemingly little to connect Bukowski with the Beats. Perhaps it is just a desire to link those outsider artists together, the ones that appeal to the same set of readers. Like many of the Beats, Bukowski wrote about being fucked up and portrayed a chunk of American life that was off-limits to most middle-class readers. He explored the seedy side of Los Angeles like Burroughs and Ginsberg explored underground New York. But more than that, perhaps it was the confessional and conversational nature of his work that appealed to those same fans. Bukowski’s poetry and prose laid his heart open to the reader, as did Kerouac’s and Ginsberg’s. He was not afraid to portray his own ugliness and delve into trauma.
Though he openly sought distance from the Beats, Bukowski did indeed appear in the same publications as them from time to time. In the mid-sixties, Bukowski began to write for Loujon Press’s cult journal, The Outsider, which also published Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso, and other Beat-adjacent writers like Jack Micheline and Philip Lamantia. But appearing in print or on stage alongside these writers did not make Bukowski a Beat, post-Beat, or even a hangover from the Beat Generation. He was utterly and indefatigably his own man. Like Thompson, he was pretty much a one-man genre, happiest working (or drinking) alone.