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Abel Debritto

Big Time:

Charles Bukowski in «Evergreen Review»

The following article was accepted by Evergreen Review’s main editor, Barney Rosset, on May 1, 2010. Two weeks later, arguing there had been a “miscalculation” on their part, they rejected the article saying it was too late to use it in the May issue. There was no rush on my end, so I suggested they could run it at their earliest convenience, but the rejection was firm and they declined the offer. It all seemed too shady to me and, after further inquiries, they admitted that Rosset and the other Evergreen Review editors had decided the essay could be “deleterious” to the image and legacy of the magazine. Erring on the side of caution, they chose to discard a previously accepted article. I can only wonder whether they simply trod warily or it was a rather unavoidable misstep on their part. Judge for yourselves.

Charles Bukowski, c.1981, photo by Mark Hanauer

Charles Bukowski, c.1981, photo by Mark Hanauer



In the late 60s, when the underground press, the so-called mimeograph revolution, and the small press editors unequivocally consolidated Charles Bukowski’s popularity, Evergreen Review would play a crucial role in his literary career by dramatically contributing to enhance his reputation and, thanks to its large circulation, by making his work available to a readership that probably exceeded that of all the little magazines that had published him throughout the decade. Yet, oddly enough, the relevance of this periodical in Bukowski’s career remains unacknowledged in most, if not all, critical studies and biographies to date.


The first issue of Evergreen Review, edited by Donald Allen and Barney Rosset, appeared in 1957, a turning point in the fruitful period preceding the literary revolution of the 60s. The inaugural issue enjoyed an enthusiastic reception and the magazine was soon considered a literary quarterly which displayed new Bohemian, Beat, anti-establishment, and radical voices. As Felix Pollak (72) put it, “[Evergreen Review] didn’t fit into the 200–2000 circulation frame even at its beginning, but it was a genuine little when it started, avant-gardish, adventuresome, international-minded, wide-open, almost wide-eyed in its search for newness and intellectual excitement.” Another critic insisted on the experimental nature of the periodical, stressing its potential to promote non-mainstream authors: “Not long ago it published such new and exciting poets as Ferlinghetti, Blackburn, Barbara Guest, etc. It was the Evergreen Review that brought them most forcibly, and at the outset, to the public” (McCloskey 101). Indeed, those alternative authors would have an unprecedented readership, as Clay noted: “Evergreen Review was typically published in print runs exceeding 100,000 copies and thus was able to deliver the ‘underground’ to a large audience” (103). However, since the magazine was sponsored by a relatively important publishing house, Grove Press, “with a much larger operating budget than most literary magazines” (Martin 695), it could not qualify as “little.” Bukowski himself would express this view in a “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” column published in Open City in late 1967: “Evergreen isn’t a ‘little’ magazine, please remember that” (“Notes” 12).


At any rate, as most critics pointed out, the original nonconformist flavor that permeated the first issues of the magazine would soon be replaced, after Donald Allen’s departure, by a coarser approach to literature –incidentally, Allen considered releasing Bukowski’s gritty Notes of a Dirty Old Man via Grove Press in 1968. James Boyer May, editor of Trace magazine, remarked almost furiously that by the early 60s the periodical had become a “slick-mag, double-cousin of a UPS tabloid, pandering to sensational sex, with fewer earnest criticisms of the milieu and fewer significant writers” (24). Critic Jim Burns would underscore the magazine’s radical switch to a less literary end product: “The most famous of the magazines which embodied the voice of the beat movement in its pages was Evergreen Review … It now has only marginal appeal to anyone seriously interested in creative literature” (85). Given the fact that Bukowski appeared for the first time in the magazine in the December 1967 issue, when renowned authors no longer populated its pages and it had little literary zest, Michael Baughan’s contention seems unsatisfactory: “Evergreen represented for Bukowski a kind of loophole into the canon of serious literature, through which he might gain entrance without having to compromise his vociferously stated anti-intellectualism” (47). Rather, Bukowski did not need to sacrifice his style precisely because Evergreen Review had forsaken the aforementioned “canon of serious literature,” and his apparently artless, obscene production was warmly received.


Bukowski had first submitted a short-story titled “Murder” to Evergreen Review in 1962. After being rejected several times by the magazine, he confided to Hale Chatfield, who had published Bukowski in the journal The Hiram Poetry Review, that “[I] got rid of a couple of poems at Evergreen Review, which I thot would never happen” (Chatfield, 7 Feb. 1967). Indeed, in the poem “… American Express, Athens, Greece:” printed in the Wormwood Review in July 1965, Bukowski complained thus:


and, baby, I see you’ve been around:
Evergreen Review, Poetry etc.
I cannot
make these golden outhouses of
culture and have long since
given up.
(Roominghouse 187)


Nevertheless, as in the case of Poetry and other journals, Bukowski had unrelentingly submitted his work until it was finally accepted, and, despite his claim in “… American Express, Athens, Greece:” Evergreen Review was no exception to his stubborn pertinacity.


A poem titled “Men’s Crapper,” published in Intrepid #7 (March 1967) was reprinted, with Intrepid editor Allen De Loach’s permission, in the December 1967 issue of Evergreen Review. Bukowski had been corresponding extensively since 1965 with poet Harold Norse, who would be instrumental in persuading Penguin editor Nikos Stangos to include Bukowski in the anthology Penguin Modern Poets 13 (1969), and, in all likelihood, Norse had also suggested Evergreen Review co-editor Seymour Krim that he print Bukowski’s work in the magazine. Krim, who had championed Kerouac, Ginsberg and other Beat and alternative authors in “girlie” magazines such as Swank and Nugget in the early to mid 60s, was probably delighted to run Bukowski’s poetry in Evergreen Review. Furthermore, Krim apparently had to convince the other editors of Bukowski’s stature as a poet, as Bukowski explained to Norse in November 1967: “a Seymour Krim … said he was trying to break down resistance and get them to take the poem” (Lilly, 3 Nov. 1967). The poem was indeed accepted and Bukowski would express to Norse his mixed feelings about being finally published in such a well-known and relatively respected periodical:


Got Evergreen 50 today with my short poem in there, way in the back, the thing is shot with the famous, so there they are: Tennessee Williams, John Rechy, Leroi Jones, Karl Shapiro … but the writing is bad … I am probably writing all this shit about Evergreen because I have a bad conscience and fear that I am slipping as a good writer in order to get into their slick pages. On the other hand, there is a kind of kid’s Christmas joy at opening the big stocking for the goodies. It’s nice … Who wouldn’t rather appear in Evergreen than in Epos, a Quarterly of Verse? (Lilly, 1 Dec. 1967)


While the table of contents of Evergreen Review #50 was perhaps not as impressive as those of the San Francisco Review #1 (1958) or The Outsider #1 (1961), featuring e.e. cummings, William Saroyan, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, or Bertrand Russell, to name a few, Bukowski was published alongside undoubtedly renowned first-rate authors.


The final question is wickedly rhetorical; Bukowski always downplayed his contributions to Epos, claiming he only submitted his most “poetic” or “traditional” work to editors Evelyn Thorne and Will Tullos. He would also stress that Poems and Drawings (1962), the special Bukowski-only Epos issue, was the least accomplished of his early chapbooks. The fact that appearing in Evergreen Review might suggest he was demeaning himself as an author was a banal justification to reassure Norse of his reputedly unshakeable, rebellious literary spirit as an outsider of the American underground. However, empirical evidence and factual data show that Bukowski did not mind turning his back upon his “outsider” status in order to have his material published in any magazine, regardless of its reputation in the literary circles, and Evergreen Review was definitely no exception.


Nevertheless, in yet another perverse twist of events, despite the excitement caused by his first appearance in Evergreen Review, Bukowski would criticize the editors’ decision to place his poem in the final pages of the magazine, as if it were a minor piece. According to the letter to Norse, he received the issue with his poem on December 1, 1967, and, barely a week later, in a “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” column published in Open City, he complained bitterly: “in the Dec. issue of Evergreen there is a small poem by one Charles Bukowski far in the back pages, and all through the magazine there is an interview of Leroi Jones, poems of Leroi Jones … I remembered him when we were both scratching to get our poetry into the little magazines” (“Notes” 10). The fact that Leroi Jones, later Amiri Baraka, had rejected Bukowski’s submissions when he was editing Yugen and Floating Bear in the late 50s and early 60s, might account for his resentful tone. This episode is strikingly similar to the disappointment that overcame Bukowski when he learned that Whit Burnett had printed his first short-story ever in the “end pages” of Story in 1944.


Bitterness and disappointments notwithstanding, Evergreen Review would be a pivotal periodical both in promoting Bukowski’s work and in consolidating his growing popularity. A second poem, “Even the Sun Was Afraid,” was published in the February 1969 issue; E. V. Griffith, who had released Bukowski’s first chapbook in 1960, Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail, and who had also printed several of his poems in the “little” Hearse, would exultantly exclaim after reading that poem: “Finally! And belatedly! I have been wondering when, if ever, [Evergreen Review] would discover you. I still think you are the best damned poet Hearse ever published” (Davidson, 10 Feb. 1969). In September of that year, the magazine would run a long short-story where Bukowski somewhat cruelly recounted his involvement in John Bryan’s alternative newspaper Open City, aptly titled “The Birth, Life, and Death of an Underground Newspaper,” for which he was paid 330 dollars. Evergreen Review not only brought about a much-needed exposure due to its large circulation, but also a more substantial payment than the customary contributor’s copies of the “littles.” A riotously funny short-story titled “The Day We Talked about James Thurber,” where Bukowski stoically and comically impersonated a French poet friend of his, graced the January 1970 issue. The poem “Soup, Cosmos and Tears,” which Bukowski favored during his first poetry readings in early 1970, was his last appearance in Evergreen Review in June 1970.


With the exception of “Men’s Crapper” — which had nonetheless previously appeared in a little magazine- all Bukowski’s contributions to Evergreen Review have been duly collected. Black Sparrow Press published the poems “Even the Sun Was Afraid” and “Soup, Cosmos and Tears,” while City Lights reprinted the two short-stories in Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness in 1972; the story “The Day We Talked about James Thurber” seemed to be especially popular as it was printed in the German magazine Twen in April 1971, and it was later collected in the anthology Evergreen Review Reader (1998). The fact that Bukowski’s work was championed by Evergreen Review, one of the key periodicals to come into life in the years preceding the literary explosion of the 60s, and that his contributions to the magazine were eventually collected by prestigious small presses such as Black Sparrow Press and City Lights, unquestionably attests to the increasing interest in his literary output and it definitely accounts for the popularity that Bukowski achieved in American letters from the late 60s onwards.

Works cited

Baughan, Michael Gray. Charles Bukowski. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.

Bukowski, Charles. “Notes of a Dirty Old Man.” Open City 30 Nov./5 Dec. 1967: 11–12.

— . “Notes of a Dirty Old Man.” Open City 8–14 Dec. 1967: 10.

— . The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems 1946–66. Eighth Printing. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1998.

— . Screams from the Balcony: Selected Letters 1960–1970. Ed. Seamus Cooney. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1993.

Burns, Jim. “Tracking Down the Beats: A Preliminary Survey.” The Private Library Summer 1973: 83–100.

Chatfield, Hale. Unpublished correspondence located in The Hiram Poetry Review files made available to the author.

Davidson: Charles Bukowski Papers. Mss 12. Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Lilly: Norse mss., Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

McCloskey, Mark. “Poetry Chronicle: 1961.” Wagner Literary Magazine 3 (1962): 99–108.

Martin, Peter. “An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Little Magazines.” The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History. Ed. Elliott Anderson and Mary Kinzie. Yonkers, N.Y.: The Pushcart Press, 1978. 666–750.

May, James Boyer. “The Original Underground.” Adam Feb. 1970: 23–25.

Pollak, Felix. “What Happened to ‘Little’ in ‘Little Magazine?’” Holy Doors: An Anthology of Poetry, Prose and Criticism. Ed. William Robson. Long Beach, CA: Robson, 1972. 69–73.

Abel Debritto lives in a remote, stone village in the Costa Brava (Spain). ‘Big Time’ is based on research undertaken for his Ph.D. on Charles Bukowski and the small press, which he is currently rewriting for book publication.

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