A Reading of Charles Bukowski’s First Published Story, “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip” (1944)


“Everyone’s got to start some­where,” a banal plat­i­tude that express­es a tru­ism worth repeat­ing: wher­ev­er you are, you’ve got to get start­ed. If you’re John Updike (who would have been 82 years old yes­ter­day), you start where so many oth­er accom­plished fig­ures have, the Har­vard Lam­poon. If you’re Charles Bukows­ki… believe it or not, you actu­al­ly start in an equal­ly renowned pub­li­ca­tion. Bukowski’s first fic­tion appeared in Sto­ry, a mag­a­zine that helped launch the careers of Cheev­er, Salinger, Saroy­an, Car­son McCullers and Richard Wright.

But if you’re Charles Bukows­ki, you come out swing­ing. Your first pub­lished work in 1944  is a non­sense sto­ry writ­ten as an eff you to the edi­tor, Whit Bur­nett. You fea­ture Mr. Bur­nett as a char­ac­ter, along with a cat who shakes hands (sort of), a pros­ti­tute named Mil­lie, a few card-play­ing drunks, an impe­ri­ous “short sto­ry instruc­tress,” and a mys­te­ri­ous “bleary-eyed tramp.” Oh, and you open the sto­ry by quot­ing ver­ba­tim one of Burnett’s rejec­tion let­ters:

Dear Mr. Bukows­ki:

Again, this is a con­glom­er­a­tion of extreme­ly good stuff and oth­er stuff so full of idol­ized pros­ti­tutes, morn­ing-after vom­it­ing scenes, mis­an­thropy, praise for sui­cide etc. that it is not quite for a mag­a­zine of any cir­cu­la­tion at all. This is, how­ev­er, pret­ty much the saga of a cer­tain type of per­son and in it I think you’ve done an hon­est job. Pos­si­bly we will print you some­time but I don’t know exact­ly when. That depends on you.

Sin­cere­ly yours,

Whit Bur­nett

I won’t spoil it for you—you must read (or lis­ten to below) “After­math of a Lengthy Rejec­tion Slip” for yourself—but the let­ter sets up a typ­i­cal­ly Bukowskian punch­line: wry and sar­cas­tic and wist­ful and lyri­cal all at once.

Bukows­ki was 24 and had only been writ­ing for two years by this time. He lat­er recalled being very unhap­py with the pub­li­ca­tion. For one, writes Book­tryst, “it had been buried in the End Pages sec­tion of the mag­a­zine as, Bukows­ki felt, a curios­i­ty rather than a seri­ous piece of writ­ing.” How­ev­er, Bukows­ki had already sent Sto­ry dozens of what he con­sid­ered seri­ous pieces of writ­ing before pen­ning “After­math,” which he admits he tamed for the sake of Burnett’s sen­si­bil­i­ties. In an inter­view near the end of his life, Bukows­ki remem­bered sub­mit­ting to the mag­a­zine “a cou­ple of short sto­ries a week for maybe a year and half. The sto­ry they final­ly accept­ed was mild in com­par­i­son to the oth­ers. I mean in terms of con­tent and style and gam­ble and explo­ration and all that.”

Bukows­ki may have been bit­ter, but his first pub­li­ca­tion, and last sub­mis­sion to Sto­ry, might deserve cred­it for inspir­ing a life­time of boozy mate­r­i­al: look­ing back, he recalls that after the per­ceived slight, he “drank and became one of the best drinkers any­where, which takes some tal­ent also.” Everybody’s got to start some­where.

Book­tryst has more to the sto­ry, as well as sev­er­al images of the rare 1944 Bukows­ki issue of Sto­ry. Above, in two parts, lis­ten to the sto­ry in the won­der­ful­ly dry bari­tone of Tom O’Bedlam, whom you may already know from our pre­vi­ous posts on Bukowski’s poems “Nir­vana” and “So You Want to Be a Writer?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Three Inter­pre­ta­tions of Charles Bukowski’s Melan­choly Poem “Nir­vana”

Lis­ten to Charles Bukows­ki Poems Being Read by Bukows­ki Him­self & the Great Tom Waits

So You Want to Be a Writer?: Charles Bukows­ki Explains the Dos & Don’ts

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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