Early years

Bukowski was born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany, to Heinrich Bukowski and Katharina (nee Fett). His mother was a native German and his father was an American serviceman with well-documented German roots who met her after World War I had ended. Bukowski's parents were Roman Catholic. He claimed to be an illegitimate child; Andernach marital records, however, indicate that his parents married one month prior to his birth.

Due to the collapse of the German economy following the end of World War I, the family emigrated to the United States in 1923, when Bukowski was two, and initially settled in Baltimore, Maryland. Wanting a more Anglophone kind of name, Bukowski's parents began addressing young Heinrich as "Henry" and altered the pronunciation of the family name from boo-kof-skee to boo-kow-ski; the surname Bukowski is of Polish or other Slavic origin. The family settled in South Central Los Angeles in 1930, the city from which his father's family originated. During Bukowski's childhood his father was often unemployed, and Bukowski stated in the autobiographical Ham on Rye that, with his mother's acquiescence, his father was frequently abusive, both physically and mentally, beating his son for the smallest imagined offence. During his youth Bukowski was shy and socially withdrawn, a condition exacerbated during his teens by an extreme case of acne. Neighborhood children ridiculed his German accent and the clothing his parents made him wear. In his early teens Henry had an epiphany when he was introduced to alcohol by his loyal friend William "Baldy" Mullinax, depicted as "Eli Lacross" in Ham on Rye, son of an alcoholic surgeon. "This is going to help me for a very long time", he later wrote, describing the genesis of his chronic alcoholism; or, as he saw it, the genesis of a method he could utilize to come to more amicable terms with his own life. After graduating from Los Angeles High School, Bukowski attended Los Angeles City College for two years, taking courses in art, journalism and literature, before quitting at the start of World War II. He moved to New York to begin a career as a writer.

On July 22, 1944, with World War II ongoing, Bukowski was arrested by FBI agents in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he was living at the time, on suspicion of draft evasion. He was held for 17 days in Philadelphia's Moyamensing Prison. Sixteen days later he failed a psychological exam that was part of his mandatory military entrance "physical" and was given a Selective Service Classification of 4-F (unfit for military service).