“The male, for all his bravado and exploration, is the loyal one, the one who generally feels love. The female is skilled at betrayal and torture and damnation”
(Bukowski, “Letter to Steven Richmond”)
Bukowski’s academic respectability lies well below that of Frederick Exley, Hunter S. Thompson and John Fante. He was a self-proclaimed womaniser and an alcoholic whose writings ruptured the vanguard of American literature under his “Dirty Old Man” persona in the late sixties and he continued to garner attention with fictionalised memoirs right up until his death in 1994. Charles Bukowski presented the mundane with vulgarity, deconstructing the American dream (and his own place in it) through the oft-featured protagonist Chinaski. Often his work was a dramatized portrayal of his own vision of hyper-masculinity that, without apology, struck out violently against those that surrounded him, particularly women.
“Once a woman turns against you, forget it. They can love you, then something turns in them. They can watch you dying in a gutter, run over by a car, and they’ll spit on you.”
It wasn’t just femininity in the abstract sense either: seemingly, the large majority of women he knew were represented in his writing, from the ‘300 pound whore’ whom he lost his virginity to at 24, to Amber O’Neil (pseudonym) who was so appalled by his portrayal of their affair that she published a chapbook in revenge entitled “Blowing My Hero”. So where does the appeal in Bukowski lie? And is he worth scrutinizing with an academic lens considering his vulgar subjection of women? Even in his own writings he persistently deplored institutionalised academia, to him it was a “temple of snobs and fakers” whereas he, and the counterculture he represented, had “come from the alleys and the bars and the jails” (Bukowski, Rape of the Holy Mother).
Rather than shy away from Bukowski and roll our eyes in disdain when we hear him mentioned alongside Max Tucker (I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell) and Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) by wide-eyed and impressionable undergraduates, let’s apply some basic gender theory – explore Bukowski’s male posturing and ask the question: is there more to Bukowski’s misogyny than a simple hatred of women, or should he be thrown back into the alleys?
Bukowski’s stories were exaggerations of the truth. At no point did he ever claim his work to be autobiographical. Yet because the narratives, the attitudes, and the characters he featured in his works appeared in some form or another in his own life, many people believed it to be so and therefore idealised him. In an FBI file that was compiled about him in 1968 (why the FBI were interested in him is another story), there is an interview with his landlord that suggests that Bukowski “keeps to himself all of the time” and that he had “never seen any women in or around his apartment”.  Yet the mistreatment of women, the abuse and the subjection that he writes about was certainly real. In a shocking interview with his ex-wife he is seen kicking and swearing at her (below – viewer discretion advised). But how much did the truth matter?
Judith Butler notes, among other things, that gender identities are not biologically determined nor are they actual truths. Instead, they are performances.  We might suggest, then, that Bukowski’s writings were dramatic representations of his own gender identity. If that were so, does his widespread appeal mean that his audience had some connection to that gender identity?
Bukowski appealed to the downtrodden man, those on the fringes of society who had failed to live up to the masculine image expected in the American dream. He preyed on the poor-man’s pulp-fiction fantasy by writing a violent countersystem philosophy that lashed out at everything he hated, but most terribly at women. Some have argued that Bukowski’s misogyny was a parodic construction intended to dismantle rigid gender role definitions.  Yet how much of his audience understood this, how many of those who came from the bars, from the alleys, and from the jails would have recognised such a satire, and how many would instead have idealised the man, the misogyny, and the violent mistreatment of women?
If anything is certain, it is time to stop either dismissing Bukowski as pulp-fiction writer of vulgar lowbrow literature beneath academic scrutiny, or dismissing his misogyny and only observing the ‘deeper purposes’ of his writings. We need to discuss his explicit abasement of women.
I am currently battling with a PhD in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh on a totally unrelated topic. As well as running this site, I have also blogged on other sites and have an interest in editing and the publishing industry. Find me here.
Edited by Robyn Pritzker and Amadeus Chen.
1. A copy of the FBI files can be found at http://bukowski.net/fbi/067.php.
2. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 180-200.
3. Evans, Martha. “’Beaten, fagged and fucked’: Constructs of masculinity in four novels by Charles Bukowski”, MA Thesis (California State University, Long Beach, 2008).