Charles Bukowski has been accused of misogyny both during his lifetime and in the years following, though receiving huge commercial and critical success by the time he died in 1994, poet and author.
He was prolific as a writer, who could often demonstrate enormous charisma, wisdom, and intelligence, but Bukowski’s personality contained elements that were damaged and difficult. His heavy drinking and misanthropic rants often pointed out to him as someone who held deep anger, insecurity, and disaffection.
The Famous Portrait of the Writer by Mark Hanauer – 1981
The Personal Journey with Charles Bukowski
My journey with Bukowski’s work started circa Winter 2020. I was already going through an emotional turmoil of my own along with the nightmarish pandemic. It was this time that I felt his unapologetic, realistic words were providing me a strange fascination. I became an instant fan and drowned myself in his creation.
I read a bit here and there and found out critics hated him for being a misogynist which I wasn’t familiar with at that time. His literary alter-ego Henry “Hank” Chinaski increased my curiosity and I began with Post Office. And there it all began. My love for him started to turn sour as I read endless abusive writings directed towards women. As someone who continuously reads and explores women’s rights through history and literature, his words of filth spewed on women felt disappointing and enraging. As I walked through his Women and Factotum, I felt there was a constant need in his words for a woman’s presence in his life as an author, though most of these women were reduced to the most demeaning slurs. I started reading more about him than of him and watched several videos only to be left shocked and utterly confused about still not being able to stop a deep-seated appreciation I felt for his honest writings.
The Barbet Schroeder Film Clip
Then came across the infamous Barbet Schroeder video, where Bukowski physically lashes out at his final wife Linda Lee after verbally abusing her. The film shows a drunken, growling Bukowski aggressively accusing his wife of various, apparently irrational charges before physically lashing out at her with his feet.
One can watch a Youtube clip of the kicking incident below. Unsurprisingly, his wife played down the incident afterward, describing it as being fuelled by alcohol and stated that it was not his regular behavior.
Ham on Rye – A Possible Explanation behind Charles Bukowski’s Hateful Behaviour
Bukowski’s stories were exaggerations of the truth. At no point did he ever claim his work to be autobiographical. But, the narratives, the attitudes, and the characters he featured in his works appeared in some form or another in his own life.
Henry Charles “Hank” Chinaski, his literary alter-ego of Bukowski is the main character of Ham On Rye, Post Office, Women, and Factotum, also appeared in many of his other novels and short stories. Through Hank, we see Bukowski’s life and how a deep-seated misogynist started to grow and eventually take over him.
He described his childhood as joyless and frightening and wrote, “A twisted childhood has fucked me up”. Growing up with a father who had a negative impression of what he considered “the weaker sex” deeply impacted Bukowski’s own understanding of women. Bukowski encountered every bad characteristic one can think of in his father such as cruelty, domination, self-righteousness, and so on. Being thrashed mercilessly by his father on a daily basis as reflected through his Hank, we come to know that his mother had constantly been a silent spectator of his childhood trauma. She always supported the father, as she did not dare to cross him. This fear of Henry Sr. (Hank’s father) on behalf of Katharina led to the fact that she lost her natural affection for her son if she ever had any.
His childhood thus made him not only hostile towards women but towards humankind as a whole.
Being Hostile Towards Women
Hostility towards women might be one of the reasons why Bukowski faced trouble in getting recognition at the beginning of his career.
Around the 1950s to 1970s, there were many social and political movements that attempted to forge justice and equality for women. With the start of Women’s Liberation and second-wave feminism gaining tremendous notoriety, women were marching forth demanding change about their worth. But, Bukowski seemed to have kept his work separate from what was happening around him. His creation of characters exemplifies what Bukowski experienced and so he came to the conclusion that “Women are aggressive and disloyal whores.”
Another contributing factor was the deep-rooted insecurity he bore in his heart due to endless bullying from people because of his looks. In many instances, he mentioned being rejected or laughed upon by women in his struggling years. His popularity brought him women, and that’s where things became twisted as he slept with innumerous women in the name of writing and “research”.
There are critical components that need to be looked into in his work on misogyny and sexism: male perception of female hostility and male perception of women as sex objects. When you have no respect for someone, let alone an entire gender, it’s almost impossible to characterize them as legitimate people. So instead, Bukowski used violence and anger to make his writing more compelling.
It was around the late 1960s that Bukowski started to achieve popularity. This was also the time of the developing Women’s Liberation Movement. A lot of radical figures of the Women’s Liberation Movement were active in the same underground papers as Bukowski and thus arguments broke out regarding values. But I did found an evolution in his writing and perspectives about women changing a bit over time. As I read more about him, I found he was substantially supportive and preferred female artists. He was married to a magazine editor, Barbara Frye, and later on, was deeply involved with Linda King an unmistakably pro-feminist and sculptor. In addition, Bukowski encouraged and exchanged letters with a series of female writers, artists, and editors. Still, the women of – especially – his early works are often unfaithful, hustlers and whores. This was a very reductive view of women, but Bukowski’s work evolved as his latter works move more towards comfortable domestic life with wives and cats and the portraits of women become more comforting.
I don’t believe that many of his readers will dismiss that Bukowski possessed an unhealthy streak of misanthropy and that his humor could be biting, even cruel at times, but whether he had a downtrodden hatred for women, in particular, is maybe a matter of opinion. A product of a poor childhood and constant bullying, his hostility was not only towards women but towards humankind as a whole. We need to keep in mind that most of the characters in the novels are portrayed in a negative manner, not only the women. For me, the writer was not arguing in favor of the behavior of his alter-ego Hank and of his attitudes towards women, but he was perhaps portraying a harsh picture of reality and making his writers question it.
Bukowski’s writing implies his own experiences with women. It is important to know that critique against the chauvinist protagonist in the texts is not always just, but we write what we know, and that’s how he knew women. We often give writers the benefit of the doubt if we believe the work is good solely for our satisfaction, but ethically, it’s appropriate from the viewpoint of a reader to comprehend the sociological flaws that make an appearance as well. It’s too late now to change his words or him now, but we can surely change our consciousness about what we are consuming. His poetry and honest opinionated pieces will always keep me a fervent fan of his creations.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying something, but we should ask ourselves: What are we enjoying it for?