Was Charles Bukowski a Misogynist?
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.— Charles Bukowski
Despite achieving huge commercial and critical success by the time that he died in 1994, poet and author, Charles Bukowski has been dogged by accusations of misogyny both during his lifetime and in the years following.
He was a man of great talent as a writer, who could often demonstrate enormous charisma, wisdom, and intelligence, but even his most fervent fans would likely concede that the Bukowski personality contained elements that were damaged and difficult.
His heavy drinking and misanthropic rants, as well as testimonies given by the people who knew him well, point to an individual who was also capable of deep anger, insecurity and disaffection.
But did that make Bukowski a misogynist?
Linda King Talks About Her Tempestuous Relationship With Bukowski
A Brief Biography
Charles Henry Bukowski was born in Germany and moved to the USA at a young age. His sadistic father and passive mother made the young Bukowski’s life a living hell, according to the interviews given by Bukowski and the fictionalized account he wrote of his childhood, Ham on Rye: A Novel.
On top of receiving both physical and emotional abuse from his father, the young Bukowski was also plagued by terrible acne. Socially withdrawn and unable to get a girlfriend as a teenager, he didn’t lose his virginity until he was 24 years old.
Did the combination of these early bad experiences make Bukowski into a misogynist?
The female loves to play man against man. And if she is in a position to do it, there is not one who will resist.— Charles Bukowski
Three Specific Charges of Misogyny
To go through all of Charles Bukowski’s work, discussing each instance of alleged misogyny would clearly be a huge, if not hopeless task - Bukowski was a prolific author and poet and there are over sixty books of his in print at the time that I am writing, including novels, poetry collections, short stories, and other works.
I therefore intend to focus on the three things that are most often brought up when matters of his alleged women hating are raised:
- Bukowski’s general personality and emotional value system.
- The infamous Barbet Schroeder video, where Bukowski physically lashes out at his final wife Linda Lee after verbally abusing her.
- Bukowski’s literary output, especially his novel, Women, which has often been cited as being his most offensive and detrimental in regard to the female gender.
1. Overview of Bukowski’s personality
Critics have described Charles Bukowski as fulfilling a certain male fantasy of the anti-social slob, a man who can behave as he wishes, uninhibited by the general constraints of society.
It was an image that he often played up to in public, affecting a boorish, W.C. Fields type of persona for his later poetry readings.
How much was the real Charles Bukowski and how much was a deliberate persona that he affected is difficult to assess.
There are women who can make you feel more with their bodies and their souls, but these are the exact women who will turn the knife into you right in front of the crowd. Of course, I expect this, but the knife still cuts.— Charles Bukowski
2. The Barbet Schroeder film clip.
The second piece of evidence is the infamous incident at Bukowski’s home, captured on film by Barbet Schroeder, during delays with the filming of the movie, Barfly.
The film shows a drunken, snarling Bukowski aggressively accusing his wife of various, apparently irrational charges before physically lashing out at her with his feet.
You can see a Youtube clip of the kicking incident below. Unsurprisingly, his wife played down the incident afterwards, describing it as being fuelled by alcohol and implying that it was not regular behaviour for him.
Never envy a man his lady. Behind it all lays a living hell.— Charles Bukowski
3. His novel, 'Women'
He explained this behaviour at the time as making amends for the involuntary celibacy of his youth, and also as “research” for his forthcoming novel, Women, which was published in 1978.
According to his critics, the book demonstrates that Bukowski was a chauvinist, because of its negative portrayals of women and the attitudes expressed towards them.
The book’s defenders, however, believe that Bukowski often portrayed the book's protagonist, Henry Chinaski, in a poor light, especially in relation to his sexual exploits, for comedic effect.
The lead character also eventually questions his behaviour and enters into a more serious, loving romance at the end of the book.
After his “research” for the novel, Bukowski became fed up with one night stands and settled down with his final wife, Linda Lee, who would be his partner for the rest of his life.
It's possible to love a human being if you don't know them too well.— Charles Bukowski
The women in Bukowski's life.
- Jane Cooney Baker was his first love. She was a heavy drinker and died in 1962.
- In 1964 Bukowski had a daughter with his live-in lover, poet, Frances Smith.
- During the early 1970s he had a series of relationships and trysts as his fame began to grow, including a particularly tempestuous relationship with Linda King, a poet and sculptor.
- Bukowski eventually settled down and married Linda Lee Beighle, a health food restaurant owner. They lived together in San Pedro, Los Angeles until Bukowski's death in 1994 from leukemia.
Conclusion: Was Charles Bukowski a Misogynist?
I don’t think that many people would disagree that Bukowski possessed a strong streak of misanthropy generally, and also that his humor could be biting, even cruel at times, but whether he was a had a special hatred for women in particular is maybe a matter of opinion.
Discussions of Bukowski’s demeanor towards women can often divide along gender lines, in my experience, with women commonly taking a dimmer view of him, although it is also worth noting that maybe a third of Bukowski’s fanbase are female.
I suspect that the readers’ overall opinion as to whether he was a misogynist is influenced by whether they think that his talents as a writer outweighed his failings as a human being.
Charles Bukowski, sage or chauvinist?
© 2011 Paul Goodman