Using Strain Theory to Provide New Perspectives on the Response to Anomie in Charles Bukowski’s Novels: 1. Introduction

Charles Bukowski has long been considered a rebellious author, an opinion informed by his subject matter: people on the edges of society, drinking and gambling, and also his approach to writing. Abel Debritto argues that from the beginning of his career, Bukowski had a non-conformist streak.[1] This is an identity which was created from the beginning of his career when he was published extensively by Louise and Jon Webb in the literary magazine The Outsider alongside ‘leading underground figures’ such as William Burroughs and Henry Miller.[2] Bukowski was named The Outsider’s ‘Outsider of the Year’ in 1962.[3]

The rebellious nature of Bukowski has also been identified in his writing style by Bukowski critic Robert Sandarg. Sandarg identifies an intentional profanity in Bukowski’s work which was utilised to ‘offend the upper-crust establishment that he so despised.’[4] Sandarg calls Bukowski the ‘King of Political Incorrectness’ and asserts that it is politically incorrect language and actions which are considered profane by modern sensibilities.[5] Finally Sandarg says that Bukowski’s profanity was subversive and destructive. Bukowski’s works ‘shake the core beliefs that our culture is built on’.[6] By writing from this outsider perspective, Bukowski continued a long American tradition of literary rebels.

In Paul Clement’s Charles Bukowski, Outsider Literature, and the Beat Movement, Clement positions Charles Bukowski as following on from poets such as Walt Whitman and those of the Beat Generation by depicting social rebellion amongst a section of American society.[7] Bukowski’s early novels, though sometimes set earlier, were written during a decade which saw stagflation and also a fall in living standards for Americans with the end of the post-war economic boom. Bukowski’s response to this was to write against a hegemonic American culture and to present diversity and amplify the ‘voice of ‘other’ often excluded people and their versions of reality’.[8]

Bukowski writes about a world inhabited by this other section of society; within this world the Bukowski-myth is created. The Bukowski-myth celebrates failure as opposed to success in a contrary fashion, as Bukowski wrote towards the end of his life in the poem ‘My Father’, ‘I think it was my father who made me decide to/become a bum./I decided that if a man like that wants to be rich/then I want to be poor.’[9] The Bukowski-myth can be neatly summed up as ‘don’t try’, the Bukowski rallying cry which also serves as the epitaph on his gravestone.[10]

Paul Clement argues that Bukowski’s novels acknowledge two worlds; one is a ‘Disneyfied’ America which is never seen in Bukowski’s work but exists within Bukowski’s novels as the binary opposite of the world which Bukowski creates, the other is ‘Bukowski-land’ which ‘graphically describes the underbelly of urban America and is an antidote to Disneyfied performance’.[11] The distance between this world of seedy characters and the Disneyfied America is utilised to ridicule the ‘mythology of the American Dream and ideology of capitalism.’[12]

I believe that Bukowski explored rebellion in his writing by focusing on the neglected people who own the fringes of society; those who inhabit the boundaries of acceptable social behaviour and who frequently transgress the threshold into outright rebellion. Bukowski goes beyond writing about a noble working-class, the deserving poor, and focuses on an eternally unemployed ‘under-class’.[13] It is these liminal people and the space they occupy which forms the battleground of Bukowski’s text as he focuses ‘on ugliness… to penetrate and expose hegemonic culture’.[14] Bukowski uses the character of ‘down-and-out unemployed’ Henry Chinaski to explore this liminal space.[15][16]

In my opinion, Clement relies too much on an assumption of the real-life ideologies and opinions of Bukowski when analysing his work. I believe that by looking at Seymour Chatman’s theory of the implied author, a further nuance is added to the novels. Chatman’s work says that any conception of Bukowski which the reader, or Clement, has when reading these books is a fictionalised Bukowski, the implied author. This concept allows the ‘intent of narrative fictions’ to be analysed ‘without recourse to biographism’.[17] Bukowski spent a lot of time creating a public image, what critic Barry Miles calls the ‘self-created Bukowski myth’.[18] The Bukowski-myth includes a notorious ‘ten-year drunk’ from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s in which he claimed to have stopped writing.[19] The historical record shows this to be untrue as Sounes notes that Bukowski continued submitting stories for publication during this time and so there is a substantial gap between the historical, or real-life, author Bukowski and the implied author Bukowski.[20]

The delineation between the author’s voice and the narrator’s voice is ill defined and blurred as acknowledged by Clement, ‘much of his writing is quasi-autobiographical and based on his experience it is difficult to discern the boundary between fact (his life) and fiction (his ideas) as they meld together.[21] The term semi-autobiographical comes close to describing the relationship between Bukowski and his writing but still doesn’t make fully clear exactly what the reader is experiencing because of the existence of the implied author. It is not an exact portrayal of his life, but nor is it entirely a work of fiction. Therefore, when understanding the rebellion which Bukowski portrays, we must have in mind the social deviance of the implied author as well as the fictional rebellion of Hank Chinaski.

The United States of America is a country which places great importance on conformity. From reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school to standing for the national anthem before sporting events, there is a theatrical element to this conformity. It is not just important to conform but also to be seen to be actively conforming. As noted, rebellion exists and indeed there is a rich history of literary rebellion and many of those famous rebels are now celebrated by the custodians of American culture. This seems a paradoxical situation in which a nation which attributes so much of its success to conformity also prizes rebellion, but the act of rebellion reinforces the social norms which the majority are compelled to obey. The functionalist sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote that social deviance fulfils an important social function whereby it identifies the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour.[22] By allowing some degree of transgression of those boundaries they are further highlighted and reinforced. So works rebellion in a society which functions correctly and properly. The sociologist Robert K. Merton however, has written on the breakdown of social conformity in the USA and identified a different kind of rebellion; one which does not identify social norms, but tries to confound them.

It is Merton’s writing on what he termed strain theory which will form the analytical basis of this dissertation. I will use strain theory to analyse how Bukowski explores social deviance in his novels and attempt to establish that Bukowski’s response to social strain changed dramatically over the course of his career.

 Merton proposed that there are two aspects operating in society: culture and social structure.[23] Something happens when culture and social structure stop working in harmony with each other and Merton names this disharmony ‘anomie’ Attempts to adapt to anomie are what create five states of strain theory.[24] As an example we can look at the American Dream narrative which attempts to flatten social hierarchy and insists that anyone can become the President, either of the country or of a corporation. Hard work and perseverance are enough for anyone to rise to the top of American society, says the theory. But there is not enough room at the top for everyone and so inevitably, sometimes hard work does not pay off. It is at this point that the disharmony results in anomie. An individual will find that culture has shown them the goals they should be striving towards and has told them the socially acceptable means of getting them, but it has not worked. A strain develops between culture, the goals and means, and the social structure, which is more rigid than a democratised, flattened hierarchy should be.

“The structure does not let them remain committed to the socially approved goals and to the socially approved means. They must abandon one (or both) parts of the value system.”[25]

Merton puts forward that there are five ways of adapting to social structure tension. The first four are often presented in a four-box matrix (Appendix 1). Each box denotes whether a person accepts or rejects social goals and socially approved means of achieving those goals. A fifth box exists outside of the matrix.

The first box is conformity. A person will decide that they want to achieve the goals set by society and are only willing to achieve those ends by legitimate, socially acceptable ways. The second is innovation. The innovators in society accept the socially established goals but reject the legitimate means. Often this takes the form of illegal or illicit behaviour in the quest for fame and fortune. The third adaptation is ritualism and is most often found within those who inhabit the middle-class strata. The ritualists reject the social goals, but they accept the means to achieve those goals. There is realism at work here whereby it is understood that an individual exists within a hierarchy and the opportunity to ascend to the top is unavailable. A new goal is substituted which is to maintain the position currently inhabited. While it may be impossible to rise, work must be done to ensure that one does not fall to a lower stratum. A person engaging in ritualism will go to work and do all they can within social norms, not to become rich but to enjoy their position of comfort relative to those below them. The fourth box within the matrix is retreatism and describes those who reject both the social goals and the means of achievement; those who do not take part in society, those who seem to exist outside of it, away from the hierarchy entirely. There is a fifth box, not included in the matrix as this box does not correspond to either accepting or rejecting cultural goals, social norms, or even the social structure at all. This fifth box is rebellion and corresponds with those who want to replace the social structure entirely and create a new society without the underlying tension of the disharmony which led to the cultural anomie responsible for the previous four means of adaptation.[26]

It becomes clear when reading the strain theory model that the premise of a society which cannot work for everyone within that system has some overlap with the work of Bukowski, the Bukowski-myth, and the world of Bukowski-land. It would seem that Bukowski explored how an individual responds to social anomie though there has previously been no research conducted to understand Bukowski’s work as it relates to strain theory. This dissertation will be novel in that it is a sustained application of strain theory to Bukowski’s Henry Chinaski cycle of novels. This dissertation analyses specific points in Bukowski’s oeuvre. Chapter One analyses Factotum and the strain theory response of retreatism, with a further analysis of Bukowski’s use of liminality to demonstrate social deviance. Chapter Two analyses Hollywood and the response of conformity, with a reference to the implied author and how this interacts with the Bukowski-myth.

[1] Abel Debritto, Charles Bukowski, King of the Underground: From Obscurity to Literary Icon, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 25.

[2] Howard Sounes, Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life, (London: Canongate, 2010), p. 47.

[3] Barry Miles, Charles Bukowski, (London, Virgin, 2005), p. 133.

[4] Robert Sandarg, ‘The Profanity of Charles Bukowski’, in [bju:k] – The Yearbook of the Charles Bukowski Society 2008, second edition, ed. by Roni, (Reidstadt: Ariel-Verlag, 2009), p. 111

[5] Robert Sandarg, pp. 113-114.

[6] Robert Sandarg, p. 116.

[7] Paul Clement, Charles Bukowski, Outsider Literature, and the Beat Movement, (London: Routledge, 2013), p. 51.

[8] Paul Clement, p. 6.

[9] Charles Bukowski, ‘My Father’, in Septuagenarian Stew, (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1998), p. 283.

[10] Charles Bukowski, Selected Letters Volume 1: 1958 – 1965, (London: Virgin Books, 2004), p. 110.

[11] Paul Clement, p. 10.

[12] Paul Clement, p. 48.

[13] Paul Clement, p. 45.

[14] Paul Clement, p. 6.

[15] Paul Clement, p. 47.

[16] Paul Clement, p. 47.

[17] Seymour Chatman, Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 75.

[18] Barry Miles, p. 145.

[19] Abel Debritto, p. 62.

[20] Howard Sounes, (2010), p. 25.

[21] Paul Clement, p. 43.

[22] Emile Durkheim, Rules of Sociological Method, (New York: The Free Press, 1982), p. 99.

[23]Steve Bruce, Sociology: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 72.

[24] Michelle L. Inderbitzen, Kristin A. Bates, Randy R. Gainey, Deviance and Social Control: A Sociological Perspective, 2nd. Ed. (London: Sage Publications, 2017), p. 134.

[25] Steve Bruce, p. 73.

[26] Steve Bruce, p. 75.

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