Most people would probably be surprised to learn that an institution with the stature and gravitas of The Huntington has magazines like Playboy and Hustler in their collections, but very soon those publications will be appearing in our library catalog. I should know, because I’m the one cataloging them.
In our defense (if such a defense is needed), we are adding them for their literary content, specifically the short stories and poems written by Charles Bukowski (1920–1994). Bukowski’s widow, Linda Lee Bukowski, donated the extensive collection of manuscript and printed material back in 2006, and by the time I finish cataloging all the printed material, we should have one of the most complete Bukowski archives anywhere in the world. His books have been published in almost 30 different languages.
If he was so widely published, you might ask, why would he stoop to submitting his work to smut-peddlers? A fair question. The answer is that Bukowski learned that writing for the skin magazines yielded a good income, which supported his poetry. He had left a literary mark as early as 1970, when publisher John Martin of Black Sparrow Press provided him with a stipend that allowed Bukowski to abandon his assortment of odd jobs and devote his full attention to writing. He began submitting his work everywhere. As his fame grew, it received a significant bump in 1987, when his screenplay Barfly was turned into a major motion picture by director Barbet Schroeder, starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway.
A quick count of his published articles, poems, and short stories comes to about 1,100. For every piece that found its way into Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, or Oui, a dozen appeared in other journals or magazines, including the American Poetry Review, Rolling Stone, and Zyzzyva. His work in The Wormwood Review alone more than doubles the total number of articles that appeared in adult magazines.
To the unfamiliar reader it might seem that there is nothing of literary value in a magazine devoted to attractive young women in various states of undress. Another perspective can be offered by looking at some of the other authors who have been published in Playboy: Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Ian Fleming, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, Vladimir Nabokov, John LeCarre, John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Stephen King (just to name a few). By appearing in Playboy, Bukowski was joining the ranks of the modern literary giants. But by having his work appear in the smaller publications, he was maintaining a connection with the experimental and free-thinking journals that printed his writing before he was a giant.
Kate Peck is a library assistant in the technical services department of The Huntington.
There are no plans to display these magazines, but you can read about the 2010–11 exhibition “Charles Bukowksi: Poet on the Edge” here, where you can also link to a PDF of the exhibition guide and listen to comments of curator Sara S. “Sue” Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington.