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An experimental writer associated with the early modernists, Djuna Barnes combined elements of Surrealism, Gothicism, black humor, and poetry to depict the hopelessness of modern life. Barnes, who often described herself as ”the most famous unknown in the world,” was in fact a well-known writer in the bohemian communities of Greenwich Village and Paris from 1910 to 1930. Barnes was recognized for her sharp wit and quirky journalism, as well as her strange, dark fiction, plays, and poetry. She was also an illustrator, drawing ink or charcoal portraits of such illustrious models as James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. Many of her colleagues deemed her writing the product of genius, but the general reading public failed to embrace her.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Unusual Upbringing and Early Notoriety
Barnes was born in Corrnwall-on-Hudson, New York, to an English mother and an idealistic, domineering father who mistrusted society and eventually moved the family to a self-supporting farm on Long Island. Educated at home by her father and her paternal grandmother, an author and suffragist (an advocate of a woman’s right to vote, at a time when it was not yet allowed), Barnes was infused as a young girl with a knowledge of art, music, and literature. She studied formally only briefly at the Pratt Institute and the Art Students’ League in New York City, and by age twenty-one had gained a job writing and illustrating features and interviews for the Brooklyn Eagle.
Her first poems were accepted by Harpers Weekly in 1913. During the next two decades she published stories, poems, and plays in newspapers as well as such popular and artistic magazines as Vanity Fair. She became involved in theater as an actor and reviewer, and three of her one-act plays were performed by Eugene O’Neill’s Provincetown Players during the 1919-1920 season. Barnes also played a leading role among the untraditional, antiauthoritarian bohemian art scene thriving at the time in Greenwich Village, where she became notorious for her mordant humor, inspired conversation, and striking appearance. Her first published volume, The Book of Repulsive Women (1915), was self-illustrated with sinuous pen-and-ink drawings, and for many years Barnes was known as much for her artwork as for her writing.
Move to Paris, Life-Changing Relationships
Like her grandmother before her, Barnes’s success as a journalist in New York led to her assignment in Europe in 1921 for McCall’s. She stayed for over a decade. Her Paris years were some of her most important, personally as well as professionally. Soon after arriving in Paris, and following a brief stint in Berlin, Barnes met Thelma Wood, a sculptor and silverpoint artist from St. Louis, whose previous lovers included Edna St. Vincent Millay and the photographer Berenice Abbott. The difficult relationship and cohabitation that ensued between Barnes and Wood lasted nearly a decade and was the impetus behind Nightwood (1936).
Barnes lived and wrote as part of the expatriate literary enclave in Paris’s fashionable Left Bank, where she became acquainted with celebrated figures Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce, whose stream-of-consciousness technique influenced her prose style, notably in her novel Ryder (1928). Barnes was a regular visitor at the salon of Natalie Clifford Barney, whose lesbian circle she caricatured in drawings and Elizabethan verse in her Ladies’ Almanac (1928), offering subtle and sly high praise to a fictional saint based on Barney.
Nightwood was published by Faber and Faber in 1936, after several years of difficult revision by Barnes and rejections from several different publishing companies. The novel had its supporters, including T. S. Eliot, who endorsed publication of the novel after Barnes’s friend Emily Coleman persuaded him to read it. Harcourt and Brace published the American edition in 1937. At the center of the tragedy is the broken relationship between Nora and Robin. Doctor Matthew O’Connor, a grand gay transvestite character who philosophizes in witty monologues, counsels and consoles Nora in the painful reality of her betrayal by a woman who is ”a beast turning human” and who ”lives in two worlds—meet of child and desperado.” Nora’s love cannot tame Robin, and Robin leaves her for another woman.
Thelma Wood’s reaction to Nightwood was not favor able. She was angered by Barnes’s portrayal of her as the selfish, nearly inhuman Robin. Barnes knew the risks involved in this public indictment of Wood’s betrayal. While writing the novel she wrote to Coleman: ”Had a letter from Thelma, possibly the last in my life if the book does get printed … She will hate me so. It’s awful—God almighty what a price one pays for 200 pages.” But, as Cheryl Plumb asserted in her article ”Revising Night wood”: ”a kind of glee of despair for Barnes’s writing is the recompense, the resurrection.” Plumb quoted from a letter from Barnes to Coleman, dated July 22, 1936: ”I come to love my invention more—so I am able—perhaps only so able—to put Thelma aside—because now she is not Robin.”
The Life of a Recluse
The next several years after the publication of Nightwood were difficult for Barnes, who battled depression, alcoholism, and illness. Relations with her surviving family members were also strained, especially when her brothers and mother conspired to send her to a sanitarium. In general, her family did not appreciate her creative work and pressured her to get a steady job.
After moving throughout Europe during the 1930s, Barnes returned to New York before the outbreak of World War II. Apart from The Antiphon (1958), a Jacobean-styled family tragedy, she published little, eschewing the interviews and literary memoirs that kept many of her contemporaries in the public eye. She lived her last forty years in a small flat in Greenwich Village as a self-described recluse, visited by her friends T. S. Eliot, Henry Miller, Dag Hammarskjold, and E. E. Cummings. As observers often note, Barnes has become something of a legend because of her association with many of the century’s greatest artists and her insistence on personal and artistic freedom.
Works in Literary Context
In a 1971 interview with James B. Scott, Barnes admitted that every writer writes out of his life.” At the same time, however, Barnes was intensely private, resisting or refusing most attempts at interview or biography. She also resisted being classified in either her work or her personal life, which may account for her conflict with critics, scholars, and admirers who embraced her as a lesbian writer.
The Halt Position of the Damned
Barnes’s full-length and short stories alike are marked by black humor, decadent and sometimes obscure characters, a keen sense of the absurdity of existence, and a Gothic tone of men ace and foreboding. Commentators note Barnes’s use of doll and animal images to depict modern man and woman as less-than-human creatures trapped midway between salvation and damnation. In A Night among the Horses,” for example, a wealthy woman with a battery for a heart and the body of a toy” attempts to possess her unwilling stableman. The stableman perceives that the woman wants to transform him into a thing, half standing, half crouching, like those figures under the roofs of historic buildings, the halt position of the damned.” By the story’s end, he has become a grotesque creature who can live neither in society nor in a natural, animal state; during an attempt to escape from the woman’s mechanistic world, he is trampled to death by his beloved horses.
The halt position of the damned” is a phrase critics often cite in describing Barnes’s alienated, depersonalized characters. In addition to qualities of bestiality and mechanization, commentators point to decadence as a mark of damnation among her protagonists, a condition exemplified by Madame Erling von Bartmann, the central figure of Aller et retour.” Traveling to visit her daughter in the south of France, Madame is engulfed by images of sex, religion, and death: gaudy postcards of bathing beauties displayed near tawdry funeral wreaths, a prostitute plucking a robin, and foul odors, which ”neither pleased nor displeased” her. She later urges her meek daughter to delve fully into the horrors and beauties of life, but the girl becomes engaged to a dull, secure man. ”Ah, how unnecessary,” Madame von Bartmann remarks at the end of the story as she heads back toward Paris, resuming, critics note, the meaningless cycle of comings and goings suggested by the story’s title.
Works in Critical Context
Although Barnes’s short fiction is faulted by some critics as mannered, obscure, and melodramatic, others assert that it is superior to her longer works in its economy of language and form. Commentators generally agree that while Nightwood has become Barnes’s best-known work, her short stories occupy a significant place in a distinctive body of work. Kenneth Rexroth wrote:
Djuna Barnes may be considered a late born voice of the fin de siecle literary Decadence, but she is also an early born prophet of the black comedy, theater of cruelty, and literature of total alienation of the later years of the century, the period of decadence and disintegration of Western Civilization, the time of permanent Apocalypse.
Fourteen of Barnes’s earliest short stories, all originally published in New York newspapers and previously uncollected, appeared in 1982 in Smoke, and Other Early Stories. Critics note that these pieces diverge from Barnes’s later short fiction in their reportorial tone and journalistic style of exposition, their flat, stereotyped, urban characters, and their surprise, twist endings. The publication of this volume is indicative of the heightened interest in Barnes that emerged during the 1970s and 1980s, when she attracted readers not only for her innovative talent, but for her inherent feminist sensibility. In addition to Smoke, and Other Early Stories, a biography of Barnes as well as the first extensive critical studies of her works were published during these decades.
Barnes’s literary reputation rests largely on Nightwood, a novel of sexual and spiritual alienation that T. S. Eliot praised for its ”quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy. The novel is so astonishing that even today, nearly fifty years after its publication, it prompts division among knowledgeable critics. Melvin Friedman s comment, for example, that Nightwood may ”usurp the enviable position shared by Proust and Joyce” does not square with Leslie Fiedler’s dismissal in Love and Death in the American Novel (1962) of its ”dislocated lyricism, hallucinated vision and oddly skewed language.
Although Nightwood has a tragic and even nightmarish side, it is also a humorous novel. Elizabeth Pochoda, commenting in Twentieth Century Literature, called Nightwood ”a tremendously funny book in a desperately surgical sort of way.” The novel’s humor lies in its wit and its use of paradox and hoax, Pochoda argued, and all actions in the novel ”are reduced to their initial hoax. Only then is sympathy allowable. The apparently touching love story of Robin and Nora is also a kind of hoaxing. Donald J. Greiner, writing in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, saw the paradoxical combination of humor and sadness as fundamental to all black humor. Barnes’s ”sense of humor is evident from the beginning, Greiner wrote, ”and her use of funny elements with a depressing theme reflects the perplexing mixture so vital to black humor. Nightwood, Greiner concluded, ”remains the most successful early example of the American black humor novel.
- Allen, Carolyn. Following Djuna: Women Lovers and the Erotics of Loss. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1996.
- Broe, Mary Lynn, editor. Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.
- Burke, Kenneth. ”Version, Con-, Per-, and In-(Thoughts on Djuna Barnes’ Novel Nightwood),” in his Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1968, pp. 240-253.
- Curry, Lynda C. ”The Second Metamorphosis: A Study of the Development of The Antiphon by Djuna Barnes.” PhD dissertation. Miami: Miami University, 1978.
- Field, Andrew. Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes. New York: Putnam’s, 1983.
- Frank, Joseph. ”Spatial Form in Modern Literature,” in his The Widening Gyre: Crisis and Mastery in Modern Literature. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1963, pp. 3-62.
- Herring, Philip. Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes. New York: Viking Press, 1995.
- O’Neal, Hank. “Life Is Painful, Nasty, and Short—in My Case It Has Only Been Painful and Nasty”: Djuna Barnes, 1978-1981: An Informal Memoir. New York: Paragon House, 1990.
- Kannenstine, Louis F. The Art of Djuna Barnes: Duality and Damnation. New York: New York University Press, 1977.
- Messerli, Douglas. Djuna Barnes: A References. Rhinebeck, N.Y.: David Lewis, 1975.
- Nemerov, Howard. ”A Response to The Antiphon,” in his Reflections on Poetry & Poetics. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1972, pp. 66-70.
- Plumb, Cheryl. Fancy’s Craft: Art and Identity in the Early Works of Djuna Barnes. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1987. 114
- Scott, James B. Djuna Barnes. Boston: Twayne, 1976.
- Spencer, Sharon. Space, Time and Structure in the Modern Novel. New York: New York University Press, 1971, pp. 39-43.
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