Barnes, Carman Dee

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BARNES, Carman Dee

Born Carman Jackson, 20 November 1912, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Daughter of James N. and Diantha Mills Jackson; married Hamilton F. Armstrong, 1945 (divorced)

Carman Dee Barnes took her name from her first stepfather, Wellington Barnes. Her mother, Diantha Barnes, was well known in the South for her poetry and folklore. Educated at private schools, Barnes was forced to leave the Gardner School in New York City after the principal read her successful but scandalous first novel, Schoolgirl (1929), published when the author was sixteen. This was the end of Barnes' formal education.

With dramatist A. W. Pezet, Barnes adapted Schoolgirl for Broadway, where it opened on her eighteenth birthday. She also sold the film rights for a substantial sum. Schoolgirl had been an indictment of school practices, and thus Barnes was taken up in liberal circles as exemplifying a new realistic approach to American education.

Based on Barnes' experiences at a girls' boarding school, Schoolgirl follows boy-crazy Naomi Bradshaw through her realistically described experiences with crushes, petting, and sexual experimentation. Sent away to school after she has tried to elope, Naomi matures from a spoiled, oversophisticated child to a slightly less spoiled, still cynical, but "sadder and wiser" young woman of almost sixteen.

Language and technique are remarkable for a sixteen-year-old author, who combines sophistication with an air of innocence. Barnes' occasional irony reveals she has so outdistanced Naomi she can no longer take her heroine seriously, but the book is mainly "honest narrative," as a critic described it, portraying genuine emotions and real problems.

The dramatization simplified and romanticized the plot, not only making the elopement partner and boyfriend at school one person, but having him still around at the end, anxious to marry Naomi. Brooks Atkinson's New York Times review commented on the play's "grim determination" to explain the younger generation sympathetically, no matter what the scandal. He complained that questions of right and wrong were left obscure.

Beau Lover (1930) describes Gloria, a Southern girl searching for her ideal lover while determinedly remaining a virgin, no matter what the provocation. In this book, Barnes introduces the issue of a woman's career versus marriage. She maintains women should not sacrifice themselves to men, but suggests the ideal man would be strong enough not to demand sacrifice. Barnes experiments with technique and point of view, telling the story as if Gloria were talking to herself in the second person. Critics complained of emotion without genuine impulse.

In 1945 Barnes became the second wife of Hamilton Fish Armstrong, writer on international politics and editor of the journal Foreign Affairs. Together they wrote A Passionate Victorian, a play about English actress Fanny Kemble. The next year, 1946, Barnes published Time Lay Asleep, a novel based on her family history and childhood. Radically different from her previous work, it begins with a prologue introducing Barnes' concept that if one could remember one's whole past plus the past of one's ancestors, there might be "a way to cheat Fate of her toll of cause and effect." Moving beyond the slick simplicity of earlier books, Barnes attempts, like Faulkner, to create settings with intertwined physical, psychological, and symbolic elements, and to integrate different timelines.

All Barnes' novels show her ability to mold materials from her own background into technically proficient, engaging novels with social implications. With four novels published before she was twenty-two, one regrets Barnes did not continue her development as a writer.

Other Works:

Mother, Be Careful! (1932). Young Woman (1934).


Reference Works:

Warfel, H. R., ed., American Novelists of Today (1951).

Web sites:

Hamilton Fish Armstrong Papers, available online at Women Playwrights, 1900-1950, online at