Daughter of Harold S. and Katherine Burritt Deming
Barbara Deming's fiction, essays, and poetry were all grounded in her personal experiences. From the age of sixteen when she realized she was a lesbian and began to write, Deming's life and writing were joined in a Gandhian struggle to "cling to the truth" (satyagraha). This struggle later led Deming to perceive herself as a lifelong activist, even though she did not enter public politics until 1960. Writing, Deming felt, "could itself be named activism" because it was a process through which she discovered and "affirmed" what she knew about herself and the world around her. Living her life as a lesbian—defying the homophobic society that tried to define her—was another aspect of her activism.
Although literary periodicals published some of her poems, short stories, and reviews in the 1940s and 1950s, it was not until Deming began writing news articles about the peace and civil rights movements that her work steadily reached a large audience. These pieces, initially published in left-wing journals, detailed her own and others' participation in social movements and offered her reflections on nonviolence and other issues. Whether because of the reputation she had gained or because changes in American society made personal narratives and social analysis more acceptable, both her earlier and new work reached print after the late 1960s. Deming's powerful feminist critiques, veiled in her early work and central after the early 1970s, gained her a devoted audience among women. Her almost spiritual theorizing about the connections among people and political movements continues to challenge readers to claim their lives as their own while respecting the same right of others.
Deming and her three brothers grew up in New York City and New City, New York. Her father was an admiralty lawyer, her mother a former singer. When Deming was sixteen, she fell in love with an older woman and began writing poetry. Their relationship probably lasted until Deming went to Bennington College where she majored in drama (B.A. 1938) and learned that a "woman's sensibility" was incongruent with good writing. She earned an M.A. from Cleveland's Western Reserve University (1941) and became an analyst for the Library of Congress film project at New York's Museum of Modern Art (1942-44). In 1945 she decided to become a full-time freelance writer. Her theater essays, film reviews, and some poetry were published in New Directions, Chimera, New Yorker, and other periodicals, and in 1950 she finished a book analyzing the dreams and heroes portrayed in American films of the 1940s. A work of sociocultural criticism, Running Away from Myself: A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the Forties was not published until 1969. Deming notes that this "psychological study of America" had taken on greater relevance in the wake of a national crisis of faith and a concomitant desire by the U.S. to impose its will in Vietnam.
Deming traveled to Europe in 1950 to recover from the painful breakup of a love relationship. When she returned she began a "fictional" chronicle of her emotional and physical "travail," but friends discouraged her from going beyond the first chapter. She turned to writing short stories. When Deming returned to the novel in 1972 she realized that it, like others of her rejected works, held great promise—the lesbian protagonist, like her powerful social commentaries, made friends (and publishers) uncomfortable, but the story was strong. A Humming Under My Feet: A Book of Travail was published in 1985.
In 1959 Deming discovered the writings of Mahatma Gandhi while she was traveling through India. The following year she went to Cuba, and then attended a Peacemakers workshop. These experiences launched Deming into a new phase of her life marked by public activism and a commitment to practicing and writing about nonviolence. Her personal activism made it easier for her to empathize with the struggles of other people (Cuban, Vietnamese, African American) and she joined a community that Leah Fritz describes as "cling[ing] to a whole complexity of political truths." Active in the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action and the War Registers League, Deming demonstrated, sat in, walked for peace and social justice, went to jail for acts of civil disobedience, and wrote about her experiences. Prison Notes (1966) grew out of her participation in the Quebec-Washington-Guantanamo Walk for Peace and Freedom and her arrest and imprisonment in Alabama. Revolution and Equilibrium (1971) includes essays that stemmed from her journeys to Cuba and to North Vietnam (1966-67). The essays in both volumes provide "a series of studies of nonviolent action and its possibilities" as well as a history of "The Movement" for peace and social change as it evolved during the 1960s. Deming's essays remain among the most significant writings on nonviolence. In 1971, a near-fatal car crash curtailed her physical activism, but her writings continued to be publicly political for the rest of her life.
In the mid-1970s Deming became a radical feminist and "came out" publicly during a Catholic Worker meeting. Through letters, several of which were then printed as "dialogues," she debated women's rights and sexuality with such civil rights and peace activists as Dave Dellinger and Arthur Kinoy and nonviolent tactics with feminist Jane Alpert. We Cannot Live Without Our Lives (1974) reprints these and an exchange of letters on "confronting one's own oppression," which recognizes the common roots of racism, sexism, and homophobia, and the importance of claiming one's own identity. The book is dedicated to "all those seeking the courage to assert "I am—and especially to my lesbian sisters"; it makes clear Deming's defiance of the attempts of a homophobic and sexist society to define her. In 1983 she took part in actions organized by the Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice near Seneca Falls, New York, and served her final jail term.
Deming died in her home on Sugarloaf Key of cervical cancer. She was survived by partners in two long-term relationships: painter and writer Mary Meigs (Deming's companion in the late 1950s and early 1960s) and artist Jane Gapen (Watrous) Verlaine, Deming's lover since the late 1960s.
Wash Us and Comb Us: Stories by Barbara Deming (1972). Remembering Who We Are: Barbara Deming in Dialogue with Gwenda Blair, Kathy Brown, Arthur Kinoy, Bradford Lyttle, Susan Sherman, Leah Fritz, Susan Saxe (1981). We Are All Part of One Another: A Barbara Deming Reader (edited by Jane Meyerding, 1984). I Change, I Change: Love Poems of Barbara Deming (1996).
Articles in the 1940s and 1950s in Charm, Chimera, City Lights, Hudson Review, Partisan Review, New Directions, NewYorker, Paris Review, Tulane Drama Review, Voices, Wake; in the 1960s and 1970s in the Nation, the Catholic Worker, Liberation (of which she was an editor), WIN, Kalliope, and other magazines; "Militant Nonviolence" in The Witness (July 1995).
The major collection of Deming's papers is in the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College; additional papers are in the Twentieth Century Collection of Boston University.
Combellick, K. A., Feminine Forms of Closure: Gilman, Deming, and H.D. (dissertation, 1989).
CANR (1998). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Broadside (1984). Gay Community News (25 Aug./1 Sept. 1984, obituary). Kalliope: A Journal of Women's Art (1984). NYT (4 May 1984, obituary). Ms. (Nov. 1978, article by Leah Fritz).
—KIMBERLY HAYDEN BROOKES