Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) was a major literary figure in Paris of the 1920s and 1930s, who retired into reclusiveness and produced only a small body of work.
Amajor figure on the Paris literary scene of the 1920s and 1930s, Djuna Barnes was best known for her experimental novel Nightwood, one of the most influential works of modernist fiction. Described by Elizabeth Hardwick of the Times Literary Supplement as "a writer of wild and original gifts, " Barnes was acclaimed by such writers as "Graham Greene, Samuel Beckett, Janet Flanner, Laurence Durrell, Kenneth Burke, Sir Herbert Read, and Dylan Thomas, " Andrew Field pointed out in the New York Times Book Review. Field noted, too, that "a list just as long could be made of important writers who borrowed heavily from her." Barnes was at various times a poet, journalist, playwright, theatrical columnist, and novelist. But her prolific career was brought to a voluntary end in the 1930s when Barnes virtually gave up writing and retreated into nearly half a century of silence. She lived like a recluse, "a form of Trappist, " Louis F. Kannenstine quoted her as saying in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, refusing to grant interviews or to approve the reprinting of most of her early writings. Because of this silence, Barnes's work is still not as widely celebrated as is that of many of her contemporaries.
Born in 1892 in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, Barnes began writing at an early age to support her mother and three brothers. She contributed frequently to New York City newspapers and to such magazines as Smart Set and Vanity Fair. In 1915, her first collection, The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings, appeared as a chapbook. With the production in 1919 of three one-act plays by Eugene O'Neill's Provincetown Players, Barnes first gained serious recognition for her work. Her contributions to modernist publications of the day established her reputation among the avant-garde community. In 1920, Barnes left New York for Paris, where she was to live for the next twenty years and write the "relatively small body of work" upon which her "literary reputation must ultimately rest, " as Kannenstine stated. This small body of work consists of four volumes: A Book, Ladies Almanack, Ryder, and Nightwood.
A Book, a collection of Barnes's plays, short stories, poems, and drawings, appeared in 1923. The plays produced by the Provincetown Players are collected here, as well as early stories set in Paris and inspired by the people Barnes knew there. The poet Raymond Radiguet, who died at the age of twenty, is the inspiration for one story. Two Dutch sisters, friends of Barnes and fixtures of Paris cafe society, inspire two other stories. All of these characters "are restless, estranged from society and themselves, " Kannenstine wrote. Later editions of A Book were published as A Night among the Horses and Spillway. Horses adds several short stories to the original collection, while Spillway consists only of the short stories from the original collection.
In Ladies Almanack, published in 1928, Barnes based her characters on prominent lesbian writers of 1920s Paris, particularly those in author Natalie Barney's circle of friends. Written in Elizabethan prose, the book depicts a lesbian society in which one woman is sainted. Barnes described the book as "a slight satiric wigging, " as Hardwick quoted her. The satire, however, is gentle and amiable. "The primary intention of Ladies Almanack, " Kannenstine believed, "is to confront the anomaly of sexual identity." The book was privately printed and distributed in Paris.
Barnes's first novel, Ryder, was also published in 1928. As in Ladies Almanack, there is an element of satire in the book. Barnes parodies "biblical language, Chaucer, heroic couplets, mystical literature, the epistolary novel, mockepic tales, and other forms, " Donald J. Greiner explained in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Ryder is ostensibly a family chronicle revolving around Wendell Ryder, his wife, mother, and mistress. Ryder brings misery to all the women in his life because of his conviction that he has a mission to love women. Told in nonchronological chapters, many of which could stand on their own, Ryder is a "kaleidoscope of moods and styles, " Joseph Frank wrote in Sewanee Review. Many of the qualities for which Barnes is known are first displayed in Ryder. "Of the fantastical quality of her imagination; of the gift for imagery, …; of the epigrammatic incisiveness of her phrasing and her penchant, akin to the Elizabethans, for dealing with the more scabrous manifestations of human fallibility—of all these there is evidence in Ryder, " Frank stated. Greiner believed that the publication of Ryder moved Barnes into the ranks of important literary innovators. "With Ryder," he noted, "she joined [James] Joyce, [T. S.] Eliot, and [Ezra] Pound in breaking through the conservative restrictions on poetry and fiction by looking over her shoulder at past literary models while stepping toward the future with experiments in technique and structure that would influence writing for the next fifty years."
Although Ryder was considered a bold experiment, it is Nightwood, Barnes's second novel, that most critics believed to be her most successful and important work. It is, Stephen Koch wrote in the Washington Post Book World, "a recognized masterpiece of modernism." Nightwood combines comedy and horror in a fiction without narrative structure or conventionally developed characters. "It would be more appropriate, " Kannenstine believed, "to speak of Nightwood's situation than its plot." Nightwood, Frank explained, "lacks a narrative structure in the ordinary sense." It is, however, organized according to nonliterary models. Various critics have demonstrated that Nightwood borrows its structure from poetry, music, drama, psychology, or the visual arts, but Kannenstine maintained that no one explanation of its structure was correct. Instead, "all are correct: all of these function simultaneously, " he declared. "The novel is essentially transgeneric." It also incorporates a broad spectrum of literary styles, including that of the Elizabethans and Jacobeans, the writers of the Old Testament, and the Surrealists, while "parodying the venerable traditions of plot, character, setting, and theme, and maintaining extreme authorial detachment, " as Greiner wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.
The book traces the love affairs of the young woman Robin Vote in 1920s Paris. She first marries Felix Volkbien, but leaves him for the journalist Nora Flood. She then leaves Nora for Jenny Petherbridge. Brokenhearted, Nora turns to Dr. Matthew O'Connor, but he is unable to relieve her suffering and eventually breaks down. "The plot relates little more than the theft of one person's lover by another, " Sharon Spencer observed in Space, Time and Structure in the Modern Novel. "Yet, through the heightened intensity of its language, and through the adroit structuring of its disjunct elements, Nightwood leaves the reader with a coherent and powerful impression of spiritual agony." This agony is commented on by Stanley Edgar Hyman in Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time. Hyman compared Nightwood to Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, another tragic novel of the 1930s. "In the years since the 30s, " Hyman wrote, "we have had nothing to equal those two great cries of pain, in their combination of emotional power and formal artistry." "For all its power, " Koch said of Nightwood, "this is the bleakest modernism of all, a modernism like a wailing wall."
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, and we are not permitted to weep with Nora over her loss. Once the bloodthirsty nature of such love is uncovered we are allowed the sympathy appropriate to such an inevitable delusion." 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."
While interweaving humor and horror, Nightwood explores the theme of "man's separation from his primitive, yet more fundamental animal nature, " Greiner observed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. This separation between human and animal is expressed by Dr. O'Connor who, at one point in the novel, states that man "was born damned and innocent from the start, and wretchedly—as he must—on these two themes—whistles his tune." As Pochoda saw it, the reduction of all actions in Nightwood to "their initial hoax" eventually reveals the futility of language to communicate truth. Beginning with a historical allusion, the novel "turns its back on history, on faith in coherent expression, and finally on words themselves, " Pochoda stated. "The novel bows down before its own impotence to express truths." In the last scene of the novel, Robin is transformed into a dog. This scene of devolution into beast is written, in contrast to the exuberance of the rest of the book, in a plain and unenergetic style to show the ultimate failure of language to overcome the animal within man. "The novel, " Pochoda noted, "ends in wordlessness and failure, with the impasse of life intact and its contradictions nicely exposed."
Writing in the International Fiction Review, Robert L. Nadeau had a Freudian explanation for the devolution in Nightwood. He argued that the novel "does not depict human interaction on the level of conscious, waking existence. It is rather a dream world in which the embattled forces of the human personality take the form of characters representing aspects of that personality at different levels of its functioning." The transformation of Robin into an animal takes place, Nadeau wrote, "after she divests herself of the demands of the superego, or that whole complex of forms and values known as "civilization, '…. She is an animal— pure and simple."
In his biography Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes, Field showed that much of Nightwood is autobiographical. He identified the main characters as friends of Barnes in Paris and found that Barnes herself was the character Nora. Robin was identified as Thelma Wood, a woman with whom Barnes had a love affair. But how much of the novel is taken from life is unclear. Field's account, Koch maintained, "is sometimes impossibly evasive, especially on matters sexual." Hardwick saw the biography as being "under considerable strain" because Barnes "was noted for her silence."
Shortly after publishing Nightwood, Barnes ceased writing and, in 1940, she returned to New York City. For the rest of her life she lived in a small apartment in Greenwich Village and published only one play and two poems. Her withdrawal from the literary world caused her reputation to pale. And Barnes's refusal to allow much of her earlier work for magazines to be reprinted kept the scope of her achievement unknown. In her book Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach admitted that Barnes "was not one to cry her wares."
Despite her reserve, Barnes maintained a secure place in American letters because of Nightwood, which has been in print since it first appeared in 1936. Nightwood, Greiner wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "stands high in the list of significant twentieth-century American novels." Nadeau described it as "a truly great piece of American fiction, " while Dylan Thomas, according to Field in the New York Times Book Review, called Nightwood "one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman." Hardwick believed that to Barnes's name "there is always to be attached the splendor of Nightwood, a lasting achievement of her great gifts and eccentricities." Barnes was, Koch maintained, a "strange and impossible genius." Since the 1970s, some of Barnes's earlier writings have been found and reprinted in book form and a bibliography of her work has been assembled by Douglas Messerli. Greiner believed that "Djuna Barnes's work will eventually receive the attention it deserves."
Baldwin, Kenneth H. and David K. Kirby, editors, Individual and Community: Variations on a Theme in American Fiction, Duke University Press, 1975.
Beach, Sylvia, Shakespeare and Company, Harcourt, 1959.
Broe, Mary Lynn, editor, Silence and Power: A Re-evaluation of Barnes, Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.
Cohn, Ruby, Dialogue in American Drama, Indiana University Press, 1971.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 9, 1979, Volume 29, 1984.
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Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 4: American Writers in Paris, 1920-1939, 1980, volume 9: American Novelists, 1910-1945, 1981.
Field, Andrew, Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes, Putnam, 1983 (published in England as The Formidable Miss Barnes: The Life of Djuna Barnes, Secker & Warburg, 1983).
Fowlie, Wallace, Love in Literature: Studies in Symbolic Expression, Indiana University Press, 1965.
Frank, Joseph, The Widening Gyre: Crisis and Mastery in Modern Literature, Rutgers University Press, 1963.
Friedman, Melvin, Stream of Consciousness: A Study in Literary Method, Yale University Press, 1955.
Gildzen, Alex, editor, A Festschrift for Djuna Barnes on Her 80th Birthday, Kent State University Libraries, 1972.
Hyman, Stanley Edgar, Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time, Horizon Press, 1966.
Kannenstine, Louis F., The Art of Djuna Barnes: Duality and Damnation, New York University Press, 1977.
Messerli, Douglas, Djuna Barnes: A Bibliography, David Lewis, 1975.
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Washington Post, June 21, 1982. □
Born 12 June 1892, Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York; died 19 June 1982, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Wrote under: "A Lady of Fashion," Lydia Steptoe
Daughter of Wald and Elizabeth Chappell Barnes
Best known for her enigmatic and stylistically dazzling novel Nightwood (1936), Djuna Barnes is regarded as a totemic figure of literary modernism and a forceful if challenging poet of the female consciousness. Nightwood's nonlinear form, its pessimistic outlook on love and redemption, and its abundance of disturbing images have frustrated some readers and critics, while others have found the same qualities to be the source of the novel's uncommon emotional impact. T.S. Eliot was an early champion of Nightwood who celebrated its poetic language and appreciated its gloomy philosophy. He wrote in his 1937 introduction, "It seems to me that all of us, so far as we attach ourselves to created objects and surrender our wills to temporal ends, are eaten by the same worm."
Brought up in modest circumstances in Huntington, Long Island, and subjected to sexual abuse (possibly of an incestuous nature), Barnes went on to become a prominent figure in international literary circles, befriending James Joyce and artists such as Berenice Abbott, Marsden Hartley, and Marcel Duchamp, as well as Eliot. Because her life story includes so many colorful personalities, and because the traumas of her early life directly influenced most of her literary output, Barnes offers ripe material for literary biography. Phillip Herring wrote, "Djuna Barnes' artistic genius, like that of many writers, normally required adversity to produce work of artistic merit." Indeed, Robin Vote, the central character of Nightwood, is generally acknowledged to be a fictional version of Thelma Wood, the longtime love interest of Barnes. Like Wood, Vote inspires the obsessive devotion of men and women alike, apparently without trying, and she always leaves her admirers in a state of inconsolable grief, apparently without feeling any remorse herself. During writing and revision, Barnes continued to nurse the emotional wounds inflicted by Wood, and her bitter conclusions about love determine every relationship in the novel.
In Nightwood the idea that love is a disguised form of delusion or narcissism gets articulated by Dr. Matthew O'Connor, a transvestite who spends most of his time in bed—and one of the oddest characters in all modern literature. The middle chapters of the novel are largely made up of the rambling monologues of this fictionalized version of the Irish-American abortionist and drug dealer, Dan Mahoney.
Nightwood is far and away Barnes' best known work as well as her most powerful and original, but over the course of her 45-year literary career, though far from prolific, she wrote a wide variety of work consistent with Nightwood's satirical and doom-ridden character. These secondary works include Ryder (1928), an early novel loosely based on Barnes' childhood; a group of one-act plays; and a series of interviews with the famous and nearly famous, which appeared in popular newspapers and magazines.
Barnes undertook the interviews to supplement the small annuity she received from her friend and patron, Peggy Guggenheim. Her choice of subjects was typically eccentric and ambitious. In 1915 she dutifully transcribed the haunting words of the controversial radio evangelist Billy Sunday: "War has been the best thing for religion in the last century; it has filled the churches, it has brought men to their knees in the trenches." Barnes also held conversations with James Joyce, boxer Jess Willard, and others, publishing the results in popular publications like McCall's and the New York Press.
Ryder fictionalizes members of Barnes' own family, in particular her grandmother Zadel Barnes, a journalist and activist. Barnes illustrated Ladies Almanack herself and published it anonymously the same year as Ryder. A mock biography focusing on the lesbian exploits of Evangeline Musset, it ends with the heroine's death, at age 99, and the ritualistic cremation of everything but her tongue. Herring writes that the work "rivals Joyce's Finnegans Wake for both obscurity and bawdiness."
Barnes' plays show the influence of Oscar Wilde, especially his revisionist biblical fable Salomé, as well as John Millington Synge. The idiosyncratic dialect of Synge's Irish peasants made an uneasy pairing with Barnes' penchant for satire. The incongruity was in all probability intentional. Mary O'Brian, mother of the title character in "Maggie of the Saints" (1917; published in the New York Morning Telegraph Sunday Magazine), remarks, "If one lives long enough it is as good as being a child again." A later play, The Antiphon (published in 1958 and premiered three years later), returned to the family themes of Ryder and transposed them to a setting reminiscent of Eliot's The Family Reunion.
Although her writing never achieved the same degree of renown enjoyed by some of her contemporaries, Barnes was considered a great beauty as well as an exceptional raconteur, and on those merits she did become fairly well known in her time. The passing of literary modernism and most of its central figures made her something of a living relic, a status she neither enjoyed nor encouraged. Paraphrasing Thomas Hobbes, she is recorded as saying, "Life is painful, nasty and short … in my case it has only been painful and nasty"—a line which became the lengthy title of Hank O'Neal's 1990 biography. Her reclusiveness only enhanced her reputation as a feminist maverick, and by the time of her death in 1982, the amount of reverence for Nightwood and curiosity about the raw material on which it was based showed no signs of subsiding.
The Book of Repulsive Women (1915). A Book (1923). Selected Works (1962). Creatures in the Alphabet (1982). Interviews (1985). At the Roots of the Stars (1995).
O'Neal, H., Life Is Painful, Nasty and Short … In My Case Only Painful and Nasty (1990). Herring, P., Djuna: The Life and Works of Djuna Barnes (1995).