The Life of Djuna Barnes, Stunt Reporter and Shocking Modernist

In Depth

“If you live you will be a fool. It takes a strong woman to die before she has been a fool. No one has the imagination; I did not, you will not.” -Djuna Barnes, Ryder

Djuna. For years I was unsure how to pronounce her first name (just like you’d think! JOONAH), but I’ve never been unsure how I felt when reading her writing. Her brief oeuvre is an experience, in the way that reading Virginia Woolf is an experience. But Barnes’ fiction is more emotionally violent, less refined than that of Woolf and many of her contemporaries. Her work is sexually explicit, and her descriptions of lesbian relationships shocked her readers and critics. Her style is aggressive and also impossible, impenetrable. You can never quite nail down exactly what’s going on, or just what she is describing.

But the mood is clear, and even in moments of love, the work of Djuna Barnes is filled with unrelenting dread. This is what drew teenage Laura: the camaraderie I felt in our shared—in my case largely unearned—misery, though I’m not sure at the time I really learned anything from skimming one of her books. And over the years, my love for her work has only grown, reading and rereading her work, biographies. I constructed a family tree for her. I read the notes and abstracts for her papers at the University of Maryland. I considered going to the University of Maryland to look at her papers. I read her most famous novel, Nightwood, a second, then a third time.

Djuna wasn’t the only person in her family with a very obscure name; her brothers were Thurn, Zendon, Saxon and Shangar. She was born in June of 1892 in Cornwall on Hudson, New York. Her father, Wald, was immortalized in Barnes’s first novel, 1928’s Ryder, as a reckless and hated failure of a man with two wives and two sets of children living under one roof. A heavily autobiographical work, Ryder is extremely experimental: multiple points of view, multiple protagonists, more styles than any reader can keep up with. The chronicle of the Ryder family over the decades is interspersed with songs, poems, random fragments and pieces which seem not to fit in but jigsaw into the overall mood. Barnes, also a talented visual artist, made all of the accompanying illustrations and woodcuts for the book as well. Ryder was censored when it was published—both its text and drawings—so much so that Barnes felt it necessary to add an editorial note at the beginning: “This book, owing to censorship which has a vogue in America as indiscriminate as all such enforcements of law must be, has been expurgated. Where such measures have been thought necessary, asterisks have been employed, thus making it matter for no speculation where sense, continuity, and beauty have been damaged.” A later edition restored her drawings but the original manuscript with the uncensored text was lost during World War II, so today’s published version is still marred with asterisks.

Djuna’s home life growing up was mostly horrific—her polygamist father was almost certainly violent, and though not all biographies agree on the details, most do agree that her relationship with her grandmother was at least somewhat sexual. Her unorthodox upbringing followed her through adulthood and seeps through the cracks of every work she ever published. Eventually, Barnes’s mother left, taking her children south to Brooklyn. Djuna studied art at Pratt for a short period before taking jobs as a reporter to help support the family.

She hung out in the Village, in the blooming literary scene. In addition to writing fiction, Djuna was an accomplished, successful, and prolific reporter, writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, New York World Magazine, and Vanity Fair. One of her best early pieces is a bit of stunt journalism that would fit right in on the web: “How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed,” which includes a series of photos of Barnes having feeding tubes forced into her nostrils. In 1915 she published a chapbook with Guido Bruno, The Book of Repulsive Women. In another piece she spent time with a female gorilla at the Bronx Zoo in an attempt to “solve the riddle of the simian.” She was on the women’s boxing beat. She interviewed James Joyce for Vanity Fair in 1922.

Nightwood, a semi-autobiographical novel about a failed marriage followed by an intense but disastrous lesbian affair. written during her expatriate years in France and published in 1936, is considered Barnes’s masterpiece. This assessment is true in that its prose represents the heights of Barnes’s power to evoke… whatever she evokes. “Sometimes,” she writes of Robin Vote, the alluring, dangerous character around which the rest revolve,

“one meets a woman who is beast turning human. Such a person’s every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory; as insupportable a joy as would be the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear, stepping in the trepidation of flesh that will become myth; as the unicorn is neither man nor beast deprived, but human hunger pressing its breast to its prey.”

Nightwood was edited with an introduction by T.S. Eliot, who softened some of the language and toned down the descriptions of the sexual relationship between the two female characters. Barnes based a lot of the novel on her relationship with artist Thelma Wood. Barnes and Wood both fled New York for Paris—Barnes to write for McCalls—meeting around 1921, their turbulent relationship lasting until 1929. They were, according to multiple sources (including themselves), both unfaithful, both partiers and heavy drinkers. Djuna suffered the most emotionally, but her professional life and reputation grew during the period. It took her a few years to find a publisher, but Nightwood made Barnes quite famous. It was reviewed by Alfred Kazin for the New York Times, though he seemed a bit confused, asking “what’s the point?” without really answering the question.

“Miss Barnes,” he continued, “has gone beyond Mrs Woolf’s practice of her own theory. For Miss Barnes is not even concerned with the immediate in time.” Kazin, like other critics, could only nail down that the novel is so experimental that almost nothing concrete could be said about it in a review, and so he finally resorted to attempting to summarize the plot.

In 1940, Barnes returned to the United States, settling in an apartment in Greenwich Village on Patchin Place, where she would reside for the rest of her life. She was still drinking pretty heavily, not writing very much, and living on a stipend furnished to her by her old friend and now patron Peggy Guggenheim, who in 1944 held a show of Djuna’s paintings at her gallery on West 57th Street. None of the paintings sold. She somewhat theatrically took on the character of a recluse over the years in New York, going out rarely, and seeing only a few of the many people who tried to stop by.

In 1950 Djuna Barnes gave up drinking altogether, and forever, apparently. She also—maybe not incidentally—finally started writing again, working on a play this time. She’d produced three of her own plays in her Greenwich Village years with the Provincetown Players, a small collective including people like Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eugene O’Neill. Barnes’s last major published work—The Antiphon—was published in 1958. She spent nearly a decade writing it, and it is her least approachable and most exhausting work. The blurb which Eliot wrote for the book—a nearly impenetrable verse play about an extremely dysfunctional family in England in the late 1930s—reads thus:

“From the point of view of the conventionally minded The Antiphon will be still more shocking — or would be if they could understand it — and still more tedious — than Nightwood. It might be said of Ms. Barnes, who is incontestably one of the most original writers of our time, that never has so much genius been combined with so little talent.”

It was not commercially successful, but reviewers praised it quite uniformly. Though Barnes was pretty reclusive, she struck up a friendship with Dag Hammerskjold, the UN Secretary General, who was such a fan of The Antiphon he translated it into Swedish.

The last book that Barnes published was a poetry collection, Creatures in an Alphabet, in 1982, the same year she died at the age of 90. By then, most of the unwanted visitors—Anais Nin used to try to stake her out, though Barnes apparently managed to avoid her—had stopped, and much of her work was or would soon be out of print. (In recent years she has enjoyed newfound popularity and recognition for her contribution to Modernist literature, and most of her works are widely available.) Two years later, Robert Giroux—who had published The Antiphon—wrote a remembrance of Barnes in the New York Times: “With the passing years, it was her fate to become more and more of a legend. She even called herself ‘the most famous unknown in the world.’”

Laura June is a freelance writer and editor.

This is the first installment of Literally, a semi-regular exploration of some of the lesser known lady writers of the last several centuries. Top photo by Berenice Abbott.

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