Djuna Barnes’s characteristically cutting remark at the age of seventy-five that she was “the most famous unknown of the century” captures the paradoxical quality of an artist whose life and work seemed to emanate from a dark nimbus of mysterious allure. Reared in the home of an extended family (grandmother, father, mother, father’s mistresses, many children) that promoted sexual license as creative freedom, Barnes was thrown into the world as a young adult compelled to fashion her existence with artistic, social, and psychological skills she had learned to cultivate as a means of establishing an identity when others wished to use her for their selfish purposes. With practically no formal education, she became a successful journalist, working first for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Walt Whitman’s paper) during World War I and then writing articles, interviews, and profiles for magazines such as McCall’s and Vanity Fair, including an interview with James Joyce in 1922, just as Ulysses was published. Eventually disgusted by the intrusive nature of the reporting she was expected to do, Barnes spent the 1920’s in Europe, writing A Ladies’ Almanack (1928), an amusing account of the women of Natalie Barney’s artistic constellation, and the semi-autobiographical novel Ryder (1928), which was her initial attempt to approach the traumatic events of her family’s psychosexual dynamics.
Following a number of relationships with men, including a family-forced “marriage” to a fifty-two-year-old man when she was seventeen and an affair with Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, a noted German politician, between 1914 and 1916, Barnes spent most of the 1920’s involved in an intense, nerve-shattering relationship with Thelma Wood, a silverpoint artist. Wood was the model for Robin Vote, the central character of Nightwood (1936), Barnes’s most celebrated work.
Nightwood was rejected by seven American publishers before T. S. Eliot accepted the manuscript for Faber and Faber, but not without suggestions for extensive revisions (which later prompted considerable speculation about how much of Barnes’s best work had been excised). Weakened by alcoholism and other afflictions, Barnes spent most of the 1930’s in Europe. In 1940, she moved into an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, where she had acted with the Provincetown Players in the late 1910’s. She lived alone there for the next forty years, continuing to write until her death in 1982. The legend of her strange genius and striking character grew gradually through back-channel gossip, her occasional appearances in print, and the impress of her work upon people interested in modern literature and modernist culture.
The year after Barnes’s death, Andrew Field published Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes (1983), an accessible, reasonably reliable account that gathered and organized most of the material that was available to scholars at the time. Concurrently, a number of feminist academics began an intense examination of Barnes’s life and work. Mary Lynn Broe’s Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes (1991), a collection of critical essays, personal reminiscences, and compelling illustrations and photographs, was the culmination of a decade of work by Barnes scholars determined to recover “the story of the absent, the violated, or the underprivileged,” the central subjects of Barnes’s writing in their estimation. The divergent approaches taken by Field and the contributors to Broe’s volume are not mutually exclusive, but while no one doubts the importance of the relationship between Barnes’s life and the narrative incidents and characterizations of her books, Field and now Phillip Herring have a fundamentally different sense of how Barnes fit into the mosaic of twentieth century literature and culture.
In his preface to Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes, Herring states his belief that before he could understand Nightwood, he “had to understand Djuna Barnes.” Since he regards Field’s biography as “disorganized, incomplete, and conceptually flawed,” Herring felt that he would have to examine all the archival material that had become available since Field’s project and interview Barnes’s surviving relatives, who were “mostly cooperative but cautious.” His goal was to shed light on the “life and work” of “this important writer [who] had eluded us modernists.”
Herring’s conception of modernism is at odds...