Djuna (Magill Book Reviews)
Djuna Barnes, the author of the cult classic NIGHTWOOD (1936), remains one of the most mysterious and intriguing figures of modern American literature. Her legendary acerbic wit, her inventive prose “on the verge of poetry,” her friendship with some of the most famous artists of this century, and her unusual family background, combined with a distinctly individual sexual nature, have resulted in an image of an author hovering on the fringe of public consciousness.
Phillip Herring, a James Joyce scholar, has attempted to “understand Djuna Barnes” in terms of her contacts with the modernist writers she associated with and the “facts” of her family interaction as disclosed in her novel RYDER (1928) and her play THE ANTIPHON (1958). His presentation of the traditional conception of modernism, emphasizing James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and others, and Barnes’s place in this artistic endeavor, is competent if conventional, and his research on the intricate, tension-driven relationships of Barnes’s life with family and friends covers considerable material available only in separate sources or personal reminiscences.
During the past ten years, however, a serious examination of Barnes’s life and work spearheaded by many notable feminist scholars has resulted in interpretations at considerable variance with Herring’s, and a storm of controversy erupted in response to the publication of his book. The issues of contention are how successfully...
(The entire section is 405 words.)
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Djuna (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
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.
(The entire section is 1873 words.)