Barnes, Djuna (Vol. 127)
Djuna Barnes 1892–1982
(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Lydia Steptoe) American novelist, dramatist, short story writer, poet, and journalist.
The following entry presents an overview of Barnes's career. See also, Djuna Barnes Criticism and volumes 4, 8, 11 and 29.
Barnes is most associated with the modernists of the early twentieth century. She shared the primary ideals of modernism—to revitalize language, express the unconscious mind and the alienation of the modern individual, and to reject the modes of realism. Barnes's writing was difficult to read because she stressed imagery and symbolism in her works rather than realistic or naturalistic descriptions. Although Barnes was an infamous public figure and well-known journalist, her fiction was never widely read. She had a small cult following, including some of the best-known modernist writers of the century, such as T. S. Eliot. Nevertheless, Barnes described herself as "the most famous unknown of the century."
Barnes was born in 1892 to Wald and Elizabeth Chappell Barnes. While a child and teenager, Barnes was a victim of incest. As a result, sexual abuse is a frequent subject of her work, but is sometimes buried in the subtext of her fiction. Barnes's home life was further complicated by her mother who ignored and denied Barnes's victimization, and allowed Wald's mistress and their children to move in with the family. Barnes escaped the household, becoming a freelance journalist in the 1910s. Her work ranged from the serious to the ridiculous. She interviewed famous actors, statesman, and carnival sideshow freaks. In 1921, McCall's magazine sent Barnes to Paris, where she remained for several years after completing of her assignment. While in Paris, Barnes met and fell in love with Thelma Wood. The relationship was destructive for Barnes because Wood strung her along for eight years before ending the relationship permanently. During her career, Barnes befriended several notable literary and political figures, including playwright Eugene O'Neill, writer James Joyce, and Secretary General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold. Throughout her writing career, Barnes published a series of early plays, poetry, and short stories, but the novel Nightwood (1936)—her most significant work—had a difficult publishing history. Several publishers turned the manuscript down until a friend showed it to T. S. Eliot, who edited the book while working for Faber & Faber. After publishing Nightwood, Barnes experienced a series of personal crises, including failed relationships, money trouble, and excessive drinking. She moved into a small apartment in New York's Greenwich Village, where she remained secluded for the rest of her life. Barnes continued to write, but not prolifically, and it took her years to complete her obscure verse drama, The Antiphon (1958). Barnes died in 1982 at the age of ninety.
The play, The Dove (1926), is about two aging sisters, Amelia and Vera Burgson, and a young woman they meet in the park whom they name "The Dove." The sisters invite the woman to move in with them, and the play reveals the sisters' voyeuristic tendencies and preoccupation with violence and sexuality. The woman becomes increasingly agitated with events in the household and her treatment until she takes a stand. The ending and the woman's fate remain ambiguous. Ryder (1928) is considered an autobiographical novel that tells Barnes's family story, but is unclear about how many details are factual. The Ryder family is headed by Wendell Ryder, who believes in polygamy, free love, free thinking, and idleness as an occupation. His mother runs a scam targeted toward rich, philanthropic men to support the family's needs because of Wendell's refusal to work. Wendell sexually abuses and oppresses females in the household, and although state officials step in to question Wendell's polygamy and home schooling, the family's deepest secrets are never revealed. Nightwood (1936) is Barnes's exploration of her relationship with Thelma Wood. The novel centers on American expatriates in Europe. There are two main story lines about Robin Vote and Matthew O'Connor. Vote's character is based on Wood. Matthew O'Connor comments on the other characters' actions. The two plots converge when O'Connor tries to counsel Felix and Nora, two characters who have both fallen in love with Vote. The novel is theme-driven, not plot-driven. In depicting the anguish of several characters who have distinct sexual, spiritual, and social identities. Barnes uses dreams, animals, and nocturnal images as metaphors for unconscious and irrational obsessions. The novel's comic depictions of terrifying events represents an early manifestation of black humor. The Antiphon, is a verse drama written in the Elizabethan and Jacobean traditions with a contemporary setting. The novel is about Miranda, a girl who is sexually abused by her father and left unprotected by her mother's collusion. The play is highly autobiographical and explores the feelings of exploitation and betrayal Barnes experienced during her youth.
Many of the discussions and critical commentaries on Barnes's work focus on speculation about her sexuality and sexual politics. This limited commentary on her fiction has contributed to a limited readership. Georgette Fleischer said, "Zealotry has spawned gross factual errors and irrational readings that have inflated within an insular critical field and emerged as full-blown myths. This has cheapened Djuna Barnes." Many reviewers assess Barnes's Nightwood as one of the most important modernist works of the twentieth century. Miranda Seymour concluded, "Admired by Joyce, Nightwood is as important to the history of 20th-century novel as Finnegans Wake—and more readable." It is by far her most respected work, although there is controversy among reviewers over the quality and lasting impact of the novel. Many critics point out the mysterious and difficult nature of Barnes's prose, complaining there is no substance behind Barnes' difficult writing. However, Anne B. Dalton asserted, "I would argue that Barnes's work is more like Pandora's box: once one manages to open it, the contents stream out irrepressibly." The author herself believed her drama The Antiphon to be her most important work. However, many critics found The Antiphon difficult and obscure. While some critics praised Barnes for carrying on the efforts of Eliot and W. B. Yeats to revive verse drama, others contended the meaning of the play was obscured by its wording. This difference of opinion characterizes the general response to virtually all of Barnes's work. She has inspired acclaim and disdain for her daring methods and bleak, fragmented depiction of modern existence.
The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings (poetry and drawings) 1915
An Irish Triangle (play) 1919; published in A Book, 1928
Kurzy of the Sea (play) 1919; published in A Book, 1928
Three from the Earth (play) 1919; published in A Book, 1928
A Book (verse and plays) 1923; enlarged edition published as A Night among the Horse 1929 To the Dogs (play) 1923
The Dove (play) 1926
She Tells Her Daughter (play) 1926
Ladies' Almanack (poetry) 1928
Ryder (novel) 1928
Nightwood (novel) 1936
The Antiphon (verse drama) 1958
Spillway (short stories) 1962
Vagaries Malicieux: Two Stories (short stories) 1974
Smoke and Other Early Stories (short stories) 1982
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SOURCE: "'The Most Famous Unknown in the World'—Remembering Djuna Barnes," in New York Times, December 1, 1985, p. 3.
[In the following essay, Giroux discusses his experience as an editor working with Djuna Barnes.]
"You have to trust someone, Miss Barnes. Why not trust me?" Only an author as aggravating as Djuna Barnes could have goaded me into making such a desperate plea, during a meeting in our publishing office. I was unaware I had nearly shouted these words until my assistant, in the outer room, repeated them to me. "Do you think she trusts you now?" she asked after Miss Barnes's departure. "Did it work?" Of course it didn't work. Nothing worked with Djuna Barnes, whose distrust of all book publishers seemed to be pathological, the product of her long and unhappy history with many companies here and abroad. She even rejected the word "publishers"; they were "printers" to her. She was now almost 70 years old. She took advice only from her longtime friend and admirer T. S. Eliot, who happened to be her English publisher, and he told me that occasionally even his advice was flatly rejected.
It was Eliot who had sent me the typescript of her verse play, The Antiphon, which our company published in 1958, three years before this meeting. We imported 1,500 English sheets from Faber & Faber, the publishing house with which Eliot was associated. Happily, the book received the...
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SOURCE: "'Bringing Milkshakes to Bulldogs': The Early Journalism of Djuna Barnes," in Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes, edited by Mary Lynn Broe, Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, pp. 27-34.
[In the following essay, Levine traces how Barnes's early journalism influenced her fiction, especially Nightwood.]
Judging by her early career as a journalist, one could say that Djuna Barnes had a taste for "the bawdy, cheap cuts from the beast life," not unlike her character Felix Volkbein of Nightwood, who haunts the dressing rooms of Europe's actresses, acrobats, and sword swallowers (N, II). Barnes combined the public demands of a career with a private fascination for the strange and bizarre. The assignments she drew as a "newspaperman" (her term) during the eight years before she left for Europe in 1920 led her inevitably to the grotesque. Barnes' tabloid journalism is elegant, witty, and surprisingly undated. Because her career as a journalist was the seedbed of her greatest novel, Nightwood, her early essays, interviews, and works of fiction are worth considering, setting aside questions of merit. The motif of the sideshow freak emerged from this early work and found its way into Nightwood.
In 1913 Djuna Barnes began working as a reported and illustrator for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. She free-lanced for the Press, the...
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SOURCE: "'That Savage Path': Nightwood and The Divine Comedy," in Renascence, Vol. XLIV, No. 2, Winter, 1992, pp. 137-58.
[In the following essay, Reesman compares Barnes's Nightwood to Dante's The Divine Comedy.]
Among the many interesting problems raised by Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (1936), is that of placing this complex and mysterious novel in a literary-historical context. Many critics describe Nightwood as an example of the post-modernist "new novel." Joseph Frank, for example, views it as a striking example of literary spatialism, a "richly experimental" novel that goes beyond other similar works in its post-cubist exploration of narrative form and narrative consciousness (Frank 46). Following Frank, Sharon Spencer calls it an "architectonic" novel that attempts "to liberate character from the restrictive traditional unities by means of new structural principles based upon juxtaposition in space" (Spencer 39). Yet although Nightwood clearly emerges out of the literary attitudes and trends of its time, it also progressively assimilates and coordinates itself with the literature of the past. T. S. Eliot, for example, whose introduction to Nightwood drew favorable attention to a relatively unknown author, praises the novel's "great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterisation," but adds to these virtues "a...
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SOURCE: "Djuna Barnes's Nightwood and 'the Experience of America,'" in Critique, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Winter, 1993, pp. 100-12.
[In the following essay, Nimeiri discusses the symbolic significance of the Americanness of the characters in Barnes's Nightwood.]
Since the American publication of Djuna Barnes's Nightwood in 1937, critics have focused on the formal aspects of the novel and have paid little attention to its content. This tendency has prompted Lynn DeVore to complain that "The book's linguistic complexities … have … directed critics to analyze especially the form and structure of the text as well as to speak only of its verbal tapestry in terms of imagistic, expressionistic, cubistic, or surrealist affinities while slighting its altogether human dimensions" (71). Even when critics find meaning in the novel, it is often abstract with no bearing on any particular situation, as if the story occurs in a void or a dream-world where the characters move about in a landscape of metaphors, images, and myths. This view of the novel ignores, regards as irrelevant, or even denies the existence of the obvious experiential context and its decisive effect on determining the theme. Leslie Fiedler, who virtually dismisses Nightwood as being little more than verbosity and expressionism, in his brief discussion of it in Love and Death in the American Novel, exemplifies this kind of...
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SOURCE: "'This Is Obscene': Female Voyeurism, Sexual Abuse, and Maternal Power in The Dove," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 117-39.
[In the following essay, Dalton discusses the role of incest and child abuse in Barnes's work, especially in her play, The Dove.]
In 1963 when she was seventy-one, Djuna Barnes referred to herself as "the most famous unknown of the century."1 By old age, Barnes was profoundly aware that while she had been respected decades earlier as an innovative modernist writer, her work remained largely unread. Worse still, when it was read, it typically provoked a mixture of admiration and bafflement or outright rejection. One critic stated that her writing "suffers from that most irritating offense of difficult writing—the mysterioso effect that hides no mystery, the locked box with nothing in it."2 I would argue that Barnes's work is more like Pandora's box: once one manages to open it, the contents stream out irrepressibly. Yet the long-standing critical confusion makes sense since Barnes focused on exploring the position of daughters within incestuous families. Until the past decade, such discursive terrain has remained mostly uncharted, in keeping with the social taboos barring discussion of both the subject of childhood sexual abuse and the vulnerability of daughters within patriarchal structures....
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SOURCE: "Djuna Barnes's Mystery in Morocco: Making the Most of Little," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 141-48.
[In the following essay, Mailloux uses Barnes's correspondence to reconstruct a significant period in the writer's life.]
Djuna Barnes would seem in most ways to be an ideal subject for a biography. First of all, she lived a fascinating life. She did important things, she knew important people, she lived in exotic places. Second, she provided a record of that life, both in her fiction and in her extensive personal correspondence. (It helps too that many of her friends were comparably logocentric.) And third, she presents "problems" to the biographer, questions that are difficult to answer but that also seem extraordinarily suggestive, questions that guarantee new ground to be uncovered and new centers around which to construct a personality. One of Emily Dickinson's poems begins "The Riddle we can guess / We speedily despise." Djuna Barnes was never one to be despised.
The major problems for her would-be biographers are fairly well-known. There is, for instance, the question of why Barnes, at the apparent height of her creative power, should suddenly withdraw from life and writing, turning herself, in her own description, into a kind of Trappist monk. Or there is the question of whether or not she was sexually abused by her father, or whether...
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SOURCE: "'I Just Loved Thelma': Djuna Barnes and the Construction of Bisexuality," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 53-61.
[In the following essay, Michel analyzes the role of sexual identity in Barnes's life and works.]
When asked about her sexuality, Djuna Barnes is reported to have answered, "I'm not a lesbian, I just loved Thelma."1 Given Barnes's apparent uneasiness with categorization, it is perhaps not surprising that readers of her work are divided over whether she is best read as a lesbian or as a homophobic writer. In particular, critics have debated whether Ladies Almanack celebrates or attacks lesbians. But the current move to include the identity "bisexual" within queer politics may provide a new way of approaching these questions. Although Barnes never identified herself as bisexual, her position was fluid throughout her life and from book to book.
Moreover, there are some intriguing similarities between characterizations of Barnes's writing and recent characterizations of bisexuality. Critics interested in the sexuality manifest in Barnes's works, and activists concerned with the place of bisexuality in queer politics, seem both to have been working from similar ideas about form, content, and the production of meaning. Because of the stylistic complexity of Barnes's works, it can sometimes be useful to translate those...
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SOURCE: "A Legend in Her Own Time," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 25, No. 46, November 12, 1995, p. 5.
[In the following review, Dirda discusses Phillip Herring's Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes and the reprinting of Barnes's Nightwood.]
As it happens, a friend of mine lives in Patchin Place, the little courtyard in Greenwich Village where Djuna Barnes (1892–1982) spent the last 40-some years of her amazing life. Two decades ago, when Barnes was still alive, I used to think of ringing her doorbell and genuflecting or kissing her hand or presenting her with a bottle of Scotch. After all, she was one of the last surviving giants of 20th-century literature, author of the legendary Nightwood, and a woman who counted James Joyce among her drinking buddies and T. S. Eliot among her admirers. Make that fervent admirers: Eliot kept her picture above his desk (next to that of Yeats), addressed her as "dearest" in letters, and once declared her the greatest living writer.
Moreover, Eliot was hardly alone in his enthusiasm. Dylan Thomas used to read from Nightwood on his speaking tours of America. Samuel Beckett, whom Barnes scarcely knew, sent her part of the royalties from Waiting for Godot. Even Dag Hammarskjold, secretary general of the United Nations, valued her work so highly that he helped translate her versedrama, The Antiphon, into...
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SOURCE: "Light on Nightwood," in Nation, Vol. 261, No. 17, November 20, 1995, pp. 628-32.
[In the following review, Fleischer praises Phillip Herring's Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes for its accuracy, but complains that Cheryl Plumb makes too many assumptions about the editing of Barnes's Nightwood in her republication of the original version.]
We've never known what to do with our literary geniuses, particularly blasphemous parodists like Emily Dickinson (coy) and Gertrude Stein (mannish), who subvert gender conventions and radically alter literary forms—perhaps the former is prerequisite to the latter. Djuna Barnes is no exception.
Or is she? Unlike Dickinson and Stein, almost everything Barnes wrote that she considered complete was published in her lifetime, and her 1936 novel Nightwood has never since its 1946 reissue by New Directions been out of print. Then why, when Dickinson's stature matches Walt Whitman's and Stein's cachet supersedes Ernest Hemingway's, does the name Djuna Barnes—"the most famous unknown of the century," she dubbed herself—still evoke perplexed expressions? (Like Stein, who welcomed Hemingway in her rue de Fleurus salon but snubbed Barnes, she was an American expatriate in Paris during the 1920s.)
The first wave of feminist criticism largely passed Barnes by, but since her death in 1982, she has...
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SOURCE: "So Much Genius, So Little Talent," in New York Times Book Review, November 26, 1995, p. 12.
[In the following review. Seymour asserts that while "[Barnes] has been partly revealed [in Phillip Herring's Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes]: a bigger and bolder exposure is still needed."]
Few authors have achieved so much celebrity with one novel as the elegant, exotic Djuna Barnes, without whom no account of Greenwich Village in the teens, or the Left Bank in the 1920's, is complete. That one novel was Nightwood. Overwritten and self-indulgent, it carries off its flaws with splendid nonchalance. Admired by Joyce, Nightwood is as important to the history of the 20th-century novel as Finnegans Wake—and more readable.
It was published in 1936, when Barnes was 44 and still overwhelmed by the departure of her lover, Thelma Wood. Wood appears in the book as the elusive, promiscuous Robin Vote, reduced in the final chapter to letting herself be seduced at an altar by a dog. Barnes never makes clear whether Robin is obsessed by self-degradation or simply reverting to her instinctive level; throughout the novel, Barnes stresses the narrowness of the line between humankind and animals. A circus girl catches the eye of a dilettante aristocrat, not for her beauty but because he relishes her similarity to the lion she tames. The grotesque cabaret performers...
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SOURCE: "Stop, Look and Reread," in American Book Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, October-November, 1996, p. 24.
[In the following review, Robins discusses what the drawings in Poe's Mother: Selected Drawings of Djuna Barnes, edited by Douglas Messerli, say about society during Barnes's era.]
What is style besides being fashion's blood?—a distinctive look, a phrase evocative of a time, an attitude. Douglas Messerli's Poe's Mother: Selected Drawings of Djuna Barnes at first glance is replete with all of the above. Drawn tongue-in-cheek, a stylized Poe's mother as a slightly naughty vision of the 19th-century actress she was, adorns the book's elegant jacket cover and also occupies the next to last page of its more than a hundred drawings, including quick sketches, wood cuts, and black-and-white caricatures all displaying the professionalism and talent of a facile 1920s newspaper reporter/illustrator possessed of no coherent style except for an occasional out and out homage to Beardsley. These drawings were done to order for newspapers and the Theater Guild Magazine, and their chief appeal today lies in the fact that they were executed by the writer Djuna Barnes and, in turn, are the occasion for Messerli's exquisite explanatory notes, many of which end by serving up potent examples of the Barnes wit. And, as such, they have the charm, consistency, and staying power of an after dinner mint....
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SOURCE: "Narratives of a Virgin's Violation: The Critique of Middle-Class Reformism in Djuna Barnes's Ryder," in Novel, Vol. 30, No. 2, Winter, 1997, pp. 218-36.
[In the following essay, Edmunds asserts in a discussion of Barnes's Ryder, that "Barnes makes repeated, figurative use of the narrative of a virgin's violation to foreground the ultimate complicity between middle-class reformers and the structures of oppression they would reform, while eschewing the scandalous appeal to fact on which such projects depend."]
In her first novel, Ryder (1928), Djuna Barnes recasts her own family history as the story of the freewheeling Ryder family, whose outrageous actions at once parody and overturn the conventions of middle-class domestic fiction. Embracing the maverick ideals of polygamy, idleness, and freethinking, the Ryders not only fail to exemplify dominant norms of domestic conduct; they actively dispute the social mandate to uphold such norms. This dispute largely takes place in rural New York during the period between 1890 and 1910. As I will argue in some detail, it takes form as a complex battle over the legacy of middle-class reformism. Wendell Ryder and his mother Sophia defend a long-standing reformist tradition of social experimentation in the face of contemporary reformist efforts to bring their domestic practices under the rule of the wage economy and the welfare state. In...
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Allen, Carolyn. "The Erotics of Nora's Narrative in Djuna Barnes's Nightwood." Signs 19, No. 1 (Autumn 1993): 177-200.
Presents Nora's narrative in Barnes's Nightwood as "a narrative of lesbian erotics" and then "argue[s] how such an erotics critiques Freud's influential writings on narcissism and desire."
Bockting, Margaret. "Performers and the Erotic in Four Interviews by Djuna Barnes." Centennial Review XLI, No. 1 (Winter 1997): 183-95.
Explores the identity of women and actors in the early twentieth century by looking at four interviews conducted by Barnes with Mimi Aguglia, Gaby Deslys, Yvette Guilbert, and Alla Nazimova.
Broe, Mary Lynn. "'A Love from the Back of the Heart': The Story Djuna Wrote for Charles Henri." Review of Contemporary Literature 13, No. 3 (Fall 1993): 22-32.
Studies Barnes's story "Behind the Heart" and what it tells about Barnes's relationship with Charles Henri Ford.
Castricano, Jodey. "Rude Awakenings: or What Happens When a Lesbian Reads the 'Hieroglyphics of Sleep' in Djuna Barnes' Nightwood." West Coast 28, No. 3 (Winter 1994–95): 106-16.
Traces the configuration of desire in Barnes's...
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