(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.)