Djuna Barnes Barnes, Djuna (Vol. 127) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Robert Giroux (essay date 1 December 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nancy J. Levine (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jeanne Campbell Reesman (Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ahmed Nimeiri (essay date Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anne B. Dalton (essay date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Mailloux (essay date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frann Michel (essay date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Michael Dirda (review date 12 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Georgette Fleischer (review date 20 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Miranda Seymour (review date 26 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Corinne Robins (review date October-November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Susan Edmunds (essay date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 480 words.)