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.