Djuna Barnes 1892–1982
(Also wrote under pseudonym of Lydia Steptoe) American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, poet, and journalist.
Barnes is often linked with the modernists of the first half of the twentieth century. She shared the primary ideals of modernism—to revivify language, to express the unconscious mind and the alienation of the modern individual, and to reject the modes of realism. Barnes stressed image and symbol in her works, rather than realistic or naturalistic description, as a means of achieving her objectives. She also employed disordered chronological development, black humor, and a poetic prose style. Through these methods, together with her nightmarish view of existence, her works often exhibit surreal and Gothic qualities. Some critics consider Barnes a "one-book author" with a reputation based on Nightwood (1936), a novel of disputed significance. However, an enthusiastic following of writers, readers, and critics have sustained both popular and academic interest in this novel and, to a lesser extent, her other works as well.
As a young woman, Barnes contributed feature articles, short stories, poems, and illustrations to important literary periodicals and New York-based newspapers. Many of her early stories were collected in 1982 in the volume Smoke and Other Early Stories. Her most noted short stories, are collected in the volume Spillway (1962). Barnes traveled to Paris in the early 1920s and became acquainted with many expatriate writers residing there, including James Joyce, whom Barnes interviewed for Vanity Fair magazine and whom she has acknowledged as a major influence on her work. Her picaresque novel Ryder (1928) reflects the influence of Joyce, particularly his novel Ulysses, in its experiments with language and structure. The novel met with a generally warm critical reception.
The haunting Nightwood, however, is considered Barnes's finest achievement. In his introduction to the novel, T. S. Eliot maintained that the rich prose of Nightwood would be appreciated primarily by "sensibilities trained on poetry." Eliot also stated that the novel's unrelenting accumulation of horrific events evinces "a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy." The prose style of Nightwood, which is characterized by intense lyricism, has been cited by some critics as providing the novel with a coalescence that the disjointed narrative defies. In depicting the anguish of several characters who lack distinct sexual, spiritual, and social identities, Barnes used dreams, animals, and nocturnal images as metaphors for their unconscious and irrational obsessions. The novel's comic depictions of terrifying events represents an early manifestation of black humor. While such critics as Edwin Muir, Alfred Kazin, and Kenneth Burke have praised the strength and exuberance of Nightwood's prose, other critics have questioned its effectiveness. Leslie Fiedler, for instance, termed the language "oddly skewed."
Barnes published only sporadically after Nightwood, declaring in one interview that that work had drained much of her creative energy. Of her later works, The Antiphon (1958), a drama in verse, is generally deemed most important. This play employs poetic dialogue in the Elizabethan and Jacobean tra-ditions, although the setting of the play is contemporary. While some critics praised Barnes for carrying on the efforts of Eliot and W. B. Yeats to revive verse drama, many others contended that the meaning of the play was obscured by its language. This difference of opinion characterizes the general response to virtually all of Barnes's work. She has prompted both acclaim and disdain for her daring methods and for her bleak, fragmented depiction of modern existence.
(See also, Djuna Barnes Criticism and volumes 4, 8, 11 and 127.)