Djuna Barnes’s extraordinary career as a journalist and illustrator deserves revisiting primarily because she made an important contribution in the development of 20th century English language modernist writing. She was born in a log cabin in 1892 and lived through the Deco years and became one of the key figures in 1920s and ‘30’s bohemian Paris and fulfilled a similar role in Greenwich Village. Though her upbringing in an unconventional household was fraught with incest, rape and hardship, Barnes developed an outsider’s perspective on ‘normal’ life that served her well as a writer. As a woman determined to succeed much of Barnes’s journalism was subjective and experiential. An early twentieth-century advocate for women’s rights Barnes also wrote interviews, features, theatre reviews, and a variety of news stories, often illustrating them with her own drawings.
Newspaper Fiction: The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes, 1913-1919, an exhibition of 45 objects including drawings, works on paper, documentary photographs, and stories in newsprint by the celebrated writer Djuna Barnes will be presented in the Herstory Gallery of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art from January 20 through October 28, 2012 at Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York. www.brooklynmuseum.org.
GREENWICH VILLAGE Barnes’s liberal sexuality fit in perfectly with the bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village and, later, the lesbian expatriate community in Paris. From her first articles in 1913 until her departure for Europe in 1921, she specialized in a type of journalism that was less about current events and more about her observations of the diverse personalities and happenings that gave readers an intimate portrait of her favorite character-New York City. Attempting to capture its transition from turn of the century city to modern metropolis, Barnes developed her unique style of “newspaper fictions,” offering impressionistic observations and dramatizing whatever she felt to be the true significance of subtexts of a story. Prior to publishing the modernist novels and plays for which she is now remembered, such as Ryder (1928), Nightwood (1936) and The Antiphon (1958), which present complex portrayals of lesbian life and familial dysfunction, Barnes supported herself as a journalist and illustrator for a variety of daily newspapers and monthly magazines including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, McCalls, Vanity Fair, Charm and the New Yorker.
THE BOHEMIAN LIFESTYLE In 1915 Barnes moved to a flat in Greenwich Village, where she became part of a thriving Bohemian community of artists and writers counting among her social circle Dadaist artists and poets. One supporter was Guido Bruno, an entrepreneur and promoter of published magazines and chapbooks out of his garret on Washington Square. He was willing to risk prosecution by publishing Barnes’s 1915 collection, The Book of Repulsive Women, with its explicit poetic descriptions of sex between women, at a time when lesbianism was virtually invisible in American culture. Barnes was unusual among Villagers in having been raised with a philosophy of free love, espoused both by her grandmother and her father. She retained sexual freedom as a value and had a number of affairs with both men and women during her Greenwich Village days.
PARIS SOJOURN (1921-1930) Barnes first traveled to Paris on assignment for McCall’s Magazine, where she soon became a well-known figure on the local scene; her black cloak and her acerbic wit are remembered in memoirs of the time. She was part of the inner circle of the influential salon hostess, Natalie Barney, who would become a lifelong friend and patron, as well as the central figure in Barnes’s satiric chronicle of Paris lesbian life, Ladies Almanack, which was published under the pseudonym “A Lady of Fashion.” However, the most important relationship of Barnes’s Paris years was with the artist Thelma Wood, a Kansas native who had come to Paris to become a sculptor. Driven by Barnes’s influence Wood took up silverpoint instead, producing animals and plants that one critic compared to Rousseau. By 1922 they moved in together in a flat on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. In 1928 Barnes dedicated Ryder and Ladies Almanack to Thelma Wood the year that both books were published and the year that she and Wood separated.
NEW YORK CITY AGAIN Barnes published little journalism in the 30s and was largely dependent on the largesse of the art patron, Peggy Guggenheim. Barnes was constantly ill and drank more heavily. After an attempted suicide Guggenheim funded hospital visits and doctors, but finally lost patience and sent be back to New York. During her Patchin Place years, Barnes became a notorious recluse. E.E. Cummings, who lived across the street, checked on her periodically, other put roses in her mailbox. It is at this time that Barnes stopped drinking in order to begin work on her verse play The Antiphon, that drew heavily on her own family history, the writing was fueled with anger. Although Barnes had other female lovers, in later years she was known to claim, “I am not a lesbian; I just loved Thelma.” BARNES WAS ELECTED TO THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ARTS AND LETTERS IN 1961. SHE WAS THE LAST SURVIVING MEMBER OF THE FIRST GENERATION OF ENGLISH-LANGUAGE MODERNISTS WHEN SHE DIED IN NEW YORK IN 1982.