Monday, June 12, 2017

"Why is it that whenever I hear music I think I’m a bride?”- The incomparable Djuna Barnes at 125

Djuna Barnes (1892-1982)
Author, playwright, journalist, poet, illustrator

Granddaughter of a suffragette free love enthusiast and daughter of her polygamist son, Djuna Barnes grew up in a nightmarish household with those two, his father’s mistress and seven siblings, most of whom she raised.

Her father was born Henry Budington. He was 14 years old in 1870, when his mother, Zadel Barnes Budington, an early feminist, divorced her husband - an unusual event then - and went back to her own name, which the son then adopted, changing his first name to “Wald”. He was a failed composer and, to his mother, an undiscovered genius.

Young Wald Barnes married Elizabeth Chappell of Oakham, England, and they gave exotic names to their five children - Thurn, Djuna, Zandon, Saxon and Shangar. At sixteen she was sexually abused, though her allusions to it were never clear; at eighteen the family pressed her to marry her dad's mistress’ 52-year-old brother in a clergyless ceremony.

She left after two months and moved to Manhattan with the family, her father having divorced her mother to marry his mistress. Barnes walked into the offices of the Brooklyn Eagle and announced, “I can draw and I can write, and you’d be a fool not to hire me.”

They did, and she was right, becoming one of the city's most sought-after freelance writers and illustrators within a year. She dogged the more conservative leaders of the suffragist movement for impeding progress with their accommodationist tactics, and, to illustrate the torture of feminists on hunger strikes by the police, underwent force-feeding herself for an illustrated article in August 1914.

Barnes fell naturally into the Greenwich Village avant-garde, which opened more doors and provided her plenty of material. Her first book, a collection of poems titled The Book of Repulsive Women, was unaccountably open in its lesbian focus, yet never prosecuted for indecency. Some have suggested same-sex attraction between women was so off the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice’s radar, they didn’t understand her verses when they read them.

Flamboyantly bisexual, Barnes cut a swathe through the bedrooms of New York bohemians before during, and after her engagement to a German publishing heir, a Harvard pal of Franklin Roosevelt’s who ran the family’s New York office. His response to the anti-German fervor of World War I America was to tell Barnes he wanted a German wife and dump her (he subsequently returned to Germany and became a close familiar with the up-and-coming Adolf Hitler). She had several plays produced by the Provincetown Players, demonstrating a facility in both acting and a bent for Modernist stage writing.

In 1921, Barnes moved to Paris on a lucrative contract from McCall’s Magazine, and, as she had in New York, settled into the middle of everything cutting-edge. She produced a satirical look at Paris’ lesbian social circle, The Ladies’ Almanack; her interview of James Joyce was as much about her reaction to him as him himself (privately, after reading Ulysses, she confessed, “I shall never write another line...who has the nerve after that?”).

Everyone, in those days, wrote a book about each other and their friends, so the French novelist Colette portrayed “The Barnes”- as she preferred to be called all her life- and her circle in The Pure and the Impure.

Barnes spent most of the decade in a tempestuous relationship with an American artist called Thelma Wood, that ended with Wood trawling bars by night, and Barnes trailing trying to find her. Both turned into roaring drunks; Barnes- who'd bought an apartment for them, wanted Wood to herself. Wood wanted Barnes and whoever else caught her eye. Among their neighbors was a young American actress, Myrna Loy. She became Patience Scalpel, the only straight character in The Ladies’ Almanack, who”could not understand Women and their Ways.”

Barnes published a novel, Ryder, in 1928. Though it bewildered many readers, with its Joycean shifts of narrative style and complicated plot about a polygamous family, its first print run sold out. The fashions changed before another could be issued.

Wood and Barnes split up the same year, and Barnes embarked on a decade wandering between Britain, France, New York and North Africa. Her next novel, Nightwood, was a brilliant exercise in Modernism, profiling a woman’s vengeful destruction of her family; friends pressed it on T.S. Eliot, who got it published at Faber and Faber. Critics raved, but few readers bought. Eliot smoothed over, or edited out, some of her more pointed bits about sex and religion; a complete, as-written copy was not published for sixty years.

Dylan Thomas called Nightwood one of the three best prose works by women in the century; even now- eighty years after publication- it remains a landmark in LGBT fiction.

Her magazine and newspaper credentials dated and her long-form writing dulled by drink, Barnes lived on the grace and favor of the arts patron Peggy Guggenheim through the 1930s until she managed to wear out even that welcome. Guggenheim shipped her back to New York in 1940, where she shared a single room with her impoverished mother.

Having converted to Christian Scientism, Mother Barnes tried to cure her daughter's drinking by reading her endless selections from the works of Mary Baker Eddy before putting her out on the street. After a year in a sanatorium and bouncing from couch to couch with her dwindling cast of friends, she was pensioned off by Guggenheim and took a small flat in Greenwich Village in 1942. She remained there the rest of her life.

During her Patchin Place years, Barnes became a notorious recluse, intensely suspicious of anyone she did not know well. In a 1971 interview, she explained,

'Years ago I used to see people, I had to, I was a newspaperman, among other things. And I used to be rather the life of the party. I was rather gay and silly and bright and all that sort of stuff and wasted a lot of time. I used to be invited by people who said, 'Get Djuna for dinner, she's amusing.' So I stopped it.''

E. E. Cummings, who lived across the street, would check on her periodically by shouting out his window, "Are you still alive, Djuna?" Bertha Harris put roses in her mailbox, but never succeeded in meeting her; Carson McCullers camped on her doorstep, but Barnes only called down, "Whoever is ringing this bell, please go the hell away."

Anaïs Nin was an ardent fan of her work, especially Nightwood. She wrote to Barnes several times inviting her to participate in a journal on women's writing, but received no reply. Barnes remained contemptuous of Nin and would cross the street to avoid her. Barnes was angry that Nin had named a character Djuna, and when the feminist bookstore Djuna Books opened in Greenwich Village, Barnes called to demand that the name be changed.

Barnes had a lifelong affection for poet Marianne Moore since she and Moore were young in the 1920s. Of that friendship, Barnes’ American publisher, Robert Giroux, wrote,

Marianne Moore once told Elizabeth Bishop she had run into Djuna Barnes on the steps of the New York Public Library. ''I was curious,'' the younger poet wrote, ''and asked her what Djuna Barnes was 'like.' There was a long pause before Marianne said, thoughtfully, 'Well, she looked very smart, and her shoes were beautifully polished.' ''

Her publisher added,

Occasionally I saw Miss Barnes walking in the neighborhood of our office at Union Square. She held her tall and thin frame as straight as a ramrod, using a silver-headed ebony walking stick and favoring her left side. Her most striking feature in her younger years had been a fine head of glossy auburn hair, which began to turn gray, thin out and frizzle in the 1960's. She was always smartly groomed and often wore black suits with a brightly colored or polka-dot scarf at her throat.

In 1950, Barnes dried out to focus on a play about her family, The Antiphon. After a dismal tryout at Harvard, the idea of productions in London and New York was scrapped. One of its more curious manifestations was a 1962 Swedish performance version co-translated by Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary-general of the United Nations. Giroux remembered,
In The New York Times Book Review, Dudley Fitts called the work ''dramatic poetry of a curious and high order,'' pointing out that the pleasure to be found in ''The Antiphon'' is ''the pleasure of language. Not spoken language; Miss Barnes has no ear for the stage, but the intricate, rich, almost viciously brilliant discourse, modeled more or less on the murkier post-Elizabethans.'' The names of the Jacobean playwrights John Webster, Cyril Tourneur, Thomas Middleton and John Ford were cited in the reviews. The anonymous reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement wrote, ''There will always be one or two eccentrics who think 'The Antiphon' gives its author first place among women who have written verse in the English language.''
Barnes turned out reams of poetry herself, most of which went unpublished in her life. Her last book, an abecedary for adults in verse, was called Creatures in An Alphabet. Admirers tried, to the extent she allowed, to aid her as her years advanced and her health declined. She died, in her one-room apartment in Patchin Place, three days after her ninetieth birthday.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We enjoy hearing from visitors! Please leave your questions, thoughts, wish lists, or whatever else is on your mind.