June 12, 2012
Novelist, poet and journalist DJUNA BARNES (1892–1982) called her most enduring work, Nightwood, the soliloquy of a “soul talking to itself in the heart of the night.” Championed by T.S. Eliot and lauded by Dylan Thomas, the novel is written so opaquely that it drove one reader to write Barnes’ biography in order that he might finally understand it; still, the novel and the woman defy easy categorization. Raised by free-love-practicing polygamists with artistic and sadistic streaks, Barnes flung herself into the New York scene of the 1910s a fully formed bohemian, a lesbian-leaning bisexual, a feminist whose childhood mistreatment and betrayals bred in her enough rage to last a lifetime. Forced to support the large family her father had abandoned, Barnes became a journalist. Her interviewing style (with the likes of Flo Ziegfeld, Lunt and Fontanne, Kiki, D.W. Griffith, Diamond Jim Brady and James Joyce) is more akin to the mesmerist’s art of spirit-channeling than it is to journalism, but the wit is sharper than is common to either profession: Lillian Russell allegedly confesses to Barnes that “she could never be lonely without a husband,” and Barnes has Mother Jones say, “I haven’t enough brains to be a suffragette — I’m too busy trying to locate the left side of the world where the heart is supposed to be.” I discovered Barnes when I was 13, and was gobsmacked by her audacity and her unwillingness to please. She ends an interview with the financially successful writer Donald Ogden Stewart, for example, in a fit of envy and sarcasm, finally coming to rest on the observation that, at this point, she wouldn’t mind dying. Her last years were spent in seclusion and ill health, looked after by her neighbor E.E. Cummings, who occasionally raised his window and yelled “Are you still alive, Djuna?” across their shared Greenwich Village courtyard.
READ MORE about members of the Modernist Generation (1884-93).