Djuna Barnes (1892-1982)
Contributing Editor: Catharine R. Stimpson
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Problems with teaching Barnes are also opportunities. They include: (1) Her life and complicated childhood, e.g., a suffragist grandmother, a lecherous father; (2) her Bohemian adulthood--she lived and worked in avant-garde circles in New York and Europe and was also bisexual; (3) her comic wit and anguished vision; and (4) the range of her writing. Because she was a professional writer, with no other income for the most part, she took on a gamut of styles (journalism, plays, poems, stories, burlesques). She often parodies older forms, e.g., Ryder, the bildungsroman, and picaresque novel. If students don't know the original, they miss her great wit.
Her biography is still emerging, but tell the story of her life. Let students see her courage, adventurousness, and harsher characteristics, e.g., she traveled in hard-drinking circles. Critics/readers are rediscovering and recovering Barnes, seeing afresh how much she did, who she was, what her circles were, how much it mattered that she was a woman writer, how destructive that ghastly childhood was. Make the class part of the process of rediscovering and recovery, part of the adventure. Show students, too, what she was parodying, what part of literary history she was utilizing.
Help students with her dualistic vision, her sense of contradiction and irony. We are born, but born to die. The womb is a tomb. We are corrupt, but we love and desire. We descend in order to ascend.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Trace the travails of a young, beautiful, really bright, ironic, bisexual woman making her way in a tough world. Culturally, look at what it means to be modern, to be avant-garde, to go for the new, vital, disorderly, outlawed, carnivalesque. Barnes knew almost everyone, so that she is a way into modern culture, e.g., she interviewed James Joyce. Historically, she is twentieth century. She lived through two world wars, in a world where God had disappeared, though she yearned for faith; in which the corrupt and vile seemed to dominate history.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Barnes mastered several genres. Use her journalism to show the mass media, especially the mass newspaper. Use her short stories to show a combination of flat realism and the grotesque, the wierd; use Ladies Almanack, for one, to show both satire and inside jokes (Barnes was spoofing women's circles in Paris in the 1920s). Use Nightwood to show the modern novel, its suspicion of a straight, linear narrative; its interest in consciousness and language and clashing points of view; the darkness of vision, life as a nightwood; its wild humor; its blurring of sexual identities; its sense of history as a fall. Like a surrealist, Barnes explores the unconscious. Like a symbolist, she incarnates the invisible in a sensible thing.
Barnes was very conscious of writing for specific audiences. She also cared, despite her bohemianism, for the approval of male cultural authorities, especially T. S. Eliot, who endorsed Nightwood. Toward the end of her life, Barnes wrote very little, but certain people kept her reputation alive because they loved her, despite her bitter, often destructive, wit, and the difficulty of her work. After her death, feminist critics have helped to re-evaluate her. Another biographer, Andrew Field (1983)-- who also writes about Vladimir Nabokov--likes quirky, elusive, brilliant, cosmopolitan figures.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Try teaching her stories with Sherwood Anderson, Winesberg, Ohio (1919), for the meticulous observation of despair; Ladies Almanack with Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), for Parisian adventures; Nightwood with Ulysses for the experimental modern novel; and, for very hard work, the play Antiphon with T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party (1950), for the use of older dramatic forms for metaphysical and psychological exploration.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. I prefer to have students keep journals rather than ask study questions because the journal picks up students' immediate reactions, no matter how hostile they are. If the class is too large, you might ask them to write out their own study questions. If a study question is a necessity, try to get at her sense of family, which is bleak but convinced of the family's necessity; or her sense of differences: how different people can be, perhaps, from "ordinary" life. Though students might not adore this, ask about futility, and, among the deluded, about failure.
2. Barnes was also a good artist. A student might write about her use of pictures, her visual skills, either through her own illustrations or through her vivid, metaphoric, visual language.
Phillip Herring, Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes, New York: Viking Press, 1995, is the most recent biography.
Silence and Power, edited by Mary Lynn Broe, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, uses the lens of feminist criticism.
Douglas Messerli, Djuna Barnes: A Bibliography (1975), is an excellent survey of criticism up to the mid-1970s.