26 August 2011

"Some Hard Captious Star"

"Someday beneath some hard
captious star -
Spreading its light a little
Over far,
We'll know you for the woman
That you are."
- From Fifth Avenue Up in The Book Of Repulsive Women by Djuna Barnes,New York: 1915.

"Reading Djuna Barnes is like reading a foreign language, which you understand." - Marianne Moore

Before she was a novelist and before Paris, Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) was a journalist and a women's suffrage militant in Greenwich Village. She published The Book Of Repulsive Women in 1915.  In later years the book's extreme frankness about 'the new woman' embarrassed Barnes  but it remains one of her most often reprinted works.

“I came to Europe to get culture.  Is this culture I’m getting?  Then I might as well go back to Greenwich Village and rot there.” - Djuna Barnes (There are alternate versions, but this is the one given by publisher Matthew Josephson.)


The author of much admired modernist novels  Ryder (1928) and Nightwood (1936), Barnes was both praised and damned.  Ryder was banned in Great Britain, even the expurgated edition. A few short years later, American expatriate T.S.Eliot, in am introduction to a new edition,  described  Nightwood as "the greatest novel written by a woman in English."    In his opinion, her father told her that it would take the rest of her life to untangle the knots of her childhood.  In the event, it wasn’t long enough.

Wald Barnes dabbled in music and painting, but devoted more energy to the practice of polygamy.  His house was always full of women: his wife Elizabeth, a violinist, his mother Zadel who was convinced that her son was a misunderstood genius, and assorted mistresses. 

The family lived in Cornwall-on-Hudson, a suburban retreat for New York's intelligentsia.  Nevertheless, Wald found it prudent to keep his children out of school to avoid public scrutiny.  Eccentricity lapsed into moral turpitude when the sixteen year old Djuna was raped by a neighbor, possibly with her father’s connivance. 

Four years later Elizabeth Barnes  took her four children and moved to Brooklyn.  There Djuna studied drawing at Pratt Institute until the family's need for money forced her to find a job.  First a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle, Barnes joined the competitive world of Manhattan freelancers. 

She moved to Greenwich Village, but still felt herself an outsider, despite several successes, poems  published in Harper’s and drawings exhibited at Mabel Dodge’s prestigious Fifth Avenue salon.  Barnes fretted to her journal,  “- And yet I was in awe of no one.  I attempted not to show the arrogance of my upper lip that would persist in an attempt to curl, probably because I wanted to cry and wouldn’t, and I felt cold because I wanted so dreadfully to feel warm and hopeful and one with them.”  
A talent for finding representative individuals is the mark of a superior journalist. In Barnes' hands the interview became an art form.  Her subjects strike us as startlingly contemporary: the two-career couple; the sex symbol; the preacher as performer; the celebrity fashion designer. 

 The Barnes beat ranged from uptown dance halls to the lowdown bars  of Coney Island., and everywhere  she found a city of dance-mad people,  fans of Vernon and Irene Castle.  A professional husband and wife dance team, the Castles made their  debut in 1912, introducing new dances and igniting a ballroom dance craze that swept the country. They danced on Broadway in Irving Berlin's Watch Your Step (1915).  In Yes, the Vernon Castles Have a Home and They Occasionally Tango Past It, Barnes captureed the hectic life of the airborne duo as they perfected the dual-career marriage.
Barnes also recognized the travails of the sex symbol. Lillian Russell, the woman who made the 1890s ‘Gay’, was wildly successful at stage, screen and light opera yet she also endured failed marriages and relentless public prying into her personal life, which included a long-running relationship with the notorious "Diamond” Jim Brady. In I Could Never Be Lonely Without A Husband, Barnes questioned Russell about her home life. Russell parried with, "So many pleasing episodes of one's life are spoiled by shouting. You never heard of an unhappy marriage unless the neighbors have heard it first."

Barnes was clearly delighted to spar with her interlocutor in Nothing Amuses Coco Chanel After Midnight.. Chanel allowed Barnes to see her hardness as well as her charm. "The figure is more important than the face, and more important than the figure is the means by which you keep it."
She lied her way into an interview with the elusive impresario Florenz Ziegfeld at the height of his fame in 1914.  The man who adapted the Folies Bergere for an audience that wanted its women idealized as well as exposed (a little) explained one of the French songs in his show to Barnes.  “A vampire is a good woman with a bad reputation, or rather a good woman who has had possibilities and wasted them." He could be describing Nightwood's protagonist, Robin Vote.

Refusing to be confined to the ghetto of the women's pages, Barnes covered night courts, prisons, and laid bare the lives of elderly workers.  This  undoubtedly explains why her account of How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed is so matter of fact as it describes her own harrowing ordeal. Barnes convinced the New York City Police Department to let her undergo the same punishment meted out to the militant British feminists she admired. The resulting article documented her ordeal. "The spirit was betrayed by the body's weakness. There it is - the outraged will. If I, playacting, felt my being burning with revolt at this brutal usurpation of my own functions, how they who suffered the ordeal in its acutest horror must have flamed at the violation of the sanctuaries of their spirits.”

 Within the space of two months in 1914, she  persuaded a doctor to force feed her like jailed women's suffragists were,  spent time in a cage at the Bronx Zoo with a young gorilla named Dinah, and  offered herself as a volunteer damsel-in-distress to firefighters in training at the Sixty-Seventh Street Recruit Center.
Fifty years before a man in a white suit announced the arrival of a New Journalism, Djuna Barnes had done it all.
Two collections of the journalism of Djuna Barnes, with her illustrations are publsihed by Sun & Moon Press: 
New York (1913-1921), Los Angeles: 1989
Interviews (1914-1931), Los Angeles: 1985.

Images: Phorographs from the exhibition Newspaper Fiction: The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes, 1913-1919, on view until August 19, 2012 at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art.

How it Feels to be Forcibly Fed from New York World Magazine, September 6, 1914.

The Girl and the Gorilla from New York World Magazine, October 18, 1914.
My Adventures Being Rescued from New York World magazine, November 15, 1914.
1.  unidentified photographer - Djuna Barnes, c. 1921, courtesy of New Directions.
2. Djuna Barnes - drawing for The Book of Repulsive Women, New York, Guido Bruno: 1915.
3. Edith Bry -  Adolescent Dream, 1911, Loeb Art Center, New York University.
4. Djuna Barnes - Portrait of Marsden Hartley, 1916, New York Morning Telegraph.
5. Maurice Brange - Djuna barnes And Solita Solano - Au Cafe - Paris, 1922, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris.


Neil said...

Jane - if you haven't read Mary Dearborn's biography of Peggy Guggenheim, I recommend it. Not only is it very interesting about its subject, but there's quite a lot about Djuna Barnes too.

Timothy Cahill said...

Brava! Yet again, Jane, (as with Adelaide Crapsey and so many others), you've brought to life a vibrant past obscured or forgotten. A terrific read. Thank you.

Jane said...

Neil, thank you. I'm always afraid of running out of reading material.

Jane said...

Thank you, Tim. When I read "New York" and "Interviews" I was thrilled, as I thought I'd read every scrap by Barnes. I wish these books had been available when I was growing up. My mother took me to a demonstration at our local newspaper to protest sex-segregated job ads. The press(men) stood in the second story windows and spat on us, while a few female employees cowered in the background. I remembered them years later when I read about the travails of another young journalist of the 1910s - Katherine Anne Porter. That's why I decided to get a degree in journalism.