Djuna Barnes, best known as a cult feminist-ish lesbian experimental novelist, once described herself—with unaccustomed hauteur—as “the unknown legend of American literature.” In her early career, she claimed to have worked for every English language publication in New York City, excepting only the Times, and by the time she left for Paris in 1921, had published some one hundred articles. As it turns out, Barnes is one of the great carnival barkers of the nonfiction world—a kind of Tom Wolfe of her day.
A new exhibition of Barnes’s work at the Brooklyn Museum, running under the header “Newspaper Fictions,” concerns Barnes’s New York years, beginning with the day when, fresh from the slopes of Storm King Mountain—where she’d shared a log cabin with her mother, grandmother, polygamist father, his mistress, and her odd-monikered brothers Saxon, Zendon, Shangar, and Thurn—she allegedly marched into the offices of the Brooklyn Eagle, dressed in a milkmaid’s calico, and declared, “I can draw and write and you’d be foolish not to hire me.”
James Joyce, perhaps the greatest influence on Barnes’s fiction, liked to advise, “Never write about an unusual subject, make the common unusual.” Barnes, for one, paid this dictum no mind: like Nathanael West and Flannery O’Connor, she adored a misfit. Her writing—full of immigrants, circus animals, freaks, socialists, hipsters, servants, and suffragettes—revels in the atmosphere of the “yellow nineties,” a period characterized by Wildean decadence and art for art’s sake. One of her articles begins, “There is something in the smell of Summer that makes one think of the smell of the sea, and the smell of salt and of heavy wet winds and of fish and the tangled mats of wet seaweed that come to shore, beaching themselves like wigs, somehow forgotten by tragedians strolling tragically by the sands.” Her journalism is dense with ornament of this kind, luring the reader into a baffling linguistic dream. Sometimes—out of either fancy or carelessness—it grows utterly surreal, as when she comments of Wilson Mizner that he “has a laugh like a French pastry shop.”
Barnes, likely a victim of incest, suffered most of her life from alcoholism and depression. She seems to have found comfort in the grotesque, where bitterness could be translated to blazing wit. In a piece for Vanity Fair, “What Is Good Form in Dying: In Which Dozen Dainty Deaths Are Suggested for Daring Damsels,” for instance, she extends advice to young ladies on how to optimize the aesthetics of suicide. She notes, with a Gothic irony to rival Edward Gorey’s, that blondes look smartest when hanging “perseveringly” from a Venetian mirror, while the “heavy-lidded vampire of the brunette order” might more fashionably succumb to “slow-green” poison.
The Brooklyn exhibition, consisting of just forty-five objects, occupies a single wall. But it’s possible to spend several hours there, nose to the crumbling yellow newsprint. A single copy of Barnes’s collected nonfiction, New York, lies chained to a bench nearby. Frustratingly, the volume is absent from the museum’s gift shop and in fact appears to be out of print, as is Interviews, Barnes’s posthumous collection of deliciously unmediated tête-à-têtes.
If one does manage to find Barnes’s work, it might suggest to the reader that New Journalism is not as new as it claims. Barnes’s writing would hardly be welcome in the papers today without a sort of disclaimer, bearing more or less the same relation to our journalism as her stylized drawings do to photographs. Her impressionistic observations and anecdotes were often embellished or fabricated outright. For her very first assignment with the Eagle, “You Can Tango—a Little—at Arcadia Dance Hall,” she created a wealthy bachelor and perfume-counter girl from whole cloth: “He was bored. The tips of his immaculate tan shoes shone brightly as ever, the creases in his trousers were like the bow of the Imperator in their incisive sharpness, but his mind was as dull as a tarnished teapot.” The tango, incidentally, appears to have fascinated Barnes: she followed it down to Coney Island for “The Tingling, Tangling Tango as ‘Tis Tripped at Coney Isle” (Brooklyn Eagle, August 31, 1917). This article’s subtitle has a surrealistic grandeur that would cow an editor today: “An Evening with the Giddy Throng That Finds Its Fun in Gliding over the Shining Floor in a Hotel Close to the More or Less Sad Sea Waves—The Late Arrivals Find a New Interest in Life After Being Bored with the Amusements of the Common People.”
The phrase newspaper fiction was an invention of Barnes’s own. She, like Janet Malcolm today, was a believer in what might be called journalism’s observer effect, where the presence of someone watching, cataloging, and judging cannot but alter results. And so, finding that she cast a shadow on her observational path, Barnes duly recorded and printed it: an interview with Alfred Steiglitz sees her digressing with surprising candor on her own horror of life; she struggles to pay attention to Joyce and finds herself yelling at the playwright Donald Ogden Stewart for “rolling over and finding yourself famous,” before cutting the interview short with the declaration that she might like to die. For “Jess Willard Says Girls Will Be Boxing for a Living Soon,” she chats with a professional boxer—who’s no match for her cleverness. “His head,” she writes, “having been overlooked by Sargent, is reproduced in every forest where cutters have been—that gravely solemn thing, the stump of some huge tree staring in blunt Rodinesque mutilation from the ground.” Willard wonders, “I really don’t understand why pretty girls like you reporters have to stick at a dungy job on a newspaper.” Barnes often put words in a subject’s mouth: here, credulity sticks at the “dungy.”
Her other great form was “stunt” journalism. In “My Adventures Being Rescued,” Barnes attended a fireman’s training, where she put herself in peril three times and was saved. A photograph in the exhibit shows her several stories up in a long black dress, dangling from the waist of a solemn young firemen, pump-clad feet neatly crossed at the ankle midair. Famously, she also subjected herself to artificial feeding for the New York World Magazine in “How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed,” undergoing the procedure performed, often fatally, on hunger-striking suffragettes. In the photos, Barnes lies mummified in a white sheet, held down by three identically clad men in ties and shirtsleeves, while the doctor snakes a tube up her nose. A bit too cool for activism, Barnes focuses narrowly on subjective sensation.
Barnes often illustrated these articles herself. She has an eye for gesture and costumery and an ability to infuse a sketch with insight, wit, and Brobdingnagian zest for the strange. She likes types, cataloging people seen in hiring halls or “Types Found in Odd Corners Round About Brooklyn,” such as a man sleeping against a pair of saloon doors, rumpled body listing gracefully to port. (The drawing is gleefully captioned “What Can He Have Sown That He Reaps Thus Fully—Barley?”) These lopping, loosey-goosey sketches are of a different order from Barnes’s other, more intricate, Beardsleyan efforts—often faces with over-size eyes and mazes of hair worked over in a Morse-like alphabet of dots.
It was journalism that provided Barnes an entrée into the literary world of expatriate Paris, where she would find a kind of fame. A photograph from this period ends the Brooklyn show, capturing Barnes in three-quarter profile, with an unaccustomed half-smile and slick black hair curled archly around the ears. Reportedly, it’s inscribed on the verso, “I can operate in the dark—bodies are phosphorescent. I (See a condition of a poeta. Asteal light—a condition of round and above a lovely spiritual message dearie.)” It’s a fitting finale, as, cloaked though Barnes is in her language, her chimerical phosphorescence is everywhere.
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.