Douglas Messerli

  The Barnes, The Life  

With the death of Djuna Barnes on June 18th 1982, this country lost one of its most original and intelligent authors, a woman who for the greater part of her life might be said to have exemplified the holistic approach to the arts that characterizes the attitude – if not the practice – of many contemporary artists. For, although Barnes is primarily known as the author of one of the great masterworks of twentieth-century fiction, Nightwood, she was as well a painter, caricaturist, journalist, playwright, poet, storyteller, wit, and – much against her will – a gay and feminist spokeswoman.

Barnes began as a journalist in 1913 as a cub reporter and feature writer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. One year later she moved over to the New York Press, where, under the editorship of Carl Van Vechten, she was featured as an interviewer of celebrities. And in the next few years, in the pages of the Sunday Press, the New York Morning Telegraph Sunday Magazine, the New York Sun, and the New York Tribune, she interviewed almost every major literary figure and entertainer of the day, including Lillian Russell, Diamond Jim Brady, Flo Ziegfeld, Billy Sunday, Jess Willard, Enrico Caruso, David Belasco, Robert E. Jones, Frank Harris, and – with some literary license – Satan.

During these same years Barnes moved to her Patchin Place apartment next door to e.e. cummings, and there, through her fiction, drama, and paintings, she began to establish herself as one of the Village "Bohemians." She quickly became "intimate," as she put it, with other Villagers such as Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Floyd Dell, and Eugene O'Neill, with whom she helped to establish the Provincetown Players.

Like most of her artist friends, Barnes moved into that great American suburb of Paris after World War I. There she aligned herself with Natalie Barney and the "Amazon" circle. But at the same time, she kept close ties with friends who frequented the more male-centered Stein group. Among her closest friends in these Paris years, however, were the "outsiders": T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. Indeed, Barnes, who shuttled back and forth between New York and Paris and traveled throughout the continents, staying for a while with Jane and Paul Bowles in North Africa, perceived herself as a sort of outsider, as a perpetual world traveler rather than as an American expatriate. And her works of this period – Ladies Almanack, A Night Among the Horses, and Ryderall reflect this transcontinental sensibility.

It was Hitler's rise to power that returned her to the United States and a more sedentary form of life. During the early pre-War years, Barnes remained active, highly involved with the Theatre Guild and contributing regular interviews and articles to the Theatre Guild Magazine. For a while she published regular theatrical almanacs in the New York World Magazine and for the magazine of the Guild.

Nightwood was published in 1936 in England and the following year in the U.S. But as the country entered the War, Barnes began to slip into silence, obscurity, and legend. It was rumored that she had become alcoholic; Kay Boyle once told me that even as early as her Paris days Barnes would begin drinking in the morning and continue through the day and into the night. She survived, so the stories ran, on small amounts of money slipped under her door by Lillian Hellman and other friends.

In truth, Barnes was busy at work on her most difficult piece to date. Throughout these years, under the editorial guidance of Eliot and Edwin Muir, Barnes revised and winnowed down her long play The Antiphon, into greater and greater complexity. Its appearance in the late 1950s temporarily returned Barnes to public attention; Dag Hammarskjöld befriended her, helped to translate the play into Swedish, and saw to its production at the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre in 1961. But the play was not well received, either as a theatrical production or as a literary text. And, except for the publication of her Selected Works one year later, for which she revised most of the short stories, Barnes soon "retired" to the life of a near-recluse. From here on, she announced, she would devote herself to poetry only.

It was ten years later, while at work on her bibliography, that I met Djuna Barnes. By that time, she had established a frightful reputation for repelling admirers who dared attempt unannounced pilgrimages to her Patchin Place apartment. Although my visit was by appointment, I was terrified nonetheless; I'd read of her threats and had heard of the times when she had called the police to rid herself of unwanted guests.

"What your name?" she snapped as she peered through the unlatched door.

"Douglas Messerli," I answered, trying hard not to show the fear I felt. "I have an appointment to see you."

"I guess I have to let you in. Sorry about the smell in here. I can't help it. I'm an old lady. Now what was your name again?"

"Douglas Messerli," I repeated.

"Terrible name! Change it! Get rid of it immediately! Now why have you come to bother me?"

So began an hour of conversation in which Barnes gradually grew calmer and calmer, finally recalling bits and pieces of the past: describing the huge bronze platter behind Belasco when she interviewed him in 1916, remembering the dress which Coco Chanel had given her and which she, in turn, had passed on to "some Paris tart." I was not talking to an individual, but to cultural history.

Yet this legendary figure had also been an incredible individual, a sexual, political, and – yes – religious human being. Before me sat the woman who had written about gay relationships long before it had become fashionable, perhaps even commendable to do so. Yet, although she wrote about homosexuality, she was never an apologist for gay life; in fact, her gay characters, especially in Nightwood, seldom find happiness in or even survive love. Barnes, in short, never argued that it was "all right" to be gay, but that was not because she was uncomfortable with her sexuality. Barnes simply presumed the naturalness of her sexuality, just as she presumed her equality with men. What interested her far more than sexual identity was the moral conditions of her characters, both women and men. Accordingly, metaphysics became the focus of her fictions rather than the sexual preferences of figures such as Dr. O'Connor, Robin Vote, and Nora Flood. And in that framework Barnes felt that humankind was a rather bad lot.

Near the end of our conversation I asked her what she felt about the works of another woman writer, a novelist who was rumored to be gay [Eudora Welty]. "I do not like women writers," she hissed. I don't think Barnes was saying that she did not like writers who were women, but rather that she did not like women who were writers. For Barnes, I believe, the emphasis was not on sex but on the act of writing itself. I'm not sure that I agree with her; at times, it seems to me, it is just as important to explore how sexual identity defines the act of writing, how it shapes our perceptions. But as I sat with her that afternoon in 1973 until her emphysema made it difficult for her to continue, I slowly grew to understand some of her frustration, her anger, even her despair. Barnes had written, had painted, performed, accomplished whatever she had because of a vision that brought everything together, a vision of a universe that was complete. Her resentment had grown out of what she perceived all around her as a delimiting, a narrowing of subject and process by our society, sometimes by those who claimed to love her work most. Djuna Barnes wrote about gay women and men and about their lives, but her subject was always the human condition. That subject is not always appealing, but her writing will continue to be read by all who are drawn to her powerful truths.

College Park, Maryland, July 1982

Reprinted from New York Native, Issue 44, August 16-29, 1982, 38-39. ©1982 by Douglas Messerli.