NEWSPAPER FICTION The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes, 1913–1919
Djuna Barnes (American, 1892–1982) is best known for her modernist novels and plays, particularly Ryder (1928), Nightwood (1936), and The Antiphon (1958), which present formally complex yet emotionally frank portrayals of lesbian life and familial dysfunction. Earlier in her career, however, she supported herself as a journalist and illustrator, working for a variety of daily newspapers and monthly magazines. She purportedly landed her first job, for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, by walking in and declaring, “I can draw and write, and you’d be foolish not to hire me.”
Born in the Hudson Valley, Barnes grew up on Long Island, and lived in the Bronx while attending Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, before moving to Greenwich Village as a young bohemian writer in 1915. Raised in an unconventional household, which included her mother, her father and his mistress, her grandmother, and eight siblings, Barnes was self-sufficient and cynical, with an outsider’s perspective on “normal” life that served her well as a writer. Her liberal sexuality fit in perfectly with the bohemian lifestyle of the Village and, later, the lesbian expatriate community in Paris.
From her first articles in 1913 until her departure for Europe in 1921, Barnes used journalism as a means to understand New York City’s people and places, and as an excuse to push boundaries and explore society’s margins. She jumped from windows, hugged gorillas, and sought out the seductive, strange, and seedy, from Chinatown to Coney Island to the Crazy Cat Club around the corner from her Greenwich Avenue apartment.
Her reporting and illustrations, emphasizing politics as something experienced at an emotional, individual, and daily level, suggest a proto-feminist sensibility. While she sympathized with suffragists and reformers, Barnes was not a joiner, preferring to make her life and work political by insistently questioning expectations.
Catherine J. Morris
Curator, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art
NEW YORK PORTRAITS
Rather than focusing on current events, Barnes’s journalism was devoted to diverse personalities and happenings that gave readers an intimate portrait of her favorite character—New York City. Attempting to capture its transition from the Gilded Age to modernity, Barnes developed her unique “newspaper fictions,” offering impressionistic observations and embellished or entirely fabricated anecdotes in order to highlight the significance of a story. For her first published piece in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “You Can Tango—a Little—at Arcadia Dance Hall,” she invented a wealthy bachelor and a perfume-counter girl to report on the mingling of classes at a new nightlife venue.
POLITICS THROUGH PERSONALIZATION
Barnes's socially driven reporting prefigured second-wave feminism’s emphasis, in the 1970s, on the personal as political. Rarely addressing global affairs in her writing, she turned her penetrating gaze on local, individual stories that pointed to the ways war, economic pressures, and social policy affected daily lives. She profiled a “floating hotel” for child laborers, interviewed soldiers and elderly workers, and reported on the tribulations of unionists and suffragettes. In “How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed,” written for New York World Magazine, Barnes gave a first-person account of the procedure being inflicted on imprisoned hunger-striking suffragettes by the authorities in Britain. In counterpoint to journalism that claimed to deliver “just the facts,” her subjective and literary approach encouraged readers to put themselves in the story—in this case, the struggle for women’s rights. Barnes’s account can also be seen as a rebuke to the relative conservatism of the American suffragette movement, which was split over the value of civil disobedience and the publicity it provoked.
Not only did journalism allow Barnes to explore New York, but it also helped launch her into expatriate literary society in Europe. Sent to Paris as a correspondent for McCall’s magazine in 1921, Barnes met the artist Thelma Wood, who was reportedly the love of her life and the subject of her most famous novel, Nightwood (1936), which she began writing after their tumultuous breakup in 1929. Through connections she had made as a journalist in New York, she came to know prominent avant-garde expatriates, including her greatest patrons, Peggy Guggenheim and Natalie Barney. Barney’s salons were the center for lesbian culture in Paris, and the intrigues of this circle would be satirically fictionalized in Barnes’s Ladies Almanack (1928).
As a foreign correspondent in Paris, she interviewed James Joyce, whose influence would soon be reflected in the pronounced modernist style of her subsequent writing. Rather than constituting an inconsequential digression before her mature career, then, Barnes’s training in newspaper fiction and the network of characters, high and low, whom she met as an ambitious young author paved the way for the dramatic life and literary accomplishments that would follow.