June 12: Djuna Barnes was born on this day in 1892. Barnes may still be “the unknown legend of American literature” (her description), but she now appears frequently on many university courses in modernism and feminism. She earned the “legend” part of the profile on a number of fronts: for the 1936 cult lesbian novel, Nightwood (championed by T. S. Eliot for its style); for her poetry and artwork; for her sensationalist journalism and off-beat interviews; for being at the center of the eccentric, bohemian crowd in between-the-wars Paris, and then being a recluse for four decades in Greenwich Village.
The early journalism was often theatrical—reflections on being rescued from a high window by firemen, on entering a gorilla’s cage, on being force-fed in the manner of hunger-striking suffragettes, this written to show solidarity to “my English sisters,” and with flair:
The hall they took me down was long and faintly lighted. I could hear the doctor walking ahead of me, stepping as all doctors step, with that little confiding gait that horses must have returning from funerals. It is not a sad or mournful step; perhaps it suggests suppressed satisfaction. …Out across the city, in a flat, frail, coherent yet incoherent monotone, resounded the song of a million machines doing their bit in the universal whole. And the murmur was vital and confounding, for what was before me knew no song.
The early poetry is liberated and defiant, and sometimes also a protest against force-feeding; the following lines are from “The Personal God,” included in The Book of Repulsive Women (1915):
…So, when all of you flock to your fancy,
The God that is always the same,
My God shall halt and be human
And his judgment shall halt and be lame
Yea, the devil came down your pass,
Blown in on the strength of the breeze,
And because your Gods were duplicates
He shattered you on his knees.
I’ll work my clay as I find it,
All hushed as it lies in the sod,
And he shall be built for better or worse
In the way of a Personal God.
After World War II, Barnes returned to Greenwich Village, living alone in the same one-and-a-half room apartment until her death in 1982. She continued to write, despite debilitating arthritis, poverty, and alcoholism.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.