Kept Alive by Rage : ...

<i> Noel Riley Fitch, whose most recent biography is "Anais: the Erotic Life of Anais Nin" (Little, Brown), is at work on a biography of Julia Child</i>

Virgil Thomson had already told me to ignore her. “She’s a drunk!” he said dismissively. I did not know then that she had been sober for more than a decade. But a biographer leaves no door unopened, even one belonging to a fanatic for privacy.

I had written to Djuna Barnes for assistance in researching a book on her friend Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company bookshop. In reply, Barnes sent me a much-duplicated page that announced “Djuna Barnes does not . . . “--and there followed a list of 20-some services well beyond my modest request for a memory or two.

This Greta Garbo of American letters, who died in Greenwich Village in 1982, had long ago closed the doors on the world. Now professor Phillip Herring (University of Wisconsin, Madison) has walked through a door opened by a decade of feminist research and by new unpublished letters (with a key to more unpublished letters and family interviews). He has proceeded to tidy up the growing disputes, to detail the origins of characters (for all of Barnes’ fiction comes out of her life) and to organize the life presented by her first biographer, Andrew Field (“Djuna: The Formidable Miss Barnes,” University of Texas Press, 1982).


Herring’s thesis is that “the spirit of revenge or satire--often both--motivated all her best work, which usually targeted her family. . . . [She] shed her sickness in art.”

Barnes was born June 12, 1892, into a dramatically dysfunctional family in Cornwall-on-Hudson. Grandmother Zadel Barnes (“the single most important influence” Herring writes), was a fabulist, medium and writer who slept with Djuna for her first 15 years; her father, Wald Barnes, was a bigamist and advocate of free love who conspired with an older man to take Djuna’s virginity; her mother favored Djuna’s brothers; and the family had Djuna forcibly committed to a sanitarium in 1940 when she suffered a physical alcoholic collapse.

By the time she left Greenwich Village for Paris in 1920, she had published more than 100 articles and 25 short plays and stories. From her first meeting with James Joyce came an excellent profile for Vanity Fair. Barnes had been “in the decadent tradition of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley” until she met Joyce: “Afterward she was a modernist,” though “the wit and bitterness were all her own.” Her first novel, “Ryder” (1928), bears the unmistakable influence of Joyce.

Her most important associations in Paris came out of the famous salon of Natalie Barney, about whom Barnes wrote a sensational roman a clef, “Ladies Almanack” (1928). All the Left Bank literati could identify the prototypes of Barney, Dolly Wilde, Radcliffe Hall, Janet Flanner, Mina Loy and others.

In Paris, too, Barnes met the great love of her life, Thelma Wood, a tall and comely silverpoint artist who had had an affair with poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and was then involved with photographer Berenice Abbott. The loss of Wood, an alcoholic herself, was the impetus for writing what critics believe is Barnes’ best work, “Nightwood” (1936), a novel with Robin Vote as the center. T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber in London wrote the introduction and edited the manuscript (deleting references to homosexuality). Her friend Edwin Muir called the novel “an undeniable work of genius”; Dylan Thomas said it was “one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman”; and Eliot pointed to its “brilliance of wit and characterization, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy.”

The critical edition of “Nightwood,” edited by Cheryl J. Plumb, who wrote “Fancy’s Craft: Art and Identity in the Early Works of Djuna Barnes” (1986), restores the material cut by Eliot and by Barnes’ friend Emily Coleman. Barnes is no longer “the most famous unknown of the century,” as she liked to call herself, though her work is more revered than read even today.

After “Nightwood,” Barnes went into what Herring calls a “spiral downward into alcoholism, self-deception and continual illness.” For the last decades of her life, her chief creative work was “The Antiphon” (1958), a long, almost incomprehensible Jacobean drama. She attempted suicide twice and suffered numerous illnesses. Although she stopped drinking in 1950, her paranoia and bitterness persisted. (“She’s always pissing on the parade,” Eliot said.)

Barnes was a grievance collector who had the wit and vocabulary as well as the anger and paranoia to put all her grievances against her polygamous family into her work, first in “Ryder” and especially in “The Antiphon.” Her family never forgave her, as Herring establishes: “It was either alcohol or revenge, so she chose the latter.”

In her later years, when she had become bitterly misanthropic and misogynistic, hating the idea of being labeled a lesbian writer, she declared that she was not a lesbian, that she “just loved Thelma Wood.”

Herring is at his best when dealing with Barnes’ associations with T.S. and Valerie Eliot and with James Joyce. Although Herring’s large biographical lumps presenting Barnes’ friends might have been worked into his narrative, his book is rich in historical detail; his research is impeccable.

The critical controversy surrounding the abuse of Barnes by her grandmother and her father will not be settled--indeed, it may be inflamed by Herring’s even-handed biography. He seems to dismiss the sexually explicit letters and drawings between Barnes (then 17) and her grandmother (then 68) as “bawdy entertainment by two females who happened to share a bed” and adds that there was probably “nothing more than good-natured fondling” between them.

Herring does say in his penultimate chapter, while discussing Barnes’ loss of virginity to a man three times her age, that a “psychiatrist who specializes in such cases once convincingly stated that the psychological profile of Djuna Barnes was that of the sexually abused child.” (Readers can judge for themselves when the selected letters of Barnes appear next year, edited by Mary Lynn Broe, whose previous “Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes,” from Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, collected a decade of feminist theory. Also, Anne B. Dalton of Vassar College is preparing a full study of incest trauma in the life and work of Djuna Barnes.)

Herring’s Barnes is a fascinating, enigmatic young woman and a pathetic, bitter old woman. Friends saw to her needs, but “pure rage kept her alive.” She lived among roaches, suffering from emphysema and writing notes about her friendship with Eliot and Dag Hammarskjold. When I finished reading Herring’s book, I wished that I had persisted; had I stormed her door and suffered through an hour of abuse from this “Madame Vitriol,” I would have found a “brilliant, witty raconteur” in one of the major figures of the Modernist period.