Djuna Barnes (1892–1982)
From Writing New York: A Literary Anthology
Djuna Barnes was born 120 years ago this month (on June 12); by the time of her death six days after ninetieth birthday, she was regarded by the denizens of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village as a notoriously reclusive presence. Many New Yorkers who lived near the fabled Patchin Place from the 1940s to the 1970s have a Djuna story; many others failed in their fervent attempts to see her at all. Carson McCullers burst into tears when Barnes screamed at her to “go the hell away!” She terrified local business owners; once an unwary store clerk, asking for identification for her check payment, received the shouted response, “Identification? I was a friend of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce!” Weeks would go by, however, when hardly anyone would see her, and her neighbors reported hearing Estlin (e.e.) Cummings yell across the courtyard from the window of his own apartment, “Are ya still alive, Djuna?”
She wasn’t always the cantankerous New Yorker, but even as a young woman she had a reputation for boldness. Before she spent the 1920s in Paris, she lived for nearly a decade as an artist and writer in Brooklyn and Manhattan, first as a student for six months at the Pratt Institute, then as a journalist for various newspapers. According to one account, she landed her first job when she went to the offices of the Brooklyn Eagle and declared, “I can draw and write and you’d be foolish not to hire me.” Influenced by modernists such as James Joyce (whom she famously interviewed), her articles—about one hundred altogether—straddle the line between fiction and journalism, and she often illustrated her own work. Before the decade was out, Barnes joined up with the Provincetown Players, a group that included writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Edna Ferber, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill, and Wallace Stevens, and they produced three of her one-act plays.
In a recent review of Barnes’s writing from the period, Jenny Hendrix describes her “as one of the great carnival barkers of the nonfiction world—a kind of Tom Wolfe of her day. . . . 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.” A good number of her pieces are highly stylized profiles of the vibrant cityscape, and “Come into the Roof Garden, Maud” presents fictionalized, comic snapshots of the fashionable crowd chasing the latest craze of the 1910s: rooftop dancing.
Through August 12, 2012, visitors to New York can see a sampling of Djuna Barnes’s work from the 1910s on display at the Brooklyn Museum: “photographs, drawings, works on paper, and Barnes’s stories in newsprint, including eight illustrations she composed to accompany her newspaper columns.”
Notes: The Jardin de Danse (page 411), also called the New York Roof, was a popular open-air nightspot that opened in 1913 on the roof of the New York Theatre on 45th Street. The Four Hundred (page 412) is a term coined by social writer Ward McAllister to refer to the New York elite of the late nineteenth century, based on the number of people who could comfortably fit into Caroline Astor’s ballroom. A Rosetti [sic] neck (page 413) is the elongated female neck in paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, especially in his portraits of Elizabeth Siddal. The Dolly sisters (page 415) were a popular dancing duo of the period; they often performed with Carlos Sebastian.
First of all, enter the atmosphere.
And this, the atmosphere of a roof garden, is 10 per cent. soft June air and ten per cent. gold June twilight, and a goodly per cent. of high-hung lanterns and the music of hidden mechanical birds. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
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