Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2012
“There is not a person in the literary world who has not heard of, read and some stolen from NIGHTWOOD. The paradox … is … I am the ‘most famous unknown of the century!’” Writing to Natalie Clifford Barney in the 1960s Djuna Barnes (1892–1982) makes a hyperbolic claim about both her 1936 novel Nightwood and her oxymoronic obscurity, but in neither case is she wholly misguided. Nightwood, described on publication as a book that “does not belong to any easily definable class,” is a defining work of the twentieth century but woefully absent on roll calls of the American novel. Barnes has been a marginal figure in the literary canon, a repeated anecdote of expatriate American modernism rather than a writer of influence. Barnes is difficult, what Daniela Caselli describes as an “improper modernist” not easily suiting labels such as “queer,” “feminist,” or “avant-garde,” and her fictional style can still disconcert the most diligent of readers. But Barnes’s major fiction shows that she is much more than a literary anecdote. Exploring Barnes’s career as a writer and novelist it becomes clear that she offers a particular response to the cultural and literary tumult of the early twentieth century and is a unique voice in the history of the American novel.
New York Journalism
Barnes began her writing career as a journalist in New York at the age of twenty-one, employed as a writer and illustrator for the Brookyln Daily Eagle in spring 1913. She was soon writing and interviewing for a range of New York publications including the New York World Magazine, New York Tribune, and New York Morning Telegraph Sunday Magazine. Established as a successful freelancer, Barnes went on to write for Vanity Fair after her move to Paris in 1919 and for the Theatre Guild Magazine in the early 1930s.