Newspaper Fiction: The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes, 1913-1919
I can't say precisely why the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum chose to put up a small exhibit of writing and artworks by the truly inimitable Djuna Barnes (through August 19). Maybe it was because of the dearth of women in the Hide/Seek show, maybe it was the Brooklyn connection, or maybe it's just because she's a fascinating person. Whatever the case, make sure to save a little time for examining the hilarious, revealing, and incredible works of hers now on display.
Barnes is a rare bird in so many ways. Born in 1892, she was the second of eight children born to a maniacal and abusive father who was also a failed artist, and a mother who managed to liberate Barnes and three of her brothers to New York City in the 1910s. Djuna took up art classes at Pratt but had to quit in order to help support the family. From there she made the best move of her young life: she got herself a job as an illustrator and writer at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, once one of the most popular papers in the US.
Djuna went on to write reams of journalism, often illustrating it herself, and conducted numerous much-lauded interviews for major New York publications. Moving from Brooklyn to Greenwich Village to Paris and back to the Village, she always ran with an artistic and literary crowd, and was a member of what was, at the time, a largely invisible community of lesbians.
Termed by some as "newspaper fictions," her articles would never appear in print today, at least not as journalism. Her relationship with fact was loose at best; she used fictional elements to capture a mood, an atmosphere, and provide a narrative that a reporter never would. In one article about a new dance hall, she makes up the character of a dandy who arrives and, losing his pretentions for the evening, enjoys a soda with a shopgirl with whom he would otherwise be unlikely to speak. The narrative paints a picture of the place that hooks the reader, adds intrigue and life, and gives a breathless impression that couldn't be captured without introducing a bit of fiction into her facts. That said, there are reasons why this kind of journalism would never meet muster these days, and the wishful and sometimes uncomfortable ideological undercurrents in some of the writing are dated for a reason.
In some ways, Barnes comes across as a progressive 1920s lesbian version of Geraldo Rivera. She inserted herself into all sorts of situations, undergoing force-feeding similar to what suffragettes in the UK underwent in prison, hanging out with the first captive gorilla to survive (not for long) in the US, and reporting from the front lines of the sun-streaked throngs at Coney Island. But always beneath the set decoration and frenetic energy there's a desire to draw attention to the daily lives and realities of people rarely discussed in the dailies of the time. Sure there is sensation in some of her work, likely driven by her real need to support herself financially, but also there is a will to uncover the daily dealings of a city and a country undergoing tremendous change. Her writing, more than anything, reflects a rapacious and imaginative mind responding to a teeming city that is only ever barely able to understand its own humanity. You can't help but daydream what it would be like to have a writer like her responding to the city we live in today.