A writer, illustrator and provocateur in the Roaring '20s, Djuna Barnes stood out.
"She was much more interested in embracing the quirky and embracing that idea that became so famous in feminist circles half a century later," Catherine Morris says, "the idea that the personal is political."
Morris is the curator of a new exhibition of Barnes' writings and illustrations called "Newspaper Fictions" at the Brooklyn Museum's Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
The story goes that Djuna Barnes — who grew up with her mother, grandmother, polygmaist father, his mistress and brothers she'd help support — walked into the office of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and announced: "I can draw, I can write, you'd be foolish not to hire me."
And the paper did.
Barnes' whimsical drawings lent a satirical charm to her reporting. The newsprint and photographs on display are a bit faded, but Barnes' voice is still kicky. You could imagine some of her articles printed today in Vogue or The New Yorker.
"Part of the series that she did was called 'Odd types found in and around Brooklyn,' " Morris tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "She would find individuals, strange people — across class lines, race lines, across all sorts of social milieus — and kind of draw pictures for her audience. And literally draw pictures."
Barnes, like the so-called "New Journalists" who came along in the '60s (Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, for example), believed the observer colored the story, so why pretend otherwise? She often fabricated or made herself the subject.
One photograph in the exhibit shows her — bobbed hair and cloche hat — being saved by firemen while dangling off the side of a building. In a grimmer picture, she's being forcibly fed through a tube.
"A century before Christopher Hitchens was waterboarded, we have this example of what we would now call stunt journalism," Morris says.
At the time, suffragettes were making headlines in Britain. Hunger strikes were big — and so was forcing water and food down a woman's throat to keep her alive. Barnes decided to report on it by having it done to her for a piece she wrote for New York World Magazine in 1914. It was called "How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed."
From New York To Paris And Back
Barnes, whose upbringing had been erratic and negligent — even abusive, was drawn to the whimsical and eccentric. A favorite enticement in her stories was Coney Island, where, Morris says, she drew the reader in.
But Coney Island couldn't keep her in New York when Paris called. In 1921, Barnes set off for the city that would make her famous.
"She interviewed people like James Joyce and others and became an active part of the really modern avant-gardes of Paris," Morris says.
She returned to New York in the 1930s and became a recluse, dying in 1982 in Greenwich Village — decades after she became famous in feminist circles for her novel Nightwood.
"She really looked life in the face and she didn't shy away from it in her writing or in her own decisions about her own life," Morris says.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Djuna Barnes referred to herself as the unknown legend of American literature. But the famously provocative lesbian writer makes a brief appearance in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris." Owen Wilson dances the Charleston with her.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MIDNIGHT IN PARIS")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Character) You looked like you were having fun with Djuna Barnes dancing.
OWEN WILSON: (as Gil) Oh, yes. Wait, that was Djuna Barnes?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Character) Yeah.
WILSON: (as Gil) Wow. No wonder she wanted to lead.
LYDEN: That's Djuna D-J-U-N-A, a woman ahead of her time.
CATHERINE MORRIS: She was much more interested in embracing the quirky, almost, and embracing that sort of idea that became so famous in feminist circles, you know, half a century later, the idea that personal is political.
LYDEN: That's curator Catherine Morris. She's brought Barnes' New York years back to life in a series called Newspaper Fictions at the Brooklyn Museum. The story goes that Barnes, who grew up with her mother, grandmother, polygamist father, his mistress and brothers she'd help support walked into the office of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and announced, I can draw. I can write. You'd be foolish not to hire me. They did.
MORRIS: Part of the series that she - ongoing series that she did was called "Odd Types Found In and Around Brooklyn." So she would find individuals, strange people across class lines, across race lines, across all sorts of social milieus and kind of draw pictures for her audience and literally draw pictures.
LYDEN: Her very first article for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle is on the wall. It's called "You Can Tango - a Little - at Arcadia Dance Hall." We invited an actress to read a bit of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Reading) Reginald Delancy, which really isn't his name at all but will do as any other to tack onto and distinguish this young man, lulled in a soft armchair in the window of his club on Clinton Street and scanned the evening papers. He was bored. The tips of his immaculate tan shoes shone brightly as ever. The creases in his trousers were like the prow of the imperator and their incisive sharpness, but his mind was as dull as a tarnished teapot.
LYDEN: Barnes, like the so-called new journalists who came along in the '60s, like Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, believed that the observer colored the story, so why pretend otherwise? She also fabricated, or she'd make herself the story. Again, curator Catherine Morris.
MORRIS: A century before Christopher Hitchens was waterboarded, we have this example of what we would now call stunt journalism.
LYDEN: In the teens and '20s, suffragettes were being forcibly fed with long tubes in Britain during their hunger strikes for the vote. So here's Djuna's dramatic take on having it done to her.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Reading) I shall be strictly professional, I assured myself. If it be an ordeal, it is familiar to my sex at this time; other women have suffered it in acute reality. Surely, I have as much nerve as my English sisters? Then I held myself steady. I thought so, and I caught sight of my face in the glass. It was quite white; and I was swallowing convulsively. And then I knew my soul stood terrified before a yard of red rubber tubing. He wrapped it round and round me, my arms tight to my sides, wrapped it up to my throat so that I could not move. I lay in as long and unbroken lines as any corpse - unbroken, definite lines that stretched away beyond my vision, for I saw only skylight. My eyes wandered, outcasts in a world they knew.
LYDEN: The Brooklyn Museum exhibit of 45 articles and sketches is revealing because Djuna Barnes is so much better known for her Paris years. She went there in 1921.
MORRIS: She interviewed people like James Joyce and others and became an active part of the really modern avant-gardes of Paris, both American and expatriate.
LYDEN: She returned to New York in the 30s and became a recluse dying in 1982 in Greenwich Village. That would have been decades after she became famous in feminist circles for her novel "Nightwood."
MORRIS: She really looked life in the face, and she didn't shy away from it in her writing or in her own decisions about her own life.
LYDEN: Djuna Barnes lived that life at white heat, as if she thought that one day, the music would stop.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Reading) Suddenly, the orchestra of eight pieces struck up a lively tune.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Reading) And immediately, hundreds of gaily dressed girls and happy-looking men glided onto the floor and were two-stepping vigor and vim. But there wasn't even so much as a wiggle of the shoulders to suggest the turkey trot. Reginald found that the sight of so many swaying bodies was infectious.
LYDEN: Much of her writing is out of print. But in Newspaper Fictions at the Brooklyn Museum, she lives. The exhibit's up through the summer.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.