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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.