Omnibus reviews often make strange bedfellows. Djuna Barnes and Henry Miller—who each spent much of the '20s and '30s living in Europe (mostly in Paris)—actually have little in common. According to her biographer, Andrew Field, Barnes was infuriated when her writing was compared to Miller's. Even though the content of both writers' work was heavily sexual, there is little resemblance. Miller, master of explicitness, followed one Romantic strain in conceiving the act of writing as a continuous confessional. Barnes, most characteristically, followed another strain of the same tradition by coding her language symbolically, defying the reader to discover any explicit meaning. For Miller, autobiography provides the content of his writing; for Barnes, it provides the structure.
After some early popular successes as a journalist, Barnes had to settle for what was mostly a succès d'estime the rest of her life; even those who read her books at all considered such works as Nightwood and The Antiphon to be well nigh impenetrable. It is only in recent years that interest in her work has revived sufficiently for her uncollected writings to be published and for a body of criticism to begin to give us an appropriate structure for reading and interpretation. Barnes's work has finally become ripe for the kind of coded interpretation that has been successful with Gertrude Stein, for instance.
It is pleasing to see that in Fancy's Craft, Cheryl J. Plumb has chosen to write about the early works. Her brief monograph follows Barnes's career from the time of her early journalism through her one-act plays to me publication of Ryder and the Ladies Almanack, both published in 1928. These are the Barnes works that have received the least critical attention; but now that so many of them are in print, this fact should change.
Plumb's methodology is traditional and descriptive; it does not show the influence of feminist or poststructuralist theory. For the purposes of clarity, this may be a virtue, but it also explains some of the book's limitations. Plumb believes that Barnes's major artistic ideas are an extension of symbolism, "using techniques of indirection" and juxtaposition. "Her characters are stylized . . . she uses musical structure, which deliberately suppresses narrative movement. Her prose is ambiguous, in places indeterminate." Barnes's journalism is dominated by decadence and satire; her one-act plays use "a sudden twist or an opaque conclusion to force disoriented viewers to reasses [sic] expectations. . . ." In her short stories she varies between more explicit presentation in the early tales and indirectness and ambiguity in her later ones. She presents scenes and characters but is "silent as to significance." Her concern is with "the problem of coming to consciousness and the price of consciousness in losing a stable, predictable system of life and values." Her techniques of "creating distance between readers and characters" are similar to those she used in her plays.
In Ryder, her first "major" work, Barnes uses a similar but extended diversity of techniques, exploiting satire and a "concern with the human spirit." Plumb finds a thematic connection between Oscar Wilde and the character of Wendell [End Page 668] Ryder over the issues of "physical nature and sexuality and the created self." Much evidence has come to light recently, and is certainly mentioned in Field's biography, that Barnes's sexual obsessiveness stemmed from the strong likelihood that she was sexually abused—perhaps raped—by her father. Wendell Ryder's sexual libertinage reflects much of how Wald Barnes was perceived by his daughter, and in Ryder, Nightwood, and The Antiphon it is clear that incestuous sexual experience and the resulting anxiety forms the understructure of each work that is covered by veiled and encoded references. Plumb scarcely alludes to any of this in her discussion of Ryder, and one wonders why. With such knowledge available, it is not easy...