Djuna Barnes was an American artist, playwright, and story teller who has captured audiences for many decades of the 20th century. She was a bit controversial, somewhat a feminist, and largely praised by those who knew her well. She has been written about by a few biographers, but a book by Phillip Herring recounts much of her life from a new angle. However, the biography of Herring’s is not my concern. Margot Norris has reviewed the book in an extended essay and offered keen insight and critique, both praising and correcting the work. Yet Norris’ piece itself is worthy of analysis.
She opens with an intriguing question and approach to the biography and the character of Barnes. She writes, “Does an avant-garde artist demand an avant-garde biography?” (581). Barnes was a bit controversial, and definitely produced material and a lifestyle that was avant-garde. I do not think that his label is an assumption, a problem that many critics have when commenting on a figure that they know well. However, it does entice the reader to read the biography and the review. Thus, I think that Norris captures not only interest in her writing but also targets a key question for the critical study of the writer Djuna Barnes. Furthermore, this will function as a sort of criterion for assessing Herring’s biography.
Norris makes a few comments regarding the life and person of Barnes. She is clearly an expert on the woman too but also culls from the portrayal given by Herring. She remarks on the visual and internal aspects of the women. She claims that people tend to “fetishize her,” her features and her clothes, yet often overlook her “trenchant wit” (582). The latter kept her from becoming simply an adored icon and kept her on the level of a person. I think Norris’ claim is solid, but a few examples of such icons would have bolstered her case. Would Marilyn Monroe qualify as an icon rather than a person in the public eye? What sort of figures today bypass that personal status and become physical or fantastic objects of praise in popular culture? A few cases would strengthen and clarify Norris’ case.
She primarily holds praise for the biography by Herring. She claims that the author demystifies the last four decades of Barne’s life. These are typically held to be in confusion or ill repute, with historians and critics often portraying Barnes in a negative way. However, Herring responds against this and paints a more realistic and probably respectable view of the poet. Norris picks up on the change and applauds. I appreciate this comment, as it is far too easy to criticize and pick apart an argument or a book rather than commend it. Thus, Norris not only commends but finds a gap in the scholarship to affirm for Herring.
In summary, Norris claims that the biography is “a fascinating story and a superb research tool” (583). These two sides of a resource are probably unmatched. For according to Norris, the work both entertains and rivets the reader with a quality story. Yet it also provides a rich portal into information and the life of a famed writer. These two aspects come out in Norris’ review. Thus, I think that she is consistent with her own comments. Furthermore, while she primarily praises the work, especially in its overall quality, she does not shy from correcting it. Throughout the review, she offers criticism of Herring’s account and even suggests alternative directions for the work. Yet she ends on a positive note, commending the work as an excellent contribution to the field.