A LETTER TO DJUNA BARNES
FROM JOSEPH KLARL
I wonder if, during your early career, you sought to discover the city through personal experience, actively embodying your politics as the Brooklyn Museum claims in Newspaper Fiction, or if you were just mad—a runaway kid venting through the papers. I write to you because your work on display there is so often transparent in its contempt for the ruling class, feeble socialites, and society at large that you appear driven, if not to change things—though of course you did—then to mock them as often and as pointedly as you could in print. And because, regardless of what I know about your defiant novel Nightwood and its restless protagonist Robin, I am still wowed by the crazed urgency you must have possessed to declare, “I can draw and write, and you’d be a fool not to hire me,” upon arrival to your first prospective job at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. (The museum has painted that quote up in big letters on the wall, you know.)
On ViewThe Brooklyn Museum
January 20 – August 19, 2012
I don’t mean that you delivered diatribes as a journalist; your early work is subtle in approach and closer to satire. Like a young Twain, your wit no doubt outsizes that which was expected of your medium, and you’re clever in how you manage to make cartoons of well-to-do men and the world they shape. When, in “You Can Tango—a Little—at Arcadia Dance Hall,” the fictionalized Reginald Delancey—whose name is appropriately stiff and whose “mind was as dull as a tarnished teapot”—finds love amidst rules enforced by the real-life Sydney S. Cohen, who proudly declares that his dance hall attracts girls away from places where “bad habits are formed,” you undercut the sincerity of Delancey’s budding romance with the oppression of these ambiguous feminine “habits.” And your elegant Art Nouveau drawings add a further ironic melancholy to the supposedly joyous affair, not to mention their accompanying captions: “The Rules Prohibit Close Dancing” and “Couples Who Will Never Meet Again Take Sodas Together.”
You remain on point, but the point is always yours: the vain lifestyles of city-dwellers (on the Greenwich Villager’s quest to amuse himself: “It’s sordid and hard, but it must be done”), scenes of the commoner (on Wallabout Market: “Sometimes it’s a woman who peddles”), and fears of monotony and social conservatism (on Coney Island: “We are interested to know how shocking society is going to become when it’s proper”). I envy the cunning way in which you slipped the real story of social dysfunction into the margins, how you wrote with such sunny sarcasm. Then of course there’s the suffrage movement which you confronted sometimes in passing (expressing surprise over the boom of female adoptions in “Many Want Babies; How About Yourself,” before contemplating either a newfound hope for daughters or that “the little women seem more helpless without a mother’s love”) and sometimes directly (publishing eerie photos in New York World Magazine of four men strapping you down and force-feeding you, as they did to suffragists on hunger strikes).
In fact the visual elements of Newspaper Fiction are as loud as the written work is quiet. At your sketchiest, your 1913 portrait of Brooklyn court clerk Robert Merchant still manages to capture the ravaged sadness of the old man in a thick, gray smudge. More representative of your drawing style, your 1916 illustration of the aforementioned “Villager” out to find amusement is a highlight of the exhibition, part-Rea Irvin black-and-white pompousness, part-flowing Nouveau grace. And 1917’s “Man with moustache, fisherman’s hat, looking left” achieves the expressive sadness of your Merchant portrait but with lightyears more experience, indebted to Hiroshige and ukiyo-e prints in the cracks of his pouting face, the threads of his mangled clothes poking out naturally from him. Again your sympathies and commentary are evident here, the villager strutting self-righteously nowhere, the others scorned by their hard work. With mere months of schooling at Pratt it is clear that you reveled in your influences, and to your credit the current exhibition is entirely at home in an art museum.
I’m curious if you might think your work from these six early years is slight, on its own or as a precursor to your novels, even while your precociousness, intellect, and keen foresight were so clearly established. Perhaps it is, though the few written works, dense like your later prose, reveal themselves slowly, and your ink drawings and short stories are so prodigious I feel they’re worth the trip alone.
Still I wonder about your restlessness as a young artist. After an exhibition that begins with a photo of your stunt alongside a fireman dangling off the side of a tenement, I asked myself if the course of your early career was self-determined or if you were suffocating, left with a voracious, desperate appetite for freedom? Perhaps the answer is insignificant. Only that your world drove you over the edge of that rooftop is of consequence. But I wonder, too, if you’re restless now.