Smoke and Other Early Stories
by Djuna Barnes

Sun & Moon Press
1982 (out of print)

" 'Billy,' she said, and her voice was cold and practical, 'I couldn’t ever boil potatoes over the heat of your affection.'"

Reviewed by Patrick Henry

In Djuna Barnes’s posthumously collected Smoke and Other Early Stories, the world never stops playing its malevolent tricks. Barnes learned as much during a childhood of emotional and sexual abuse, and she visits this disillusionment upon her characters in a rollicking mix of suspense and humor and plot twists, while extracting material from her life in bohemian Greenwich Village. First published in newspapers in the 1910s, Smoke's playful slice-of-life stories retaliate against life's sudden shifts through a frank voice disguising irony and formal play. Smoke holds life culpable for the inexplicable, and Barnes's plots force us to recognize the rules (and roles) that limit a person's potential.

Although Barnes was heralded in her time, her reputation has suffered a cruel trick of fate. Modernist writers, including James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, praised her novels Ryder (1928) and Nightwood (1936), but the work of other modernist writers tends to overshadow Barnes's essential contributions not just to literature, but also to discussions of feminism, sexual identity, and morality. This is certainly to our detriment, as Barnes undermines literary conventions to countermand the negative stereotypes on these topics, which have currently overwhelmed American political discourse.

Djuna Barnes's journey, though, began with the newspaper stories collected in Smoke. Though she dismissed these tales as “juvenilia,” these stories reveal a young writer's inquiring mind and developing awareness of her world. Selected by critic Douglas Messerli, these fourteen stories manipulate literary forms and readers' expectations—a project that allowed Barnes to provide ironic (and often scathing) cultural insights. In his foreword, Messerli writes that Barnes presented "a moralistic vision that is perhaps more at home in our own time, when fiction writing has been increasingly influenced by moral satirists." Though written in 1982, Messerli's point holds true today, when political soundbites seemingly mimic moral satire.

Barnes's early stories convey her pragmatic morality through direct sentences, chock full of wordplay, and through a reportage style germane to the newspapers publishing these stories. The opening piece, The Terrible Peacock, explores the ethics of journalism when Karl, a hotshot reporter, suspiciously passes an exciting item to newcomer Garvey "during the dull season, when a subway accident looms as big as a Thaw getaway." The "unusual item [. . .] found loose in the coffee" is an attractive socialite's advent in Brooklyn, which causes a newsroom furor. Garvey swoons after the Peacock until she invites him to drink and dance at Poirett's tearoom. The story unhinges when Garvey returns to the tearoom and sees Karl's arm around the Peacock. Barnes writes that Garvey "choked and sat down speechless," his assignment a ploy to drum up clientele for Poirett's, Karl and the Peacock's business.

Colloquial, witty, and deceptively simple, Barnes's narratives dash the hopes of any character brazen enough to believe that the stuff of dreams, like Garvey's excitement over his big scoop, will just settle on his lap. This recurs in The Earth, a fable about farmers Una and Lena, sisters who "were like two fine horses, horses one sees in the early dawn eating slowly [. . .], never in a hurry, but always accomplishing something." The horse similes animalize the equine sisters, imparting The Earth's message about underhanded deeds: Una's schemes to buy the entire farm inadvertently drive Lena into the arms of Una's Swedish lover. Similarly, A Sprinkle of Comedy pits Roger against his own idleness as he plots to motivate his lay-about son. Roger assembles a gang to rough up the boy, who escapes and becomes a prizefighter. "It was at this point," Barnes writes of Roger's failure, "that he changed from a silent man into a monologist."

Yet, these stories portend the maturity and the stark vision inherent in Barnes's novels. As in Ryder and Nightwood, survival is noble enough a cause. In What Do You See, dancer Mamie Saloam confronts this during her struggles for moral footing in the Bowery, "which is no place at all for virtue or duplicity." When women from the "Prevention of the Impurities upon the Boards" preview Mamie's production of Salome, Mamie focuses solely on doing her job, which elicits a single response from the uptight previewers: "Here was a woman at last who could do the thing with perfect impartiality." Practicality lets Mamie thrive, but it wounds her soul. She turns down Billy, an electrician with a steady job, because his income would be insufficient to keep her: "'Billy,' she said, and her voice was cold and practical, 'I couldn't ever boil potatoes over the heat of your affection.'" Neither love nor affection satiates Mamie, yet alone Barnes's other characters. Only discipline and sacrifice can nourish them.

Disparaging these early newspaper tales as juvenilia undercuts Barnes's poignant visions of morality, of our unexpected disappointments, of curses sheathed in blessings—and vice versa. Her deceptively straightforward stories evocatively use puns and metaphors to question our ethics, even as Barnes structures a portrait of bohemian life in Greenwich Village early in the twentieth century. In this regard, Djuna Barnes is the equal of any of the modernist masters, and her resonant themes provide a primer for understanding—and surviving—a modern world.


Read a story from this collection in Lodestar Quarterly

Patrick Thomas Henry is currently finishing his MFA in Creative Writing (fiction) at Rutgers University, Newark. His short stories, reviews, and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Revolution House, The Writing Disorder, The Northville Review, Modern Language Studies, and Sugar House Review.
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Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) spent her early career as a prolific writer of newspaper stories and articles in Greenwich Village. In 1921, Barnes expatriated to Paris and befriended modernist writers James Joyce and T.S. Eliot. She is best known for her novels Ryder (1928) and Nightwood (1936). She returned to New York in the 1940s and continued writing until her death.