Dictionary of the Damned entry for "Barnitz"

Gavin Callaghan

Weird Authors from my Dictionary of the Damned(c) 2006 G. Callaghan

Barnitz seems to be the embodiment of one of those "strange and bizarre artists" described by Holbrook Jackson, "who lived tragic lives and made tragic end of their lives", —"mad priests" who died before and yet predicted the ascendancy of the modern. (71) Barnitz died at age 23, a short time after the publication of his first book of poems, the anonymously-published The Book of Jade. A work of extreme Decadent verse of the "Oblivionist/Nihilistic" school, (q.v. Beddoes, Thomson [B.V.], Stenbock, Bonaventura), and dedicated to Charles Baudelaire, ("These paltry rhymes, which loftier shall pursue/Than aught America of high or great/ Hath seen since first began her world-wide state/I dedicate, my brother, unto you" [Barnitz 129]), both it and its author seem to typify the crisis in literature and the arts at the end of the 1890's, —the "trembling of the veil", as Mallarme put it.

Barnitz was raised in a Lutheran household prominent in the church, and was well schooled in biblical history, philosophy, Latin and Greek. In his 1901 essay, "The Art of the Future", Barnitz would speak bitterly of those "Protestant clergymen of America", who would seek to remedy the erosion of faith in God by "wholesale reading of the bible!" (Poet Lore 364), while his book has the ending prayer "Ite Missa Est", "the prayer is done". In the 1890's Barnitz studied Sanskrit and other languages under Prof. Carl Belser, well known for his studies of biblical history and the history of the near east, and in 1897 Barnitz graduated from Midland College's Classical Course, going then on to Harvard. There he was entered into the American Oriental Society by Professor Charles Lanman, prominent scholar and later the teacher of writers like Irving Babbitt, Paul More, and T.S. Eliot, Barnitz being at that time "the youngest person ever admitted" to the society. Barnitz's contemporaries at Harvard included Wallace Stevens and Walter Arsenberg, both of whom later made the transition from literary decadence to the modern avant-garde.

In Barnitz's obituary, it was written that he was "a student so intense in his application" that Professor William James of Harvard "pronounced him brilliant." According to Linda Simon, biographer of William James, James "was energized by his connection with students who thrived under his mentorship", the "undisciplinables" and"neurotic pragmatists". (272-273) Barnitz's firm grounding in the newest researches into philosophy and science are evident in his 1901 essay on art, where he says that literature is lagging far behind religion and philosophy, where"not only the old is seen to be dying, but the new has already appeared." (364) Barnitz's poem "Harvard: On His Twenty-First Year" was written while still at school:

"...I gaze through sad-shap'd eyelids langorous,
Far off from Ipsahan where roses blow.
Professors sit on lofty stools upcurl'd,
Through Yankee noses drolling all day long;
I find all these things quite ridiculous." (28)

After leaving his "Cantabrigian divan" in 1899, graduating with an A.M. (equivalent to a PhD), Barnitz returned home to Des Moines, Iowa, where, according to his later obituary notices, he"has been at home, ...doing literary work," —presumably arranging via correspondence for The Book of Jade's publication with Doxey's in New York, in a limited edition of 600 copies.

Sometime in the 1940's, New England poet and horror writer Joseph Payne Brennan came upon a significant copy of The Book of Jade during his work at the Yale Beinicke Library, the book (lucky number 13) containing a portrait of Barnitz, the proof of an unpublished poem cut from the final edition of The Book of Jade entitled "danse Macabre", a letter written by Barnitz to his publisher, and several significant annotations to the text evidently made by a friend of Barnitz, identifiable only by his initials in the margins, "H.V.S." According to an article written by Brennan in 1959, the photograph "which must have been taken not long before the poet's death reveals a serious-appearing young man with large, brilliant, dark eyes, a generous mouth, and a somewhat prominent nose. He wears spectacles and a high starched collar; his long hair is middle-parted, very precisely. He might be a firm accountant or a young mathematics professor. The strident melodrama and dedicated decadence of his verses is nowhere apparent." (Fresco 15) According to "H.V.S.", Barnitz originally wanted to entitle his volume "The Book of Gold; then The Divan of Park Barnitz". Perhaps Barnitz's final choice, "The Book of Jade", was based on Judith Gautier's Le Livre de Jade (1867), a book of adaptations from the Chinese which Enid Starkie likens to the later prose poems of Rimbaud, and of which Barnitz would have been aware due to his Oriental and French studies.

In his letter to William Doxey, Barnitz writes:

I have the impression of having seen somewhere a
metrical translation of Les Trophees of Heredia, with the
name of your firm on the title page. Kindly let me know if
this is so, and if so whether the book is yet to be had. I
have received the twelve copies of my book and I have to say
that I am very much pleased with the care you have given to
its printing, and with the result. The result is entirely
admirable, the square form, the title-page, and the cover
are particularly novel and happy.
I shall be glad to hear from you whenever desirable of
the impression made by the book; but I do not care to
subscribe to a clipping agency, as I shall see all the
magazines, and I do not want to see the newspapers.
It is not necessary to remind you that I wish my
anonymity strictly preserved for the present.
Very truly yours,
Park Barnitz"

His statement above that "I shall see all the magazines" (no doubt, during his daily visits to the library), echoes similar passages from The Book of Jade: "with all the sciences I am acquainted", "I know all the languages, all the philosophies" (15, 31), and perhaps derives from Mallarme's "The flesh is sad, alas! and I have read all the books" (Flores 147) and other of the arch-symboliste's weary, despairing passages. Certainly, Barnitz absorbed Decadence as his natural idiom. The last statement regarding the preservation of his anonymity, meanwhile, perhaps reflects something of the climate of fear, or at least of precaution, which affected literature in the period during and for a long while after the Wilde trials on both sides of the Atlantic, although Douglas Shand-Tucci in his book Boston Bohemia describes how this cautious prudence was affected by authors even before Wilde's trial. Decadent writer-architect Ralph Adams Cram likewise published his manifesto The Decadent (1893) anonymously, and friends at the time of its publication, including its publisher publisher/photographer Frederick Holland Day, could only observe that Cram "will probably not put his name to it, but no persuasion of Herbert's or mine has had the least effect to leave it in M.S." (SHAND-TUCCI 368), while Cram's volume of decadent horror stories Spirits Black and White (1895), was allowed by its author to lapse into oblivion after the Wilde trials. Indeed, in later life, according to his friend Dr. Henry S. Whitehead, Cram no longer even possessed a personal copy of the work. (Lovecraft, SL IV 15)

Writing in pencil on a proof in the Beinicke volume, "H.V.S." states how"At my suggestion, but only after some argument, the following verses, entitled 'Danse Macabre', were omitted from the collection (The Book of Jade)." The poem itself is extremely grotesque, a morbid fantasy in the
vein of Beddoes, and since it is unpublished I quote it in full:

"Danse Macabre
I saw a line of corpses old,
Dead with diseases manifold,
Solemnly dancing'neath the moon.
Their perish'd limbs moved to the tune
Of some worm-orchestra unheard—
A sight enormously absurd.
First in the valse, with fishy eye
Tripped something dead of leprosy,
All silvery like a virgin's breast.
A buried glutton danced with zest,
All greenish and all dropsical,
Like a deform'd and vital ball.
The third was very beautiful,
Of charming small-pox sorelets full;
A small-pox ending, corpse, was thine.
There danced one in that naked line
Whose corpse was rotten with much love;
I wish the white worms joy thereof.
A suicidal corpse came next,
Who wish'd to illustrate the text:
—better to be chewed than to chew;
So he became a worm-ragout
And cholera-corpses weirdly black
Carrying their dead flesh like a sack,
Vals'd graceful beneath the sun.
Blue fever, and Consumption,
And hollow-pated lunacy.
Bowed, in that dance with courtesy
Cover'd with sores from foot to head,
Like flowers in a flower-bed,
Strange plagues all beautifully green
Went pirouetting through the scene;
And shrunken corpses dead of Age.—
These things went dancing o'er the stage.
Smelling of graves and worm-tooth scars,—
Death's musty-meated avatars."

Barnitz later had two poems published under the name of Park Barnitz in Overland Monthly in January and March 1901, respectively, the first, a new poem entitled "After-Life", seeming to predict his approaching death:

"I leave the sound, the sorrow, and the strife;
     Long long ago
I lived within the hopeless world of life;
Now on my heart forever stilled from strife
     Slow falls the snow.
My heart is still at last, mine eyes no more
Their lids unclose;
I lie low in the house without a door;
While I forever sleep, my spirit sore
Grows in a rose." (595)

The second poem, "To the Mona Lisa of da Vinci", is actually a poem from The Book of Jade, where it was entitled "Madonna", —Barnitz taking a cue here from Walter Pater, whose decadent description of the Mona Lisa in the 1880's is very similar. According to Barnitz's obituary, it was assumed that a new version of his book would soon be brought out under his own name, but this was not to be.

In his obituary, it states that"Mr. Barnitz was very reticent, went into company but little, but was a daily prominent figure at the libraries. He detested shams of any kind, and in some of his criticisms would have been regarded severe." In The Book of Jade, this disposition finds expression in such epic chants as "Prayer/In Time of Plague":

"Holy Pestilence, holy pestilence, gird thee with
Holy Pestilence, come thou upon them, come thou at
     Holy Pestilence, put on thy mantle, put on thy crown,
     Holy Pestilence, come on the cities, come and strike
down,..." (80)

In "Mad Sonnet", he writes:

"Lo, in the night I cry out, in the night,
God! and my voice shall howl into the sky!
     I am weary of seeing shapeless things that fly,
     And flap into my face in their vile flight;

     I am weary of dead things that crowd into my sight,
I am weary of hearing horrible corpses that cry,
God! I am weary of the lidless Eye
That comes and stares at me, O God of light!" (75)

This weariness that Barnitz describes pervades all his poems, creating an airtight atmosphere which is quite disturbing: an aura of languor, of ennui, carried to the point of perfection, of no escape. Yet, where Barnitz writes above of the"dead things that crowd into my sight", it is not merely a Gothic conceit; he is actually describing, in coded fashion, the misanthropy he feels toward the men and women he sees everyday, causing Barnitz to"crouch in the dark corners", where"he dare not stir". In "Hegel", a poem of four lines, Barnitz describes his own despairing loneliness:

"Because my hope is dead, my heart a stone,
I read the words that Hegel once did write—
An idiot gibbering in the dark alone—
Till on my heart and vision fell the night." (87)

Barnitz's ennui and languor show him to have been intimately familiar with most of the productions of French and English decadent poetry, just as his frequent rhymes with"nevermore" dip into the same black inkwell used by Poe. In his works Barnitz mentions such names as Bocklin, Beerbohm, Wilde, Peladan, Mallarme, Verlaine, D'Annunzio, Pierre Loti. In his 1901 essay, "The Art of the Future", Barnitz writes,

"An obvious exception to the statement that there is
nothing new in Paris is the existence of that school who are
not recognized at all by their recognized fraternity, who do
not lecture at Harvard, and who, seen from my far-off
Cantabrigian divan, seem to me the most delightful of
contemporary French writers. I allude to the decadents, to
the symbolistes, to the hydropaths, to the trombonistes, to
M. Gustave Kahn, to M. Jean Moreas, and the one hundred
poets of Paris. (...) All these slaves of the opal, as one
of their obscurest members proclaims them, with their one
great man and their hundred pathetic poets, it is surely a
fitting thing to admire. 'How nice of them', one feels like
saying, 'to be so dear!' They have not produced a new art,
but they have amused." (361)

The intimation, here, is that Barnitz was himself writing in the decadent poetic idiom because it was "current", and therefore best able to embody his message, that of the disintegration of the arts. In the "Prelude" to The Book of Jade, he writes:

"Then with philosophy I bor'd me duly;
And since I could not slumber all the time,
I, in sweet golden rhyme,
On white papyrus scented with patchouli
Wrote masterpieces starry-beautiful." (13)

This sentiment is echoed in his essay, where he writes of the "dullness and petty triviality about fin-de-siecle art":

"Were it not better to write masterpieces one's self
than to review things which are not masterpieces....? (...)
The word art is become canting and trivial. The reason for
this triviality of art has been found in many things... But
the plain reason is just that art has fallen into trivial
hands, that the exponents of it are trivial persons, persons
who strive to be chic, who exist to be talked about. They
call themselves naturalist, impressionist, symbolist, and a
score of other things. These words produce oceans of drool
in the newspapers and bore one in parlors; but the bearers
of them fail to remark that the important thing is not to
belong to a school, but to produce a masterpiece." (363-364)

However, as we have seen in his letter to Doxey, Barnitz was aiming to make an impression on the literary world. And his persistence in writing in such a macabre, grotesque idiom, —his exulting, in fact, in the morbid and horrific, whose images melded with his stern aesthetic and literary mindset like a glove, despite the obituaries' description of Barnitz as "a noble hearted man"—, shows
that the decadent mindset was either more than a mere affectation, or that Barnitz had already made up his mind to die, and was simply arranging his final place in literature, the way he would be ultimately viewed by the world. Certainly, it was the impression of later readers of Barnitz, like Wandrei and Lovecraft, that Barnitz had killed himself. If so, however, his family and the newspapers were not playing along with the message, —although Barnitz's death in any case was very abrupt and strange. According to his obituary:

"Young Barnitz has been affected with enlargement of
the heart, but the family had no idea of his condition being
serious. He has been unusually well this autumn, up to last
Saturday night when he complained of severe pain. Tuesday
he was much better and Wednesday feeling so well that he
told his mother to accompany Dr. Barnitz to the synod and
missionary convention at Iowa City. Wednesday evening he
read for several hours, and Thursday breakfasted and lunched
with his sisters, seemingly quite better. After lunch he
decided to rest, but after reaching the second story fell
and in an instant life was extinct. Medical aid was
summoned at once, but to no avail.... Mr. Barnitz was
devoted to his parents, sisters, and brother, and was what
is often termed a home boy. His tall, erect presence will
be missed at the libraries and on the streets... Vases of
autumn leaves, of which he was very fond, were placed about
the parlor..."

Barnitz's father, Dr. Samuel Barnitz, for over 20 years Western Secretary of Home Missions for the Lutheran Synod, died a year after his son, and the family left Des Moines. Barnitz's writings became a little known pleasure for connoisseurs of the macabre. Barnitz had a huge influence on Donald Wandrei's macabre-erotic poetry, Wandrei often affecting Barnitz's tone of nihilism and despair. Wandrei also mentions Barnitz in his essay "Lotus and Poppy" as a peer of Poe and Baudelaire, and later introduced his works to the weird writers H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, Wandrei accompanying Lovecraft to the John Hay Library at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, to view the volume of The Book of Jade in their possession, as well as loaning his own copy of the book to Ashton Smith via the mails. "You are right about the mortuary poems being the best…", wrote Smith. "(…)Ennui and sheer corruption are both extremely difficult subjects to handle. If I am ever in a position to edit an anthology, I will certainly include at least half a dozen of these poems." (SMITH, 78) Joseph Payne Brennan, another contributor to Weird Tales and a fine macabre poet in his own right, discovered Barnitz in the forties, and, in a strange coincidence, on October 10th, 1947, acquired his own copy of The Book of Jade on the 40th anniversary of Barnitz's death. The Book of Jade was republished in an expensive limited edition by occult/horror publisher Durto Press in 1998, with an intro. by Mark Valentine and an afterward by Thomas Ligotti.

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