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Fitzi’s Dog: Lost Auto/biographical Presence in Nightwood

Archival research in the 1990s involved #2 pencils and handwritten transcriptions, later painstakingly typed into a desktop computer. The archival research I undertook then as a grad student was a labor of love, a “passion project” in the spirit of Melanie Micir’s phrase for feminist modernist recovery work. Copying over (twice!) the letters and diaries of modernists like Djuna Barnes or Jean Rhys engraved their words deep in my memory. While researching early draft versions of Barnes’s Nightwood (1936) at the Universities of Maryland and Delaware, I noticed several brief but compelling references to “Fitzie” [sic] in the letters exchanged between Barnes and Emily Holmes Coleman concerning the editing of Barnes’s manuscript of the novel. Fitzi (the preferred spelling) is mentioned in the context of the final scene of Nightwood: in Coleman’s editorial critique of August 27, 1935, she suggests that the final encounter between Robin Vote and Nora’s dog is sexual, an effect that Coleman knows Barnes does not intend. Both Coleman’s letter and Barnes’s response refer to a possible biographical source for the scene, taken from Barnes’s life, a moment “when the dog and Nora were Fitzie.”[1] “Who was Fitzie?” I wrote in the margin of my transcription of these letters.

While the earliest surviving drafts of Nightwood are collected in Cheryl Plumb’s 1995 textual edition of the novel, it is likely that other early fragments and drafts have been lost. Plumb believes that Barnes began writing the novel as early as 1927.[2] By 1932, Coleman reports her distaste for sections of Barnes’s novel, writing that “most of the book is sentimental shit of the worst kind (Thelma and Fitzie).”[3] Barnes’s manuscript underwent two major revisions between 1932 and 1935. In the process, the character Nora Flood was condensed from two different characters, Catherine and Hess. These characters were possibly modeled on Barnes’s friends, one being Mina Loy, and another, as I will argue here—M. Eleanor Fitzgerald (“Fitzi”) (1877–1955).

Woman standing with dog
Fig. 1. “M. Eleanor Fitzgerald and her dog, Buff.” January 10, 1927. Djuna Barnes papers. Special Collections & University Archives. University of Maryland Libraries.

Recent work by Scott Herring and Melanie Micir emphasizes how Barnes’s writing method makes use of “chronic modification” in a process of palimpsestic revision, often beginning with auto/biographical referents.[4] Their scholarship builds on and extends previous feminist work on Barnes, including the essays collected in Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes (1991). That Barnes drew from her own life and from the people she knew seems beyond doubt. Thelma Wood, Dan Mahoney, and Henrietta Metcalfe have each been identified as biographical referents for the characters Robin Vote, Matthew O’Connor, and Jenny Petherbridge. Micir’s insight into the presence of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven as another model for Robin, furthering earlier work by Lynn DeVore (1983), suggests that scholars are not yet done working through the archival source material for Barnes’s published work.[5] Indeed, as Herring suggests, the drafts and revisions contained in Barnes’s archive may constitute a modernist art project of their own.

Working with the assumption that traces of real people and events are found throughout Barnes’s archive, this essay seeks to contribute to discussions about life writing in feminist and queer modernisms. What is the significance of M. Eleanor Fitzgerald—and her dog—for feminist and queer modernist recovery work? How are “queer feminist biographical acts” situated within the profession of modernist studies historically, and how and why are they enjoying a resurgence now (Micir, The Passion Projects, 4)? But first, it is important to acknowledge that this essay can answer the question “who was Fitzi?” by turning to the archives of white women such as Barnes, Coleman, and Fitzgerald herself. That it does so points to an important difference between feminist and queer acts of archival recovery, here particularly of white women culture-makers, and the ongoing recovery work done by scholars of the transatlantic trafficking in people who were enslaved. As Saidiya Hartman notes, when it comes to the violent erasure of “hundreds and thousands” of Black girls and women, “one cannot ask ‘Who is Venus?’ because it would be impossible to answer such a question.”[6] Unlike Hartman’s “wayward lives,” Fitzgerald’s “lost presence” in Nightwood is not due primarily to the violent erasure of her life story. Fitzgerald’s disappearance from modernist history is instead, I argue, collateral damage from a literary studies traditionally wedded to the doctrine of modernist impersonality and the New Criticism. How many voices and lives have been rendered silent and invisible by a discipline suspicious of the relationship between the author’s biography and the finished text?

I’ve come to think of Barnes’s auto/biographical source material, written over and much revised in the process of composition, as creating something like geological layers: the character Nora Flood contains the sediment of former auto/biographical referents, traces that hint at the existence of earlier drafts, including drafts that no longer exist. Much as “the ground things take the corpse, with minute persistence, down into the earth, leaving a pattern of it on the grass, as if they stitched as they descended,” so too does auto/biography leave a fossilized pattern on the finished text (Barnes, Nightwood, 51). As Nora senses the “lost presence” of her grandmother in a dream, so too do Barnes’s auto/biographical sources haunt Nightwood. These auto/biographical “leavings” are easy to overlook, especially within a discipline founded on a distrust of authorial intention. I will return to these larger questions in the conclusion.

Although I first made the acquaintance of M. Eleanor Fitzgerald through studying Nightwood’s drafts, she reappeared in a very different context during my time as an assistant editor at the Emma Goldman Papers Project. “We love Fitzi!” exclaimed Candace Falk, the director of the Goldman Papers, when I mentioned that I knew of her through my work on Barnes. “Fitzi,” as most people called her, was not an artist or a writer, but a secretary, fundraiser, accountant, office manager, de facto literary agent, and theatrical administrator whose vocation was to serve and support the revolutionary and artistic work of her friends. Fitzgerald’s work life included communal support work for the anarchist and workers’ magazines Mother Earth and The Blast, and paid work for the Provincetown Players theatrical group. Fitzgerald’s professional life demonstrates her commitment to supporting and enabling the work of anarchists, authors, and artists; her genius was to disappear into the background while uplifting the work of others.[7]

Born in Wisconsin, Fitzgerald was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist church and began her working life at age sixteen. She was a teacher, then a nurse and secretary at the SDA’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, before going on to manage Chautauqua speaking tours. In this capacity, she met Emma Goldman and had an anarchist conversion experience much like Margaret Anderson’s.[8] Fitzgerald became Goldman’s secretary and tour manager, before falling in love with Goldman’s comrade Alexander Berkman and moving with him to San Francisco to edit the revolutionary labor magazine The Blast. After Goldman and Berkman were imprisoned for their anti-conscription protests in 1917, Fitzgerald became an activist office manager: she directed the “League for the Amnesty of Political Prisoners,” organized mass protests to defend labor leader Tom Mooney against imprisonment for the 1916 Preparedness Day bombing and worked to find translators and a publisher for a Yiddish-language edition of Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. During this feverish time, Fitzgerald also began undertaking paid work for the emerging Provincetown Players theatrical company. She spent ten years with them, eventually becoming their Executive Director, and remained on the business side of theater for the rest of her life. Her obituary appeared in the New York Times with reflections by Djuna Barnes, e . e . c ummings, Edmund Wilson, and more.

In short, M. E. Fitzgerald is one of those modernist figures who, though well known in her own time, has been almost lost to ours. Because the work she excelled at was administrative, in support of the artists, writers, and activists more usually the subject of biography, she has since faded from view. Her traces are found scattered in the archives and biographies of the people she helped, including Barnes, but the limited information about Fitzgerald recorded in biographies of Barnes is sadly misogynistic. Hank O’Neal describes how the final scene from Nightwood is drawn from life: “A lady named Fitzi was drunk as a hoot and crawling around on all fours and her dog, Buffy, was running around her, growling and barking.”[9] In Phillip Herring’s account, “everyone” read the ending of the novel as sexual: “Peggy [Guggenheim] was well acquainted with Fitzi and her dog Buffy, the model Barnes had used for her ending, and she described Fitzi’s curiously sexual feelings for her dog.”[10] These are two examples of what Scott Herring has called “a biographical construction rather than a biographical fact” (71). Scott Herring’s revisionist argument about the brilliance of Barnes’s “geriatric avant-garde” reminds us to be aware of the opinions and judgments underpinning biographical narratives. Biographical anecdotes such as this one about Fitzi’s dog reveal more about the biographers’ assumptions than they do about the subject of the anecdote. When it comes to the history of women and queer lives, we do well to return to the archives to investigate what is known, and not known, about our subjects rather than rely on secondhand anecdotes.

Fitzgerald and Barnes met and became friends through the Provincetown theater circle in Greenwich Village in the 1910s. After Barnes moved to Paris in 1921, letters exchanged between herself and her mother, Elizabeth Chappell Barnes, reference Fitzgerald often. These letters document Fitzgerald’s intimacy with the Barnes family: Fitzgerald looks after shipping Djuna Barnes’s trunk to Paris, visits Barnes’s mother and brothers Saxon and Charlie, and assists Barnes with placing her journalism. Fitzgerald is also the subject of many concerned observations by Elizabeth Chappell Barnes, who worries about Fitzgerald’s health: “How’s Fitzi? Hope she is better and taking good care to remain better. One cannot attain the heart’s desire on a rotten foundation, therefore keep the body clean!”[11] Barnes and her mother were not the only people worried about Fitzgerald’s health in the 1920s; many of Fitzgerald’s friends also observed how her propensity to overwork and to provide care for everyone around her damaged her own health. The turbulent breakups and relational reconfigurations in the Provincetown theater group were particularly hard on Fitzgerald, whose anarchism meant that she was “reluctant to exert authority” in the power struggles of the Provincetown group.[12] In the words of Pauline Turkel, Fitzgerald’s closest friend and eventual executor, “Fitzi was generous to everyone but herself.”[13] Fitzgerald’s life story in many ways exemplifies the narrative of the overworked and under-acknowledged woman.

Fitzgerald’s biography, I would argue, also undergirds the development of Nightwood’s Nora Flood, who is described as a Westerner, an early Christian, and as someone “who robbed herself for everyone” (47). Fitzgerald’s early life as a Seventh-day Adventist and her passion for supporting the work of anarchists and artists is evoked by Barnes’s description of Nora as having “a muscle in her heart so passionate that she made the seventh day immediate” (48). Even Fitzgerald’s country house in Sherman, Connecticut—where she let many a down and out Greenwich Villager stay—is evoked by Barnes’s description of Nora’s “pauper’s salon, for poets, radicals, beggars, artists, and people in love” (48). Among the anarchists, Fitzgerald was affectionately nicknamed “The Lioness,” for her height and red hair; when Robin and Nora meet at the circus, a “powerful lioness” seems to recognize Robin as a fellow “beast turning human.” Finally, Barnes refers to Fitzgerald as a “somnambule” in a letter written to Pauline Turkel, in a discussion of Fitzgerald’s health: “[Fitzi] has an almost sonambulic [sic] look [. . .] – it’s like talking to one in a sleep—[. . .] you can talk sense to a living person but what can you say to the stunned.”[14] Like Nora, Fitzgerald’s dramatic and even tragic romantic life threatens to turn her into a somnambulist; Fitzi’s suffering, I suggest, found its way into the early drafts of Nightwood.

Fitzgerald’s most infamous lost presence in Nightwood is of course as the auto/biographical source for the scene between Robin and Nora’s dog. Barnes’s comment to Coleman about the earlier drafts (“when the dog and Nora were Fitzie”) blurs the boundaries between animal and human: Fitzi is present in the draft as both dog and Nora. This blurring persists in the final version of the text, where Nora is introduced as physically enmeshed with her dog: “Sitting about the oak table before the huge fire, Nora listening, her hand on her hound, the firelight throwing her shadow and his high against the wall” (Barnes, Nightwood, 46). The blending of “her shadow and his” attest to the “radical posthumanism” some critics locate in the final scene between Robin and Nora’s dog.[15]

In the spirit of posthumanism, Buff the dog deserves a name and life story as an auto/biographical source for Nightwood. Buff seems to have first entered Fitzi’s life in 1926, after the sudden death of her lover, Mischa Leon. The first mention of Buff is recorded in October 1926 in Fitzgerald’s datebook; the datebook also mentions “Djuna” as a dinner date on December 17, 1926. The above photograph (fig. 1) of Fitzgerald and Buff standing together in Washington Square Park is dated January 10, 1927, and inscribed to Barnes. From the photo, Buff appears to be a collie, a breed known for its herding instincts, bearing out the novel’s elaborate choreography of the final encounter between Robin and Nora’s dog. Eric Fuhrer’s recent reading of this scene as a negotiation of power dynamics within “queer, interspecies kinship” offers a compelling link into the affective relationship between Fitzi, Barnes, and Buff.[16] The scene in the novel ends with the dog’s head “flat along [Robin’s] knees” in what Fuhrer describes as a resolution of power play. The act of resting one’s head in another’s lap supports Fuhrer’s concept of interspecies queer intimacy; humans, dogs, and cats all find comfort in close physical proximity to one another across species boundaries.

This interspecies gesture of comfort seems to be what Fitzgerald wants when she visits Barnes in Paris in the summer of 1928. Fitzgerald spent several nights in Barnes’s Paris apartment; Thelma Wood was also present, although Wood and Barnes’s relationship was already breaking apart. In a letter to Barnes reflecting on their visit, Fitzgerald voices a multiplicity of vectors of queer desire, power, and rivalry:

I worried you—said things Thelma should choke me for. I wonder she stood it so well. […] I want to put my head in your lap and hear you say—‘you cute thing’—Remember the day when Thelma and I both answered when you said ‘Baby’ do something or other.[17]

Fitzgerald’s desire to “put my head in your lap” wants all the things: sex and affection; nurture and rest; to be the only baby; to dominate and to submit; to be Djuna’s dog. The traces of her powerful desire should, I argue, take their place among Barnes’s other auto/biographical sources for the novel Emily Coleman called the “women’s Othello.”[18] Like Barnes’s grandmother, or the Baroness Freytag von Loringhoven, or Thelma Wood, Fitzgerald’s auto/biographical presence in early drafts of Nightwood testifies to the multiple sources Barnes drew upon to portray queer affiliations and desire in the novel, even as these presences were partially submerged by subsequent revision.

Why should we care about Fitzi and Buff? Their sedimentary presence in the drafts of Nightwood, along with multiple other auto/biographical presences, suggests that the drafts of that novel amply document a queer kinship network, a network partially occluded by T. S. Eliot’s editorial hand in the published version. When I first encountered Fitzi in Barnes’s archive in the late 1990s, there were few models for writing about the presence of such “minor” historical figures in the lives and work of modernist writers. At the time, I used textual studies as a critical framework for investigating how Coleman and then Eliot’s editing shaped the text of Nightwood.[19] My interest in auto/biographical source material felt like something unrigorous and unprofessional, and therefore my approach to the archive splintered between what I “should” look for and what I was drawn towards. In Lauren Rosenblum’s words, I wanted what was “missing, lost, or broken.” But a disciplinary superego (or was it the voice of my undergraduate advisor?) dismissed the story of Fitzi and Buff as a mere anecdote with no critical significance. Because my academic training occurred sometime between the doctrines of impersonality and poststructuralism, the innate curve of my thinking did not then fit existing professional strictures.

Thinking about Fitzi’s dog and Buff’s human has recently become more legible in multiple scholarly contexts: in animal studies or via “weak theory,” but especially in the context of emerging work in autotheory and in what Sofia Samatar has called “life-thinking,” an integration of autobiography and criticism.[20] The insurgence of feminist inter/modernist studies, and recent work by Hartman, Micir, and Janine Utell centering life writing in queer feminist practice, suggests how much fertile terrain modernist studies has historically overlooked. Evoking Utell’s definition of “intimate life writing” as a “set of practices, acts, and utterances,”[21] Barnes’s practice of palimpsestic revision upon a foundation of auto/biographical sources can be read as an example of autotheory, avant la lettre. As Herring argues, Barnes’s drafts constitute an art practice of their own, one created alongside and apart from her published work; following Micir, these drafts are a queer documentation practice that record the autobiographical “lost presences” fundamental to Barnes’s art. By excavating the auto/biographical traces of Fitzi and Buff in Nightwood, we resurrect an affiliative kinship network, inclusive of dogs and cats, that has plenty to tell us about queer lives, literary influence, and who is remembered—or not—in literary and academic history.


[1] Barnes to Coleman, September 20, 1935, University of Delaware Special Collections. Unpublished quotations from Barnes used with permission of the Authors League Fund and St. Bride’s Church, as joint literary executors of the estate of Djuna Barnes.

[2] Cheryl J. Plumb, introduction to Djuna Barnes, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood: The Original Version and Related Drafts, ed. Cheryl J. Plumb (Dallas, TX: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995), ix.

[3] Rough Draft: The Modernist Diaries of Emily Holmes Coleman, 1929–1937, ed. Elizabeth Podnieks (Newark: University Press of Delaware, 2012), 157.

[4] Scott Herring, “Djuna Barnes and the Geriatric Avant-Garde,” PMLA 130, no. 1 (2015): 69–91, 79.

[5] Melanie Micir, The Passion Projects: Modernist Women, Intimate Archives, Unfinished Lives (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), 58.

[6] Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 1–14, 2.

[7] For a general biography see Jeffrey Kennedy, “Fitzi: True Believer: The Legacy of M. Eleanor Fitzgerald,” Eugene O’Neill Review 38, no. 1–2 (2017): 13–46. For more on Fitzgerald’s working life from a feminist lens, see Catherine W. Hollis, “M. E. Fitzgerald: Office Manager to Modernism,” in Thanks For Typing: Remembering Forgotten Women in History, ed. Juliana Dresvina (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021), 11–21.

[8] In Margaret Anderson’s words, “I heard Emma Goldman lecture and had just time to turn anarchist before the presses closed.” My Thirty Years War (New York: Horizon Press, 1969), 54.

[9] Quoted in Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes, ed. Mary Lynn Broe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), 353.

[10] Phillip Herring, Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes (New York: Viking, 1995), 224–25.

[11] Elizabeth Chappell Barnes to Djuna Barnes, July 12, 1928, Djuna Barnes Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

[12] Cheryl Black, The Women of Provincetown: 1915–1922 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), 50.

[13] Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2005), 59.

[14] Barnes to Turkel, n.d., Djuna Barnes Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

[15] Carrie Rohman, Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 157.

[16] Eric Fuhrer, “Queer Kinship in the Work of Nathalie Djurberg and Djuna Barnes,” Mosaic 53, no. 1 (2020): 73–89, 85.

[17] Fitzgerald to Barnes, “Monday. August,” Djuna Barnes Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

[18] Coleman to Barnes, August 27, 1935, Djuna Barnes Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

[19] Catherine W. Hollis, “‘No Marriage in Heaven’: Editorial Resurrection in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood,” TEXT 13 (2000): 233–49.

[20] Samatar quoted in Lauren Fournier, Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021), 15.

[21] Janine Utell, Literary Couples and 20th-Century Life Writing: Narrative and Intimacy (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 3.