Authors: Djuna Barnes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American expatriate writer

June 12, 1892

Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York

June 18, 1982

New York, New York

Biography

Djuna Chappell Barnes has been a writer more often praised than read, and more praised than understood. She was, by some accounts, the most important woman writer in the expatriate Paris of the 1920s, and her brilliant novel Nightwood influenced many subsequent writers—William Faulkner and John Hawkes, to name two examples. In her own words, she became “the most famous unknown writer” of her time. Nightwood has been in print for decades; however, it sells only a few thousand copies every year. Barnes is one of the most important American modernist figures. Her readership is small, but it has always been composed of people important to literature.

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Barnes’s upbringing was odd in the extreme, and she mined it throughout her life, particularly for the novel Ryder and the play The Antiphon. Her father, born Henry Budington, eventually settled on the name Wald Barnes after experimenting with many others. He was an open bigamist and was sexually licentious, a somewhat cracked intellectual living a wild, rural, impoverished life on his affluent brother’s estate on Storm King mountain in the town of Cornwall-on-Hudson, a country place for Greenwich Village bohemians. He lived with his (perhaps common-law) wife Elizabeth Chappell as well as with a mistress; Djuna Barnes’s father’s selfishness and her mother’s passive acceptance of victimization angered her throughout her life. She had brothers; all were rather oddly named, like herself.

Djuna Barnes.

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Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The actual events of her family life are shrouded and obscure. Barnes was not a willing interview subject. In fact, she was one of the most private of public figures. Not much factual information is known about the circumstances that drove Barnes to hate her father so intensely and distrust her brothers so thoroughly. She received no formal schooling and learned from her family at home. Her grandmother, Zadel Barnes Budington Gustafson, had been a writer and had lived in London, supposedly hosting a literary salon there. She lived with the family and was Djuna’s primary teacher and influence. Zadel was an unconventional matriarch, having been divorced and having had a career of her own. She indulged her son Wald Barnes, while understanding both his gifts and his weaknesses. Eventually Djuna became a source of financial support for this unruly family and paid for the care of Zadel in her old age from earnings as a reporter.

After her parents separated and left the farm, Barnes went to Greenwich Village, attended the Art Students’ League briefly, and began working as a freelance artist and journalist. She worked for many newspapers in New York and Brooklyn, doing interviews and action pieces, some short fiction, and, later, short dramas in a vivid, idiosyncratic style hardly imaginable for journalists today. She became associated with the Greenwich Village bohemian scene and knew many of the literary and artistic lights of that milieu, including the notoriously sleazy self-promoter Guido Bruno, who published Barnes’s The Book of Repulsive Women in 1915. This short chapbook of poems and drawings on lesbian topics would certainly have been censored if the censors could have imagined what it was about. Barnes was also involved with the Provincetown Players, the radical theater group founded in 1916. Several of her plays were produced by them, one of the most important, Three from the Earth, in 1919. In the years from 1916 to 1923, she wrote many playlets and small dramas that were published in various periodicals, some under the pseudonym Lydia Steptoe.

In 1919 or 1920, she went to Paris, joining the expatriates there, and became friends with James Joyce and his wife, Nora. Joyce had an influence on her, as she had on him. He gave her his annotated manuscript of Ulysses (1922) after its publication, so he must have respected her greatly. During this period, she returned to New York from time to time, in 1923 publishing A Book, a collection of stories, drawings, and poems.

In 1920, Barnes met Thelma Wood; after 1923, they were living together. This great love affair, which provided the material for the central events of Nightwood, continued stormily for many years before ending in the 1930s. Ryder, a strange fiction of mixed genres and drawings based largely on her radically strange family, was published in 1928; Nightwood appeared eight years later. Between them, there was nothing else. Nightwood took Barnes years to write; she went through agonies of rewriting and revision. During this period, she moved between Paris, Tangier, Peggy Guggenheim’s house in South Devon (Hayward Hall), and New York. She was not to produce another major work until The Antiphon in 1958. Nightwood was first published in England by Faber and Faber and edited by T. S. Eliot, who wrote what was to become a much-quoted introduction to the work. The novel was well received in England, garnering many enthusiastic reviews. Its later reception in America was more puzzled. When Barnes finished The Antiphon, Eliot again read the manuscript and took it for Faber and Faber, but this time he was perplexed by the work—a response that was typical.

Writing did not come easily to Barnes; the process was slow and painstaking. She was not a writer of narrative that flows and “writes itself”: She had a difficult time with plot. Her works are like tableaux or collections of emblems. They contain many kinds of language and tend to illuminate a static situation rather than spin a tale. She used varieties of archaic genres and language: the anatomy for Nightwood; for Ryder, the languages of François Rabelais and Geoffrey Chaucer; in The Antiphon, the language of William Shakespeare. Barnes’s work is Joycean in that it refuses the invisibility of language typical of the supposedly naturalistic novel in favor of an invocation of many means in service of a near-obsessive desire to see, and to understand in a metaphysical way, the inner truths and structures of events and relationships. Her visual art is illustrative of this tendency as well. Her many portraits perform a kind of flaying operation on their subjects and are as formal and abstracting as caricatures, isolating emblematic features of the sitters, sometimes in a way destructive of surfaces and often destructive of vanity.

In 1939, Barnes sailed to New York, barely escaping Europe in time to avoid World War II. When she arrived, she was penniless and prospects were bleak. In 1940, she finally obtained a small apartment in the Village at Patchin Place; she would live there in increasing isolation for forty-one years until her death. There she worked, first on The Antiphon, then on poetry, most of which is still unpublished. She survived on a small stipend from Guggenheim and on royalties from Nightwood.

There has been an increasing appreciation of Barnes’s works, in America and elsewhere. Some of her journalism and short fiction has been collected and reappraised, and a biography by Andrew Field, though not authorized and rather flawed, brought some attention to Barnes’s career. She is now seen as the extremely important figure in the development of modernism that she actually was in her day. Moreover, the addition of Barnes to the pantheon of great modernists helps to show that the modernist movement was not so radically different from what is called “postmodernism,” as is often supposed, for one finds in her work the manipulation of genre conventions and the fondness for self-reflective structures often identified with the postmodernists.

Author Works Long Fiction: Ryder, 1928 Nightwood, 1936 Short Fiction: A Night Among the Horses, 1929 Spillway, 1962 Smoke, and Other Early Stories, 1982 Collected Stories, 1996 Drama: Three from the Earth, pr., pb. 1919 The Antiphon, pb. 1958 At the Roots of the Stars: The Short Plays, pb. 1995 Poetry: The Book of Repulsive Women, 1915 (includes drawings) Collected Poems: With Notes toward the Memoirs, 2005 (Phillips Herring and Osias Stutman, editors) Nonfiction: Interviews, 1985 (journalism) New York, 1989 (journalism) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Creatures in an Alphabet, 1982 Miscellaneous: A Book, 1923 (enlarged edition published as A Night Among the Horses, 1929; abridged as Spillway, 1962) Ladies’ Almanack, 1928 Selected Works, 1962 Bibliography Allen, Carolyn. Following Djuna: Women Lovers and the Erotics of Loss. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Examines theories of representation and difference in lesbian literature. Barnes, Djuna. Interviews. Edited by Alyce Barry. Washington, D.C.: Sun & Moon Press, 1985. A collection of forty-one interviews written between 1913 and 1931, accompanied by Barnes’s original illustrations. Subjects range from Diamond Jim Brady to James Joyce. Taken in total, a useful memoir of the period in which Barnes developed as a writer. Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank, 1900-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Classic biocritical study of women artists, writers, and intellectuals. Chapter seven covers Barnes’s life and writing while she lived on the Left Bank of Paris, a thriving center for American expatriates. Broe, Mary Lynn, ed. Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. Pivotal collection of essays that emphasize the feminist and communal aspects of Barnes’s life. Chait, Sandra M., and Elizabeth M. Podnieks, eds. Hayford Hall: Hangovers, Erotics, and Aesthetics. Carbondale: Southern University Illinois Press, 2005. Critical essays examine the characters living and learning at Hayford Hall, the Devonshire estate in England where Barnes lived for a time. Field, Andrew. Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1983. A biography of Barnes. Field, Andrew. Djuna, the Formidable Miss Barnes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985. One of the few complete biographies of Barnes. Colorful, dramatic, and informed by Field’s great affection and respect for his subject. Fowlie, Wallace. “Woman: Nightwood of Djuna Barnes.” In Love in Literature: Studies in Symbolic Expression. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965. This chapter has been influential in Barnes studies. Frank, Joseph. The Widening Gyre: Crisis and Mastery in Modern Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963. Contains an important interpretation of space and time in Nightwood. Fuchs, Miriam. “Djuna Barnes and T. S. Eliot: Resistance and Acquiescence.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 12, no. 2 (Fall, 1993): 288–313. Uses unpublished correspondence to map the collaborative dynamics between Barnes and poet T. S. Eliot. Fuchs, Miriam. “The Triadic Association of Emily Holmes Coleman, T. S. Eliot, and Djuna Barnes.” ANQ: A Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 12, no. 4 (Fall, 1999): 28–39. Examines Emily Holmes Coleman’s unpublished diary entries to relate the drama behind T. S. Eliot’s decision to publish Barnes’s novel Nightwood. Galvin, Mary E. Queer Poetics: Five Modernist Women Writers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Discusses Barnes, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Amy Lowell, and Mina Loy. Herring, Phillip F. Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes. New York: Viking Press, 1995. A useful, comprehensive, and critical biography of Barnes that traces her inspirations and influences. Herring examined private papers and manuscripts and interviewed family and friends for this scholarly but accessible work. Kannenstine, Louis F. The Art of Djuna Barnes: Duality and Damnation. New York: New York University Press, 1977. The first university press study of Barnes, which aligns Barnes with James Joyce. A groundbreaking work that nevertheless has been criticized by feminist and other scholars. Messerli, Douglas. Djuna Barnes: A Bibliography. Rhinebeck, N.Y.: D. Lewis, 1976. A full and comprehensive bibliography, well annotated, on not only Barnes’s own works and Barnes criticism but also the many references to Barnes in the books of her contemporaries. Includes a good brief introduction. O’Neal, Hank. “Life Is Painful, Nasty & Short . . . In My Case It Has Only Been Painful & Nasty”: Djuna Barnes, 1978–1981: An Informal Memoir. New York: Paragon House, 1990. Memoir by an admirer who handled many of Barnes’s literary and financial affairs near the end of her life. A series of portraits from the 1950s by Barnes’s friend Berenice Abbott appears in an appendix. Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, no. 3 (Fall, 1993). Special issue on Barnes’s fiction. Features papers presented at the Djuna Barnes Centennial Conference at the University of Maryland in 1992. Scott, James B. Djuna Barnes. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Thorough study of Barnes’s work in an accessible format. Most biographical material appears in the opening chapter, “Early Life.” Written before Andrew Field revealed the more controversial aspects of Barnes’s life. Chronology, bibliography. Warren, Diane. Djuna Barnes’ Consuming Fictions. Cornwall, England: Ashgate, 2008. Study that positions itself in relation to ongoing dialogues and debates about Barnes’s work. Emphasizes her ideas of identity, language, and culture.

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