Biography of Djuna Barnes, American Artist, Journalist, and Author

Writer Djuna Barnes on a Ship
Writer Djuna Barnes returns to New York aboard the SS La Lorraine after a pleasure trip to France, 1922.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Djuna Barnes was an American artist, writer, journalist, and illustrator. Her most notable literary work is the novel Nightwood (1936), a seminal piece of modernist literature and one of the most eminent examples of lesbian fiction. 

Fast Facts: Djuna Barnes

  • Known For: American modernist writer, journalist, and illustrator known for the sapphic components of her works
  • Also Known As: Pen names Lydia Steptoe, A Lady of Fashion, and Gunga Duhl
  • Born: June 12, 1892 in Storm King Mountain, New York
  • Parents: Wald Barnes, Elizabeth Barnes
  • Died: June 18, 1982 in New York City, New York
  • Education: Pratt Institute, Art Student League of New York
  • Selected Works: The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings (1915), Ryder (1928), Ladies Almanack (1928), Nightwood (1936), The Antiphon (1958)
  • Spouses: Courtenay Lemon (m. 1917–1919), Percy Faulkner (m. 1910–1910)

Early Life (1892–1912)

Djuna Barnes was born in 1892 in a log cabin on Storm King Mountain, in a family of intellectuals. Her paternal grandmother, Zadel Barnes, was a literary-salon hostess, a women’s-suffrage activist, and a writer; her father, Wald Barnes, was a struggling and mostly failed artist in the disciplines of music—as a performer and a composer—and painting. He was largely enabled by his mother Zadel, who thought her son was an artistic genius, so the onus of supporting Wald’s whole family mostly fell on Zadel, who had to get creative in the ways she sought financial resources.

Wald, who was a polygamist, married Djuna Barnes’ mother Elizabeth in 1889, and had his mistress Fanny Clark move in with them in 1897. He had a total of eight children, with Djuna being the second oldest. She was mostly home-schooled by her father and grandmother, who taught her literature, music, and the arts, but overlooked scientific subjects and mathematics. Barnes might have been raped by a neighbor with her father’s consent, or by her own father when she was 16—references to rape occur in her novel Ryder (1928) and in her play The Antiphon (1958)—but these rumors remain unconfirmed, as Barnes never completed her autobiography.

Djuna Barnes
Portrait of American writer Djuna Barnes (1892-1982), best known for her avant-garde novel, Nightwood. Oscar White / Corbis / Getty Images

Djuna Barnes married Fanny Clark’s 52-year-old brother, Percy Faulkner, as soon as she turned 18, a match strongly endorsed by her whole family, but their union was short-lived. In 1912, her family, on the brink of financial ruin, split and Barnes moved to New York City with her mother and three of her brothers, finally settling in the Bronx.

She enrolled at Pratt institute and approached art formally for the first time, but left the institution in 1913, after only attending classes for six months. That was almost the full extent of her formal education. Barnes was raised in a household that promoted free love, and throughout her life, she had relationships and affairs with men and women alike.

Path to Writing and Early Work (1912–1921)

  • The Book of Repulsive Women (1915)

In June 1913, Barnes began her career as freelance writer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Shortly after her first foray into journalism, her articles, short stories, and one-act plays appeared both in the major New York papers and in avant-garde small magazines. She was a popular writer of features and had the ability to cover a wide range of topics, including Tango dancing, Coney Island, women’s suffrage, Chinatown, theatre, and soldiers in New York. She interviewed labour activist Mother Jones and photographer Alfred Steiglitz. She was known for her subjective and experiential journalism, adopting several roles and reportorial personas, and inserting herself into the narratives. For example, she submitted herself to force-feeding, interviewed a female gorilla in the Bronx Zoo, and explored the world of boxing for The New York World. By that time, she had relocated in Greenwich Village, a haven of artists, writers, and intellectuals that became a centre for experiments in arts, politics, and life. 

Djuna Barnes article clipping
Clipping of Djuna Barnes' article "How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed," published in The World Magazine September 6, 1914.  Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

While living in Greenwich Village, she came into contact with Guido Bruno, an entrepreneur and promoter of the Bohemian lifestyle who would charge tourists to watch local artists at work. He published Barnes’ first chapbook, The Book of Repulsive Women, which contained a description of sex between two women. The book avoided censorship and gained a reputation that allowed Bruno to raise its price considerably. It contained eight “rhythms” and five drawings. It was strongly influenced by late 19th-century decadence. The subjects of the “rhythms” are all women, including a cabaret singer, a woman seen through an open window from an elevated train, and the corpses of two suicides in the morgue. Grotesque descriptions of these women abound, to the point that readers experienced feelings of revulsion. It’s unclear what Barnes’ goal was with The Book of Repulsive Women, even though the consensus seems to be a criticism to the way women were perceived in society. 

Barnes was also a member of the Provincetown Players, a troupe that performed out of a converted stable. She produced and wrote three one act plays for the company, who were strongly influenced by Irish playwright J. M. Synge, both in form and in worldview, sharing an overall pessimism. She took socialist Courtenay Lemon as what she referred to as "common law husband" in 1917, but that union did not last.

The Paris Years (1921–1930)

  • Ryder (1928)
  • Ladies' Almanack (1928)

Barnes first traveled to Paris in 1921 on assignment from McCall’s, where she interviewed her fellow U.S. expats who were thriving in the artistic and literary community in Paris. She arrived in Paris with a letter of introduction to James Joyce, whom she would interview for Vanity Fair, and whom would become a friend. She would spend the next nine years there.

Her short story A Night Among the Horses cemented her literary reputation. While in Paris, she formed strong friendships with eminent cultural figures. These included Natalie Barney, a salon hostess; Thelma Wood, an artist she was romantically involved with; and Dada artist baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. In 1928, she published two romans à clef, Ryder and Ladies' Almanack. The former draws from Barnes' childhood experiences in Cornwall-on-Hudson, and it chronicles 50 years of history in the Ryder family. The matriarch Sophie Grieve Ryder, based on her grandmother Zadel, is a former hostess fallen into poverty. She has a son named Wendell, who is idle and polygamous; he has a wife named Amelia and a live-in mistress named Kate-Carless. A stand-in for Barnes is Julie, Amelia and Wendell’s daughter. The structure of the book is quite peculiar: some characters only appear in one chapter; the narration is interspersed with children’s stories, songs, and parables; and each chapter is in a different style. 

Solita Solano and Djuna Barnes
Solita Solano and Djuna Barnes in Paris, 1922. Public Domain

Ladies’ Almanack is another roman à clef of Barnes, this time set in a lesbian social circle in Paris—based on Natalie Barney’s social circle. Barney's stand-in character is named Dame Evangeline Musset, a former “pioneer and menace,” now middle-aged mentor whose purpose consists of rescuing women in distress and dispensing wisdom. She is elevated to sainthood upon her death. Its style is quite obscure, as it’s rooted in inside jokes and ambiguity, which makes it unclear whether it’s well-meaning satire or an attack on Barney's circle. 

In these two books, Barnes abandoned the writing style influenced by 19th-century decadence that she displayed in The Book of Repulsive Women. Instead, she opted for a modernist experimentation inspired by her encounter and subsequent friendship with James Joyce.

Restless Years (1930s)

  • Nightwood (1936)

Barnes traveled extensively in the 1930s, spending time in Paris, England, North Africa, and New York. While sojourning in a country manor in Devon, rented by the arts patron Peggy Guggenheim, Barnes wrote her career-defining novel, Nightwood. It is an avant-garde novel written under the patronage of Peggy Guggenheim, edited by T.S. Eliot, and set in Paris in the 1920s. Nightwood is centered around five characters, two of them based on Barnes and Thelma Wood. The events in the book follow the unraveling of the relationship between these two characters. Due to the threat of censorship, Eliot softened the language regarding sexuality and religion. However, Cheryl J Plumb edited a version of the book that maintains Barnes’ original language.

While at the Devon manor, Barnes gained the respect of novelist and poet Emily Coleman, who actually championed Barnes' draft of Nightwood to T.S. Eliot. While critically acclaimed, the book failed to become a bestseller, and Barnes, who depended on Peggy Guggenheim's generosity, was barely active in journalism and struggled with alcohol consumption. In 1939, she also attempted suicide after checking into a hotel room. Eventually, Guggenheim lost her patience and sent her back to New York, where she shared a single room with her mother, who had converted to Christian science.

Back to Greenwich Village (1940–1982)

  • The Antiphon (1958), play
  • Creatures in an Alphabet (1982)

In 1940, her family sent Barnes to a sanatorium to sober up. Her deeply set resentment towards her family members served as the inspiration for her play The Antiphon, which she would publish in 1958. She spent part of 1940 hopping from place to place; first at Thelma Wood's apartment while she was out of town, then on a ranch in Arizona with Emily Coleman. Eventually, she settled at 5 Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, where she would remain until her death.

Writer Djuna Barnes
Portrait of Djuna Barnes, 1959. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

She produced very little until she came to the conclusion that, in order to be productive as an artist, she had to quit alcohol. Barnes stopped drinking in 1950, when she started working on her play The Antiphon, a tragedy in verse that explores the dynamics of a dysfunctional family not too dissimilar from her own, and themes of betrayal and transgression. Set in England in 1939, it sees a character named Jeremy Hobbs, disguised as Jack Blow, gather his family in their downtrodden family home, Burley Hall. His goal is to provoke his family members into confrontation, so that each of them can face the truth about their past. Jeremy Hobbs has a sister named Miranda, who's a stage actress down on her luck, and two brothers, Elisha and Dudley, who are materialistic and see Miranda as a threat to their financial well being. The brothers also accuse their mother, Augusta, of complicity with their abusive father Titus Hobbs. With Jeremy being absent, the two brothers don animal masks and assault the two women, making lewd remarks at them. However, Augusta treats this assault as a game. When Jeremy returns, he brings a doll’s house along, a miniature of the house they grew up in. He tells Augusta to make herself a “madam by submission,” because she allowed her daughter Miranda to be raped by a much older “traveling Cockney thrice her age.”

In the last act, mother and daughter are alone, and Augusta wants to exchange clothes with Miranda to feign youth, but Miranda refuses to participate in the act. When Augusta hears her two sons drive away, she blames Miranda for their abandonment, beating her to death with a curfew bell and succumbing herself from exertion. The play premiered in Stockholm in 1961, in Swedish translation. Even though she continued writing throughout her old age, The Antiphon is the last major work by Barnes. Her last published work, Creatures in an Alphabet (1982) consists of a collection of a short rhyming poems. Its format is reminiscent of a children’s book, but the language and the themes make it clear that the poems are not intended for children. 

Literary Style and Themes

As a journalist, Barnes adopted a subjective and experimental style, inserting herself as a character into the article. Upon interviewing James Joyce, for example, she stated in her article that her mind had wandered off. In interviewing playwright Donald Ogden Stewart, she portrayed herself shouting at him about rolling over and finding himself famous, while other writers were struggling. 

Inspired by James Joyce, whom she interviewed for Vanity Fair, she adopted shifting literary styles in her work. Ryder, her 1928 autobiographical novel, alternated narration with children’s stories, letters, and poems, and this shift in style and tone is reminiscent of Chaucer and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her other roman à clef, Ladies Almanack, was written in an archaic, Rabelaisian style, whereas her 1936 novel Nightwood possessed a distinct prose rhythm and “the musical pattern,” according to her editor T.S. Eliot, “that is not that of verse.” 

Her work highlighted the carnivalesque aspects of life, of whatever is grotesque and exuberant, and disregarding the norms. This is exemplified in the circus performers present in Nightwood, and in the circus itself, which is the physical place that attracts all of the main characters. Her other work, namely The Book of Repulsive Women and Ladies Almanac, was also rife with grotesque bodies in order to express the natural articulation of women to the low, earthly stratum. In all, her texts engage with the carnivalesque, which serves to overturn boundaries and natural order. 

Cover, "The Trend" magazine, illustration by Djuna Barnes
Cover of "The Trend" magazine, illustration by Djuna Barnes, October 1914.  Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The Book of Repulsive Women, for instance, had women’s grotesque bodies play a central role, in contrast to the efficient, machine-like American dream. Both in words and in illustrations, Barnes indulged in portraying deformed and abjected instances of femininity. Ryder also contained a critique against the normalizing tendencies of American culture. She described the lives of free-thinking polygamist Wendell, modeled on her own father, and his family. Wendell himself appeared, through text and illustrations, as a grotesque character whose body image was between human and animal. He stood for the rejection of Puritan America. However, Wendell was not a positive character, as his freethinking spirit, which was the antithesis of Puritan American values, still caused suffering in the women around him, as he was a sexual degenerate. 

Death

Djuna Barnes resettled in Greenwich Village in 1940 and struggled with alcohol abuse until the 1950s, when she cleaned up in order to compose The Antiphon. Later in life she became a recluse. Barnes died on June 18, 1982, six days after turning 90.

Legacy

Writer Bertha Harris describes Barnes' work as "practically the only available expression of lesbian culture we have in the modern western world" since Sappho. Thanks to her notes and manuscripts, scholars were able to retrace the life of baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, making her more than a marginal figure in Dada history. Anais Nin worshipped her, and invited her to participate in a journal on women’s writing, but Barnes was contemptuous and preferred avoiding her. 

Sources

  • Giroux, Robert. “'THE MOST FAMOUS UNKNOWN IN THE WORLD' -- REMEMBERING DJUNA BARNES.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Dec. 1985, https://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/01/books/the-most-famous-unknown-in-the-world-remembering-djuna-barnes.html.
  • Goody, Alex. Modernist Articulations: A Cultural Study of Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007
  • Taylor, Julia. Djuna Barnes and Affective Modernism, Edinburgh University Press, 2012