Barnes, Djuna (1892–1982)

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Barnes, Djuna (1892–1982)

American journalist, novelist, poet, and playwright whose work, though critically neglected for almost 40 years, has greatly influenced 20th-century writing. Name variations: (pseudonym) Lydia Steptoe. Pronunciation: JOO-na BARNS. Born Djalma Barnes Chappell on January 12, 1892, in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York; died in New York, New York, on June 18, 1982; daughter of Elizabeth Chappell and Henry Budington (later Wald Barnes); educated at home; studied painting at the Pratt Institute and at the Art Students' League in New York City, 1915–16; married Courtenay Lemon, in 1917 (divorced 1919); lived with Thelma Wood, 1920–31.

Left home for Greenwich Village (1912); started publishing short stories (1913); published her first book, The Book of Repulsive Women (1915); moved to Paris and lived with Thelma Wood (1920); published Ladies Almanack (1928); published Nightwood (1936); returned to New York (1939); published The Antiphon (1958); served as trustee, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, beginning 1961; given National Endowment for the Arts senior fellowship (1981); offered membership by National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Selected writings:

The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings (Bruno Chap Books, 1915); Ryder (novel, Liveright, 1928); Nightwood (Faber, 1936); The Antiphon (verse play, Farrar, Straus, 1958). Contributed to Vanity Fair, New Republic, The New Yorker and other publications, sometimes under the name of Lydia Steptoe.

Despite the fact that her most important novel Nightwood never enjoyed popular acclaim and her most important play The Antiphon has never been produced in English, Djuna Barnes' influence on 20th-century writing is indisputable. Her work radically departs from realism and conventional narrative structures to embrace a dense symbolism, and she is considered one of the leaders of the modernist movement, along with James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. Equally important to the feminist reader, though, is Barnes' focus on women's sexuality, on social circles dominated by women, and on same-sex attraction between women.

Djuna Barnes had an unconventional childhood. Her father, born Henry Budington, was unusually versatile, even in inventing names. When his father Henry Budington, Sr., and mother Zadel Barnes divorced around 1879, he dropped the Budington, adopted Barnes, and dubbed himself Wald. Thus, in 1888, it was Wald Barnes who traveled with his mother Zadel to England; the following year, he met Elizabeth Chappell , a violinist from Rutland studying at England's Academy of Music, and returned with her to the United States.

Although the couple never legally married, Wald and Elizabeth lived together and had five children: Thurn, Djuna (their only girl born June 12, 1892), Zendon, Saxon, and Shangar. The family lived in a house built by Wald on an estate owned by his uncle in Cornwall-on-Hudson, a summer spot frequented by bohemians. Wald had attained the land through the intervention of his mother, who, having divorced her second husband, had come to live with him.

Wald's children inherited his habit for name changing; apparently, Djuna's name was Djalma until one of her brothers mispronounced it; then she became Djuna. Wald would go on to have two more children—a boy and a girl—with his second wife, whom he married when Djuna was older.

Since the family agreed that public schools did not educate their students well, Zadel—who was an accomplished feminist writer and journalist—educated Djuna. In addition to learning to read and write with her grandmother, Djuna learned from her father, who was an amateur in many of the art forms that he loved. He composed operas, wrote librettos, did watercolors, and played the piano better than any other instrument, Djuna later claimed, since she thought Wald could not play any other instrument well. The Barnes believed in educating and exposing their children to as much culture as possible. Djuna learned to play the French horn, the violin and the banjo, and did a bit of acting with the encouragement of her relatives. In this rich, cultural environment, Djuna began writing poems and short plays for the family to perform. She lived in Cornwall-on-Hudson until age 16.

There were enormous tensions in the household, however. The strong-minded Zadel and her daughter-in-law Elizabeth did not get on well. Further, Wald, who made almost a cult out of sex, had numerous mistresses. When he became involved with Marguerite Amelia d'Alvarez , a singer of some renown, he brought Alvarez and Alvarez's children to live with the rest of his family at Cornwall-on-Hudson. Note Gillian Hanscombe and Virginia L. Smyers in Writing for Their Lives: "Djuna's childhood was so traumatic that it haunted her for the rest of her life; it is even thought by some that she was raped—on her father's instructions and with her mother's collusion—by a farmhand when she was fourteen or fifteen. Scenes of rape, incest, sodomy and bestiality occur frequently in her work, which—taken as a whole—often creates a twisted nightmare world where sex and sexual identity lie at the centre."

Andrew Field, in Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes, writes that having two women and refusing to send his children to school almost resulted in Wald's arrest and imprisonment, but he got away with both out of sheer bravado. On the one hand, the accusation of bigamy could not legally stick since Wald and Elizabeth were not married; on the other hand, the accusation of neglecting his children's education did not succeed because Wald confronted and routed the school authorities who denounced him, successfully arguing that the schools offered limited education to his children.

Around 1908, the situation at home proved more and more difficult. Elizabeth finally left Wald and moved with her children to a farm in Huntington, Long Island. After a few years of assisting her mother with the farm, Djuna moved to New York around 1912, where she started writing to help sustain her mother, her brothers, and her ailing grandmother. Writing short articles for New York City's newspapers and magazines, she soon became a regular contributor on such subjects as "How It Feels to be Forcibly Fed." (Barnes underwent forcible feeding herself to give the reader a sense of what England's militant suffragists were enduring.) After renting a small apartment in the Bronx, she matriculated in 1915–16 at the Pratt Institute and the Art Students League in New York, then took a steady job as writer for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle; she also freelanced for The World and The New York Press.

Barnes, Zadel

Feminist writer. Name variations: Zadel Budington. Married Henry Budington (divorced around 1879); children: Henry Budington, Jr. (known as Ward Barnes).

Zadel Barnes published stories and poems under her maiden name in major magazines during the 1870s and 1880s. A fervent feminist, she also wrote novels with feminist themes.

As a writer and illustrator, Barnes found enough work to sustain herself financially and afford her time to write and draw. She also became part of the feminist and lesbian circles flourishing in Greenwich Village before the first World War and befriended influential women:

Jane Heap , the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Mina Loy, Margaret Anderson, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Edna St. Vincent Millay , and Peggy Guggenheim . Barnes was intensely maternal; those she coddled included Heap and Anderson. Wrote Anderson:

You two poor things, she would say in her warm laughing voice. You're both crazy of course, God help you. I suppose I can stand it if you can, but someone ought to look out for you. She looked out for us by bringing in the first strawberries of spring and the last oysters of winter, but to the more important luxuries of the soul she turned an unhearing ear. Djuna would never talk, she would never allow herself to be talked to. She said it was because she was reserved about herself.

Barnes focused on these circles in her first work, The Book of Repulsive Women (1915), an underground Village hit which Guido Bruno published as a small pamphlet in New York. Between 1915 and 1920, she established herself as a writer of the avant-garde. She also began acting, joining with Eugene O'Neill and his Provincetown Players. She soon found, however, that her talents were more suited to playwriting. Her one-acts, Three from the Earth, Kurzy of the Sea, and An Irish Triangle, were produced in the 1919–20 season.

If genius is perfection wrought out of anguish and pain and intellectual flagellation, then Djuna Barnes' novel Nightwood is a book of genius.

—Rose C. Feld

During her years with the group, Djuna fell in love with poet Mary Pyne , wife of poet Harry Kemp, and nursed her until Mary's death of tuberculosis in 1915. She also became involved and lived with Courtenay Lemon, whose intellect attracted her long enough to have supposedly married him in 1917 (though no record of this marriage has been found). By 1920, Barnes was sailing alone to Paris, where American dollars went farther, to join the vibrant expatriate American community, led by such influential American modernists as Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot. While staying at the Hotel Angleterre on rue Jacob, Barnes became acquainted with the latest modernist trends and a number of women writers and artists in the international circles that merged in Paris, including Thelma Wood , an American sculptor from Michigan. Wood and Barnes became lovers and lived together from 1920 until 1931. "They were by all accounts, a striking pair," write Hanscombe and Smyers, "both tall, imperious, striding down the boulevards arm in arm, feet moving in time, tossing their heads and their capes."

A Book, a compilation of journalism, poetry, drama and drawings, came out in 1923, the first of three works Barnes wrote during the 1920-31 period. Of more relevance to Barnes' writing career are Ryder (1928), which uses a mock-Elizabethan style to chronicle the Barnes' family history, and Ladies Almanack, which was published in 1928. Ladies Almanack centers on the lesbian circles Barnes frequented, especially that surrounding Natalie Clifford Barney . According to Field, Ladies Almanack was published privately, and "Miss Barnes herself and others sold it on the streets of Paris." Ryder and the humorous Ladies Almanack show the arresting visual imagination, the highly elaborate literary techniques, and the almost total rejection of naturalism that would characterize Nightwood. With the proceeds from Ryder, which was a bestseller in America, Barnes bought the apartment she and Wood had been leasing at 9 rue St. Romain.

When Barnes' tempestuous relationship with Wood ended in 1931, she left Paris and started to write a novel called Bow Down, concentrating on her relationship with Wood. In her wanderings, she spent short periods of time with Peggy Guggenheim in England, with Charles Henri Ford traveling through Vienna and Munich, and in Tangiers, where she stayed with Ford and Paul and Jane Bowles.

The publication of Nightwood in 1936 marks an important transition in Barnes' life, for it established her—among writers of the younger generation, if not among the critics—as a major writer of the modernist movement. According to Sheri Benstock in Women of the Left Bank, Nightwood "was to become a cult guide to the homosexual underground night world of Paris that Barnes shared with her lover." The novel was endorsed by T.S. Eliot—who wrote an introduction for it—and appeared in New York in 1937. Though American critics seemed more interested in figuring out why Eliot backed Barnes' novel rather than in the merits of the novel itself, Nightwood was soon elevated to cult status by established writers; it became "required reading" for those who aspired. James Joyce and Ezra Pound, both admirers of Barnes' work, also championed the novel.

The publication of Nightwood changed Barnes' life. An aggressively private person, she did not give interviews and made few efforts to cultivate friendships. From here on, though she was always desperately short of cash, friends and famous strangers helped her survive financially. Samuel Beckett, for instance, who admired her work, gave her a percentage of his royalties from Waiting for Godot, while Peggy Guggenheim also helped.

After a short stay in Tangiers, Barnes moved to New York and lived with her mother in Greenwich Village, until her mother's death in 1945; she then took a one-room apartment at 5 Patchin Place in the Village. Though she traveled to Europe on occasion, Barnes spent most of her time alone in her apartment writing and painting, living on less than $20 a month for food, and sometimes unsuccessfully battling alcoholism. Health problems arose with her eyes, teeth, breathing, and she lived on little because of failing royalties; only the kindness of friends kept her afloat.

Djuna Barnes' most important play, The Antiphon, which was about her family, was published in 1958. Originally, it had received a mixed response from Barnes' friends and collaborators—and little enthusiasm—because of a disastrous reading in 1956 by an amateur theatrical group, the Poets' Theatre Company. However, Edwin Muir and Dag Hammarskjöld translated The Antiphon into Swedish. When it premiered at the Royal Theatre, Stockholm, in 1961, the Swedish public, though a little puzzled, liked the play, and critics gave it a number of positive reviews. The Antiphon has never been produced in English.

Wood, Thelma (b. 1901)

American artist and sculptor. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1901.

Born well to do, Thelma Wood arrived in Paris in 1920, aged 19. She was the great love of Djuna Barnes' life. From 1920 to 1931, they lived together, in a volatile way, at 173 Blvd St. Germain and at 9 rue St. Romain, in the heart of the Left Bank. Despite Barnes' protestations, Thelma took other lovers. She also drank heavily. When the ten-year relationship ended, Barnes never again lived with anyone.

After the publication of The Antiphon, Barnes did little writing; instead, she concentrated on her painting. In 1972, she sold her papers to the McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland and in 1981 received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, which barely helped her financial situation. When Natalie Barney wrote and asked how she was living, Barnes replied: "I live in complete isolation. I have no door-bell, and at one time had no telephone. I have bars at the window, and a police-lock on the front door … and all this not from any additional ferocity to my nature, but merely as means to enduring. Living? no, enduring yes." Djuna Barnes lived at Patchin Place in Greenwich Village until she died an angry recluse, age 90, on June 18, 1982. "Life is painful, nasty & short," she had said, "in my case it has only been painful and nasty."


Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Field, Andrew. Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes. NY: Putnam, 1983.

Hanscombe, Gillian, and Virginia L. Smyers. Writing for Their Lives: The Modernist Woman, 1910–1940. London: The Women's Press, 1987.

Herring, Phillip. The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes. NY: Viking, 1995.

Le Blanc, Ondine E. "Djuna Barnes," in Gay and Lesbian Literature. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1994, pp. 27–28.

Scott, James. Djuna Barnes. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1976.

Wiloch, Thomas. "Djuna Barnes," in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Vol. 16. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Company, 1981, pp. 29–32.

suggested reading:

Carpenter, Humphrey. Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

O'Neal, Hank. "Life is painful, nasty & short—in my case it has only been painful and nasty": Djuna Barnes, 1978–1981: an informal memoir. NY: Paragon House, 1990.

Carlos U. Decena , freelance writer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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Barnes, Djuna (1892–1982)

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