Djuna Barnes-Enigma in Exile

Becca Anderson, author of Badass Women Give the Best Advise, has written a new blog post on the life and career of writer Djuna Barnes.


While T.S. Eliot and James Joyce are widely heralded as having changed the landscape of twentieth-century literature, American Djuna Barnes, an important player in the same modernist movement, remains fairly obscure. Djuna was a published journalist and saw her plays, short stories, and both her novels greeted by critical praise. Her 1937 novel, Nightwood, is considered a classic, and it was met with a clamor of excitement from the literary world of that time. But when the Little Review pursued Barnes for an interview, she categorically refused to talk about her life.

Born in upstate New York in 1892, Barnes was homeschooled by her grandmother, Zadel Barnes Budington, a published journalist and feminist who greatly influenced the young writer-to-be. Djuna’s father, Wald Barnes, revered his strong-willed, intellectual mother and actually took her surname instead of his father’s. Djuna’s mother, Elizabeth Chappell Barnes, remains an elusive figure to biographers. The romantic view of Djuna’s childhood is of artistic and rustic creativity à la Rousseau. The truth is not nearly so appealing; it seems that young Djuna may have been the recipient of both her grandmother’s and her father’s unwanted advances, and her father, with the apparent approval of her mother, “gave” Djuna as a mistress to the brother of his live-in mistress.

Nevertheless, the Barnes family still registered socially, and in their home, Wald and Elizabeth Barnes hosted many of the great artists of their day, including Jack London and Franz Liszt. Djuna cherished this aspect of her family heritage throughout her life; she counted among her friends many of the groundbreaking artists and writers of her day. When the Barnes family moved to a 105-acre farm on Long Island, Djuna wasted little time in becoming a part of New York City literary and art circles, studying for a time at Pratt Institute and the Art Students League. Here, she got her first taste of bohemian life and explored both her creativity and her sexuality.

Barnes made a splash almost immediately with a slender volume of poems and drawings, The Book of Repulsive Women, published as a chapbook in 1915. Her stories and poetry gained notice in a number of periodicals, and Djuna became a member of the Provincetown Players. Three of Djuna’s plays were produced in a single season in the fall of 1919. By 1920, McCall’s magazine hired her to do interviews of notables of the day and sent her to Europe.

Djuna Barnes pursued her McCall’s assignment with her typical zeal, producing a memorable interview of filmmaker D.W. Griffith, animated tales of the “Jungle folk” at the circus, and an encounter with James Joyce, who ended up presenting her with the original manuscript for Ulysses. Her articles were steeped throughout with wit (“Nothing Amuses Coco Chanel after Midnight” was the title of one) and a disregard for convention that set her apart from her peers. She stayed in Paris for nearly twenty years as a correspondent for Vanity Fair, Charm, and the New Yorker, relishing the modernist scene.

Word of her beauty and appeal to both sexes quickly spread, and she enjoyed numerous affairs with both men and women. She was married, briefly, to writer Courtenay Lemon. She had a famously tempestuous affair with sculptor Thelma Wood, as well as flings with salonist and rival Natalie Barney, and with Janet Heap, coeditor with Margaret Anderson of the Little Review. Djuna Barnes attracted friends as well as lovers: poet Mina Loy and affluent art patron Peggy Guggenheim both became quite close associates, and the extended salon included Janet Flanner, Dolly Wild, and Gertrude Stein. This circle of women came to be known as “The Academy of Women” and is now referred to as the literary women of “The Left Bank.” Ever irreverent, Djuna Barnes later lampooned this salon scene in the satire The Ladies Almanack.

The Ladies Almanack was a skillfully and intricately woven web of puns and fables that also provided a fictionalized portrait of the expatriate writer Natalie Barney and the individuals in her salon. In it, Barnes staked out territory no one else dared dig into, taking an old-fashioned literary model, and although she remained faithful to form, adding dangerously modern literary twists. Though Djuna Barnes attempted to dismiss The Ladies Almanack as a “slight satiric wigging” and “jollity” written “in an idle hour” for a “very special audience,” namely lover Thelma Wood, she hand-colored fifty copies of the 1,050-copy printing and went as far as to take to the streets of Paris to hawk the book. Sylvia Beach helped Djuna a great deal when she began selling The Ladies Almanack in her shop, Shakespeare and Company. Through word of mouth,
it became the talk of Paris, with everyone trying to guess who the “Ladies” really were. In Ryder, published in 1928, the central character was depicted as a “female Tom Jones” who swaggered through the tale with the comic arrogance of one who wants to rule the world. Both these books gained considerable notice for Barnes’ high-spirited and highly skilled use of language, along with an accent on female sexuality.

These same characteristics are true of Barnes’ most important work, Nightwood, an experimental novel of an affair between two women and the musings of a Doctor O’Connor upon the two lovers. The manuscript racked up a record number of rejections, not even suffering, said biographer Andrew Fields, “the usual agonizing delays but shot in and out of the publishers’ offices as though it were being ejected from a greased revolving door in an old silent movie.”

Finally, the manuscript made its way into the hands of T.S. Eliot, who, with Barnes’ permission, edited the novel as he saw fit, came up with the title, and wrote the introduction, acclaiming it as “so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.” His high praise cemented the importance of the book and catapulted Djuna Barnes into the rarified air of “writers who matter.” Some feminist literary historians, however, believe that the relationship between Barnes and Eliot may not have been so benign, focusing on the now-controversial editing of Nightwood, a slender 50,000 words in final published form, 15,000 words less than the version Barnes had sent to Eliot, and immensely shorter than the original 190,000. According to scholar Shari Benstock, Eliot reduced the manuscript by two-thirds and cut “among other things—scenes that expressed explicate lesbian rage and virulent anticlerical sentiment.”

In the mid-1930s, Barnes suffered a series of breakdowns. In 1939, one year before the Occupation of Paris in World War II, Peggy Guggenheim paid her passage to New York. Barnes lived out the rest of her life in hiding, more than forty years of seclusion broken by an occasional quarrel, illness, or interruption by her neighbor, fellow poet e.e. cummings, yelling out his window, “Are ya still alive, Djuna?” Her impoverished isolation and descent into depression, drugs, drinking, and dementia were relieved slightly by Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and Natalie Barney, who, along with the National Endowment for the Arts, subsidized her scanty income. Sadly, Barnes’ avoidance of life outside her apartment door resulted in her obscurity. A handful of writers including Anaïs Nin, Isak Dinesen, Truman Capote, and John Hawkes claimed Barnes as a major influence on their own work. Along with Nathaniel West, best remembered for The Day of the Locust, Djuna Barnes has been identified as an innovator of Black comedy; and according to critic Donald J. Greiner, “Nightwood stands out among post-World War I American novels as one of the first notable experiments with a type of comedy that makes the reader want to lean forward and laugh with terror.”

Red cheeks. Auburn hair. Gray eyes, ever sparkling with delight and mischief. Fantastic earrings in her ears, picturesquely dressed, ever ready to live and to be merry: that’s the real Djuna as she walks down Fifth Avenue or sips her black coffee, a cigarette in hand, in the Cafe Lafayette. Her morbidity is not a pose. It is as sincere as she herself.

Guido Bruno, from an interview with Djuna Barnes

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