File:Djuna Barnes ca 1919.jpg

Djuna Barnes, ca. 1919

Djuna Barnes (June 12, 1892 – June 18, 1982) was an American writer who played an important part in the development of 20th century English language modernist writing by women and was one of the key figures in 1920s and 30s bohemian Paris after filling a similar role in the Greenwich Village of the teens. Her novel Nightwood became a cult work of modern fiction, helped by an introduction by T.S. Eliot. It stands out today for its portrayal of lesbian themes and its distinctive writing style. Since Barnes's death, interest in her work has grown and many of her books are back in print.


Early life (1892-1912)

Barnes was born in a log cabin in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York.[1] Her paternal grandmother, Zadel Turner Barnes, was a writer, journalist, and Women's Suffrage activist who had once hosted an influential literary salon. Her father, Wald Barnes,[2] was an unsuccessful composer, musician, and painter. An advocate of polygamy, he married Barnes's mother Elizabeth in 1889; his mistress Fanny Clark moved in with them in 1897, when Barnes was five. They had eight children, whom Wald made little effort to support financially. Zadel, who believed her son was a misunderstood artistic genius, struggled to provide for the entire family, supplementing her diminishing income by writing begging letters to friends and acquaintances.[3]

As the second oldest child, Barnes spent much of her childhood helping care for siblings and half-siblings. She received her early education at home, mostly from her father and grandmother, who taught her writing, art, and music but neglected subjects such as math and spelling.[4] She claimed to have had no formal schooling at all; some evidence suggests that she was enrolled in public school for a time after age ten, though her attendance was inconsistent.[5]

At the age of 16 she was raped, apparently by a neighbor with the knowledge and consent of her father, or possibly by her father himself. She referred to the rape obliquely in her first novel Ryder and more directly in her furious final play The Antiphon. Sexually explicit references in correspondence from her grandmother, with whom she shared a bed for years, suggest incest, but Zadel—dead for forty years by the time the The Antiphon was written—was left out of its indictments.[6] Shortly before her eighteenth birthday she reluctantly "married" Fanny Clark's brother Percy Faulkner in a private ceremony without benefit of clergy. He was fifty-two. The match had been strongly promoted by her father and grandmother, but she stayed with him for no more than two months.[7]

New York (1912-1920)

In 1912 Barnes's family, facing financial ruin, split up. Elizabeth moved to New York City with Barnes and three of her brothers, then filed for divorce, freeing Wald to marry Fanny Clark. The move gave Barnes an opportunity to study art formally for the first time; she attended the Pratt Institute for about six months, but the need to support herself and her family—a burden that fell largely on her—soon drove her to leave school and take a job as a reporter at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Over the next few years her work appeared in almost every newspaper in New York; she wrote interviews, features, theatre reviews, and a variety of news stories, often illustrating them with her own drawings. She also published short fiction in the New York Morning Telegraph's Sunday supplement and in the pulp magazine All-Story Cavalier Weekly.[8]

File:Djuna Barnes Clipping.jpg

Clipping from World Magazine, September 6, 1914.

Much of Barnes's journalism was subjective and experiential. Writing about a conversation with James Joyce, she admitted to missing part of what he said because her attention had wandered, though she revered Joyce's writing. Interviewing the successful playwright Donald Ogden Stewart, she shouted at him for "roll[ing] over and find[ing] yourself famous" while other writers continued to struggle, then said she wouldn't mind dying; as her biographer Phillip Herring points out, this is "a depressing and perhaps unprecedented note on which to end an interview".[9] For a 1914 World Magazine article she submitted to force-feeding, a technique then being used on hunger-striking suffragists. Barnes wrote "If I, play acting, felt my being burning with revolt at this brutal usurpation of my own functions, how they who actually suffered the ordeal in its acutest horror must have flamed at the violation of the sanctuaries of their spirits." She concluded "I had shared the greatest experience of the bravest of my sex".[10] Yet in other stories she mocked suffrage activists as superficial, as when she quoted Carrie Chapman Catt as admonishing would-be suffrage orators never to "hold a militant pose", or wear "a dress that shows your feet in front".[11]

File:Djuna Barnes - Villager.gif

This satirical drawing of a dandyish Greenwich Village resident accompanied Barnes's 1916 article "How the Villagers Amuse Themselves."

In 1915 Barnes moved out of her family's flat to an apartment in Greenwich Village, where she entered a thriving Bohemian community of artists and writers. Among her social circle were Edmund Wilson, Berenice Abbott, and the Dadaist artist and poet Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, whose biography Barnes tried to write but never finished. She also came into contact with Guido Bruno, an entrepreneur and promoter who published magazines and chapbooks out of his garret on Washington Square. Bruno had a reputation for unscrupulousness, and was often accused of exploiting Greenwich Village residents for profit—he used to charge tourists admission to watch Bohemians paint—but he was a strong opponent of censorship and was willing to risk prosecution by publishing Barnes's 1915 collection of "rhythms and drawings", The Book of Repulsive Women. Remarkably, despite a description of sex between women in the first poem, the book was never legally challenged; the passage seems explicit now, but at a time when lesbianism was virtually invisible in American culture, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice may not have understood its imagery.[12] Others were not as naive, and Bruno was able to cash in on the book's reputation by raising the price from fifteen to fifty cents and pocketing the difference.[13] Twenty years later she used him as one of the models for Felix Volkbein in Nightwood, caricaturing his pretensions to nobility and his habit of bowing down before anyone titled or important.[14]

The poems in The Book of Repulsive Women show the strong influence of late nineteenth century Decadence, and the style of the illustrations resembles Aubrey Beardsley's. The setting is New York City, and the subjects are all women: a cabaret singer, a woman seen through an open window from the elevated train, and, in the last poem, the corpses of two suicides in the morgue. The book describes women's bodies and sexuality in terms that have indeed struck many readers as repulsive, but, as with much of Barnes's work, the author's stance is ambiguous. Some critics read the poems as exposing and satirizing cultural attitudes toward women.[15] Barnes herself came to regard The Book of Repulsive Women as an embarrassment; she called the title "idiotic", left it out of her curriculum vitae, and even burned copies. But since the copyright had never been registered, she was unable to prevent it from being republished, and it became one of her most reprinted works.[16]

Barnes was a member of the Provincetown Players, an amateur theatrical collective whose emphasis on artistic rather than commercial success meshed well with her own values. The Players' Greenwich Village theatre was a converted stable with bench seating and a tiny stage; according to Barnes it was "always just about to be given back to the horses". Yet it played a significant role in the development of American drama, featuring works by Susan Glaspell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, and Theodore Dreiser, as well as launching the career of Eugene O'Neill. Three one-act plays by Barnes were produced there in 1919 and 1920; a fourth, The Dove, premiered at Smith College in 1925, and a series of short closet dramas were published in magazines, some under Barnes's pseudonym Lydia Steptoe. These plays show the strong influence of the Irish playwright J. M. Synge; she was drawn to both the poetic quality of Synge's language and the pessimism of his vision. Critics have found them derivative, particularly those in which she tried to imitate Synge's Irish dialect, and Barnes may have agreed, since in later years she dismissed them as mere juvenilia.[17] Yet in their content, these stylized and enigmatic early plays are more experimental than those of her fellow playwrights at Provincetown.[18] A New York Times review by Alexander Woollcott of her play Three From the Earth called it a demonstration of "how absorbing and essentially dramatic a play can be without the audience ever knowing what, if anything, the author is driving at.... The spectators sit with bated breath listening to each word of a playlet of which the darkly suggested clues leave the mystery unsolved."[19]

Greenwich Village in the 1910s was known for its atmosphere of sexual as well as intellectual freedom. Barnes was unusual among Villagers in having been raised with a philosophy of free love, espoused both by her grandmother and her father. Her father's idiosyncratic vision had included a commitment to unlimited procreation, which she strongly rejected; criticism of childbearing would become a major theme in her work.[20] She did, however, retain sexual freedom as a value. In the 1930s she told Antonia White that "she had no feeling of guilt whatever about sex, about going to bed with any man or woman she wanted";[21] correspondence indicates that by the time she was 21 her family was well aware of her bisexuality,[22] and she had a number of affairs with both men and women during her Greenwich Village years. Of these the most important was probably her engagement to Ernst Hanfstaengl, a Harvard graduate who ran the American branch of his family's art publishing house. Hanfstaengl had once given a piano concert at the White House and was a friend of then-Senator Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but he became increasingly angered by anti-German sentiment in the United States during World War I. In 1916 he told Barnes he wanted a German wife; the painful breakup became the basis of a deleted scene in Nightwood. He later returned to Germany and became a close associate of Adolf Hitler. Starting in 1916 or 17 she lived with a socialist philosopher and critic named Courtenay Lemon, whom she referred to as her common-law husband, but this too ended, for reasons that are unclear. She also had a passionate romantic relationship with Mary Pyne, a reporter for the New York Press and fellow member of the Provincetown Players. Pyne died of tuberculosis in 1919, attended by Barnes until the end.[23]

Paris (1920-1930)

File:Djuna Barnes - Joyce.gif

Barnes's drawing of James Joyce illustrated her 1922 interview with him in Vanity Fair.

In 1920, Barnes moved to Paris on an assignment for McCall's magazine. She arrived with a letter of introduction to James Joyce and soon entered the Parisian world of expatriate bohemians who were at the forefront of the modernist movement in literature and art. Her circle included Mina Loy, Kay Boyle, Robert McAlmon, Natalie Barney, Peggy Guggenheim. She developed a close literary and personal friendship with Joyce, who discussed his work with Barnes more freely than he did with most other writers, and who allowed her to call him Jim, a name otherwise only used by his wife, Nora Barnacle. She was also promoted by Ford Madox Ford, who published her work in his Transatlantic Review magazine.

She may have had a short affair with writer Natalie Barney, although she denied this;[24] the two remained friends throughout their lives. She worked for a time on a biography of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, though it was never finished. When the Baroness fell into poverty, Djuna convinced Natalie Barney and others to help fund a flat for her in Paris.

Barnes published a collection of prose and poetry called A Book in 1923. In 1928 she published a semi-autobiographical novel in a mock-Elizabethan style, Ryder, which became a bestseller in the United States. She also anonymously published a satirical roman à clef of Paris lesbian life called Ladies Almanack that same year.

In 1922 Barnes moved in with the "great love" of her life,[25] Thelma Ellen Wood, a sculptor and silverpoint artist. Although their first few years together were joyful,[26] Barnes wanted monogamy, while Wood, as Barnes later wrote, wanted her "along with the rest of the world."[27] Wood also had an increasing dependence on alcohol, and Barnes would go from café to café searching for her, "often ending up as drunk as her quarry."[28] They separated in 1928, after Wood began a relationship with heiress Henriette McCrea Metcalf (1888-1981).

Later life (1930-1982)

Barnes left Paris in 1930 and lived for a time in London and New York. In the summers of 1932 and 1933 she stayed at Peggy Guggenheim's rented country manor, 'Hayford Hall', along with diarist Emily Coleman, writer Antonia White, and critic John Ferrar Holms. Much of her novel Nightwood was written during these summers.

She returned to Paris briefly in 1937 to sell the apartment that she and Wood had shared. In 1940 she moved to a small apartment at 5 Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, where she lived until her death. Her neighbours included the poet E. E. Cummings.

In 1958 she published her verse play The Antiphon. It was translated into Swedish by Karl Ragnar Gierow and U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and was staged in Stockholm in 1962.

File:Madame Récamier painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1800.jpg

Jacques-Louis David's portrait of Madame Récamier. In Creatures in an Alphabet, Barnes wrote:

The Seal, she lounges like a bride,
Much too docile, there's no doubt;
Madame Récamier, on side,
(if such she has), and bottom out.

After The Antiphon, Barnes focused on writing poetry, which she worked and reworked, producing as many as 500 drafts. She wrote eight hours a day despite a growing list of health problems, including arthritis so severe that she had difficulty even sitting at her typewriter or turning on her desk light. Many of these poems were never finalized and only a few were published in her lifetime. In her late poetry she began to move away from the conscious archaism of her earlier work toward what she called "a very plain straight 'put it there' manner", but her penchant for unusual words gleaned from the Oxford English Dictionary nevertheless renders most of them obscure.[29] Her last book, Creatures in an Alphabet, is a collection of short rhyming poems whose format suggests a children's book, but even this apparently simple work contains enough allusiveness and advanced vocabulary to make it an unlikely read for a child: the entry for T quotes Blake's "The Tyger", a seal is compared to Jacques-Louis David's portrait of Madame Récamier, and a braying donkey is described as "practicing solfeggio". Creatures continues the themes of nature and culture found in Barnes's earlier work, and their arrangement as a bestiary reflects her longstanding interest in systems for organizing knowledge, such as encyclopedias and almanacs.[30]

Although Barnes had other female lovers, in her later years she was known to claim "I am not a lesbian, I just loved Thelma."

Barnes was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961. She was the last surviving member of the first generation of English-language modernists when she died in New York in 1982.

Major works


Barnes's novel Ryder (1928) draws heavily on her childhood experiences in Cornwall-on-Hudson. It covers fifty years of history of the Ryder family: Sophia Grieve Ryder, like Zadel a former salon hostess fallen into poverty; her idle son Wendell; his wife Amelia; his resident mistress Kate-Careless; and their children. Barnes herself appears as Wendell and Amelia's daughter Julie. The story has a large cast and is told from a variety of points of view; some characters appear as the protagonist of a single chapter only to disappear from the text entirely. Fragments of the Ryder family chronicle are interspersed with children's stories, songs, letters, poems, parables, and dreams. Like Joyce's Ulysses—an important influence on Barnes—the book changes style from chapter to chapter, parodying writers from Chaucer to Dante Gabriel Rossetti.[31]

Both Ryder and Ladies Almanack abandon the Beardsleyesque style of her drawings for The Book of Repulsive Women in favor of a visual vocabulary borrowed from French folk art. Several illustrations are closely based on the engravings and woodcuts collected by Pierre Louis Duchartre and René Saulnier in the 1926 book L'Imagerie Populaire—images that had been copied with variations since medieval times.[32] The bawdiness of Ryder's illustrations led the U.S. Postal Service to refuse to ship it, and several had to be left out of the first edition, including an image in which Sophia is seen urinating into a chamberpot and one in which Amelia and Kate-Careless sit by the fire knitting codpieces. Parts of the text were also expurgated. In an acerbic introduction, Barnes explained that the missing words and passages had been replaced with asterisks so that readers could see the "havoc" wreaked by censorship. A 1990 Dalkey Archive edition restored the missing drawings, but the original text was lost with the destruction of the manuscript in World War II.[33]

Ladies Almanack

For more details on this topic, see Ladies Almanack.

Ladies Almanack (1928) is a roman à clef about a predominantly lesbian social circle centering on Natalie Clifford Barney's salon in Paris. It is written in an archaic, Rabelaisian style, with Barnes's own illustrations in the style of Elizabethan woodcuts.

Barney appears as Dame Evangeline Musset, "who was in her Heart one Grand Red Cross for the Pursuance, the Relief and the Distraction, of such Girls as in their Hinder Parts, and their Fore Parts, and in whatsoever Parts did suffer them most, lament Cruelly".[34] "[A] Pioneer and a Menace" in her youth, Dame Musset has reached "a witty and learned Fifty";[35] she rescues women in distress, dispenses wisdom, and upon her death is elevated to sainthood. Also appearing pseudonymously are Elisabeth de Gramont, Romaine Brooks, Dolly Wilde, Radclyffe Hall and her partner Una, Lady Troubridge, Janet Flanner and Solita Solano, and Mina Loy.[36]

The obscure language, inside jokes, and ambiguity of Ladies Almanack have kept critics arguing about whether it is an affectionate satire or a bitter attack, but Barney herself loved the book and reread it throughout her life.[37]


Barnes's reputation as a writer was made when Nightwood was published in England in 1936 in an expensive edition by Faber and Faber, and in America in 1937 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, with an added introduction by T. S. Eliot.

The novel, set in Paris in the 1920s, revolves around the lives of five characters, two of whom are based on Barnes and Wood, and it reflects the circumstances surrounding the ending of their relationship. In his introduction, Eliot praises Barnes' style, which while having "prose rhythm that is prose style, and the musical pattern which is not that of verse, is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it."

Due to concerns about censorship, Eliot edited Nightwood to soften some language relating to sexuality and religion. An edition restoring these changes, edited by Cheryl J. Plumb, was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 1995.

Dylan Thomas described Nightwood as "one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman," while William Burroughs called it "one of the great books of the twentieth century." It was number 12 on a list of the top 100 gay books compiled by The Publishing Triangle in 1999.[38]

The Antiphon



Barnes has been cited as an influence by writers as diverse as Truman Capote, William Goyen, Isak Dinesen, John Hawkes, Bertha Harris, and Anais Nin. Writer Bertha Harris described her work as "practically the only available expression of lesbian culture we have in the modern western world" since Sappho.


  • The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings (1915)
  • A Book (1923) - revised versions published as:
    • A Night Among the Horses (1929)
    • Spillway (1962)
  • Ryder (1928)
  • Ladies Almanack (1928)
  • Nightwood (1936)
  • The Antiphon (1958)
  • Selected Works (1962) - Spillway, Nightwood, and a revised version of The Antiphon
  • Vagaries Malicieux: Two Stories (1974) - unauthorized publication
  • Creatures in an Alphabet (1982)
  • Smoke and Other Early Stories (1982)
  • Interviews (1985) - ed. by Douglas Messerli, with Alyce Barry
  • New York (1989) - journalism, ed. by Douglas Messerli
  • At the Roots of the Stars: The Short Plays (1995) - Introduction by Douglas Messerli
  • Collected Stories of Djuna Barnes (1996)
  • Poe's Mother: Selected Drawings (1996) - ed. and with an introduction by Douglas Messerli
  • Collected Poems: With Notes Toward the Memoirs (2005) - ed. Phillip Herring and Osias Stutman


  1. Herring, xvi-xxiii
  2. Barnes's father was born Henry Aaron Budington but used a variety of names during his life, including Wald Barnes and Brian Eglington Barnes. Herring, 4.
  3. Herring, 5-21.
  4. Herring, xviii.
  5. Herring, 40.
  6. Herring, xvi-xvii, 54-57, 268-271.
  7. Herring, xxiv, 59-61.
  8. Herring, 40-41, 64-66, 75-76, 84-87.
  9. Herring, 96-101.
  10. Mills, 163-166.
  11. Green, 82; Espley.
  12. Field, 65-76.
  13. Herring and Stutman, 43.
  14. Field, 77-78.
  15. Benstock, 240-241; Galvin, chapter 5.
  16. Hardie.
  17. Herring, 118-126. Similar opinions of the early plays are expressed by Field, 92, Retallack, 49, and Messerli.
  18. Larabee, 37; see also Messerli.
  19. Quoted in Field, 90.
  20. Field, 169.
  21. Herring, 239.
  22. Herring, 71.
  23. Herring, Djuna, 66-74 and 108-112.
  24. Herring, 150.
  25. Herring, 156.
  26. Weiss, 154.
  27. Letter to Emily Coleman, November 22, 1935. Quoted in Herring, 160.
  28. Herring, 161.
  29. Levine, 186-200; Herring, "Introduction", 3-18.
  30. Casselli, 89-113; Scott, 73, 103-105.
  31. Ponsot, 94-112.
  32. Burke, 67-79.
  33. Martyniuk, 61-80.
  34. Barnes, Ladies Almanack, 6.
  35. Barnes, Ladies Almanack, 34, 9.
  36. Weiss, 151-153.
  37. Barnes, xxxii-xxxiv.
  38. The Publishing Triangle's list of the 100 best lesbian and gay novels


  • Barnes, Djuna; with an introduction by Susan Sniader Lanser (1992). Ladies Almanack. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-1180-4. 
  • Broe, Mary Lynn (1991). Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0-809-31255-7. 
  • Burke, Carolyn (1991). "'Accidental Aloofness': Barnes, Loy, and Modernism". In Broe, Silence and Power, 67-79.
  • Caselli, Daniela (2001). "'Elementary, my dear Djuna': unreadable simplicity in Barnes's Creatures in an Alphabet". Critical Survey 13 (3): 89–113. 
  • Espley, Richard (2006). "'Something so fundamentally right': Djuna Barnes's Uneasy Intersections with Margaret Sanger and the Rhetoric of Reform". U.S. Studies Online (8). British Association for American Studies. ISSN 1472-9091. Retrieved on 2007-02-25. 
  • Field, Andrew (1985). Djuna: The Formidable Miss Barnes. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-71546-3. 
  • Galvin, Mary E. (1999). Queer Poetics: Five Modernist Women Writers. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-29810-6. 
  • Green, Barbara (1993). "Spectacular Confessions: 'How it Feels to Be Forcibly Fed'". Review of Contemporary Fiction 13 (3): 82. ISSN 0276-0045. Retrieved on 2007-02-25. 
  • Hardie, Melissa Jane (Fall 2005). "Repulsive Modernism: Djuna Barnes' The Book of Repulsive Women". Journal of Modern Literature 29 (1): 118–132. Retrieved on 2007-03-22. 
  • Herring, Phillip (1995). Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-017842-2. 
  • Barnes, Djuna; ed. Phillip Herring and Osias Stutman (2005). Collected Poems: With Notes toward the Memoirs. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 3–18. ISBN 0-299-21234-3. 
  • Levine, Nancy J. (1993). "Works in Progress: the Uncollected Poetry of Barnes's Patchin Place Period". The Review of Contemporary Fiction 13 (3): 186–200. 
  • Martyniuk, Irene (1998). "Troubling the "Master's Voice": Djuna Barnes's Pictorial Strategies". Mosaic (Winnipeg) 31 (3): 61–80. 
  • Larabee, Ann (1991). "The Early Attic Stage of Djuna Barnes". In Broe, Silence and Power, 37-44.
  • Messerli, Douglas (1995). Djuna Barnes' Roots. Douglas Messerli. Electronic Poetry Center, SUNY Buffalo. Retrieved on 2007-04-01. Reprinted from Barnes, Djuna; edited with an introduction by Douglas Messerli (1995). At the Roots of the Stars: The Short Plays. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press. ISBN 1-557-13160-0. 
  • Mills, Eleanor; with Kira Cochrane (eds.) (2005). Journalistas: 100 Years of the Best Writing and Reporting by Women Journalists. New York: Carroll & Graf. ISBN 0-78671-667-3. 
  • Ponsot, Marie (1991). "A Reader's Ryder". In Broe, Silence and Power, 94-112.
  • Retallack, Joan (1991). "One Acts: Early Plays of Djuna Barnes". In Broe, Silence and Power, 46-52.
  • Scott, Bonnie Kime (1995). Refiguring Modernism Volume 2: Postmodern Feminist Readings of Woolf, West, and Barnes. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 73, 103–105. ISBN 0-253-21002-X. 
  • Weiss, Andrea (1995). Paris Was a Woman: Portraits From the Left Bank. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 154. ISBN 0-06-251313-3. 

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