| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Barnes was born in Cornwall-on-Hudson in New York
State. Her family was artistic, eccentric, and strong-willed. One grandmother
had been a suffragette. However, the family was also psychologically murderous,
the father a philanderer. As a child, Barnes was possibly sexually abused. Her
best-selling novel, Ryder (1928), and her verse drama, The Antiphon (1958),
re-enact her family’s freedom, license, and trauma.
became a stylish, self-created, self-supporting New Woman. From 1913 to 1919,
she lived in New York. Bisexual, she traveled in bohemian and avant-garde
circles. Red-haired, she was a vital presence and vivid wit. Sometimes using
the pseudonym, “Lydia Steptoe,” as she stepped on toes, she earned her living
and helped to support her family as a journalist and illustrator. She also
wrote stories and plays.
the 1920s and 1930s, Barnes moved to Europe, finding a home in Paris, Berlin,
and England. She bought her bread through free-lance writing and, once again,
she was a part of bohemian, avant-garde, and now lesbian groups. Her rollicking
Ladies Almanack (1928) pungently satirizes and celebrates the women around
Natalie Barney, a lesbian leader in Paris. Her best-known novel, Nightwood
(1936), transforms her long affair with Thelma Wood, a sculptor, into a
profound study of women’s relationships, and Thelma into Robin Vote, a figure
of the night. Her talent respected, Barnes befriended major modernists. Among
them were James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Mina Loy, and Samuel Beckett, whose mordancy
and ironic play often resemble hers.
War II forced Barnes to return to the United States. In 1941, she moved to a
tiny apartment on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village. She had such friends,
helpers, and admirers as Marianne Moore and Dag Hammarskjold, then the
Secretary General of the United Nations. In 1959, she was inducted into the
American Academy of Arts and Letters. Once a heavy drinker, she wisely gave up
alcohol. Yet, she was poor, ill, and reclusive. The famous red hair turned
white and thin, and, when heard, the Barnes wit was frequently vicious and
prejudiced. She wrote, but rarely published, and in 1982, sick of being old and
alone, Barnes died.
ambitious writer, Barnes explores many of the huge themes and trials of modern
Western culture: the family as a crucible of identity; the nature of sexuality,
sexual difference, and a “third sex” that reconciles femininity and
masculinity; the abuses of power; the repetitions and pressures of history; the
fragility of language. She named a poem, “Quarry” (1969), as her epitaph. It
imagines time in a “tongued-tied tree.” She attends to the outsider, the exile,
the grotesque figure, and often represents her century as a carnival,
burlesque, or circus. Obsessed with a conflict between the ridiculous
corruptions of the body and the severe weaknesses of the spirit, she finds us
midway between redemption and damnation, ascending toward salvation, descending
into the darkness of the unconscious and doom. The last scene in Nightwood
shows Robin, on the floor of a chapel in the woods, a dog beside her: “dog” is
the inverse of “God.”
erratically educated, Barnes learned from literary history. She commands a
repertoire of genres, from the picaresque novel to the lyric poem, and styles,
from raunchy humor to metaphysical speculation. Her writing can be archaic,
allusive, dense, aphoristic, metaphorical. However, “Smoke,” first published in
a New York newspaper in 1917, shows a young, lean, austere writer who knows how
to tell about the extraordinary in the ordinary. The story is about a family,
the site of cruelty and comfort, creativity and frustration. This family winds
down. Its iron rusts. Babies die; mothers die in childbirth. Like writers,
physicians cannot save lives. At best, they mourn and joke.
Catharine R. Stimpson|
New York University
In the Heath Anthology
The Book of Repulsive Women
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The text of Barnes's early poem, provided by UVA's Electronic Text Center.
Novelist, poet, journalist, and illustrator Djuna Barnes
Studio Cleo's Djuna Barnes Site
Biography and bibliography.
Mary Lynn Broe, ed., Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes, 1941
Andrew Field, Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes, 1983
Phillip Herring, Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes, 1995
Louis Kannenstine, The Art of Djuna Barnes: Duality and Damnation, 1977
Douglas Messerli, Djuna Barnes: A Bibliography, 1975