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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Djuna Barnes

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.

Barnes 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.

During 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.

World 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.

An 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.”

Although 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
Smoke (1917)

Other Works
The Book of Repulsive Women (1915)
A Book (1923)
Ladies Almanack (1928)
Ryder (1928)
Nightwood (1936)
The Antiphon (1958)

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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
A photograph.

Studio Cleo's Djuna Barnes Site
( )
Biography and bibliography.

Secondary Sources

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