Adventures in Feministory: Djuna Barnes

djuna_barnes.jpegOnce in college, when I was struggling to decide how to focus a project about early 20th century lesbian writers, my amazing queer studies professor suggested I read some work by the modernist writer Djuna Barnes. I went to the library and checked out Nightwood and The Ladies' Almanack and I sat up until dawn reading them in the common room of my all-women dorm. As I read, all of my questions about lesbian writing and feminism and modernism were answered one by one, until no confusion remained and I was ready to write a perfect paper.

Just kidding! I did check out Nightwood and The Ladies' Almanack, and I did stay up late reading them, but it certainly wasn't because they made sense to me. Actually, it was my first term in college and I was utterly confused by everything that Barnes was doing and I had no idea how to process any of it. Though I've read Nightwood since and I recognize it as one of the most important pieces of prose of the 20th century, I still can't confidently say that I understand how it works. I do know that it's weird and wonderful, just like Barnes was.

Barnes was born in 1892 in a log cabin in upstate New York. Her father was a struggling artist, and her paternal grandmother was a wealthy writer and early suffragette who provided the family with financial support since she believed her son to be an underappreciated artistic genius. Barnes' father thought that monogamy was impractical and unnecessary and that humans should procreate as much as possible. Consequently, the Barneses' was an unconventional household: along with her father and mother, Barnes lived with seven siblings, her grandmother, and her father's mistress.

When Barnes was about 20, she and her mother and a handful of her siblings left her father and moved to New York City, where Barnes worked as a journalist. Like the fiction and poetry she would write later in life, her journalistic pieces championed radical causes and were uniquely subjective. In 1914 she published a piece in World Magazine called "How it Feels to be Forcibly Fed," about suffragists hunger striking in prison who were being forced to eat. For the article, she experienced a force-feeding herself, hoping in her description of the terrible ordeal to garner sympathy and support for the suffragists. Barnes wrote for numerous newspapers and magazines during her time in New York, and as she was also a talented visual artist, her own drawings often accompanied her writing.
Barnes would spend her New York years in Greenwich Village, surrounded by artists and bohemians. She embarked on relationships both serious and casual with men and women, and was not secretive about her personal life. It was during these years that she became a member of the Provincetown Players, a group of artists who produced and performed plays. Their goal was to create exposure for playwrights whose work they respected, and they performed plays by people who would later be revered as some of the twentieth century's most important playwrights, including Wallace Stevens, Susan Glaspell, and Eugene O'Neill.

In the 1920s, when Paris became the center of Bohemian culture, Barnes moved there and immersed herself in the circle of artists who met at art patron Natalie Barney's salon. The Ladies' Almanack was written as a loving parody of this salon circle, which was mostly comprised of lesbians. It was the kind of matter-of-fact and open treatment of lesbian culture that Barnes exhibited in this book that would make her a cult hero for years.

Barnes also openly explored lesbian themes in Nightwood, that novel that so baffled me in college. Nightwood is her most famous work, and it's widely recognized as her best, though as a high modernist novel it is extremely difficult to decipher. So difficult, in fact, that although my queer studies professor told me it was famous for its obvious lesbian themes, I remember finishing the book and thinking I would have to go back and read it again before I figured out where exactly those themes were located.

Despite its difficulty, Nightwood was highly regarded in literary circles, and cemented Barnes' cult status. But after its publication, she struggled with writer's block, alcoholism, and isolation. She lived as a recluse in Greenwich Village, and her apartment was something of a shrine for younger writers: Carson McCullers used to hang out on Barnes' stoop, and was so persistent that Barnes finally had to yell at her to go away. Despite her alcoholism and suicide attempts, Barnes lived to be 90. It is often said that she was the last of her generation of writers to die.

If you're interested in reading Barnes' work, I'd recommend starting with The Ladies' Almanack. Nightwood is amazing but mystifying, and is certainly worth a try. A great book about the group of expatriate literary women that Djuna belonged to in the 1920s is called Women of the Left Bank, by Shari Benstock. And that awesome queer studies professor who introduced me to Barnes wrote an equally awesome book called Are Girls Necessary?, about lesbian writing in the 20th century.


by Lindsay Baltus
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7 Comments Have Been Posted

agh! i LOVE djuna barnes. and

<p>agh! i LOVE djuna barnes. and that picture of her! with the polka dots! and her drawings!
perfectly said about "nightwood." it's one of the books i would save if my house were burning, but i don't feel like i understand it, really, and as soon as i finish it i can't remember what i've read. it's a book you live inside of while you read, i think. and then it lets you go.
thank you for another fabulous feministory, lindsay!</p>

Djuna wants you to be baffled

I taught Barnes in an epic seminar on Interwar Paris at Whitman College and it went extremely well once we all understood that about half of the Almanack makes fun of the women she hung out with and the other half talks about their glories of lesbian oral. Seriously, it was a bit baffling on its own but made since in the context of the entire scene including Colette, Natalie Barney, Joyce, Hemingway, Sylvia Beech's memoir Shakespeare and Company, and, of course, the amazing Gertrude. I recommend jumping in to the whole period at once by first reading Shari Benstock's book and watching the documentary of the same name. If your interests in Djuna in particular continue, get up to speed on her and the criticism about her from Phillip Herring,'s Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes, New York: Viking Press, 1995.

Alternately, you could just pour a glass of wine, open Nightwood again, let the prose flow over you (being careful to eschew the morbid), and revel in reading something so funky and experimental from the twenties that was not authored by a man, and particularly not James Joyce.

Missionary Pride!

Jana- this might not be the place for a huge reunion, but I was actually at Whitman!! I took the class at Occidental in LA, but I did know you taught it at Whitman. I lived with Cate while she was housesitting for you in 2008! Small world. So glad you commented!!

I love it!

I am in the middle of reading Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar's Unusual Niece by Joan Schenkar, which centers mostly around Natalie Barney's Paris salon (Dolly was one of Natalie's longest affairs) and it is so incredibly fantastic! It explains who Djuna Barnes is and many other female (lesbian and straight) writers of the time who were ignored by the men in charge of such things. It is so fun to read. A little easier than the actual modernist texts, which are very difficult for me! I want to start a Friday salon so bad!

Carson McCullers

Just curious -- What is your source for the Carson McCullers "stoop story?" Thanks.


Hi Cathy, I found bits of info about Carson McCullers being "obsessed" with Barnes in a couple of places: <i>Djuna, The Formidable Miss Barnes</i> by Andrew Field, and an anthology-type book by Julia Holmes called <i>One Hundred New Yorkers</i>, which lives on a friend's coffee table.

Djuna was my grandfather's

Djuna was my grandfather's (Justin Llewelyn [Barnes] Budington) first cousin and I grew up hearing about that 'crazy' side of the family. When I was old enough to understand that 'crazy' meant independent and out of the ordinary, I loved discovering this fascinating woman through her writing. I realized pretty quickly that what made her and her family different actually runs all throughout my family and I love that about all of them!!! We are full of artists and writers and independent thinkers!

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