Djuna Barnes

From Academic Kids

Missing image
A 1914 self-portrait by Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes (June 12, 1892 - June 18, 1982) 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.

Her novel Nightwood became a cult work of modern fiction, helped by an introduction written by T.S. Eliot, and stands out for its portrayal of lesbian themes.

Barnes spent the last 40 years of her life as a recluse in New York city. Since her death, interest in her work has grown and many of her books are now back in print.


Early Life and Writings

Barnes was born into Cornwall-on-Hudson, a New York artists' colony. Her father, Henry Budington Barnes, was an unsuccessful artist and her mother, Elizabeth Chappel, had studied the violin in England before her marriage. Barnes was brought up by her mother and grandmother and her early education was received at home. In the early 1910s, she studied art briefly in New York city at the Pratt Institute and the Arts Students League.

By 1913, her parents had divorced and she was writing and illustrating a regular column for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A collection of her celebrity interviews from this period, I Could Never Be Lonely without a Husband: Interviews by Djuna Barnes, was published in 1987. A collection of the magazine stories from the 1910s, Smoke and Other Early Stories, appeared in 1982. In 1915, she published her first book, a collection of poems and drawings called The Book of Repulsive Women. She also wrote one-act plays, three of which were produced at the Provincetown Playhouse in the period 1919 - 1920. She married Courtenay Lemon but the marriage was short-lived and in 1920 she moved to Paris on an assignment for McCall's magazine.


Barnes arrived in Paris with letters of introduction to Ezra Pound and James Joyce and soon entered the Parisian world of expatriate bohemians who were at the forefront of the modernist movement. Her circle in Paris included Pound, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Robert McAlmon, Nathalie Barney, Peggy Guggenheim, and Kay Boyle. She also maintained a friendship with the Italian poet Eugenio Montale. Pound disliked Barnes and her writing. However, she developed a close literary and personal friendship with Joyce, who discussed his work with Barnes more freely than he did with most writers and who allowed her to call him Jim, a name otherwise only used by his wife, Nora Barnacle. Barnes considered Joyce a great writer and source of inspiration, but unlike many other Paris expats, she was not overawed by him. She was also promoted by Ford Madox Ford, who published her work in his Transatlantic Review magazine.

In Paris, Barnes set up home with her lover Thelma Wood and soon won a reputation as both being openly lesbian and a heavy drinker and drug addict which, in later years, detracted from her reception as a writer. Barnes published a second book, a mixture of prose and poetry called A Book in 1926. In 1928 she brought out a semi-autobiographical novel in a mock-Elizabethan style, Ryder that became a best seller in the United States. She also anonymously published a satirical roman ā clef of Paris lesbian life called Lady's Almanack that same year. An enlarged edition of A Book called A Book - A Night Among the Horses appeared in 1929.


Barnes left Paris in 1931, when her relationship with Wood ended, and lived for a time in both London and New York. She gave up drinking, smoking, drugs and relationships in order to focus exclusively on her writing. Her reputation as a writer was made when her novel Nightwood was published in 1936 by Faber and Faber in an expensive edition with Eliot's introduction almost guaranteeing a favourable reception.

The novel, set in Paris in the 1920s, centres around the lives of five characters, two of whom are based on Barnes and Wood, and reflects the circumstances surrounding the ending of their real-life love affair. In his introduction, Eliot points up 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.'

New York

Barnes returned to Paris briefly in 1937 to sell the apartment that she and Wood had shared. She moved to New York in 1941, where she became a celibate recluse, living in a small apartment in 5 Patchin Place Greenwich Village. Her neighbours here included E. E. Cummings.

Despite failing health which eventually saw her completely confined to her apartment, she published several more works, including the surrealist verse play, The Antiphon in 1958. This play was translated into Swedish by Karl Ragnar Gierow and U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and staged in Stockholm in 1962.

Barnes has been cited as an influence by writers as diverse as Truman Capote, William Goyen, Isak Dinesen, John Hawkes, and Anais Nin. She 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.


  • The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings (1915 )
  • Three from the Earth (1919) (play)
  • Kurzy from the Sea (1920) (play)
  • An Irish Triangle (1921) (play)
  • She Tells Her Daughter (1923) (play)
  • A Book (1923)
  • Ladies Almanack showing their Signs and their Tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers, written & illustrated by a lady of fashion (1928)
  • Ryder (1928)
  • A Night Among the Horses (1929)
  • Nightwood (1936)
  • The Antiphon (1958) (play)
  • Spillway (1962)
  • Selected Works (1962)
  • Vagaries Malicieux (1974)
  • Creatures in an Alphabet (1982)
  • Smoke and Other Early Stories (1982)
  • I Could Never Be Lonely without a Husband: Interviews by Djuna Barnes (1987) (ed. by A Barry)
  • Djuna Barnes's New York (1989)
  • At the Roots of the Stars: The Short Plays (1995)
  • Poe's Mother: Selected Drawings (1996) (ed. and with an introduction by Douglas Messerli)
  • Collected Stories of Djuna Barnes (1996)

Online works



  • Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900 - 1940 (Virago, 1987). ISBN 0-86068-925-5.


de:Djuna Barnes


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