(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Djuna Barnes, the elusive, eccentric woman best known as the author of Nightwood (1936), is the subject of Andrew Field’s biography Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes. Chapter 1 of the biography provides a sketch of Barnes’s life, while the rest of the book approaches its subject only obliquely, focusing on the people who were important to her. It is almost as if Field had sought to protect Barnes’s privacy in his literary biography as she did in her life. The reader is not told the final cause of her death, and the details of her relationships with her lovers are left vague. The biography begins with broad strokes, adding very little brush work to fill out her profile. Like the moon, Djuna Barnes is only partially revealed. She lived almost half of her life alone in a tiny apartment on Patchin Place in New York City. Months would go by without conversation; a biographer can only guess at what these silences meant. In the end, Barnes as literary subject remains as incomprehensible as she was in real life. What is not clear is how much Andrew Field has augmented rather than helped unravel the mystery.

Djuna Barnes was, in many ways, a typical descendant of her unusual family. Barnes’s grandmother, Zadel Barnes Budington, divorced her husband, Henry—a strict Methodist moralist who wrote religious tracts—after twenty years of marriage. A newspaper journalist with strong feminist leanings, Zadel Barnes was one of fourteen children, many of whom were given strange names of uncertain gender—among them Niar and Unade. These odd names suggest a pretentiousness with spiritualistic leanings—a combination evident in the character of Djuna Barnes.

Zadel Barnes was not traditionally religious, but she enjoyed a mystical or visionary outlook combined with an active pursuit of feminist ideals. While there is no clear evidence of her bisexuality, there is some likelihood that she possessed a sexual disposition toward women. She traveled to Europe with her second husband, changed her name back to Barnes, and conducted a literary salon in England. Her life, like her granddaughter’s, is shrouded in mystery and half-truths; it is known, however, that eventually Zadel Barnes lived with her son, Wald, and his wife, Elizabeth Chappell, and was primarily responsible for the education of her granddaughter, Djuna.

Djuna Barnes never attended school. She lived until sixteen in a house which her father had built in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. She was an excellent equestrian as well as a gardener, and she lived in circumstances which might have been idyllic. At sixteen, she started a career as a writer which continued until her death at ninety; like her grandmother, she began as a newspaper reporter and journalist. Despite her great gifts, however, Barnes remained psychologically blighted. She was married briefly and lived with another woman, Thelma Wood, for almost ten years, and she had numerous affairs with both men and women. She never formed a permanent attachment, never had or wanted children, and died alone.

It is not clear what happened in Barnes’s childhood to permanently cripple her spirit. Field says that she possessed “a negative attitude towards her father” and held “strongly ambivalent feelings towards her mother.” Wald Barnes was an incorrigible womanizer who often lived with his mistresses in the house with his children, wife, and mother. Zadel was the matriarch of the family, tolerant of her son’s wanderings but also keeping him in an angrily dependent position. Apparently, Djuna Barnes was either molested by her father or sexually assaulted by neighbors with her father’s complicity; Barnes’s work is filled with vituperative sketches of her father, whom she clearly despised. As is the case with many victims of molestation, Barnes in turn was confused in her own sexual identity. Her writing has the sting of a woman acutely aware of her heritage, snarling and enraged and trapped. She told her family’s story repeatedly in her work and freed herself only through silence.

Barnes lived during an exciting period of literary history. She knew most of the important artists of the 1920’s and 1930’s and enjoyed a reputation as a witty and charming woman. Although never rich, she dressed with style, wearing a black cape which became her hallmark. When she went to Paris in 1919, she was a well-known New York journalist; she carried letters of introduction to James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Joyce was the one contemporary writer she admired without reservation, and her major work, Nightwood, owes much to Joyce. As a present, Joyce gave her his annotated manuscript of Ulysses,...

(The entire section is 1914 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

American Literature. LVI, May, 1984, p. 292.

Harper’s. CCLXVII, July, 1983, p. 76.

Library Journal. CVIII, May 1, 1983, p. 907.

Ms. XI, April, 1983, p. 35.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, June 26, 1983, p. 9.

The New Yorker. LIX, June 20, 1983, p. 102.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, April 22, 1983, p. 90.