Djuna Barnes Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A noted member of the American expatriate community in Paris, Djuna Barnes wrote a highly influential experimental novel and pioneered the treatment of lesbianism in literature.

Early Life

Djuna Chappell Barnes was born to an eccentric, bohemian family in the New York community of Cornwall-on-Hudson in 1892. Her mother, Elizabeth Chappell Barnes, was English and her father, Wald Barnes, American. Wald Barnes (a name he adopted in preference over his given name, Henry Budington) pursued many cultural interests, but does not seem to have been successful in any of them. He does, however, seem to have had an overwhelming and largely negative influence upon his daughter. There is indirect but compelling evidence of an incestuous relationship. Djuna Barnes takes up the theme of father-daughter incest repeatedly in her work, although usually obliquely. Whatever the physical or psychological reality of what took place, Djuna was evidently presented by her father in 1910 to a man far older than she was—Percy Faulkner, the brother of the woman destined to become Wald Barnes’s second wife. Djuna’s relationship with Faulkner seems to have been both informal and brief.

Barnes had been educated at home. Some time after 1910 she moved to New York City, where she studied art at the Pratt Institute and the Art Students’ League. Barnes showed promise as both writer and artist: By the time she was twenty-one, she was producing articles and illustrations for New York City newspapers. Within a few years, she was able to earn a good living writing for these papers and for such magazines as Harper’s. Besides reporting on local events, she interviewed a number of personalities, many of them long since forgotten, and turned out stylized, satirical sketches reminiscent of English artist Aubrey Beardsley.

In 1915, Barnes moved to Greenwich Village, a bohemian section of New York City synonymous with the newest ideas and trends in society and the arts. Her first “book,” a pamphlet entitled The Book of Repulsive Women, also appeared in 1915. It consisted of a handful of poems and drawings and announced another theme that was to dominate her work, lesbianism.

Although she began to take many women lovers during this period, Barnes’s sexual allegiance had not shifted entirely to women. About 1916, she was married to fellow writer Courtenay Lemon. This marriage may have been as informal as her first relationship with Percy Faulkner; in any case, she and Lemon had separated by 1919. Sometime that year or the next she left for Europe and, except for brief trips home, remained there until 1940. During those twenty years she produced a number of works, including a novel that would come to be regarded as one of the most important American literary works of the century.

Life’s Work

Once in Europe, Djuna Barnes was commissioned to write various celebrity profiles and subsequently lived in both Paris, France, and Berlin, Germany. Among the figures she interviewed was Irish writer James Joyce, author of the novel Ulysses (1922), destined to become the most influential English-language work of the century. Barnes admired Joyce immensely, and declared after reading Ulysses that she would never write again. Nevertheless, she soon published her first substantial work, entitled simply A Book (1923).

A Book consisted of stories, plays, poems, and drawings. The stories were the most important components of the work; many subsequently appeared—usually in reworked versions—in the collections A Night Among the Horses (1929) and Spillwax (1962). In style they are unexceptional, but in their subject matter—individuals cast adrift from ties of class or country—they are very much products of their time.

Barnes’s next two works exhibited greater innovation: A Ladies’ Almanack (1928, identified only as being “Written & Illustrated by a Lady of Fashion”) and the novel Ryder (also 1928). A Ladies’ Almanack is a short, mock-Elizabethan work that defies easy classification. Arranged in twelve sections, one for each month of the year, it is actually a gentle satire on the lesbian community of Paris. Those who were familiar with the community would be expected to recognize the real figures behind such characters as Evangeline Musset and Daisy Downpour.

Because of its sexual and scatological content, A Ladies’ Almanack was privately printed in Dijon, France. Ryder was published openly in New York, but in a censored version that omitted several passages and drawings. Ryder is far longer and more stylistically complex than anything else Barnes had previously written. It draws on her painful and convoluted family history and clearly illustrates Barnes’s interest in the intense literary experimentation that was going on around her.


(The entire section is 2038 words.)