Djuna Barnes was born into an eccentric, bohemian family at Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, on June 12, 1892. Her mother, an amateur violinist who wrote poetry throughout her life, was perhaps the most conventional figure in the Barnes family. Barnes’s father, Wald Barnes, rarely held any substantial employment, and he was a notorious philanderer. He adopted his mother’s surname as a reaction against his own father, and his first name was merely one of many he employed throughout his early life. Wald’s mother, Zadel, also lived with the family, and supported her son’s interests in spiritualism. During her late childhood, Barnes moved with her family to a farm on Long Island, but her parents soon separated, the eccentric and self-indulgent Wald having exceeded even his wife’s amazing tolerance of his selfish behavior.
Partly as a consequence of her family’s eccentric opinions, Barnes never attended public school, but she did move to Manhattan to attend art school. Her first book, a collection of poems and drawings titled The Book of Repulsive Women, was published in 1915, and Barnes for a time considered the careers of artist and writer to be equally open to her. During much of World War I, Barnes lived in Greenwich Village and earned a living as a freelance journalist for various small New York and Brooklyn newspapers.
With her expatriation to Europe in 1919, Barnes’s life began a new chapter; no longer simply a member of an artistic community in the United States, she became a celebrated figure of international, although predominantly American, bohemian culture. It was in Europe that Barnes...
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