Encyclopedia of Feminist Literature

By Kathy J. Whitson | Go to book overview

B

BARNES, DJUNA

Born in New York in 1892, Djuna Barnes, who also wrote under the name of Lydia Steptoe, is one of modernism's most intriguing figures. Her early education was conducted by her father, but she was also educated at the Pratt Institute and Art Student's League of New York. Barnes's unconventional family helped to shape her bohemian life and prepared her for the aesthetic of modernism with its fragmentation and disjunctions. Her parents divorced in 1912, and Djuna began a career in journalism to help support her mother and brothers. She married Courtenay Lemon in 1917 and divorced in 1919.

Barnes left New York in 1920 on assignment to McCall's magazine to cover the expatriate scene in Paris, and she lived there for the next twenty years. Contemporaneous with the giants of literary modernism, Barnes was friends with James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein.

A novelist, short-story writer, essayist, playwright, and poet, Barnes is best known for her important novel Nightwood, though as Noël Riley Fitch suggests, she was “more revered than read.” T. S. Eliot wrote the introduction for Nightwood and, along with his fellow modernists, values Barnes's fluidity and style and suggests her achievement is “very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy” (xvi). As LeBlanc notes, the early responses to Nightwood focus on Barnes's stylistic achievement to the exclusion of its examination of a lesbian relationship.

In a 2000 Modern Library hardcover reissue of Nightwood, Dorothy Allison writes a new introduction that brings a feminist and lesbian focus to the novel. She says, “What I wanted when I first read Nightwood was a polemic, a manifesto, and a celebration of the lesbian in the demimonde, but she found that “trying to read Nightwood as a feminist text was profoundly awkward” (xi). Barnes herself

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