Barnes, Djuna (1892–1982)
Djuna Barnes’ experimental modernist works weave together a dense verbal style, grotesque plots and patterns of imagery, literary parodies, black humor, and wit to probe unconscious and tragic levels of human existence. Barnes’ often dark vision emanates from intricate constellations of words that rarely intimate a naturalistic social world. Although she was a celebrated figure in the 1920s and ’30s, Barnes’ literary reputation has varied in the past decades, yet her works are generally appreciated for their verbal power, often compared to that of her friend James Joyce. Her works often treat sexuality in its many variations, but in general her grand theme is the underside of life; as the character Matthew O’Connor says toward the end of Nightwood, “Only the scorned and the ridiculous make good stories” (159).
Barnes was born on June 12, 1892 in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., into a highly unconventional family. Her father, Wald Barnes, a sometime musician, writer, and painter, and a perpetual schemer, created a home with three women: his mother, Zadel Barnes, a suffragist, spiritualist, and writer; his wife and the mother of Djuna, the English violinist Elizabeth (Chappell) Barnes; and a lover named Fanny Faulkner. Through her belief in “free love” and her economic support, Zadel encouraged Wald’s polygamous tendencies; the two families under one roof produced eight children. The children were educated at home, largely in the arts, although Barnes later attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (1911–12) and the Art Students’ League of New York (1915). The family dynamics are rumored to have included sexual irregularities including perhaps incest between Barnes and her grandmother Zadel, but evidence is not definitive (Herring 54–58). At eighteen, Barnes was “married” in an informal and unsanctioned ceremony in her grandmother’s room to fifty-two-year-old Percy Faulkner, brother of Fanny, but they lived together for only two months (Herring 60). When Wald divorced Elizabeth in favor of Fanny, Barnes began a career as a journalist to support her mother, younger brothers, and herself. Beginning in 1913, Barnes wrote for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle; Carl Van Vechten then hired her to write for the New York Press. She also worked for New York World Magazine, New York Morning Telegraph, New York Tribune and had articles and short stories published in McCall’s, Vanity Fair, Charm, the New Yorker, the Dial and other magazines. Her articles included portraits of those on the fringes of life in New York, such as Coney Island performers and street people, prototypes of the odd characters who would people her fiction (Levine 27). Not a political activist, Barnes nevertheless used her journalism to call attention to particular social ills, for example famously subjecting herself to the