Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes (June 12, 1892 – June 18, 1982) was an American writer who became well-known in the Parisian avant-garde literary scene of the 1920s and 1930s. Born in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, Barnes attended Pratt Institute and the Art Students League of New York. Starting in 1913, she wrote and illustrated for newspapers and magazines, both literary and popular (including Smart Set and Vanity Fair).

Barnes’ first book-length work was The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings in 1915. It was brief, hardly more than a chapbook. Over the next few years, she wrote plays, a few of which were staged by the Provincetown Players in Cape Cod.

Off to Literary Paris

1920 was the year she left for Paris. Continuing as a journalist, she interviewed expatriate writers and artists. Continuing to pursue her own writing, she established herself as a literary figure in her own right, producing plays, short stories, and poems. Ladies Almanack (1928) was something of a breakout, a satire of  the literary lesbian scene of which she was a part, and of which Natalie Barney was a central figure.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood (1936) is Barnes’ best-known work


Barnes’ second novel, Nightwood (1936), has long been considered her literary masterpiece, and is still regarded as one of the most influential works of modernist fiction. This experimental work of fiction explores the lives and loves of five eccentric and extraordinary people, this may be the first modern novel with a transgender character.

“Morbid? You make me laugh …”

Barnes was known for her dark sense of humor and was occasionally accused of being morbid as well. When asked why she was “so dreadfully morbid” in a 1919 interview, she replied:

“Morbid? You make me laugh. This life I write and draw and portray is life as it is, and therefore you call it morbid. Look at my life. Look at the life around me. Where is this beauty that I am supposed to miss? The nice episodes that others depict? Is not everything morbid? I mean the life of people stripped of their masks.

Where are the relieving features? Often I sit down to work at my drawing board, at my typewriter. All of a sudden my joy is gone. I feel tired of it all because, I think, “What’s the use?” Today we are, tomorrow dead. We are born and don’t know why. We live and suffer and strive, envious or envied. We love, we hate, we work, we admire, we despise. … Why? And we die, and no one will ever know that we have been born.”

Djuna barnes portrait

You might also like: Eccentric and Morbid Quotes by Djuna Barnes

Return to the U.S.

Barnes returned to the U.S. in 1949. Aside from The Antiphon (1958), a drama in verse, she wrote little else, and lived a rather reclusive life in Greenwich Village, where she died in her home at the age of 90 in 1982.

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Djuna Barnes passport

See also: 5 Dark Poems by Djuna Barnes

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