Djuna Barnes, Author of Nightwood

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.



Unconventional early life

Born in a log cabin on Storm King Mountain in the Hudson Valley of New York, Barnes was born into an unconventional family dynamic. Her father, Wald Barnes, was an unsuccessful composer and musician, and an advocate of polygamy. He married Barnes’ mother, Elizabeth, in 1889, and moved his mistress, Fanny Clark, into the family home in 1897 when their daughter was only five years old.

Barnes was the second oldest child of eight siblings, and took on the responsibility of caring for them. She homeschooled herself and her siblings; her grandmother taught her to write, paint, and be musically inclined.

At the age of 16, she was raped. She refers to the horrific incident in her first novel Ryder, and more closely in her final play The Antiphon. Two years later, she reluctantly married her father’s mistress’s brother, Percy Faulkner, at the insistence of her parents. He was 52 years old, and the marriage lasted no more than two months.

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Djuna Barnes passport

A broken family, and off to literary Paris

In 1912, the family fell apart. Barnes’ parents split, and Wald was free to marry his mistress. Barnes, her mother, and three of her siblings moved to New York City, giving her the opportunity to finally study art in a more professional setting and attend college.

She attended Pratt Institute for six months, and The Art Student’s League of New York from 1915-1916, but the burden of supporting her family fell to her, and her education went by the wayside. She took a job as a reporter at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and from there, began her literary career.

Barnes became a freelance journalist and illustrator for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and in just one year she became a renowned feature reporter, interviewer, and illustrator.

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. 

Ryder (1928) was influenced by her experience in Cornwall-on-Hudson. It highlights the span of her family history, covering the last 50 years of their “legacy” and the tangled, inner relationships. Soon after came Ladies Almanack, a story about a lesbian social circle in Paris.

Between the language and inside jokes throughout Ladies Almanack, critics have been left speculating whether the book is an affectionate satire or bitter attack. Either way, it sparked a conversation.

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Ladies Amanack by Djuna Barnes

Love Affairs

Her first great love affair was with Ernst Hanfstaengl, the grandson of a Yankee general in the Civil War. They were engaged for two years, from 1914 –1916. He eventually rejected Barnes because he saw her as an “unfit mother” for his child, described by Barnes (but later deleted) in Nightwood. This section can be found in an unedited edition of the book.

In 1921, Barnes met and fell in love with Thelma Wood.

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Barnes continued to spend her time in Paris into the 1930s, between visiting England and South Africa. It was during this time of travel and shifting about that she wrote her famed novel Nightwood (1936). It has long been considered her literary masterpiece, and is still regarded as one of the most influential works of modernist fiction.

This experimental novel explores the lives and loves of five eccentric and extraordinary people, and may be the first modern novel with a transgender character.

Nightwood was edited by T.S. Eliot. Barnes, then in her mid-40s, was still overwhelmed by the breakup with her lover, Thelma Wood. The novel follows the obsessive love affair of two women, which led to Barnes being called a “lesbian evangelist.” Despite the real-life parallel, Barnes despised and denied the label.

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Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood (1936) is Barnes’ best-known work
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“Morbid? You make me laugh … “

Barnes was known for her dark sense of humor and was occasionally accused of being morbid. 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.”

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Djuna barnes portrait

Eccentric and Morbid Quotes by Djuna Barnes
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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.

More about Djuna Barnes

On this site

Major Works

  • The Book of Repulsive Women: And Other Poems  (1915)
  • Ryder  (1928)
  • Ladies Almanack (1928)
  • Nightwood (1936)
  • The Antiphon (1958)
  • Collected Poems 

Autobiographies, Biographies, and Literary Criticism

  • Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes by Andrew Field (1983)
  • Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes by Phillip Herring (1996)

More information and sources

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