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Djuna Barnes

A legendary event unfolded on June 12, 1892, a day that not coincidentally marks the birthday of Djuna Barnes.  Born in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, she was destined to become a mover and a shaker in the world of arts and literature, to skyrocket to the summit of social prominence and to fade nearly as quickly into virtual oblivion.. 

Her father was the wealthy and free-spirited Henry Budington ("Wald") Barnes, an obscure artist who ran a farm on Long Island.  Her mother was Elizabeth Chappel Barnes, an English-born violinist. 

Barnes was raised by her mother and her suffragist grandmother.  She and the four other children of the family were taught outside of the conventional school system.  Her father influenced her development as an artist.  She may have suffered some psychosexual or sexual abuse at home: her works include visions of love that contain elements of incest. 

In 1911, Barnes entered the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.  She also studied for a while at the Art Students League.  After her parents divorced, she took a job as a journalist and a freelance illustrator.  She lived a typically Bohemian life in Greenwich Village and wrote for several New York newspapers, including the Brooklyn Eagle.  A collection of her interviews of several sports and arts celebrities, including Diamond Jim Brady, Florenz Ziegfeld, Frank Harris, and D. W. Griffiths, was published posthumously as Interviews

A versatile woman of extreme curiosity, Barnes was always out to advance her knowledge of the world around her through trial and error.  In 1915, she published a collection of poems and drawings entitled The Book of Repulsive WomenThree of her one-act plays were produced in 1919-20 at the Provincetown Playhouse in the Village, where she worked with Eugene O'Neill.  Her marriage to editor Courtenay Lemon lasted only briefly.

Barnes went to Paris in 1920, where she befriended several prominent writers, including T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce.  She produced her
second collection of poems and drawings, A Book, in 1923.  In the early 1920s, she began drinking heavily.  She was hospitalized several times in New York.  She lived with sculptor and silverpoint artist Thelma Wood, publishing anonymously Ladies Almanack (1928), an erotic canvas of lesbian life.  It was arranged by month and was illustrated with the author's own drawings.

She said in 1922, after reading Joyce's Ulysses, "I shall never write another line.  Who has the nerve to after that?"  Thankfully, she failed to live up to her commitment and did write again, publishing Nightwood in 1936.  It's an experimental novel about a woman named Nora Flood, her love affairs, and her spiritual mentor, a transvestite named Dr. O'Conner.

The book was rejected by all of the American publishers to whom she submitted it.  But T. S. Eliot loved it, and he influenced publishers Faber & Faber to produce it.  Eliot wrote the introduction.  It had a great influence on many later experimental writers of the 1950s and '60s and has since gone on to become a cult classic.

Barnes produced only one major work after Nightwood In 1958, The Antiphon, a play written in a highly artificial style, again explored the subject of incestuous family relationships.  This time, a daughter resolves her conflict with her mother.  The play was staged in 1962 in Stockholm, translated by Karl Ragnar Gierow and then Swedish U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskj÷ld, who was killed in an airplane crash in 1961.

In 1931, Barnes went to England, where she spent time as the guest of Peggy Guggenheim.  At the outbreak of World War II, she returned to Greenwich Village, where the following year her works were exhibited at Art of This Century.  In 1961, she was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

"Growing old is just a matter of throwing life away," she once said, "so you finally forgive even those that you have not begun to forget."

Djuna Barnes lived out her remaining years quietly in an apartment at 5 Patchin Place until her death on June 18, 1982.  Despite the interest in her work by a few scattered feminists during the 1970s and 1980s, she remains the unknown legend of American literature.

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