There are lives that are lived to the fullest and these make for great reading and blogging. Here is the life of Djuana Barnes (1892-1982). She died at the age of 90.
Djuana Barnes was born in 1892 and lived a remarkable bi-sexual life. She was a well-known American poet, playwright, journalist and visual artist and these works offered were censored for their sexual content. Her early life was a dark shadow of family polygamy, incest and rape. It is incredible that these horrific events plus non-schooling led her to becme one of the great women writers of the 20th century. She died in 1982 as a recluse.
Born in a Wood Cabin – New York State
Djuana was the second oldest child born to Wald Barnes and his wife, Elizabeth. Five years later, her father’s mistress, Fanny Clark moved in with them. Djuana received no schooling due to looking after siblings and half-siblings. It fell to her father and grandmother to teach Djuana writing, art and music, but she later claimed that math and spelling was neglected.
At the age of 16 Djuana was raped, apparently by a neighbor with the knowledge and consent of her father, or possibly by her father himself. This horrific experience was obliquely mentioned in her first novel, Ryder, and with fury in her final play, The Antiphon. The “unhealthy” and powerful influences of her father, mother and grandmother led her at eighteen years of age to marry, Percy Faulker aged 52 in a private ceremony without clergy being present. Percy was the brother of Fanny Clark, the mistress in the polygamous home set up. Djuana left after two months of marriage.
Incredible Talent and Persistence
Djuana’s paternal grandmother,Zadel Turner Barnes, was a writer, journalist, and Women’s Suffrage activist. She had hosted an influential literary salon and perhaps, she encouraged and inspired Djuana to write and draw.
The Polygamist Family Splits Up
Djuana was 20 when in 1912 the Barnes’s family split up due to financial ruin. She, together with her mother Elizabeth and three brothers moved to New York city. Her father filed for divorce and married Nanny Clark. Somehow, Djunes found money to study art formally at the Pratt Institute for about six months. Djunes dropped out of art school due to her family’s worsening financial situation.
Journalistic Career -1913
The plucky Djuna applied for a reporter’s job at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It is reported that at the interview she declared, “I can draw and write, and you’d be a fool not to hire me!”
She was hired and her words came true.
Over the next few years her work appeared in almost every newspaper in New York; she wrote interviews, features, theatre reviews, and a variety of news stories, often illustrating them with her own drawings. She also published short fiction in the New York Morning Telegraph’s Sunday supplement. This incredible success came to Djuana who was just in her early 20s.
The Creative Genius
Like so many great writers, Djuna was experimental, often drawings on other writers’ talents, but essentially wishing to experiment and find her own style. To understand the forced feeding of female suffragettes, Djuana subjected herself to the horrendous and degrading matter. The experience was written up in an article in 1914 for New York World magazine. She was just 22 years of age and already had established herself as a competent and exciting journalist. As a female journalist, she entered male domains, one of which was boxing. She asked her reading audience why women attended boxing matches. Was it a result of the cultural history of repressed women? Did women enjoy seeing men beat each other up?
Bohemian Lifestyles and Unconventional Love
Greenwich Village (New York) was known for its bohemian lifestyle. This is where Djuana produced some of her well-known works. She published prose, poems, and one-act plays, some of which were illustrated. She placed them in popular magazines and in avant-garde journals. In 1915, she published an illustrated volume of poetry, entitled, “The Book of Repulsive Women.” This work was risky and it sold well over time and was reprinted several times. There is obvious sex between two women, but the censors never challenged it. Many critics have determined that perhaps the imagery was lost on such organizations as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.
Djuana came to hate the book and had no control of future reprints due to the fact that she had never had the copyright registered.
Readers were fascintated and shocked by the description of women’s bodies and sexual terms used. Some critics asserted that Djuana was merely satirizing the current prevailing attitude towards women.
Djuana was known to be bi-sexual and freely had affairs with both men and women. At age 24, She became engaged to a Havard graduate, Ernst Hanfstaengl, who left her to live in Germany. He became a close associate of Adolph Hitler. The following year, 1917, she lived with a male philosopher named Courtenay Lemon, but the relationship ended (with reasons unclear). Around this time, Djuana met Mary Pyne, a reporter for the New York Press and they fell in love. Mary tied of tuberculosis in 1919. Djuana had been faithful in love and caring right up to the end of Mary’s life.
Parisienne Life 1921-1931
In 1921, Djuana was offered a lucrative commission with McCall’s a very successful magazine. She worked in Paris and published “A Book” in 1923 that consisted of poetry, plays and short stories. Six years later, it would be retitled and reissued with three additional stories as “A Night Among the Horses” (1929)
She was part of the inner circle of the influential salon hostess, Natalie Barney. They would become lifelong friends and Natalie’s immense fortune would place her as a patron of Djuana’s work and career. Djuana would later write a saticial book entitled “Ladies Almanack,” where the most influential lesbians of Natalie’s salon met for nearly fifty years.
Thelma Wood and Djuana
Thelma was an American artist from Kansas who was working as a sculpture in Paris. Djuana, an artist herself, suggested that Thelma take up silverpoint. Thelma was recognized for her work in this area, with one critic comparing her to the genius of Henri Rousseau.
Djuana had been a year in Paris when she and Thelma decided to live together. Thelma gave Djuana a doll that represented their “love child.” They lived together until 1928 and Djuana wrote Ryder and Ladies Almanack, both dedicated to Thelma Woods. There is irony that in 1928 the year of the publication of both books, the couple separated.
Djuana had wanted to have a monogamous relationship with Thelma. Djuana writes sadly that Thelmas had wanted her, ‘along with the rest of the world.’ Alcohol may have been a major factor in the decline of their relationship. Thelma started to spend her nights drinking and seeking of casual sex partners. Djuana would search the cafes and often ended up equally drunk. The final crunch came when Thelma became involved with heiress Henriette McCrea Metcalf (1818-1981). Djuana would scathinly portray Henrietta as Jenny Petherbridge in her acclaimed book “Nightwood” written about four years after her break up with Thelma.
Djuana had other sexual relations with women, but years later would state that she was NOT a lesbian. She had simply fallen in love with Thelma.
Nightwood: Her Greatest Accomplishment
The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas described Nightwood as “one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman,” while William Burroughs called it “one of the great books of the twentieth century.” It was number 12 on a list of the top 100 gay books compiled by The Publishing Triangle in 1999.[
Set in Paris, Nighwood, revolves around the lives of five characters, two of which are based on the ending of Djuana and Thelma’s relationship. The novel had an introduction by T.S. Eliot who was the editor. T.S Eliot editd or softened some parts that were explicitly sexual or hurt religious sensiblilities.
It is astounding that the book was only recognized in later years. At the time of printing in 1936, the novel had not sold to its potential and Djuana relied heavily on patrons, one of which was Peggy Guiggenheim. Peggy reported on Djuana’s heavy drinking that she said amounted to a bottle of whiskey a day.
The Pain of Living
Three years later after the publication of Nightwood in 1939, Djuana checked into a London hotel and attempted suicide. Peggy Guggenheim, her patron, funded Djuana’s medical bills, but Djuana was bent on a downward slide. Peggy paid for Djuana to return to live with her mother, Elizabeth, who had a single room in New York City. The following year, Djuana’s family sent her to a sanatorium to dry out. The move was not welcomed by Djuana, and she sought revenge by placing the family in her play, The Antiphon. Djuana’s mother kicked her out on the apartment and Thelma Woods allowed her to stay in her apartment. Finally, Djuana found a small apartment at 5, Patchin Place in Greenwich Village.
She lived there for the last 42 years of her life with Peggy Guggenheim providing her with a small pension.
Revenge is Greater Than Alcohol
In 1950, at age 58, Djuana stopped drinking in order to avenge her family. She started working on a verse play, The Antiphon. Djuana admitted that her wriiting had been fueled by anger. She stated, “I wrote The Antiphon with clenched teeth, and I noted that my handwriting was as savage as a dagger.”[
When he read the play, her brother Thurn accused her of wanting “revenge for something long dead and to be forgotten”. Barnes, in the margin of his letter, described her motive as “justice”, and next to “dead” she inscribed, “not dead.
The Will to Write
It seems that her work, The Antiphon, fueled the incentive to write. Those who knew her stated that she worked eight hours a day despite her deteriorating health. Arthritis crippled her to the extent that at times, it stopped her using her typewriter. It is sad that few of these poems were published during her lifetime. Djuana’s final years were lived as a recluse. People tried to visit but were refused admittance.
Before her death in 1982, Djuana was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961. Her life was a mixture of joy and sorrow, and recognition and rejection. In all aspects of her life, I feel that Djuana strived for the best and thumbed her nose at society. She interviewed the most important people of her day. She moved in the most exciting literary and artistic circles. It was a life lived in full intensity.