Barnes' mother was an English woman Elizabeth Chappell.
Her father, Wald Barnes, was an unsuccessful writer, dilettante
artist and polygamist, whose wife, mistress and their
children all lived in the same household, supported by
his indulgent and equally free-thinking mother Zadel.
Djuna's childhood was greatly influenced by her grandmother,
who was also a journalist. This unconventional, sexually
open family life was often made reference to in Barnes'
work, most notably the emotional repercussions of her
parents' decision to humiliatingly arrange her sexual
The family split up in 1912 when Barnes' parents separated,
meaning the children had to move to Brooklyn with their
Education and early career:
Having received little formal schooling until this point,
Barnes now studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn,
soon enrolling at the Arts Students League.
She began her career as a reporter and illustrator for
magazines, under pseudonyms such as Lydia Steptoe, and
Gunga Duhl the Pen Performer. In 1913, in an effort to
support her mother and brothers, she began working as
a reporter and interviewer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
and New York World.
She then became a writer of one-act plays and short stories.
She wrote three experimental plays Three from the Earth,
An Irish Triangle, and Kurzy and the Sea which were produced
in 1919-20 by the Provincetown Players. Barnes dismissed
her early writings as ephemeral juvenilia, written to
pay the rent and to satisfy the interests and demands
of her young and middle-class urban readership.
Soon after this, Barnes began to write articles about
the culture of New York society at the beginning of the
century, and also started to produce fictional work. This
began with The Book of Repulsive Women (1915), a series
of poems and Beardsleyesque drawings of women in states
of physical and moral degeneration, presents a striking
contrast to the slender and stylish images of women depicted
by contemporary advertising.
Increasingly, however, the centre of American literary
modernism was shifting from New York to Paris, drawn by
the aesthetic allure of the expatriate Stein and Pound,
and the financial enticement of the strength of the dollar
in Europe. Barnes was sent to Paris in 1921, on an assignment
for the magazine McCall's, and would remain intermittently
for the following fifteen years, when breakdown and chronic
alcoholism forced her return to New York.
Barnes went to England in 1931. She stayed at Peggy Guggenheim's
rented country manor, Hayford Hall, along with writers
Emily Coleman and Antonia White, and critic John Ferrar
Holms. It was here that she wrote her best known work
Ill health and financial insolvency forced Barnes' return
to New York in 1940, where she lived reclusively for the
rest of her life in Greenwich Village. She wrote one other
substantial work, The Antiphon, a drama of family incest,
bitterness and retribution that was published in 1958.
She died in 1982, six days after her ninetieth birthday.
Friends and Relat
While in Paris, she had a relationship with the sculptor
and silverpoint artist, Thelma Wood. Barnes was a member
of the influential coterie of mostly lesbian women that
included Natalie Barney and Janet Flanner. However throughout
her life she was to insist, 'I'm not a lesbian, I just
'Nightwood' (1936). Bertha Harris regarded Djuna Barnes's
work as "practically the only available espression
of lesbian culture we have in the modern western world"