Today in Literary History – June 18, 1982 – Djuna Barnes dies

Djuna Barnes, the novelist, journalist and playwright best known for her lesbian-themed 1936 novel Nightwood, died in New York on June 18, 1982, at the age of ninety.

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Barnes was born in a wood cabin in upstate New York to a decidedly odd family. Her father, a failed composer, was a believer in polygamy, and lived in poverty in the cabin with his wife (Barnes’ mother) and his mistress. Her father had eight children with the two women, four with each. Barnes seems never to have gone to school.

Also living with them was Barnes’ paternal grandmother who thought that her son was a misunderstood genius. Barnes and her grandmother shared a bed in her childhood and there are hints at incest in her later writing. When she turned 18 her family forced her into an unofficial “marriage” with a 52 year-old family friend, but she left him after two months.

Djuna_Barnes_-_Villager
1916 magazine caricature of Barnes

After her mother left her father Barnes went to New York and studied art. She soon began a successful career in newspaper and magazine journalism, interviewing celebrities and writing on popular topics. She also published short stories and poems, acted and became a fixture in the bohemian world of Greewich Village.

Later she lived for long periods in Paris, London and North Africa. Nightwood, her semi-autobiographical novel was published in England by T.S. Eliot, then the editorial director of Faber and Faber, and in America by Harcourt Brace with an Introduction by Eliot. The book had strong reviews but poor sales. Over the years it has come to be regarded as a classic of lesbian literature.

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