Dying on this day in 1982 at the age of 90, it’s difficult to say that the poet, artist and novelist didn’t live a significant life with impact within queer literature.
Djuna Barnes was at various times a poet, journalist, playwright, theatrical columnist and novelist who then liked to be called “The Barnes.” A recluse, the writer’s avant-garde and “most famous unknown” literary work won wide acclaim in the 1920’s and 30’s, was once a writing talent of the Lost Generation era. The tag the ‘Lost Generation’ came from a remark by Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway when she said, “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”
Barnes’ work was mostly given attention to by academic professors and students. Other than fitting within a the category of being a modernist text, she got kudos from writers like T.S. Eliot, who referred to her “a living genius”, as well as Dylan Thomas who called her works “one of the three major prose works by a woman” (probably a back-handed compliment). These comments were made alongside the praise of Graham Greene, Samuel Beckett, Janet Flanner, Lawrence Durrell, Kenneth Burke and Sir Herbert Read, and The Spectator compared Barnes to Virginia Woolf, declaring ”It is clear that a writer of genuine importance has made herself known to us.”
Even the New York Times referred to her as “The American Woolf”; the work is an important milestone on any map of gay literature – even though, like all the best books, its power makes a nonsense of any categorisation, especially of gender and sexuality, this anti-categorisation tendency in Barnes is perhaps due to the ways in which society pathlogizes differences.
However, Barnes never kept it peaceful. Though her works have remained obscure to the broader reading public, she started earning notoriety, starting with a preformative piece the New York World Magazine, where she was force-fed to illustrate the fate of hunger-striking suffragettes, and the accompanying photo shows her stoically being held down by three men while a doctor snakes a tube up her nose.
She also began using herself as a pawn in what she called “My Adventures Being Rescued,” in which she put herself in peril at a firemen’s training session, hanging several stories up in a long black dress. Barnes became a regular on the set of the women’s boxing beat. Her writing is full of misfits, eccentrics, socialists, free thinkers, immigrants and the homeless.
Djuna Barnes was never cautious, and so, because ”Nightwood” in large part concerns a doomed lesbian love affair, the novel would be highly praised despite claiming to not even being gay. She was quick to offend without even checking on herself, while continuously breaking barriers.
“So love, when it has gone, taking time with it, leaves a memory of its weight.” – Djuna Barnes, Nightwood