Once in college, when I was struggling to decide how to focus a project about early 20th century lesbian writers, my amazing queer studies professor suggested I read some work by the modernist writer Djuna Barnes. I went to the library and checked out Nightwood and The Ladies' Almanack and I sat up until dawn reading them in the common room of my all-women dorm. As I read, all of my questions about lesbian writing and feminism and modernism were answered one by one, until no confusion remained and I was ready to write a perfect paper.
Just kidding! I did check out Nightwood and The Ladies' Almanack, and I did stay up late reading them, but it certainly wasn't because they made sense to me. Actually, it was my first term in college and I was utterly confused by everything that Barnes was doing and I had no idea how to process any of it. Though I've read Nightwood since and I recognize it as one of the most important pieces of prose of the 20th century, I still can't confidently say that I understand how it works. I do know that it's weird and wonderful, just like Barnes was.
Barnes was born in 1892 in a log cabin in upstate New York. Her father was a struggling artist, and her paternal grandmother was a wealthy writer and early suffragette who provided the family with financial support since she believed her son to be an underappreciated artistic genius. Barnes' father thought that monogamy was impractical and unnecessary and that humans should procreate as much as possible. Consequently, the Barneses' was an unconventional household: along with her father and mother, Barnes lived with seven siblings, her grandmother, and her father's mistress.
When Barnes was about 20, she and her mother and a handful of her siblings left her father and moved to New York City, where Barnes worked as a journalist. Like the fiction and poetry she would write later in life, her journalistic pieces championed radical causes and were uniquely subjective. In 1914 she published a piece in World Magazine called "How it Feels to be Forcibly Fed," about suffragists hunger striking in prison who were being forced to eat. For the article, she experienced a force-feeding herself, hoping in her description of the terrible ordeal to garner sympathy and support for the suffragists. Barnes wrote for numerous newspapers and magazines during her time in New York, and as she was also a talented visual artist, her own drawings often accompanied her writing.
Barnes would spend her New York years in Greenwich Village, surrounded by artists and bohemians. She embarked on relationships both serious and casual with men and women, and was not secretive about her personal life. It was during these years that she became a member of the Provincetown Players, a group of artists who produced and performed plays. Their goal was to create exposure for playwrights whose work they respected, and they performed plays by people who would later be revered as some of the twentieth century's most important playwrights, including Wallace Stevens, Susan Glaspell, and Eugene O'Neill.
In the 1920s, when Paris became the center of Bohemian culture, Barnes moved there and immersed herself in the circle of artists who met at art patron Natalie Barney's salon. The Ladies' Almanack was written as a loving parody of this salon circle, which was mostly comprised of lesbians. It was the kind of matter-of-fact and open treatment of lesbian culture that Barnes exhibited in this book that would make her a cult hero for years.
Barnes also openly explored lesbian themes in Nightwood, that novel that so baffled me in college. Nightwood is her most famous work, and it's widely recognized as her best, though as a high modernist novel it is extremely difficult to decipher. So difficult, in fact, that although my queer studies professor told me it was famous for its obvious lesbian themes, I remember finishing the book and thinking I would have to go back and read it again before I figured out where exactly those themes were located.
Despite its difficulty, Nightwood was highly regarded in literary circles, and cemented Barnes' cult status. But after its publication, she struggled with writer's block, alcoholism, and isolation. She lived as a recluse in Greenwich Village, and her apartment was something of a shrine for younger writers: Carson McCullers used to hang out on Barnes' stoop, and was so persistent that Barnes finally had to yell at her to go away. Despite her alcoholism and suicide attempts, Barnes lived to be 90. It is often said that she was the last of her generation of writers to die.
If you're interested in reading Barnes' work, I'd recommend starting with The Ladies' Almanack. Nightwood is amazing but mystifying, and is certainly worth a try. A great book about the group of expatriate literary women that Djuna belonged to in the 1920s is called Women of the Left Bank, by Shari Benstock. And that awesome queer studies professor who introduced me to Barnes wrote an equally awesome book called Are Girls Necessary?, about lesbian writing in the 20th century.