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Wednesday, June 12, 2013


A ghostly voice snapped, "Quitting?  This woman has the gall to talk about quitting?"

I was getting my hot tea out of the microwave as the ghost of Djuna Barnes tapped the screen of my laptop where I had been reading Elana Johnson's post "On Quitting."

Her eyes seemed to flare. 

"I  was born in a log cabin on Storm King Mountain, near Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York.  My paternal grandmother, Zadel Turner Barnes, was a writer, journalist, and Women's Suffrage activist who had once hosted an influential literary salon

My father, Wald Barnes, was an unsuccessful composer, musician, and painter. An advocate of polygamy, he married my mother Elizabeth in 1889; his mistress Fanny Clark moved in with them in 1897, when I was five."

Her long fingers drummed on the tabletop.

"My father raped me at 16 and forced me to marry a 52 year old friend when I was 18. If financial ruin had not forced Mother to go to New York, I do not know what would have happened to me."

Djuna eyed my tea.  I sighed, pushing it to her, and made myself another cup.

As Djuna happily sipped my tea, I thought about this self-proclaimed "unknown legend of American literature":

That move to New York gave her an opportunity to void the forced marriage and study art formally for the first time.

 She attended the Pratt Institute for about six months, but the need to support herself and her family—a burden that fell largely on her—soon drove her to leave school and take a job as a reporter at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Upon arriving at the Daily Eagle, Barnes declared, “I can draw and write, and you’d be a fool not to hire me,” words that were inscribed inside the Brooklyn Museum.

 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 and in the pulp magazine All-Story Cavalier Weekly.

For a 1914 New York World magazine article she submitted to force-feeding, a technique then being used on hunger-striking suffragists.

Barnes wrote, "If I, play acting, felt my being burning with revolt at this brutal usurpation of my own functions, how they who actually suffered the ordeal in its acutest horror must have flamed at the violation of the sanctuaries of their spirits." She concluded, "I had shared the greatest experience of the bravest of my sex."

Djuna smiled sourly, "Guido Bruno once asked me why my writing was so dreadfully morbid."

Her lips twisted,

"Morbid? He made me laugh.

This life I write and draw and portray is life as it is, and therefore you call it morbid. Look at my life. Look at the life around me.

Where is this beauty that I am supposed to miss? The nice episodes that others depict?

Is not everything morbid? I mean the life of people stripped of their masks. Where are the relieving features? Often I sit down to work at my drawing board, at my typewriter. All of a sudden my joy is gone. I feel tired of it all because, I think, "What's the use?"

Today we are, tomorrow dead. We are born and don't know why. We live and suffer and strive, envious or envied. We love, we hate, we work, we admire, we despise. ... Why? And we die, and no one will ever know that we have been born."

I said, "I remember."

"Oh, you don't count."

"We Lakota hear that alot."

"I meant that you are a romantic."

"And you were one of the lights of the lost generation in Paris during the Twenties."

"Now, I am just lost."

"And drinking my hot tea."

Djuna gave an evil wink, smiling, "There is that."


  1. Thank you for sharing all that info on this unbelievable woman. To be a journalist and float in such circles as the Lost Generation she had to have had a sharp mind.

    Great to hear of her success, when she came from such a dismal beginning. Many of these types stories were shut away in those family skeleton closets. You didn't talk about it. . .sad.

    Quitting is not an option, nor is failure as the astronauts like to say.

  2. Sounds like she had an exciting life. I think I read her force feeding article not long ago.


  3. As always, great post! I guess I must live under a rock because I've never heard of her, but I'm glad I have now. She must of had a tough spirit to keep going after all her hardships. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Djuna Barnes certainly lived her life her way and I would love to have her drop in on me sometime to share some more of it.

  5. Thank goodness iron woman like her helped the rest of us get here. We've still a ways to go. Thanks for introducing me to this fascinating woman.

  6. Wow, I'd like to read more about her. Some of the quotes in the video are by turns hilarious and heartbreaking.

    Loved your point on Elana's blog 'if dirt needs a rest, how much more so the human spirit' paraphrased from memory. What insight!!!!!

  7. D.G.:
    She was an amazing woman -- her ghost just ruffled my hair. :-)

    Hers was not an easy life, but she had grit and will to spare. Drink took its toll as it did with many of the lost generation.

    I would like to have been Owen Wilson in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS to talk with them all there. Djuna was seen in wordless part in that movie, did you know?

    To endure that for an authentic article ... brrr! She did lead a colorful life.

    Alas, Djuna is now mostly forgotten as are so many pioneer spirits behind the Lost Generation and the Women's Suffrage movement. You have no reason to know her, for most teachers only instruct from a paltry few stars.

    Her way was the only star she had to steer by. I have a vivid fantasy life with my ghosts!

    Words Crafter:
    My mother often used that adage about dirt needing a rest and the human mind and spirit.

    As a hurting soul, Djuna was, in turn, both funny and heartbreaking.

    You can read a bit more about her on this link:

  8. Hi Roland .. I have to say now having seen the process of force feeding - it was bad in my mind before, but now it's horrific .. I wrote one of our suffragettes, Emily Davison, who had to endure this too .. before she was (accidentally probably) killed by the King's horse in 1913.

    I really do not think I could put myself into this situation .. but we are so lucky we don't have to think about it ..

    Thanks so much for highlighting this .. cheers Hilary

  9. Hilary:
    God must weep when He sees what we do to each other, abusing our gift of free will. We take so lightly the hard-won rights we have now. Great of you to visit and chat, Roland

  10. Wow, that's interesting. I know someone that still works for the Brooklyn Eagle and I met him in the early 80's. Your blog should be read by everyone!